Music On The Brink The Essayist

As part of the Music on the Brink season, each programme in this series of "The Essay" considers the special character of Vienna, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and London.

Stepping back exactly a hundred years, five BBC News correspondents present personal perspectives on the capital cities of the major European powers that, later in 1914, would face each other in the Great War. We start in the capital of the Habsburg Empire and the rich multiculturalism of Mitteleuropa.

In this programme, Bethany Bell, the BBC's Vienna Correspondent, evokes both the public face of Austria-Hungary's capital and the simmering tensions which underlay its multi-national empire on the eve of the greatest conflagration the world had yet seen. Taking us on a richly evocative tour of the embodiment of Mitteleuropa, she tells us about a world that was soon to be torn asunder but of which telling - and not always attractive - elements remain.

It is all too easy to forget, she reminds us, that within months Vienna was home to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Siegmund Freud and Josef Broz (later Marshal Tito) - all figures who defined the twentieth century. She also discusses the critic and satirist Karl Kraus and the controversial pre-World War One mayor of Vienna Karl Lueger.

For the multiple nationalities of 1914 Vienna, the chronic tensions which bedevilled this polyglot empire were painfully familiar. The programme reveals what has survived to this day of the compromised nature of Vienna from the era of Zemlinsky and Schreker and of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

Producer Simon Coates.

In her essays, Susan Sontag spoke with one of the great, sure voices of the last century. From her salon at the centre of the cosmopolis, marvellously at one with her books and her learning, she considered, renamed and renewed our relationship with camp, with photography, with illness: a living legend of braininess and cool.

Sontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life. Evading this fear, Sontag clearly found the name “stories” very helpful: half of them are pure autobiography. “Pilgrimage”, for example, which opens the volume, is a memoir of Sontag’s youth in southern California, and an account of her visit with a boyfriend to the home of an ageing Thomas Mann. The only reason why this did not become an essay, it seems, is that the encounter was dull and disappointing, and so difficult to reflect on: Mann had “only sententious formulas to deliver. And I uttered nothing but tongue-tied simplicities, though I was full of complex feeling. We were neither of us at our best.”

The next piece, “Project for a Trip to China”, is also memoir: we learn more about Sontag’s childhood (she was a voracious reader and dug deep holes in the garden to sit in); about her habit of ordering ambitiously in restaurants (hundred-year-old eggs); and a little about her father, who worked in China. The piece is more experimental, using lists and tables, characters identified by initials only, and lots of negatives (she does not, predictably, go to China). But it ends, like “Pilgrimage”, by sounding like an essay: she considers herself as a writer and employs heftier language and aphorisms. “Literature, then. Literature before and after, if need be … the only solution, to know and not know. Literature and not literature, using the same verbal gesture.”

Other stories adopt more conventionally fictional strategies. “Baby” is a lengthy satire in which parents in a psychotherapist’s office anxiously chew over the ruinous mistakes they are making with their prodigious child. “Dummy” and “American Spirits” are intricate allegories; both capture entire lives, exploring fulfilment and the ideology of marriage. “Old Complaints Revisited” is a dystopia with a rebellious central character, and “Dr Jekyll” an elaborate play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s original featuring the gender politics of an American college. “A Letter Scene”, meanwhile, is somewhere between essay and story, illustrating ideas about correspondence with fictive vignettes of letter writers.

The more you read of Sontag’s stories, the more striking becomes her inability to let her characters talk

None of these pieces, though, is a short story in the Chekhovian sense – a narrative built on images and speech; a glimpse into a deeply imagined, apparently authentic world – because Sontag frees none of her characters. Rather, they are bent to her purposes, illustrations of a wider point.

To Chekhov, “autobiographophobia” meant something very different; it refers to his embarrassment about writing merely about the self, but more to his deep-set inability to focus on himself. Chekhov’s stories are journeys of empathy and imagination into other people; typically, they erase their narrator in order to let the characters talk. The more you read of Sontag’s stories, the more striking becomes her inability to do either of these two things.

Another piece of memoir, “Debriefing”, for example, is about her friend Julia’s suicide. The story is a series of answers to questions the hapless Julia has failed to ask. She is barely there, while Sontag, on the other hand, is everywhere. In considering herself, the author considers her city – “I often leave the city. But I always come back” – and the fate of three black women to whom she obnoxiously gives the same name, on the grounds that they all work as cleaners. She adds a few observations about her friend, then the story resolves itself, again with a series of aphorisms in balanced sentences. “I want to save my soul, that timid wind”, “How I groaned under the burden of your friendship. But your death is heavier.” And: “You’re the tears in things. I’m not.” But we still don’t know why Julia is the “tears”: Sontag has not enough of the fiction writer’s craft to show us.

Chekhov’s journeys into “the other” were so complete that his lady with the lapdog and sleepy girl still breathe from his pages: they are clothed in their time, but speak out of it. Sontag’s stories, in contrast, speak loudly and lengthily in her own grand voice, which sounds bombastic and antique. We can’t talk like that any more, from that central place full of books, from prodigious childhoods and fonts of knowledge that belong to elite individuals and self-confident cultural centres. This is not, contrary to one of her story titles, “the way we live now”. Now, knowledge is diffused; statements about the self flicker everywhere on screens and are everywhere conditional, commented upon, interrupted; and it is unacceptable, thankfully, to call all black women Doris.

• Kate Clanchy’s The Not-Dead and the Saved is published by Picador. To order Stories for £16.14 (RRP £18.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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