SONTAG, HER LIFE AND WORK
by Benjamin Moser EccoPress/HarperCollins 2019, 665 pp, $45
I met Susan Sontag only once; it was after a dramatic reading of a translation of Wi-told Gombrowicz's Trims-Atlantyk, which I went to hear with a group of friends in 1994. The play was mystifying, linguistically peculiar and discordant, and nobody knew what to say when the performance was over. Fittingly, there was Sontag, author of Against Interpretation, dominating the conversation. I can still see her magnificently oversized though slightly bent-over frame, the famous swatch of white standing out in the inky dark mop of her hair, arms and legs threatening to overflow their boundaries, moving too freely into other people's spaces. This was just after her 1993 production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, and she was making trips back and forth to Bosnia. At that time, she embodied the moral authority and courage of American culture. But for every measure there is a countermeasure, and Benjamin Moser's biography, Sontag, Her Life and Work, masterfully shows how much strain was involved as she balanced self-creation and intellectual rigor against inner turmoil and insecurity, and how much she paid for the veneer of artifice and steely self-assurance.
Susan Sontag not only had formidable intelligence but was fiercely dedicated to self-improvement and constantly re-shaping herself, making lists of books to read, movies and performances to see, subjects to write about. While her ambition was immense, she had to begin by setting herself free from what she called the "long prison sentence of childhood." Susan Lee Rosenblatt (she took her stepfather's name after her mother remarried) was born in New York City in 1933. She was five years old when her father, a young and prosperous furrier, died of tuberculosis while traveling in China for business. Her mother, beautiful, fragile, vain and alcoholic, tried to sustain a gradually diminishing lifestyle, moving with Susan and Susan's younger sister from Great Neck to Montclair, Miami Beach, Woodmere, Forest Hills, Tucson (where she married Captain Nathan Sontag, who was recovering from a war injury) and finally Los Angeles. Like other children in pain, Susan learned to divide what she knew from what she didn't want to know, mind from body, self-love from self-loathing. By the time she came to adulthood, her gigantic intellectual endeavor and what Moser describes as her "Olympian" sex life existed uneasily in that...