“Side by Side by Sontag” was the London Observer‘s headline describing an evidently turbulent scene at the last Edinburgh Festival. The comedian Simon Fanshawe spotted a famous couple hobnobbing hard together— photographer Annie Leibovitz and her bosom buddy: “the great critic and writer Susan Sontag.” As the Observer’s “Arts Diary” put it: “Unable to contain himself, Fanshawe leapt across to pay unadulterated homage to Leibovitz. The absurd compliments gushed forth until Fanshawe finally extracted himself with a brief nod in the aghast Sontag’s direction.” Reading this episode, a little bell tinkled in the mists of what memory my mind has left me.

Back in the early 60’s, I was living in an old stone house in Corsica: more particularly in the remote northwestern enclave of La Balange. This was, and is, a mountainous area of goat and sheep farmers whose relatives drifted over from le continent of a summer to spend the day sipping local D’Amiani pastis on the squares of tiny villages skewered to the nearest mountainside by 17th-century church steeples, and to play boule in the cool of an evening.

These hill villages, climbing up to Corsica’s glorious central massif of snow-capped mountains and dense fir forests, averaged about 300 somnolent inhabitants each. As Michelin still puts it: in winter, after the French rentée des classes, the population of the island is “faible.” It consists, in short, of the very young and the very old; “touching” their pensions, the latter perch in their corduroys and cummerbunds around the fountains of this or that old square. Any sudden activity beyond the shooting of wild boar or Marseilles maquereaux (viz. pimps) appears undignified in this clubman’s century-old preserve. The shepherds—or their sons and daughters— milk their flocks, placing their can roadside for pickup by the Roquefort van, to be aged in caves on le continent and sold to you and me as the celebrated cheese of that name.

Pleasantly little notice is taken of the outside world, which makes the island a refreshing retreat from the likes of Madonna. Tourism is minimal in these hill villages, being confined to the beach fringes, my nearest then being Ile-Rousse. It was much nicer than St. Tropez, and probably still is. Television has come but back then there was none, nor any cinema, and no indigenous newspaper. For the latter, Nice-Matin sent over an island edition called Nice-Corse-Matin. I suspect its circulation was in the low hundreds, aimed chiefly at local politicians or (as with us) gangsters.

Hence I was startled one morning to see a Honda vélo furrowing up through the heathery maquis in the general direction of my house. The occupant of what had once been the saddle turned out to be Jose Mattel (almost everyone in Corsica is called José Mattel), stringer for said Nice-Corse-Matin and an old friend; he appeared in a state of considerable, not to say unseemly, excitement.

“Susan Sontag est ici,” he gasped.

I was baffled, and not merely by his pronunciation. I had never heard of the lady, if such she were, and I fear it was a common omission at the time. Jose needed an interpreter since she could not speak French, or what passed for it in Corsica. So I donned my duds and climbed on the back of my own dilapidated put-put for the 30-minute plunge down to Ile-Rousse, where I was introduced to a discontented, overweight woman with spanielly dewlap cheeks, her head encumbered by what the French call curiers, bigoudis—hers pink. She told me in peremptory fashion to fetch her bags from the port; apparently her escort, an equally sulky young man strung with cameras like hungry tongues, could not summon the energy. Perhaps he was Corsican.

I was thus privileged to spend the morning running errands for the future recipient of the McArthur Award, plus translating from excruciating French into demotic Corse; it was only much later that I learned of her linguistic ability, when she was touting for a Nobel an obscure mite-European novel she could not possibly have read, since it was couched in a ruritanian subdialect accessible only to four or five American academics; compared with it, the winner’s Icelandic poetry must have been kindergarten stuff for the explosive experts.

Sontag, it seemed, was merely passing through Napoleon’s scented island, spending the night but making sure, like him, of getting her publicity. And so she did, as reported in the Nice-Corse-Matin, whose clip of her equine features I still treasure somewhere (she had not gotten into the white forelock in those days). Meanwhile, the sheer cheek (or toupie) of landing on our little backwater and treating it as a staging point for personal publicity simply beat the band. The idea of deluding a respectable caf’-conc’ barfly like Jose, about five-two in height and ready with his knife, into taking you as an international celebrity had me chuckling all the way back to my mountainous aristocracy of bleating sheep and grunting boar. It still does. Well done, Susan Sontag!