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Susan Sontag: The Benefactor

Sontag has been called a European writer and this is particularly evident in this, her first novel. There is none of the action, none of the explaining of the world, that we expect from an American novelist, but, rather, the introspection and dream world we expect to find more in a European novelist. The main character, Hippolyte, lives in his dreams. Indeed, the opening words of the novel are Je rêve, donc je suis [I dream, therefore I am]. Hippolyte is now an old man and is telling us of his life. He has a rich father so has no need to work. As a child, he was born well after his brother and sister, so grew up virtually alone. Only when he went to university, did he realise that he was different from every one else, both the stolid provincials with whom he had grown up and the restless cosmopolitans whom he meets at university. He spent three years at university and publication of a philosophical article brought him a certain amount of fame, and access to the circle of the well-to-do. Here he met Frau Anders and, after meeting her and her friends, dropped out of university. His father agreed to continue supporting him – Strangeness becomes you, he said – and he spends his time reading but does not write any more.

About a year after he started seeing the Anders, he had the first of a series of dreams that moved and upset him. The basic dream has him trapped in a small room. A man in a bathing suit descends from the ceiling and takes him to another room and tries to get him to dance. When he does not, the man hits him. He faints and when he wakes up he sees a woman sitting in a chair. She puts chains on him and when he tries to take her sexually, he wakes up. Subsequent dreams are variations of this dream. He then has new dreams, some of which are sexual, which leads him to try and seduce Frau Anders. Meanwhile, he has been moving away from the real world and more into the dream world. He tells her that sex with her is not for his or her pleasure but for the dreams. He ends up kidnapping Frau Anders, selling her to an Arab merchant for the merchant’s son’s pleasure. He continues his dream life, while his real life – including getting married and then becoming a widower, making a film – are seen as a dream and therefore having no reality. Frau Anders is freed on payment of a ransom and when Hippolyte inherits from his father, he gives her his townhouse. Eventually, after her husband has divorced her and after his wife’s death, he will move in with her. The book ends with questions about Hippolyte’s dreams and Hippolyte’s sanity.

Sontag tells a complex tale. Her idea of having dreams as real life and vice versa is interesting but dreams in novels all too often strike me as silly, forced, and not resembling the dreams the people tend to dream in reality. Sontag’s approach does tend towards between stilted and obscure. Is Hippolyte insane and in a mental institution? Did he really dream these dreams and what is dream and what is real life? Of course, in a novel, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter but, somehow, Sontag is just too clever and leaves us wondering what really happened.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Farrar, Straus