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Jeff Simon

Jeff Simon: An imperfect, but invaluable biography of literary titan Susan Sontag

Jeff Simon

"Susan Sontag was America's last great literary star," writes Benjamin Moser, using a most un-Sontagian word -- "star."

She was "a flashback to a time when writers could be more than simply respected or well-regarded, famous. ... Her success was literally spectacular: played out in public view.

"Tall, olive-skinned, with strongly traced Picasso eyelids and serene lips less curled than Mona Lisa's. Sontag attracted the cameras of the greatest photographers of her age. ... She was Athena, not Aphrodite: a warrior, a 'dark prince.' With the mind of a European philosopher and the looks of a musketeer, she combined qualities that had been combined in men."

Obviously, a fully paid-up poetic license was employed by the writer before writing that, but to anyone of sufficient literary bent in the latter half of the 20th century, very little of that seems hyperbolic.

There is no question that among 21st century readers, what Moser says will be as much puzzlement as declaration. Fame is a different animal in literature during the Age of Twitter.

That doesn't in the slightest change the fact Moser's biography of Susan Sontag ("Sontag: Her Life and Work", Ecco, 816 pp., $39.99) is one of the books of 2019.

Sontag in her maturity (she died at 71 in 2004) sufficed nicely as almost everyone's idea of a New York public intellectual, wherever that phrase was properly understood.

Needless to say, the downside that comes with such easy labelling was prodigious.

"In the cultural world," says Moser, "Susan Sontag was not only an insider, she symbolized insideness. It was to her insideness that admirers paid homage when noting that no one could draw attention to art and artists as powerfully as she; it was her insideness that critics acknowledged when denouncing her failings to draw attention to causes -- more often than not themselves -- that they hoped to advance." (Most notable among those were mainstream feminism and whatever we now call LGBT life during the 80's period when AIDS ravaged the community in which her presence was so influential.) "Like no other writer of her generation, she embodied the cultural prestige emanating from New York and seemed to bear the very keys to Manhattan."

Her boldness in using those keys was so stunning that, on occasion, it approached the seismic and caused locks to snap into place. After 9/11, she responded to a New Yorker request with a short statement that contained what is, no doubt, one of the most controversial things the magazine ever printed.

"The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world,' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word 'cowardly' is to be used it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."

It is highly unlikely that any American writer has ever strung together sentences of such guaranteed unpopularity at a pivotal moment in history.

Enemies cheerfully offered up the opinion she should be prohibited from opinionizing in public for the rest of her days about any subject at all. When readers steeped in her candor and moral seriousness merely quoted her in public, they risked banishment into the ideological ether. Bill Maher quoted her positively on his ABC TV show "Politically Incorrect" and virtually guaranteed the rest of his career would have to move to HBO.

I'd estimate at 80 percent the amount of Sontag's work I followed the moment it appeared -- usually in The New York Review of Books or in the collections and long essays "Against Interpretation," "Styles of Radical Will," ""Illness as Metaphor," "On Photography," "Regarding the Pain of Others," "Regarding the Torture of Others" and "Where the Stress Falls."

I reviewed her books constantly. I didn't subscribe to every utterance or opinion or notion attached to her name, but I sympathized with what I thought were the circumstances of every one. She was, on a monthly basis, one of the writers I read most faithfully (her major competition in that regard in her lifetime would have been Pauline Kael).

Whether in agreement or disagreement, I seldom failed to learn from her. When she wrote about a writer like the great Bulgarian writer Elias Canetti, I was lucky enough to have already read "Auto-Da-Fe" and "Crowds and Power." I knew what she was talking about and couldn't imagine anyone at the time doing better.

When her encomium to Hans Jurgen Syberberg's marathon film "Our Hitler" appeared, I had, like everyone else, to wait for a local screening to judge for myself. I didn't agree with her rave, but I was grateful for the late Dr. Gerald O'Grady and Media Study for bringing the marathon film to the Shea's for a screening (it was shown with an intermission for dinner).

Her influence was massive even among those who hadn't the foggiest idea who she was. When writer/director Ron Shelton decided he didn't want to offend readers of Thomas Pynchon, he changed Pynchon's name in a nasty wisecrack in "Bull Durham" to Sontag's with what were probably far fewer objections.

Moser is impressive to the point of exhaustive, in the style of modern literary biography. It is obvious, nevertheless, that his own discomfort, even hostility, was awakened by her reticence about subjects that so clearly touched her own life -- specifically homsexuality and feminism.

In one of the more comic "feuds" in American intellectual life, critic Camille Paglia one-sidedly stalked Sontag for years trying to yank her out of the closet and force her recognition of Paglia's own work.

To be frank, I've never understood those seriously critical of Sontag for not being more publicly identified with feminism and homosexuality (despite the open bisexuality of her life).

She wrote, just about everywhere she ever could, of her complete distaste for metaphors bludgeoning reality. Her reluctance to "represent" causes fell squarely in the middle of her life work. What she was as an individual was about as complex and baffling and unpredictable as a human being could be. She was one of the last people on earth who would voluntarily ever posterize herself for any reason whatsoever.

Personal reactions to her, according to Moser, seem to have been as complicated and mixed as his own. Friction with those closest to her -- her son David Rieff and late-life partner Annie Leibovitz -- was to be expected. She inspired love and loyalty as well as impatience and dislike. She was not always a model of cleanliness (if her gender had been different, she'd, no doubt, have fallen into the "absent-minded professor" cliche).

Among Moser's abundant catalogues of imperfections in her life and work and personality was the relatively standard and commonplace judgement she was humorless. I'm not so sure.

The more you read her, the more you realize how little truth there was in that. For those who edited her -- Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books -- she was deeply involved in doing other things entirely. Even so, an early essay like "The Imagination of Disaster" indicates a secretly wicked sense of humor. So, too, was she not far from laughter when Jonathan Cott interviewed her for what turned out to be a small book-length piece in Rolling Stone.

Moser's is a huge chunk of inclusive biography full to the brim with minutiae, but also grounded in a literary ethic that is often antithetical to that of the woman who first explained to readers what camp was.

Who'd expect anything different? The last person on God's earth likely to interview half the people in cultural New York for an 800-page biography of anyone would be Susan Sontag.

Which is why Moser's attempts to achieve "insiderism" are, no matter what, a valuable look inside one of the most complex literary figures who may have closed out forever our expectations of what literary figures are.

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