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 she – She – 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.
Born Sue Rosenblatt, a rabbity name that would never do on a marquee, she chose to be known as Susan Sontag (taking the surname of her stepfather, her biological father having died when she was five). ‘To write, I must love my name,’ Sontag declared, and hers snapped into place like a double-barrelled shotgun; it made for a potent byline even when she was an unknown. She also looked famous before she became famous, another sign of a protostar. Early on, she emanated a campus legend demimonde glamour, broodily austere and voluptuously cerebral, as evidenced by Fred McDarrah’s 1962 Village Voice photograph of Sontag in the atrium of the Mills Hotel, cigarette cocked like a cafe intellectual with scorn to burn. Among postwar writers, Sontag was not alone in possessing glossy sex appeal. The young Gore Vidal boasted matinee-idol looks, Truman Capote beheld the camera like a debauched cherub on the back jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms, and Joan Didion, posed against a Corvette Stingray in a long stately dress and sandals, was a chic postcard for California dreamin’. But Sontag magnetised the camera her entire career, a watchful muse and Medusa starer in portraits by Peter Hujar (whose photographs line the inside cover of Moser’s book like a wall of publicity stills), Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and, later, her partner Annie Leibovitz. Sontag’s post-cancer skunk-stripe hair made her instantly spottable. For those hitting the right places in Manhattan, Sontag sightings were as recurring and oddly reassuring as Warhol sightings, as if both were autographing the air with their presence. ‘Back in the 1980s,’ Dave Hickey recounted, ‘I stood at a party watching the ever watchable Sontag, who had taken command of the opposite corner of the salon. She was showing us her profile, standing with her arms folded, swathed in scarves, her black mane accented by that theatrical streak of white, scanning the room for traitors.’
What the portraits seldom captured was a quality obscured by Sontag’s iconisation and final gorgon phase: charm. She had a beautiful smile. Motion picture cameras did it better justice. You can see it the moment she enters the Factory for her Andy Warhol Screen Test (1964), in the youthful footage of her in the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (2014) and in the feminist fight club classic Town Bloody Hall (1979), where, from the audience, she takes Norman Mailer to task for his patronising use of the term ‘lady’ as a prefix – lady writer, lady critic. Even when issuing a rebuke (‘It feels like gallantry to you, but it doesn’t feel right to us’), Sontag keeps her cool in a raucous setting where nearly everybody else is behaving badly – strident, shouty, self-caricaturing. The come and go of her smile as she makes her point traces a light undertone of ‘oy vey’ amid the bombast.
When Sontag arrived in New York two decades earlier, the closest model for a belletrist sans merci was the critic, novelist, and wickedest of wits Mary McCarthy, who told Susan she smiled too much, the telltale mark of a provincial. McCarthy was also reputed to have said to Sontag, ‘I hear you’re the new me,’ and, to others, ‘She’s the imitation me,’ digs that made their way round the cocktail circuit and into print. The soundbites had plausibility because there were easily drawn similarities. Both had married young to older intellectual powerhouse grumps – McCarthy to Edmund Wilson, who locked her in a room to force her to write, Sontag to Philip Rieff, the sociologist she met as a student at 17 and with whom she later co-authored Freud: The Mind of the Moralist – and Sontag took over McCarthy’s old lemonade stand as Partisan Review’s theatre reviewer. Lines of succession make for neat narratives and it’s fun to fantasise a Margo Channing-Eve Harrington face-off, but Susan Sontag wasn’t the new Mary McCarthy, any more than Marilyn Monroe had been the new Betty Grable. Sontag the public sensation (as opposed to Sontag the perpetual grad-school grind) was the star-child of Pop Art and New Wave. To see her in sunglasses was to see it was so. And in Roger Straus, the dapper major domo of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she had a publisher who was closer to a studio boss in his roles as promoter, protector, enforcer and profane big daddy.
Partisan Review was Sontag’s Book of Revelation. She revered the magazine from the first moment she excavated a copy from behind the porn magazines at a newsstand on Hollywood Boulevard as a teenager. No matter that she didn’t understand all of its references and locutions: it spoke to her with a symphonic rumble. Its pages hosted the most important minds of the mid-century, addressing art, politics, literature and psychoanalysis: this was company she aspired to join. She pursued her ambition with fervour: graduation from North Hollywood High School at the age of 15, a degree from the University of Chicago, graduate study and a Master of Arts at Harvard, a fellowship at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she attended lectures by Isaiah Berlin and had classes with A.J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and Iris Murdoch; most fatefully, a sojourn at the Sorbonne, where, like Audrey Hepburn pixie-ing through the new philosophy of Empathicalism in Funny Face, she met – oh, enough roll call. You can read about it in Chapter 11 of Moser, or in Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis (2012) – highly recommended. From Paris, it was on to New York. Meeting Partisan Review’s co-editor William Phillips at a party, Sontag, now a single mother living on a shoestring, got right to business: ‘How do you write a review for Partisan Review?’ ‘You ask,’ Phillips replied. ‘I’m asking,’ she said, and, open sesame, she was in.
The intellectual milieu that Sontag broke into was mostly male and musty, an atomic cloud of cigarette smoke hanging over noisy rooms on the Upper West Side or Greenwich Village where Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg and a supporting cast of kibitzers engaged in rhetorical (and, in Greenberg’s case, actual) fisticuffs. Like many men of ideas with impossibly high standards of intellectual probity, they could also be snarly little gossips and backbiters. (‘Tidings from the Whore’ was how Delmore Schwartz greeted a new piece by McCarthy.) Partisan Review fed on the friction, personal and polemical, that its contributors generated in articles, back at the office, and at boozy, quarrelsome parties, but at bottom it respected those who could deliver the goods, bring down the gavel. Whatever the whispers and snickerings, Sontag proved from the outset that she could ratiocinate with the best of them and inject every critical undertaking with the urgency of a manifesto.
If Sontag had stuck to subjects dear to the leather-bound hearts of the Partisan Review crowd (Marxism, Freudianism, alienation, modernism, the Bomb, the Lonely Crowd, the Cold War, the existential abyss), she would have secured a position as a valuable member of the firm, Hannah Arendt’s natural successor. But being young, avid and a member of the Pepsi generation, Sontag wanted to experience art corporeally, immersively, in the vivid Now. Not only did she hear the tom-tom drums of downtown bohemia beckon, she answered their call, spending rackety hours in lofts, galleries, gay bars and ratty theatres discovering new thresholds, ‘new anatomies’ (to use Hart Crane’s phrase) that were beyond the ken and compass of the uptown commissariat. Moreover, Sontag was an ardent, ravenous cinephile, a haunter of double feature repertory houses, Times Square fleapits and museum film programmes. ‘The last of the great New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review,’ the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in a memorial tribute, ‘she was the only one in that crowd who understood and appreciated film in a wholly cosmopolitan manner, as part of art and culture and thought.’
Partisan Review’s intellectuals and their English department adjuncts nursed disdain for the vulgarities of the popular press and popular culture, and for the herd mentality of middlebrow taste with its occasional stampedes. So when Sontag sprung ‘Notes on “Camp”’ in the 1964 fall issue, it rattled the intellectual establishment from within even as it triggered rolling thunder without. I have a copy of that issue sitting in front of me. ‘Notes on “Camp”’ receives second billing on the cover under a play by Robert Lowell (My Kinsman, Major Molineux) long since lost in the mists. The issue also contains a consideration of the sociologist David Riesman, since no intellectual journal back then was complete without a Riesman snorkel dive; a piece by Paul de Man (remember him?) which begins on the stirring note, ‘Ever since the war, American criticism has remained relatively stagnant’; and an omnibus review of four books by Northrop Frye. ‘Notes on “Camp”’ transmits on an entirely different frequency, its sentences tapping to a snappier syncopation. Inspired by gay friends and confidants such as Elliott Stein, whose Paris hotel room was a campy shrine of sacred knick-knacks, ‘Notes on “Camp”’ was ‘the product of years of reflection’, according to Moser, but it gave the impression of being flicked off, an Ice Capades solo. Only six thousand words long, a virtuoso pastiche of Wildean aphorisms, jaunty juxtapositions and deft assertions (‘The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp: Pope, Congreve, Walpole etc, but not Swift’ – oh, definitely not Swift), as well as genuflections to the kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkeley and the magnificent nothingness of ‘the great serious idol of Camp taste, Greta Garbo’), it was a tour de force that Partisan Review’s disputatious two-headed editorship was ambivalent about publishing (Phillips was in favour, Rahv against). The misgivings deepened after Time picked up on ‘Camp’ and the article went mainstream. They had created a monster. Sontag was on the move and, in their gimlet eyes, on the make. Bad enough to have this white-suited dandy Tom Wolfe spray-painting his prose like dayglo graffiti across every runaway trend, but here was a monochromatic spectre in their own midst practising her own form of pop voodoo. Happenings! The Supremes! Japanese science fiction movies! Where would it all end?
Rumblings of dyspepsia were accompanied by belches of homophobia. The false eyelashes and sly subterfuges of camp sensibility offended those men of letters raised on moral seriousness, Trotskyist rigour and Hemingwayesque hard tack, and here was Sontag inviting everybody to the cabaret. To Rahv, writing to McCarthy in 1965, Manhattan had begun to reek of Sodom and Gomorrah: ‘I find New York quite different from what it was three years ago, when I lived here last. Susan Sontag’s “Camp” is very much in fashion, and every kind of perversion is regarded as avant-garde. The homosexuals and pornographers, male and female, dominate the scene.’ Others rose above the gay panic, preserving a semblance of judicial decorum as they sought to relegate Sontag to the novelty department, the repository of passing fads. In his landmark zoological study ‘The New York Intellectuals’, published in Dissent in 1968, Irving Howe patronised Sontag as ‘a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother’s patches’, a ‘highly literate spokesman’ for those ‘who have discarded or not acquired intellectual literacy’.
But the notion that Sontag was slumming or pandering to the peanut gallery was absurd. Utilising the keenest tools at her disposal, she analysed and anatomised every topic of inquiry, even the latest craze, then tried to reanimate it for the reader, fully annotated. ‘Notes on “Camp”’ apart, she made readers, young fans and old farts alike, work through her paragraphs, expecting the same level of commitment from them that she expected from herself. And there was a plus factor. Like Lionel Trilling, one of her heroes, when she was in the zone she exerted an almost mystical authority on the page, but she wanted to distance herself from his ‘moral seriousness’: his was the rustle of the Holy Ghost, hers an oracular hooga-booga. The objections that Howe, Rahv, John Simon, the art critic Hilton Kramer and other keepers of the scrolls lodged against her were as much about the 1960s as they were about her, for no one in the Family (as Norman Podhoretz, a former Partisan Review-er, dubbed them) personified the 1960s more than Sontag, who would leave them even further behind as her career achieved escape velocity. The thrill and compulsion of her first two collections, Against Interpretation, with its manifesto cry (‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’), and Styles of Radical Will, were akin to Bob Dylan going electric. For a large portion of the 1960s and early 1970s the mass-market paperback of Against Interpretation, with Sontag’s face on the cover, was in every countercultural kit bag, a pocket bible to ward off vampires and philistines.
In with the in-crowd, Sontag was spotted at Elaine’s, where celebrities went to slosh, became friends with Jacqueline Kennedy, and had flings with Robert Kennedy Jr, Warren Beatty (who would keep her waiting forty tedious minutes while he primped for their date, probably trying to shine the twinkle in his eye) and the presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who, deploying tricks of the trade learned from a French prostitute, activated Sontag’s first orgasm with a man: ‘“Oh, shit,” she remembered thinking. “Now I’m just like everybody else.”’
Her first ever orgasm had been with a woman and had been an awakening. Now she felt less special, less elect. As a teenager, Sontag had wrestled with her sexual feelings and articulated her yearnings and difficulties in her diaries, and, although she slept with men and didn’t bar them from future consideration, her primary sexual relations were with women, one girlfriend being the playwright Maria Irene Fornes, a Greenwich Village vortex born in Havana who had been involved in a triangle with Mailer and his second wife, Adele Morales (yes, the one he stabbed), which must have made for some lively evenings. Laid-waste-to lovers lauded Fornes as an erotic shaman who could make a rock come. For Sontag, sex with her was an epiphany: ‘I feel for the first time the living possibility of being a writer. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego.’ Where Sontag apprehended art by dint of hard study, Fornes had it at her sparky fingertips. As an artist she was the real McCoy, Sontag’s friend Stephen Koch observed: ‘Not a pretend one, and not a critic, and not a discussant, and not a graduate student making notes.’ She was, in short, a natural. When it came to sex and art and many basic day-to-day activities, Sontag wasn’t a natural, being obsessively thinky and boggishly workaholic; too conflicted, constricted, bossy and graspy to surrender to pleasure and impromptus. An ineradicable part of her Puritan nature courted punishment, the wallow of rejection, the agony and the ecstasy in unequal portions. Sontag’s love life, recounted at perhaps undue length by Moser, becomes a rotation of sadomasochistic subjugation and verbal abuse, with Sontag almost literally crawling on the floor. It’s like an endless performance of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, with Sontag alternating in the roles of cruel mistress and crumpled dishrag.
Moser’s Life is a cautionary tale about the life of the mind and how it can inflict hell on body and soul. Most of the time, Sontag treated her body as a mobile transport unit for her omnivorous brain. She ignored its needs and demands, tuning it out as much as possible and directing her energy to the command, control and observation deck. Using amphetamines as rocket fuel (‘She would use amphetamines, often heavily, for at least a quarter of a century’), she drove herself to work endless hours at the typewriter, clacking and scribbling away through the night and into the dawn and beyond, writing and revising countless drafts, ignoring appetite, exercise and personal hygiene. She had to prod herself in her journals to bathe every day. Despite these speed-freak sessions, Sontag was not monastic and solo piloting, sequestered at her desk like Philip Roth with only a photograph of Kafka for company. Moser reiterates what memoirists such as Sigrid Nunez (Sempre Susan), Phillip Lopate (Notes on Sontag), Edmund White (City Boy), Gary Indiana (Utopia’s Debris) and others recorded first-hand: that Sontag was incapable of spending much time alone, even when writing. These were not cosy evenings in. ‘Every night’s dinner provided an opportunity for new guests, along with Susan and David [Rieff, her son], to savage those who had sat at the same table the night before.’ It was jerk this, stupid that. The Algonquin Round Table, minus the aperçus.
When not writing, reading and performing character assassination at the dining table, Sontag was out on the scene, hitting movies, art openings, theatre, dance, opera and book parties. Indiana remembered that she ‘routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after all that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not’. This activity was sustained by intakes of amphetamine, caffeine and nicotine, an unholy trinity. Sontag’s younger sister, Judith, had introduced her to cigarettes during a rough patch in her marriage to Rieff in the hope of calming her nerves. ‘She was so miserable, and I wanted to relax her. I taught her how to smoke. That’s the worst thing I ever did.’
In 1975, Sontag underwent what she assumed was a routine physical. ‘The result was a shock. Sontag, at 42, had a tumour on her left breast: a metastasised cancer, stage four.’ The breast was removed, only the first step in her treatment. ‘Four additional operations followed, to remove other lesions; and then thirty long months of chemotherapeutic bombardment. “I feel like the Vietnam War,” she said.’ After the surgery, she embarked on an experimental course of immunotherapy in Paris that was unavailable in the States and cost $150,000. Since she was without health insurance, it was the generosity of the intellectual community, responding to a fundraising letter circulated by Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, that footed the medical bills. Against unmerciful odds, Sontag survived. Not only survived, but returned from the land of the shades with renewed augustness. Moser quotes the writer Stephen Donadio’s eyewitness account of Sontag’s first public appearance after her medical ordeal, at New York University’s Bobst Library: ‘There was almost an audible gasp from the audience. But she did not appear frail or in the least hesitant, and she spoke on the subject of illness with a remarkable directness, and with the evident authority of experience. The sustained intensity of her presentation was something that I have very rarely witnessed, and the effect of what she had to say was electrifying.’
Her extended essay Illness as Metaphor, published in 1978, also made no explicit reference to what she had undergone, the vaulted ceiling of her personal trauma and suffering already in the reader’s consciousness, providing all that was needed to deepen the echo of her words. ‘I want to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation: not real geography, but stereotypes of national character.’ Her delineation of the contrast between literature’s poeticising of tuberculosis and the stigmatising of cancer as a war waged against oneself (‘an evil, invincible predator’) is what most people remember of the essay, and for good reason: it’s beautifully unfurled. The science and sociology are less securely fastened. She dismissed the ‘crude statistics’ bandied about that ‘imprudent diet and tobacco smoking alone account for 75 per cent of all cancer deaths,’ without, as Moser notes, specifying what made those statistics crude or suspect. ‘Her dismissal of personal responsibility – for some cancers, for some people – made contracting cancer from chain-smoking Marlboros sound as inexplicable as being dashed to pieces by a meteor.’ Overstated perhaps, but it’s undeniable that Sontag continued to puff while maintaining her mien. A People magazine profile of 1978 describes her ‘lighting her fourth True in half an hour’ while insisting ‘I have given up smoking.’
It was in the mid to late 1970s that reading Sontag became less of a backstage pass to being in the know and more of a cultural imperative that deposited ashes on the brow. Moser is more impressed with On Photography (1977) than I am, but then so is almost everybody else and I’m resigned to being in the minority, though the book’s pronunciamentos, strictures and solemnities on the deceptive practices of photography still strike me as myopic or downright batty. ‘To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude,’ she intones, as if a painting, a poem, a short story, didn’t exclude; the floors of film editing rooms used to be strewn with exclusions. ‘Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.’ The irony didn’t go unnoticed that Sontag had been photographed frequently and fawningly in our sad, frightened time, those many soft murders apparently as harmless as paint-gun splatter. (Regarding the Pain of Others, a revisiting of On Photography’s qualms published in 2003, offered some corrective backpedalling, but it was Sontag’s last work, a ruminative afterthought that left too many unfilled blanks.)
Woe befell some of the most steadfast Sontagians with the appearance of her third collection, Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), made up of valedictory tributes to pantheon figures like Elias Canetti, Walter Benjamin, Antonin Artaud and Roland Barthes. This is when she began to overuse the word ‘exemplary’ and when elegy became her prevailing song. A more intimate tone marked the personal eulogy to the social theorist and activist Paul Goodman, which sounded as if it was coming from a real, vulnerable person rather than a lapidary inscriber. ‘Fascinating Fascism’, Sontag’s dismantling of the cult, canonisation and revisionist whitewashing of Leni Riefenstahl, struck like lightning when it first appeared in the New York Review with its bravura last sentence – ‘The colour is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death’ – but reprinted in book form, the parallels Sontag drew between the Nazi aesthetic and the physique of Nubian tribespeople seemed unpersuasive, leaned on, and the rhetoric overdone. ‘Fascinating Fascism’ formed a double feature in Saturn with ‘Syberberg’s Hitler’, Sontag’s heavy-lifting explication of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Wagnerian-length epic Hitler: A Film from Germany, which she hailed as ‘one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century’. From the vantage point of the 21st century, whatever spell Syberberg’s film once cast has dissipated, leaving behind a magnificent husk for cine-scholars.
With this wayward exaltation the question was: where was the real Susan Sontag and what had the mummies done with her? At the end of the mangy, scrambling movie decade that gave us Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, there was nary a murmur from her (just imagine what she might have made of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky). We know from Nunez and others that Sontag boogied in Studio 54, and yet where was her disco inferno deep-think? Disco as tribal ecstasy rite cried out for her always-on receptivity and rapid insight. Instead she piled on the weightiness: ‘Syberberg’s film belongs in the category of noble masterpieces which ask for fealty and can compel it.’ Fealty! Under the Sign of Saturn offered sad confirmation to many of us in the bleachers that the Sontag whose eclectic enthusiasms once vitalised her criticism was now exclusively concerned with artistic mass and tonnage. From now on it would be masterpieces or nothing. We had lost her to Europe, the past, and the land of disenchantment. Sontag expressed weariness about this governing course in a 1980 journal entry. ‘I must give up writing essays. I have become the bearer of certainties that I don’t possess – am not near to possessing.’
It wasn’t just that. Essays can make news, excite the chattering classes, provoke op-eds, catch a cultural phenomenon in a butterfly net, clear away the dead wood of received opinion or simply make the reader privy to the writer’s thought processes and preoccupations. For a writer of Sontag’s stratospheric intentions and designs, who had visited Thomas Mann in Los Angeles as a high school student and wanted to become one of the giant redwoods of literature, reviews and essays weren’t enough to satisfy the deep-tissue need for fuller expression and grander reach. She coveted the achievement and validation that came from the ability to master different media. The well-oiled versatility displayed by Vidal, McCarthy, Didion and Updike (to mention only her peers) as they swung from fiction to non-fiction and back again was strenuous gear-shifting for Sontag. Moser, determined to give her a decent shake, does what he can with the early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967). ‘It is worthwhile to read The Benefactor in the context of its time and of its author’s evolving thought,’ he proposes. Nice try, but The Benefactor is as dead as a dinosaur bone and less valuable for study. Ditto Death Kit, a simulation of the nouveau roman in which Sontag showed little gift for sleight of hand.
This lack of talent for narrative or dramatic surprise plagues her first two films, Duet for Cannibals (1968) and Brother Carl (1971), both funded by the Swedish government. ‘As with Miss Sontag’s novels, she simply does not convince us of the need for the work to exist,’ the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann wrote of Duet for Cannibals. ‘After we have added up the totals of aesthetic apparatus, there is still no affective centre in the work.’ Pauline Kael thought much the same: ‘Miss Sontag is often a thoughtful writer, but she has never had much dramatic sense – it’s hard to think of an American writer with less dramatic sense.’ Moser himself, fidgeting around for something useful to add, says: ‘The film is far more interesting to interpret or analyse than it is to watch.’ Brother Carl was faintly praised as an improvement, but was still so Bergmanesque that it was hard to believe there was an authentic auteur climbing around inside Sontag. Movies and novels are not manifested by willpower alone. You have to be willing to leave the gates open for mischief and caprice.
The bruising to Sontag’s morale could have knocked her out of the high-stakes tournament, but she proved to be a rebound artist of improbable agility. In 1992, she published another novel, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, a historical romp about Horatio Nelson and William and Emma Hamilton. Sontag’s retelling offered the welcome sight of the Dark Lady of American Letters enjoying herself on the page, conceiving in Technicolor for a change. Gone was the viscous discharge and the gazebo maziness of the anti-novels and in its place a period plushiness and frosting. Her narrative prose acquired a frisky trot and flouncy ruffles: ‘Nine months in England had restored his bony face to a pleasing wheyness, bleached the sun creases of slender music-making hands.’ The novel wasn’t entirely a romp – it transported serious cargo – but it was old-fashioned storytelling, and it connected. Welcomed with outstretched arms by reviewers, The Volcano Lover was a thumping bestseller, the most popular success she had ever enjoyed. This tickled Sontag, hitherto not known for being ticklish. Terry Castle, author of the comedy classic ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB, 17 March 2005), described Sontag’s response when a waiter said to her: ‘“I know you’re famous but I don’t know who you are.” “Well, I am Susan Sontag. I’m a writer, and my most recent book was a novel you may have heard of, called The Volcano Lover.”’ After this she wrote her name on a napkin, as if ‘she was signing somebody’s high school yearbook’. The flip side – there’s always a flip side with Sontag – was that the flowery adulation she received from the volcano lovers led to another eruption of ego. She vaporised the Israeli writer David Grossman for the unpardonable faux pas of praising her essays. ‘My essays?’ she spat. ‘Juvenilia! Have you read Volcano?’ He was lucky she didn’t stuff a copy down his craw.
Having found her divine metier, she followed up with In America (1999), another historical yarn, a star-is-born saga about a Polish actress based on Helena Modjeska, who immigrated to America during the Civil War and faced the rapture of audiences wherever she emoted. Richly stocked with bustling activity and Americana, the novel fell slightly short of the gusto, focus and forward ho of its predecessor, and Sontag was accused of plagiarism for appropriating multiple passages from other works about Modjeska, including Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy. Nevertheless, it went on to win the National Book Award for Fiction, which struck some as a sympathy vote at the time, much like Elizabeth Taylor’s best actress Oscar for Butterfield 8.
The Big One eluded her. In 2003, J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize, which depressed Sontag, Moser writes, since ‘it made it highly unlikely that another English-language writer would receive it in the coming years, and Susan, at seventy, realised she was unlikely to achieve the goal she had set as a child.’ ‘She should have been given the Nobel Prize. That would have made her nicer,’ Edmund White remarked. A former friend of Sontag’s who had been kicked out of the coterie after he presented diaphanously disguised versions of her and her son in his novel Caracole, White was half-right. A firm case can be made that a Nobel Prize should have been bestowed on Sontag: the one for peace.
Moser has said that at the heart of his biography are the chapters documenting Sontag’s courage, devotion, personal witness and rallying efforts on behalf of the people of Sarajevo, when it was being pounded into rubble and starved into submission: ‘It would be choked off for 1425 days, the longest siege in modern history.’ David Rieff, who went to Bosnia as a reporter in September 1992, described Sarajevo as ‘Carthage in slow motion, but this time with an audience and a videotaped record’. His mother arrived in April 1993, ‘the first of what would turn out to be Susan’s 11 visits to a place that became so important to her life that a prominent downtown square is named for her’ (she was later made an honorary citizen). Other intellectuals associated with passionate causes and dashing hair made drop-ins – ‘Bernard Henri-Lévy, known in France as BHL, became known in Bosnia as DHS: ‘Deux Heures à Sarajevo’ – but Sontag returned and stayed, risking her life, dodging sniper fire, refusing to wear a flak jacket in solidarity with the citizens, distributing food, cigarettes, money hidden inside her clothes – and presents, including a watermelon, which brought joy to a young girl on her birthday. ‘One of the most touching items in Sontag’s archives,’ Moser notes, ‘is a drawing of a green-and-white striped watermelon. Above it, in a childish hand: “Susan is our big water-melon!”’ The big watermelon also brought her lover and partner Annie Leibovitz in to photograph the war wreckage for Vanity Fair, whose publication of the photos galvanised the conscience of the West and incidentally powerfully undermined many of the starchy objections to photojournalism in On Photography. Sontag’s most valorous deed in Bosnia was to direct a bare bones production of Waiting for Godot that garnered worldwide coverage. ‘For Sarajevo as for Susan Sontag, culture was the best way to overcome humiliation and fear.’ Whatever Sontag’s sins and flaws and grandstanding, Sarajevo can’t be taken away from her. Don’t never forget.
Yet the biographer giveth and the biographer taketh away, and the book’s seesaw rhythm seems to obligate Moser to offset a heroic high with an anecdote portraying Sontag in a tackier light:
The woman who thought of herself as Joan of Arc was the same woman who ate so much caviar at Petrossian on 58th Street that, Larry McMurtry said, she ‘decimated the species’. A series of movies and bestsellers had made him rich, and Susan took full advantage of his good fortune. One evening, his flight from Washington was delayed, and when he got to the restaurant, the maitre d’ told him that Miss Sontag had departed, leaving him with a piece of paper: a bill for the sumptuous, multi-course caviar dinner to which Susan had helped herself.
I’m sure McMurtry was none too pleased, but forgive me for finding this hilarious, the picture of Sontag scarfing down all that caviar evoking Rosalind Russell at her most glinty-eyed. Similarly, when Leibovitz made too much of a fuss greeting Anna Wintour at a party, Susan reacts, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ – the comedy deriving from the absurdity of Sontag delivering such a corny Borscht Belt line. When it comes to humour, Moser, earnest and conscientious, often seems as pinched dry as Sontag was reputed to be (something her close friends deny), and a bit of priss (which she assuredly wasn’t). His subject’s sword-flashes of vainglory bother him far more than they ought. Sontag rising to the full height of Maleficent hauteur is surely a healthier spectacle than the meeching modesty most writers have adopted for radio interviews and panel discussions. Which isn’t to excuse Sontag’s scalding tantrums and terrorising of editorial staffers, campus hosts, waiting staff and fans, only to say that there’s a tsk-tsk tone to much of Moser’s account that suggests a Human Resources tally of faults and virtues and filed complaints. Here I would interject that my own passing exchanges with Sontag in the Vanity Fair offices or during intermissions at dance performances were cordial, pleasant and chatty – i.e., she never ray-gunned me.
And if she had, so what? My heat shields would have held. The upside of Sontag’s downside was that her ire was generated by the same power supply that electrified her battle for principles that others only espoused. When the fatwa was issued in 1989 against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, some of the major literary spokesmen against the censorship and intimidation of artists went meek, mumbling and hiding behind trees. ‘Even Mailer – normally so combative – hesitated; but he had not reckoned with one American writer more combative than he.’ It was Sontag, then president of PEN, who whipped everyone into line – crack! She organised an all-star reading of excerpts from the novel – the line-up included Mailer, Didion, DeLillo and Doctorow – and the next day major book chains announced they would carry the hot potato. Rushdie is quoted in Moser’s biography distinguishing between Good Susan and Bad Susan, and it was Good Susan who swung the mightier mallet in the public arena (and saved Rushdie’s hide). Bad Susan gets too much spillage in these pages, though I concede it makes for racy copy.
A tug of war conducted behind the scenes in those years were the persistent attempts made by journalists to drag Sontag out of the closet, and her foot-dragging not gonna. Sontag’s sexuality was no mystery to anyone with functioning eyeballs. It was common knowledge among the laity that apart from a late-inning affair with Joseph Brodsky – he was perhaps the only brilliant talent she considered her equal (par for the course, Brodsky too proved to be a bully) – Sontag’s significant others were women of no mean measure, notably the choreographer Lucinda Childs. Once Sontag paired off with Leibovitz, the open secret acquired extra volume. Tomboyish, tall and strapping, Leibovitz was as famous as Sontag, wildly successful, her magazine covers of rock stars and movie idols constituting the celebrity scrapbook of the gods. Leibovitz was not only wealthy but a big spender, immensely generous: she paid the maintenance and mortgage for Sontag’s apartment at London Terrace in Manhattan’s Chelsea; for a maid, a private chef and Susan’s personal assistants; for car services, first-class tickets, vacations, gifts and the rent on a studio downtown so that Susan could work on her next novel undisturbed. The expenditure over the course of their relationship came to a jaw-dropping eight million dollars or more. Gratitude was not a trait ingrained in Sontag, who appeared to accept this largesse as her due. Instead of going proudly public with Leibovitz to tower over Manhattan as its premier lesbian power couple, Sontag deflected snoopy inquiries from reporters and in private subjected Leibovitz, always defensive about her lack of education, to nasty putdowns at dinner parties, assailing her as stupid and ignorant (‘This one’ – signalling Annie with a dismissive wave – ‘doesn’t understand a thing’), and behaving like a pissier Princess Margaret. Such stories made the rounds – we all heard them. It made for tense seating arrangements. Still, they remained a devoted couple, caught in each other’s gravitational pull. They were seen together, photographed together, worked on projects together. By the 1990s it would have cost Sontag nothing in popularity and stature for her to drop the elaborate charade, stride into the Tony Awards with Leibovitz, and say, ‘Alright, already, I’m gay,’ then soak up the love. So why didn’t she?
Identity politics may have been the one form of politics Sontag didn’t want to play. All her career she had resisted being tagged as a Jewish writer, just as Pauline Kael didn’t want to be known as a Jewish critic; ditto a feminist author (an author, yes, a feminist, yes, but not the compound descriptive); ditto a lesbian. Despite her affairs with men, ‘bisexual’ wasn’t a badge she wanted either. Sontag’s lifelong attitude of avoidance was partly fearful and generational, partly a determination to remain both uniquely individual and uppercase universal, cloaking herself in an ecumenical androgyny that transcended labels. But I also think a large part of it can be ascribed to temperament with a dash of conceit. Like Gore Vidal, Sontag didn’t want to appease the interviewers and activists yapping up her tree. Sontag-Vidal didn’t get to where they were by giving the press what they wanted, because what the press wanted was never enough: they always came back for another round. They were an imposition and a bore. Here, have a bite of Myra Breckinridge, and go away. The evasive gamesmanship and protective coating may have dated them later in life, made them look like holdovers from the closeted past; it certainly drew scorn from writers who were out, loud and proud (I’m thinking of Edmund White’s complaints about ‘blue-chip gays’ like Sontag and Harold Brodkey; with Vidal, he had a whole other slate of indictments).
The future may look upon the closet-clingers more benignly, or at least more apathetically, as the labels of sexual identity peel away like old bumper stickers and we evolve into a transhumanist multi-spectrum. If Sontag’s peekaboo dissembling is finally judged a failure of nerve, forgive her, Father, for she had so few. She was Deeply Flawed, as are many people who are Deeply Driven. Had Sontag conformed to all of the lofty ideals we profess to hold, posterity might have mummified her into an aspirational cliché, a fate far worse than a tattling biographer or two. Arguing about Sontag is one of the things that keeps her alive for us, as a figure of contention. We may end up arguing about her longer than we continue reading her, but that’s for posterity to decide.
A warrior to the end, Sontag went down fighting while everyone around her kept fighting for her and often with one another over her. A massage left black and blue marks on her body and tests revealed that she had a blood cancer, myelodysplastic syndrome. She had survived such diagnoses twice before. The second cancer, uterine sarcoma, appeared in 1998, requiring a hysterectomy followed by radiation and chemo, and this battle too she won at great cost. This time, however, she was told that there was no plausible life-saving option. But having beaten the odds twice she refused to accept being down for the count. Too many in her circle enabled her quixotic attitude, accenting the positive and telling her what she wanted to hear. The doctor who delivered Sontag’s dire prognosis was banished and new specialists fed her hope, proposing treatments that prolonged the inevitable. ‘She was not allowed the chance to reconcile with death,’ Sharon DeLano said, and the treatments put Sontag through more vales of suffering. She chose to undergo a bone marrow transplant that, if successful, could have been a total cure. But for a person of Sontag’s age and battered condition it was a Hail Mary pass, hugely expensive and entailing ‘grotesque suffering’. She was isolated in a radiation chamber and given the transplant; her skin turned black and her face became unrecognisably swollen; massive fatigue and incontinence followed. Feebly recovering, she and DeLano watched movies: not arthouse warhorses but elegant Hollywood champagne bubble machines such as The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, the Astaire-Rogers musicals and, oui, Funny Face. Visitors were ‘sometimes staggered by her vigour’ and there were glimmers of hope that the cancer had gone into remission. But further tests quashed that hope. When the doctors delivered the news, she screamed: ‘But this means I am dying!’ Despondency tore a hole in her. A doctor’s assistant tried to offer pastoral counsel:
‘You might want to take this time to concentrate on your spiritual values.’
‘I have no spiritual values!’
‘You might want to take this time to be with your friends.’
‘I have no friends!’
Of course she had friends: friends, former lovers and family who read to her and did what they could, but as often happens, the hospital hallways and waiting rooms became a hushed theatre of battle where grievances and animosities struggled for precedence.
Like Saul Bellow’s funeral, as described in Volume Two of Zachary Leader’s biography (reviewed in the LRB of 24 January), Sontag’s memorial split mourners into rival camps, trapping innocent grievers awkwardly in between. At Bellow’s gravesite, it was Saul’s biological sons v. the anointed sons (Martin Amis, Leon Wieseltier et al). Here it was Team David and Team Annie giving each other the freeze. The funeral itself, which had taken place a few months earlier in Paris, with Sontag being buried at Montparnasse in the same hallowed earth as Sartre, Barthes and Beckett, was an underproduced, dreary, sniffling affair. ‘She had this amazing charisma … but she had such a sad little funeral,’ Marina Abramović said. DeLano felt that the small, invitation-only crowd failed to do her justice: ‘If it had been up to Susan, people would have been throwing flowers in the streets.’ A motorcade, a procession, adoring fans strewing flowers and waving handkerchiefs: she should have had a Maria Callas farewell. That she didn’t is symptomatic of the cleft she made in so many lives.
Embedded in Moser’s biography is a deep, jagged tooth of ambivalence that’s more provocative, and revealing about the subject, than the usual range of mixed emotions that linger on. Jamaica Kincaid said of Sontag: ‘Yes, she was cruel and so on, but … she was also very kind. She was just a great person. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a great person after I knew Susan.’ Wieseltier phrased it in a nutshell: ‘I loved Susan. But I didn’t like her.’ Droves of people fell out of liking Sontag. I wasn’t near enough to her for love or liking to enter into the equation, but reading this book I found myself missing her despite all of her infuriations and wishing she had allowed herself to know more fun, to take it easy from time to time. The life of the mind can become a closed circuit.
In March 2004, Sontag travelled to South Africa at the behest of Nadine Gordimer. ‘Gordimer wanted to take her to a game reserve,’ Moser reports, ‘but Susan proclaimed that she was not interested in nature.’ In this Sontag had been foolishly, conceitedly consistent all her life. Although she lived for years on Riverside Drive, she never ventured into Riverside Park, and, to my knowledge, never had a pet: after all, dogs and cats had nothing to contribute to the conversation about Kant. Gordimer, bless her, persisted:
I took her to a very lovely game reserve, and I was so upset because it was drizzly. It was March and it was raining half the time. She didn’t give a damn. This wild hair was all sprinkled with raindrops, and she – first of all, she fell in love with the countryside, with the thorn trees and the whole look of the space … And then we came to the animals, especially giraffes, elephants … She was tremendously impressed by their majesty, their poise, by everything about them … And then she said something that I so much wished could have happened. She said: ‘Yes, well, I want to come back. I want to come back and sit here.’
She didn’t, couldn’t; she learned of her blood cancer later that month. But it’s with a scene like this that the movie or miniseries of Susan Sontag’s life should end: with elephants and giraffes materialising in the mist.
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