Sunday, January 07, 2007

Death on the Page

Ericka Lutz, an Oakland writer and the granddaughter of Tillie Olsen, the author who died on New Year’s Day, has written a piece for Literary Mama about saying goodbye to her dying grandmother.

Apparently Calvin Trillin’s new book, About Alice, is a moving and loving tribute to his late wife, the subject of many of his essays. It originated as a New Yorker essay and is now a 96-page book. Lots of buzz about this one. People like it more than Joan Didion’s tribute to her late husband, Year of Magical Thinking

I looked at another book about dying a few days ago, although it’s not being marketed like that. It is Annie Leibovitz’s latest book and it’s called A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005.

Leibovitz is best known for her celebrity portraits, like the ones she took of Demi Moore while pregnant or Whoopi Goldberg immersed in a tub of milk.

This book has some celebrity shots, too, but it’s much more personal. Though there are pictures of Leibovitz’s aging parents, the real heart of the book documents the life and death of Leibovitz’s long-time partner, Susan Sontag.

It’s amazing how Leibovitz coveys her devotion in only a few shots. The early parts of the book have numerous snapshots of Sontag in exotic locales – on the Nile River, in Mexico, in other places the pair traveled for work or pleasure. Leibovitz includes a few photos of the notes Sontag wrote for her novel, The Volcano Lover. There are also some shots of a naked Sontag asleep on a couch or in a bed, loosely covered by sheets.

The first hint of trouble comes from the photo of Sontag in the bathtub, one breast exposed, her hand covering the scar where her other breast had once been.

As Sontag was dying, Leibovitz took very few pictures. There is one where Sontag is in a hospital bed hooked up to IV with all sorts of tubes running in and out of her.

The next photos are of Sontag in a Seattle hospital after a bone marrow transfusion. Sontag’s trademark black hair with the white swath in the front is gone, replaced by white stubble. Her body is so bloated by medicine it’s not clear if she is a man or a woman. She is unrecognizable.

The next photo shows Sontag on a stretcher being lifted into a small plane. Then Leibovitz shows her dead, stretched out on a funeral platform. She doesn’t look anything like her old self. Her hair is short and white and she’s dressed in a silk loose gown. She’s nothing like the fierce Susan Sontag of the public imagination, dressed in black using her sharp wit to offer incisive observations about the culture.

I am surprised Leibovitz included these photos because they are so intimate and raw. They show a human being at her most vulnerable, just as she is about to face death. There’s nothing pretty here. But maybe that is Leibovitz’s point. She loves Sontag – when she is beautiful and when she is not.

1 comment:

Tracey said...

I heard one of either Tillie Olsen's daughters or grandaughters talking on NPR about her death. She spoke about singing childhood songs to her and how her mother/grandmother sang along with her just before she died. It was unbearably moving but also I thought a quite wonderful way to go...