Lead book review

No one held Susan Sontag in higher esteem than she did: Her Life reviewed

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

Towards the end of this tale of imperial intellectual expansion, Susan Sontag’s publicist goes to visit his shrink and, dealing with some appalling professional trauma or other, mentions her name. The psychiatrist bursts out laughing. The publicist asks what is so funny and is told: ‘You can’t imagine how many people have sat on that couch over the years and talked about Susan Sontag.’

Benjamin Moser’s very substantial life of the cultural critic and writer is capable of detached bemusement at its subject’s unstoppable advance. She took herself extremely seriously. (‘On 3 October, the Nobel Prize was awarded to J.M. Coetzee. The award depressed Susan.’) The surprising thing is that she persuaded her world to take her at her own estimation, through threats, intimidation, browbeating and harangues, lovingly detailed by Moser.

Those weaker of will in her immediate circle had unenviable lives. They might find that they had handed over $8 million; they might arrive for a date with Sontag at a plush New York restaurant to be presented with a colossal bill for her caviar supper, the genius herself having impatiently departed; they might find that being employed as her assistant involved having to bathe her with disinfectants because of her total neglect of personal hygiene.

Those a little further away believed, as Susan did, that she was the great genius of the age, and discovered, to the profit of New York psychiatrists, that she had taken up permanent residence among their incurable anxieties. ‘I even heard her describe herself on the phone, comparing herself to Joan of Arc,’ one long-suffering intimate recorded.

We shouldn’t write off Sontag. She remains a substantial cultural critic, with some essays of considerable interest. ‘Notes on Camp’, ‘Against Interpretation’, and the books on photography and on illness are still worth reading. She certainly did a good deal to direct the American public’s attention to a range of topics outside its usual field. These included the Bosnian war, where Sontag staged a performance of the first act of Waiting for Godot in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo, in 1993. (‘I felt that the despair of Act I was enough for the Sarajevo audience, and I wanted to spare them a second time when Godot does not arrive.’)

As the embodiment of American radical chic for decades, Sontag did a great deal to make her society talk about larger political issues, whether it was with comments on the Vietnam episode, about a public renunciation of socialist politics in 1982, or a controversial comment on the events of 11 September 2001 in New York. All this is, largely, to her credit. What still hangs around the room like a bad smell are the shell-shocked accounts of what engaging with Sontag in person could be like. These make this wry, clever, rather sly biography a richly engaging volume.

She was the daughter of a beautiful alcoholic called Mildred, and a very successful fur importer. Jack Rosenblatt had finished his education at the age of ten, and was rich by the time he was 25. ‘Horribly vulgar’ was how his daughter later described his family. The family had the global outlook of bold mercantilism, with special links to China, of which Sontag later made a great deal.

Jack died very young. Like many children of alcoholics, Sontag was ‘exceptionally well behaved’. There’s a case to be made that for the rest of her life she tried to appeal to a small, particular audience, worrying about what advanced opinion would make of her in just the way, as a child, she had had to tailor everything to her mother’s wayward approval. Early observers speak of her as being ‘always “on”… trying a little too hard’.

She was, of course, brilliantly academic. ‘The kids in my class are so dumb I can’t talk to them,’ she said. But she had a theatrical streak, sometimes rather ill-advised. When the Rosenblatts moved to Tucson, ‘Sue darted off the train and hugged the first saguaro she saw.’ She had never read about the spines that distinguish cacti.

Even in areas of cultural insecurity, Sue had a tendency to be aggressively assertive. ‘She disdained opera… it was more important to be moved by Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky.’ (We may remember the curious assertion in ‘Notes on Camp’ that Richard Strauss or Puccini are beneath serious consideration.) Writing about real encounters, she quickly showed a tendency to change things to her advantage. In Los Angeles, at 16, she rang Thomas Mann’s doorbell and talked to him about his recent Doctor Faustus. Retelling the episode, she changed her age to 14, and represented Mann as still working on the book he was discussing.

What lies somewhere near the bottom of these baffling levels of insecurity is the plain fact that Sontag was a lesbian, though she refused to acknowledge it all through her life. It was understandable in 1940s California; less so in 1990s New York, when the famous writer was in a long relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. In any case, the combination of cultural and sexual insecurity led to her marrying her sociology tutor, a dry old stick called Philip Rieff, within weeks of arriving at the University of Chicago. With sublime inappropriateness, ‘the nuptials were celebrated with a visit to the Big Boy in Glendale, a hamburger joint’.

More appropriately, he took her off to Paris for the first time — ‘La Sorbonne, s’il vous plait!’ she told a cab driver. Even more appropriately, after Philip had got the prodigy to write a book from his notes, she ran off with the project of turning herself into a public intellectual. Some of those intellectuals were sceptical about Sontag’s well-drilled habit of turning concrete observation into ill-founded abstract statements. Herbert Marcuse, after an extended encounter, had a point: ‘She can make a theory out of a potato skin.’ This lack of a knack for observation could, in different circumstances, make Sontag look a little foolish — whether spending time in Oxford with Harold Wilson’s pet don Bernard Donoughue, or summarising the Swedish character as ungenerous after they’d given her $180,000, or escaping to Paris to live the Left Bank intellectual life without actually taking the trouble to speak French.

At a certain point in this biography, a touchingly naive person has clearly started to turn into a monster. The tempestuous lesbian passions — ‘I love you Irene. How well you fill my need for pain!’ — really start to damage and humiliate people with the strain of keeping them hidden.

Sontag’s efforts on behalf of her son David were aimed at elevating him into ‘the second greatest mind of his generation’, with predictable results. Much later, she got David a job at her publisher, FSG, and, startlingly, had him ‘installed’ as her editor. You can imagine that the publisher acquiesced in order to dodge the worst assaults from their star author: ‘She got him on the phone immediately, and started screaming.’

Perhaps most damaging of all was Sontag’s colossal amphetamine habit, which had started when she fuelled an all-nighter before a deadline. One of the few pieces of writing her New York editors ever turned down was a deranged and probably baseless account of Sartre’s supposed dependency on amphetamines. Written at speed, on speed, it has nothing to say about Sartre, but both describes and embodies the writing practices of Sontag herself:

Feelings of omnipotence, the attraction to schemes of total understanding, to the idea of totality itself — these were magnified by speed… With speed came anxiety as well as euphoria.

This is a memorable and evocative biography. It keeps a proper distance, and if it makes the occasional excessive claim for Sontag’s writings, especially the fairly negligible fiction, that is forgivable. Moser maintains sympathy, not just for his out-of-control subject, but for her quailing court. I wish, however, he had spent more time discussing the European intellectuals who encountered her and with whom, in a Paris cemetery, she was eventually buried. Did they think her as chic as she thought them? Did they honour the longed for comparison with Roland Barthes? Hard to tell from this account.

It’s going too far to call Moser’s biography comic in tone, but what it does possess is what its subject notably lacked — a sense that one of the tools of analysis, thought and intellectual engagement is the possibility of laughter; that laughter, in the end, may be a better tool than the customary hyperbole.

That intensely sane man, Howard Hodgkin, once shared an Egyptian trip with Sontag and Leibovitz, and observed Sue ‘insistently nudging’ Annie to look at the pyramids. ‘That,’ Hodgkin said afterwards and, which might very truly be said of the whole phenomenon, ‘was slightly embarrassing.’

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