Sontag: Her Life

James Wolcott writes:

Benjamin Moser begins his biography with a bang: ‘Susan Sontag was America’s last great literary star.’ In my gaudier moments I prefer to think of Sontag as American literature’s first and last great screen star. Transcending staid text, she was projected into the avid imaginations of legions of onlookers who didn’t know Walter Benjamin from Walter Brennan. Fascinated by Greta Garbo (‘I wanted to be Garbo,’ she wrote in her diary), Sontag managed to fashion a Garboesque mystique while carrying out the garrulous duties of a public intellectual for decades: speeches, interviews, conferences, symposia, all that gab. For much of its long, eventful haul, Moser’s Life resembles a movie goddess biography as much as a literary pilgrim’s progress, giving it a narrative tailwind that carries the reader through the public furores – the outcry over her 1966 pronouncement that ‘the white race is the cancer of human history,’ for example, used as a cudgel against her by conservative foes until their arms went numb – and developments in her personal life familiar from previous biographies, memoirs and profiles. While not stinting on explications and contextualisations of the books and the blow-ups, Sontag: Her Life provides everything we look for in our melodramatic accounts of sacred monsters: humble origins, early stirrings; an absent father, an emotionally neglectful, alcoholic mother (whose last words to Susan on her hospital deathbed were, ‘Why don’t you go back to the hotel?’); sexual longing, confusion and mad passions; teenage marriage, young motherhood, and a Doll’s House bolt; soaring ambition accompanied by wracking self-doubt; an arduous climb to the top that left her competitors littered on the slopes; mortal illness, and near miraculous recovery; heroism, heartache, more heroism and more heartache, all of it against a revolving backdrop of political turmoil and cultural revolution. If this handsome hunk of a biography is at times exhausting and exasperating, it’s partly because sheShe – is exhausting and exasperating. I use the capital pronoun and the present tense because that’s the effect Sontag still has on me 15 years after her death, and nothing less will do.

(LRB 24 October 2019)

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