In December 1947 the American writer Susan Sontag was invited to have tea with Thomas Mann. She was 14, a high-minded schoolgirl full of literature and the seriousness of life. She had one friend, and this boy, her disciple, had written to Thomas Mann, who was then living in California, telling him that they had been reading his books and admired them above all others. The young Miss Sontag was shocked that a great writer should be disturbed by two schoolchildren; and shocked again when the great writer acknowledged their letter with an invitation to tea. It seemed 'grotesque', she said, that Mann should waste his time meeting her; and besides, she asked, why would she want to meet him when she already had his books. The visit took place the following Sunday, and her disappointment was so painful that for forty years she didn't mention it to anyone. It wasn't that she and her friend made fools of themselves or that Mann himself gave them a hard time. He wasn't forbidding or scornful or difficult to understand - all of which she had expected. On the contrary, what he said was too easy - banal, pompous and boring. 'I wouldn't have minded,' she says now, 'if he had talked like a book. I wanted him to talk like a book. What I was obscurely starting to mind was that he talked like a book review.'
LRB 15 September 1988 | PDF Download