The Subject, Herself.

Author:Hoare, Liam


Susan Sontag Edited by Benjamin Taylor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

2017, 336 pp, $27.00

Not long after the publication of her acclaimed 1992 historical romance The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag had dinner in a small Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. At the end of the meal, during which Vidal ate very little and drank an awful lot, Sontag suddenly asked him if he had read her novel. "A pained expression crosses Gore's face as he reaches across the table and takes Sontag's hands into his own," Jay Parini recalls in his biography of Vidal, "then says, 'I've read it, Susan. But you must make a promise to me. That you will never, ever try your hand again at fiction.'"

The author of touchstone collections like Against Interpretation and On Photography, Sontag was known primarily as an essayist; her fiction divided opinion. Although Vidal may have disliked it, The Volcano Lover was a critical and commercial success. "I find The Volcano Lover impressive, at times enchanting, always interesting, always entertaining," the novelist John Banville wrote in his review for The New York Times. Sontag discovered historical fiction and characters she could make whole. "He is interested in everything," she writes of her protagonist, whose passions and obsessions, intellect and worldliness Sontag embraces. By the end of her writing life, Sontag had written four novels--including 2000's In America, for which she won the National Book Award--and several short stories, the best of which have been freshly reproduced in Debriefing: Collected Stories. In America was her final novel, the story of a great Polish actress who moves to southern California in 1876 to join a communal farm before returning to the stage when it fails. Its great theme is self-reinvention, and in writing about America, she was in fact writing about herself.

Sontag would be aghast at biographical explanations for her work, which she pointedly always referred to as the work, as if it were somehow disembodied. "The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means" Sontag wrote in her most famous essay, "Against Interpretation." But consider her life we must, for Sontag's greatest subject throughout her life was always Susan Sontag.

Debriefing opens with "Pilgrimage," an autobiographical essay masquerading as a short story. The journey in...

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