Perhaps no writer of the late 20th century has been more mythologized, or lionized, than Susan Sontag. Beautifully written and moving, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work reveals with illuminating clarity Sontag’s ceaseless quest to understand and be understood; her often arrogant and condescending manner, even to those closest to her; and her attempts to use art to fashion herself into the iconic figure she became in life and death.
Drawing deeply on hundreds of interviews with Sontag’s family and friends, as well as on materials in Sontag’s restricted archives and her published and unpublished writings, Moser traces her life from her childhood and youth, to her years at the University of Chicago, and throughout her attempts to distance herself from reality by aestheticizing it in her critical essays and fiction. Sontag’s father died when she was 5, and her mother remained distant, so she retreated into books. “Reading gave Susan a way to recast reality. . . . When she needed to escape, books let her close the door,” Moser writes. Looking back on her childhood, Sontag revealed a theme in her journals that defined her entire work and life: “I grew up trying both to see and not to see.”
Moser’s close readings of Sontag’s writings—from her earliest essays (“Notes on Camp,” “Against Interpretation”) to her failed novels (The Benefactor) and her successful ones (The Volcano Lover, In America)—reveal the theme of language’s relationship to reality. For Sontag, “language could console, and how it could destroy.” Alongside his elegant readings, Moser delves into the rocky relationships that resulted from Sontag’s inability to be alone—from her son, David, to her lover, Annie Leibovitz, to artists such as Jasper Johns and Joseph Brodsky.
Sontag may have been our last public intellectual. She cast her intense gaze over art, literature, film and politics, boring into her subjects with a steely vision that revealed the many facets not only of those subjects but also of herself. Moser’s monumental achievement captures the woman who, among other things, “demonstrated endless admiration for art and beauty—and endless contempt for intellectual and spiritual vulgarity.” This brilliant book matches Sontag’s own brilliance and finally gives her the biography she deserves.