As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 By Susan Sontag Edited by David Rieff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 523 pp., $30) Susan Sontag’s prose is designed to strike readers as measured, simultaneously wise and matter-of-fact. She favors relatively short words and she is spare with her adjectives. The writing, whether in the essays or the novels, has a workmanlike neutrality, as if Sontag were not presenting her own thoughts so much as offering a guided tour of the higher regions of human experience.
The New York Times ran with two demographic surveys one day after the other. The first, which it headlined “Snapshot shows U.S. public more disillusioned than ever,” demonstrated that the American people are fundamentally miserable with their condition. They expressed egalitarian instincts at least to the extent that they want the distribution of wealth to be more even.
The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza Translated by George Shriver (Verso, 609 pp., $39.95) Once upon a time there lived a Jewish lady, of modest stature and of a certain age, who walked with a limp and liked to sing to the birds. Through the bars on her window she would treat the titmice to a Mozart aria, and then await their call, the transcription of which she wished, as she wrote to a friend, to be the only adornment on her grave.
Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe By Shachar M. Pinsker (Stanford University Press, 487 pp., $60) Elias Canetti, the German-language writer, born to a Bulgarian Sephardic family, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981, tells in his memoirs of his daily meetings in a Viennese café during the 1920s with a certain Dr. Sonne. A man of broad culture who radiated a quietly powerful sense of authority, Dr. Sonne was known by Canetti, somewhat to his perplexity, to be a Hebrew poet.
Toward the end of Defying Hitler, his extraordinary memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Sebastian Haffner describes how the Nazis had “made all Germans everywhere into comrades.” This, he argued, had been a moral catastrophe. This emphatically was not because comradeship was never a good thing. To the contrary, as Haffner was at pains to insist, it was a great and necessary comfort and help for people who had to live under unbearable, inhuman conditions, above all in war.
The Assistant By Robert Walser Translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95) I. By now the snapshot of the dead Robert Walser has become one of German literature's most often reprinted and commented-upon photographs, its unstaged, accidental existence only reinforcing the image's iconic charge: the last moments of an almost-forgotten great author in an age of mechanical reproduction. Not surprisingly, descriptions of the photograph all bear a striking resemblance to one another.