A life with so much posturing, so many surfaces layered obfuscatingly on top of each other, is hard to describe, but Moser does rather a brilliant job. Over the course of 700 pages, we have Sontag as daughter, friend, lover, wife and mother, but Moser’s writing is appropriately bold and anecdotal, so there is less the feeling of years accrued than of selves tried out. He’s an essayist, taking on an essayist, and his best passages are biographical readings of her writing. His assessment of her novels is punchy and insightful. Of her wilfully unreadable The Benefactor he writes: “Sontag’s determination to create an unreliable narrator is so reliable that it becomes tedious: there is, after all, nothing here we relied on to begin with.”...I found Moser less interesting on psychology, and this again may be appropriate, given that Sontag’s friends repeatedly criticised her for her lack of psychological insight. It’s not that Moser isn’t insightful – his judgments usually ring true – more that he doesn’t have the kind of novelistic curiosity some biographers have.
Benjamin Moser’s biography is a skilled, lively, prodigiously researched book that, in the main, neither whitewashes nor rebukes its subject: It works hard to make the reader see Sontag as the severely complex person she was. But Moser doesn’t love her, and this absence of emotional connection poses a serious problem for his book. A strong, vibrant, even mysterious flow of sympathy must exist between the writer and the subject — however unlovable that subject might be — in order that a remarkable biography be written. And this, I’m afraid, “Sontag” is not.
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.
In 2013, when Moser signed up to write Sontag’s authorized biography, he took on a hazardous task: how to recount the eventful life, influential ideas and significant achievements of a legendary public intellectual, and assess the overall legacy of an outrageous, infuriating great person? He was not the first to face these challenges. “Disappointment with her…”, he notes, “is a prominent theme in memoirs of Sontag.” She was avid, ardent, driven, generous, narcissistic, Olympian, obtuse, maddening, sometimes loveable but not very likeable. Moser has had the confidence and erudition to bring all these contradictory aspects together in a biography fully commensurate with the scale of his subject. He is also a gifted, compassionate writer.
This isn’t to say that the book is dull – Sontag herself is too intriguing a character for that – but it is dry. For all Moser’s impressive research, not to mention the exhaustive interviews he conducted with those who knew Sontag well, ultimately he boils his subject down to a series of not particularly original dichotomies – mind vs body; public vs private; appearance vs reality. The predictable tone is set in the introduction when he declares Sontag “incongruous: a beautiful young woman who was intimidatingly learned”... Despite being a formidable work of scholarship, ultimately Moser’s biography offers us only a dim, flickering illumination of Sontag’s inner life.
We encounter Sontag as a series of masks, motifs, symptoms and symbols, with her biographer presenting a set of master keys that might explain her behavior. Moser begins with the figure of the beautiful and chilly Mildred Sontag, an alcoholic, who imprinted upon her daughter “a sadomasochistic dynamic that recurred throughout Susan’s life.” Her pattern of withholding attention kindled an anxious, supplicating affection in her daughter, and a lifelong taste, Sontag wrote in her diary, for “weak, unhappy, confused, charming women.”... Can a biography be a work of art? Virginia Woolf once asked, wondering why so many are published and so few endure. Among those likely to last is Moser’s ravishing life of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, “Why This World” (2009). The book seemed like a happy haunting, so deftly did Moser divine Lispector’s secrets and unlock the workings of her alluring, enigmatic sentences. He seems immune, however, to the aloof charisma of Sontag’s style (in fairness, he is not alone). About “Illness as Metaphor,” he writes: “Despite its grim subject, the book is fun to read.” Meanwhile, “if ‘Styles of Radical Will’ is often impressive, it can hardly be called fun.”
Sontag confronted illness with immense courage, or stubbornness, and wrote about the experience in her best work, Illness as Metaphor. Her subject matter, in fact, now became physical torture and human suffering in its many manifestations. Sontag travelled to battle zones to meet refugees and survivors and “share their pain”. She had no true empathy, however, and visiting Bosnia seven times did not make her humble. She became more tyrannical. “If you had not gone to Sarajevo yourself, you were obviously just a morally inferior being,” one friend said of her insufferable behaviour.
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.
Moser’s socially panoramic, psychologically incisive biography does a superb job of charting Sontag’s self-invention, as the gawky swot from the arid American west metamorphoses into the lofty arbiter of New York taste. But he is overgenerous in praising her as a philosophical successor to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; she surely belongs in a tradition of cerebral showbiz that includes Tom Wolfe and her envious epigone, Camille Paglia, and is well defined, in Moser’s inadvertently deadly phrase, as “the world’s most authoritative blurber” – an enthusiast for the ideas of others, a vociferous barker at an avant-garde carnival.
The mountain of unpublished papers in her archive at UCLA, together with the two published volumes of her Journals & Notebooks, have provided Moser with complete access to Sontag’s inner life. Placing the public and private Sontags back to back, he creates a portrait of a woman with “an uncanny understanding” of her own character, and no understanding whatsoever of anyone else’s... Moser is good at elucidating Sontag’s ideas and putting into context the fecundity of her thought. He discusses her “Olympian” sex life with sympathy and insight — her galaxy of lovers included Bobby Kennedy, Jasper Johns, Warren Beatty and Annie Leibovitz — and is unbiased when it comes to evaluating her writing... He is less good, however, at knowing what to leave out, resulting in a book that is repetitive, overweight and clogged with irrelevancies. In addition to which the structure is confusing and there are too many self-regarding sentences... While there are things to admire here, the biography is not an aesthetic achievement. And an aesthetic achievement is the only one that mattered to Sontag.
It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive account of Sontag’s life than this one. Moser is by no means unsympathetic, arguing that Sontag was the typical child of an alcoholic parent, always trying to please her unstable mother and turning lovers into mother substitutes. Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, died when she was five and she eagerly adopted her stepfather’s surname, claiming that the name Rosenblatt was ‘ugly and foreign’ – and, according to a document quoted in the book, that it sounded too Jewish. When she married Philip Rieff, an academic at the University of Chicago, two weeks before her eighteenth birthday, she did not take his name. Moser’s suggestion that Sontag was the true author of Rieff’s book on Freud has attracted quite a bit of attention; if correct, it is fascinating to think that the first work of such an egotistical woman was published under someone else’s name.