By Susan LaTempa, series editor.
As I wrote in the introduction to the just-published anthology Paperback L.A. Book 1, Susan Sontag was a major inspiration for this new anthology series of writing about L.A.
Why? Because a piece she’d written was one of the first examples of the kind of writing about L.A. that I felt should be more accessible to readers.
I had long held onto a clipping from a December, 1987 issue of The New Yorker called “Pilgrimage,” that described a visit she’d made as a teenager to the home of Thomas Mann, the German novelist then residing in Los Angeles. I was originally hooked by her description of childhood as something to “get through,” an attitude I shared and had not seen expressed so accurately before. But years later, I came to realize that “Pilgrimage” also describes a post-World War II city where two intellectually ravenous teenagers, Sontag and her best friend, “sip at many straws” in a golden age of bookstores, music, and dance.
Although to my knowledge, “Pilgrimage” had not been included in any collection of Sontag’s work after its magazine debut, last year, when I arranged for reprint rights for Paperback L.A., I learned that her estate was including it in the November 2017 book, Debriefing: Collected Stories. Fascinating. What I had thought was a straight-ahead memoir was being billed as a “story.” Okay. I took care to refer to it as such in my Paperback L.A. text.
And then in May, just as Paperback L.A. Book 1 was launching, the story “Pilgrimage” was the subject of a Harper’s magazine memoir/essay by Geoff Dyer, who had called a chapter “Pilgrimage” in his book White Sands in homage to Sontag’s piece.
In his Harper’s essay, Dyer relates an anecdote of a late 1980s reunion between Sontag her friend Merrill, the other teenager in the story. Merrill insisted that there was a third friend on hand, but Sontag at first denied that the other friend could have been with them. She took plenty of persuading to agree that Merrill was right. Dyer moves through another Sontag anecdote before mentioning George Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick, questioning whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant as described in “Shooting an Elephant.” It’s a short but heartfelt description of a dilemma, that Dyer calls “Nothing But: The Untruths of Memory.”
I hope you’ll enjoy Sontag’s piece in Paperback L.A. just a little more with these speculations swirling around in your head.