the observer Sat 11 April 2009
There is a story, David Rieff tells us, that the famous French courtesan Mme du Barry begged her executioner for "just one more minute of life" on the scaffold. And so he paints his mother, the American writer Susan Sontag, as she battled with her third bout of cancer, a deadly form of leukaemia which would eventually kill her.
Sontag had seen off advanced breast cancer in the 70s, against medical predictions, and later had also recovered from a uterine sarcoma. So when she called her son to tell him there was a chance she might be ill again, they were both quick to reassure each other that it was "probably nothing". But the diagnosis, when it came, "was, unthinkably, everything": myelodysplastic syndrome, a lethal form of blood cancer for which there was very little to be done. "This time, for the first time in my life, I don't feel special," she told him.
This short, honest, sometimes achingly angry book is Rieff's attempt to come to terms with her death, with how she, the lover of science and reason, managed to deny encroaching reality, to die utterly unreconciled to leaving the world. No one he has ever known, he writes, loved life so unambivalently: the word he chooses to describe her way of being in the world is "avidity". He tells of how he found himself cast in the role of eternal hope-bringer, forced to come up with reasons why she, above all others, would survive the unsurvivable.
Rieff calls his book a memoir and yet it is more a reflection on mortality, on what he believes is a fundamental disconnect that has arisen with the rich world's assumption that every disease must have a cure. Interspersed with quotations, the book is also a probing of his own guilt: could he have consoled her better? Should he have forced her to acknowledge she was dying? It will be interesting to see how Sontag herself chronicles these events; since the hardback of Swimming in a Sea of Death was published, Rieff has released the first of three planned instalments of his mother's diaries.