Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser review – the sage of America’s cultural elite | Books
In November 1959 aged 26, Susan Sontag announced her rebirth as a writer and as a sexual being. She’d been married for seven years to Philip Rieff and slept with 36 men and women. But it was only now, in bed with Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés, that she’d had her first orgasm. It “has changed my life”, she declared proudly in her journal. “The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of the ego … The only kind of writer [I] could be is the kind who exposes himself … To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name.”
The passage raises questions about Sontag’s relationship with her body (what had gone wrong previously? What had changed?) but more importantly about her relationship with writing. She had known as a small child that she wanted to write. Aged six, she’d planned to win the Nobel prize for literature. But until now, she had produced only college essays and the book – Freud: The Mind of the Moralist – that she had written for her husband, based on his research. It lacked the stridency, the aphoristic wit for which her writing would soon be known. So what convinced her that she had to be a writer “who exposes himself” – and why that unnecessarily masculine “himself”? Her new model seemed to be Norman Mailer, whose 1957 essay “The White Negro” had shocked the establishment with its proclamations about orgasms as the basis for creative identity, just as Sontag was dismissing her own voice as “puny, cautious, too sane”.
Sontag’s relationship with Mailer is itself fascinating (and was immortalised in the documentary Town Bloody Hall, filmed in 1971, where Sontag chastised him for referring to “lady writers”). But what her Mailer impersonation heralds here is a moment of wilful self-invention of the kind she performed throughout her life with extraordinary success. She often goaded herself to transform at the same time as castigating herself for her fakeness in doing so.
Her capacity for self-invention is, rightly, a central theme in Benjamin Moser’s authorised biography. In 1971 Sontag described herself as “only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation”, a phrase that fascinates Moser, who sees Sontag’s life as a project first to open the gap between the woman writing and “Susan Sontag”, her famous, charismatic alter ego, and then to close it.
The self-transformations began in childhood when, aged 11, the shy, sickly Sue Rosenblatt changed her name to Susan Sontag (after her mother’s remarriage) and vowed “I will be popular”, altering her behaviour to fit in with her new schoolmates in Tuscon, Arizona. Aged 16, attending Berkeley for a year, she had her first lesbian affair and considered herself “reborn”: “to love one’s body and use it well, that’s primary … I can do that, I know, for I am freed now”. But shortly afterwards a male friend advised her to master heterosexual sex, in order to flourish amid homophobia. Hence the 36 lovers: she was always methodical, after all. Then there was marriage and motherhood, where Sontag developed the persona of the diligent helpmate and academic in training. And then came her escape to Oxford and to Paris, and the affair with Fornés, at just the moment when she’d started to find marriage unbearable (“It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings,” she complained) and to feel the urgency of a more radical writerly quest.
“I feel a vocation flowering within me,” she wrote to her husband after discovering orgasms with Fornés. “I want to be free. I’m prepared to pay the price – in terms of my own unhappiness – for being free.” So at the end of 1959, Sontag invented herself as a free woman. What a complicated, exhilarating set of drives were at play, all of which contributed to what followed: the reinvention of the impersonal essay as a dazzling firework display and vehicle for fame.
By the time that Sontag’s first essay collection was published in 1966 she was already famous, hailed in the New York Times as “easily the most controversial critic writing in America today”. There had been “Against Interpretation”, with its call for “an erotics of art” in place of interpretation; there had been essays redefining what the novel could be and how psychoanalysis should be understood. There had been her brilliant, career-defining “Notes on ‘Camp’”, which delineated the characteristics of camp and made a case for “homosexual aestheticism and irony” as one of the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility, alongside “Jewish moral seriousness”. The success of this self-transformation left her friends amazed. How could a critic be this famous? What had made Andy Warhol recognise a kindred spirit and decide in 1964 to immortalise her as the laconic star of his Screen Tests, slouching elegantly in sunglasses? Here was all she had hoped for in that post-orgasmic diary entry, where she went on to say that her desire to write was “connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me”. Without coming out as a lesbian, she’d succeeded in making homosexuality cool and in making herself famous at the same time.
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.”
He makes good use of the archives, quoting from a revealing selection of unpublished diary entries, letters and essays, including a 1973 draft essay on Sartre that he describes as an act of “autofiction”. Here she criticises the French writer for his Faustian pact with the drug speed and for his politics (“philistinism – in the familiar guise of moralism”), seeing him as selling his soul for the sake of constant fame in terms that certainly make more sense when read alongside her own life. Moser also parses her political views compellingly and opinionatedly, criticising her for being too gullible on North Vietnam, applauding her decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, and lamenting her failure either to come out as gay or to risk personal statements during the Aids crisis (her 1989 essay “AIDS and Its Metaphors” came across as staid and cowardly at a time when she might have usefully gone further towards the self-exposure she goaded herself to in 1959).
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. Sontag’s son David, and her husband, lovers and friends, don’t emerge as real people. Sontag herself does, to an extent, but Moser has a tendency to diagnose her disorders with the language of a psychology manual. “She remained,” he tells us, “almost to the point of caricature, the adult child of an alcoholic, with all of their weaknesses”; her use of speed apparently worsened the “personality disorders grouped together in Cluster B” (fear of abandonment, inconsolable loneliness, antisocial behaviour such as rudeness and volatility).
I don’t think this particularly matters. Other books have been written on Sontag, and more will be: she shows no signs of losing her star status. Why her, we might ask – and Moser does. His answer: “She created the mould, then broke it … She showed how to remain anchored in the achievements of the past while embracing her own century … She stood for self-improvement – for making oneself into something greater than what one was expected to be.”
So many of her books gain from rereading, so many of her judgments still feel not only fresh but urgently necessary now. Here she is in 1973, for example, when she finally came out as a feminist (as complex an identity for her as being a lesbian, and obviously not unrelated): “To create a nonrepressive relation between women and men means to erase as far as possible the conventional demarcation lines that have been set up between the sexes”; “the modern ‘nuclear’ family is a psychological and moral disaster”. Here she is on America: “The quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth; and the pollution of American space … brutalises the senses, making grey neurotics of most of us.” We need her now, more than ever, and this biography keeps her defiantly alive: argumentative, wilful, often right, always interesting, encouraging us to up our game as we watch her at the top of hers.
• Sontag: Her Life is published by Allen Lane (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.