Susan Sontag has written, in The Benefactor, an intricate post-Kafka monologue, of private dreams masquerading as social reality and social reality disguised as private dreams. It’s done with subtlety, with style masquerading as anti-style, with layers of irony, with disinvoltura; the reader will be repeatedly surprised and bemused by the adventures of Hippolyte. But he may well wonder, from time to time, whether the puzzles have enough psychological or dramatic import to render them more than calisthenic. The answer to this question is not so foregone as it ought to be.
Hippolyte, Miss Sontag’s anti-heroic hero, tells his own story in an owlish, pedantic prose which—whatever its comic virtues—effectively guarantees that nothing overtly dramatic will ever happen. His episodic narration, which is interspersed with explicit dreams (at least we’re explicitly told that they’re dreams), is itself dreamlike in that extraordinary occurrences are passed off without comment or consequence: After seducing the hostess of a salon which he frequents, he takes her to North Africa and sells her to a local merchant. Renewing his friendship with her daughter, he takes still another mistress, attempts to murder his first mistress when she reappears, becomes a philosophical flâneur and cultist, a snooper into the world of homosexuals, and a connoisseur of himself. Crude as it is, a rough outline of this nature suggests something of Hippolyte’s versatile and inconsequential character.
Miss Sontag is extremely ingenious in working a device which ought to be known as the negative picturesque. Hippolyte, for instance, never reveals his own last name, and is never addressed by any of the other characters except as “Hippolyte.” He explains that he has no particular reason for anonymity, but he’s anonymous anyhow, at the expense of considerable circumlocutory ingenuity. He is equally assiduous in avoiding any avowal that the greater part of the novel takes place in Paris. It’s an avoidance, not a concealment, for just about anyone can tell that we’re in Paris, but then why does Hippolyte bother? His concealment is all the more picturesque for being, as he admits, altogether and obviously useless. He deprecates all his own intellectual endeavors—the philosophic problems on which he is working are idiosyncratic and unimportant—yet he is forever philosophizing in what, for a novel, is a notably portentous and abstract way. He is, then, a faker, and the novel is deriding him for that; but nothing within its purview is genuine enough to give us a horizon for judgment.
Hippolyte himself is a distinguished and artistic obfuscator. His characteristic rhetoric works backward—he’ll make a statement, then tell us in five complex ways what he doesn’t mean, before trailing off into an irrelevance. In short, we aren’t very far into the book before we appreciate that Hippolyte is some sort of nut, and it struck this reader as a fairly unchallenging device that, at the end of the novel, we’re given to understand with more clarity …