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 than ever before that he’s a common, garden-variety nut. This shift does something to reduce a piece of metaphysical Hitchcockery to something more appropriate to the networks.
What’s moving about the book—and It’s a book that gives one few chances to feel moved, few straightforward “effects” to which to respond—is Miss Sontag’s perception of a mind lost in its own intricate dialectic, an estrangement of the heart which curbs all explanation into predetermined and mechanical gambits. Its very success in realizing an alienated mental state is, in effect, a sufficient explanation of the novel’s failure to communicate that state. Its premises under-cut their own working out. One isn’t much surprised that Hippolyte, in his absentminded and self-absorbed fashion, is capable of atrocious cruelty. Such behavior was part of Miss Sontag’s needs as a novelist and perfectly in line with Hippolyte’s own needs, to become his own grisly and macabre dreams. But the brutality, when it has made its momentary impact on the reader, through being described coolly, accurately, and indifferently by the man responsible for it, fades like a dream from view—and this does not surprise us either. For in dreams anything is possible, and as this man’s life was a dream which included dreams, so his retelling of it is a dream about many dreams; and thus even the ironies of the title, which might well be expected to provide a controlling arch for the others, turn into dreamers’ ambiguities. For Hippolyte is indeed a sort of benefactor, not merely in the sense of doing good occasionally to others, but also as he works out the first premises of the heroic scapegoat, and demonstrates (quite unheroically) their frequent congruence with those of the selfish bastard. On the other hand, he is scarcely a benefactor at all, since he often behaves with abominable egotism, and many of his benefactions turn out badly for the recipients. He’s a Candide seen from the inside, and more active than passive; even his frequent submissions are acts of control. But that hard and scarifying rule of common sense which makes Candide funny as well as meaningful, has been dissolved. And the follies which Voltaire saw as social strongholds to be assailed with the sharp sword of comedy are now genial idiosyncrasies, or perhaps only delusions. This is a softer book than Voltaire’s; it is also much, much slower.
For all these reservations, it has to be said that Susan Sontag hasn’t written the usual doughy first novel; her scenes are crisp, her prose is hard, and she’s resisted that striving for romantic effect which vitiates so much beginner’s fiction. The Benefactor seems to me a bold, flawed, impressive piece of work, which has followed out its theme most of the way without distortion or crazing. One would like to see Miss Sontag working a more accessible vein of drollery, and revealing something more of what is certainly an original, and may well be a permanently entertaining, dramatic mind.