Reviews for Sontag: Her Life and Work

by Benjamin Moser

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A sweeping biography reveals personal, political, and cultural turbulence.Drawing on some 300 interviews, a rich, newly available archive of personal papers, and abundant published sources, biographer, essayist, and translator Moser (Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, 2009) offers a comprehensive, intimateand surely definitivebiography of writer, provocateur, and celebrity intellectual Susan Sontag (1933-2004). Sympathetic and sharply astute, Moser recounts the astonishing evolution of Susan Rosenblatt, an impressively bright and inquisitive child of the Jewish middle class, into an internationally acclaimed, controversial, and often combative cultural figure. Even as a child, Sontagshe changed her name after her mother's second marriagesaw herself as exceptional: smarter than her classmates, so widely read and articulate that she astonished her professors. Nevertheless, although certain that she was destined for greatness, she was tormented by an abiding fear of inadequacy. Moser recounts Sontag's education, friendships, and sexual encounters; her realization that she was bisexual; and her wide-ranging interests in psychoanalysis, politics, and, most enduringly, aesthetics. He offers judicious readings of all of Sontag's works, from her 1965 "Notes on Camp,' " which, according to Nora Ephron, transformed her from a "highbrow critic" to "a midcult commodity"; to the late novels of which she was proudest. Her private life was stormy. At 17, she married her sociology professor, Philip Rieff, after they had known each other for 10 days, and within two years, she was a mother. Neither marriage nor motherhood suited her. Devoid of maternal instinct, she was unable to care about anyone, said Jamaica Kincaid, "unless they were in a book." Instead, among her many loversRichard Goodwin, Warren Beatty, Joseph Brodsky, Lucinda Childs, Annie Leibowitz, to name a fewshe sought those who would care for her: publisher Roger Straus, who sustained her "professionally, financially, and sometimes physically"; and women who kept her fed, housed, and clean. Difficulties with basic hygiene, Moser notes, "suggest more than carelessness" but rather a persistent sense of alienation from her bodyand exaltation of her mind.A nuanced, authoritative portrait of a legendary artist. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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In this doorstopper biography, Moser (Why This: A Biography of Clarice Lispector), for whom Susan Sontag was "America's last great literary star," exhaustively and sometimes exhaustingly chronicles his subject's life. Between recounting Sontag's birth to a prosperous Manhattan couple in 1933 and her death from cancer in 2004, Moser fully details her prolific career as an author of novels, plays, films, and, most notably, essays, including "Notes on 'Camp''" the 1964 "essay that made her notorious." He conveys the diverse range of subjects about which she wrote, encompassing photography, film, fascism, and pornography, among others. Moser follows Sontag's private life as well-her troubled early marriage to Philip Rieff; her parenting of their son, David, whose job as her editor she later secured; her attraction to women, "of which she was deeply ashamed"; and her final long-term relationship, with photographer Annie Leibovitz. He does not neglect Sontag's detractors, such as poet Adrienne Rich, who charged Sontag with inaccurately criticizing second-wave feminism. However, Moser's tone is admiring: Sontag, "for almost fifty years... set the terms of the cultural debate in a way no intellectual had done before or has done since." His book leaves readers with a sweeping, perhaps definitive portrait of an acclaimed author, though one likely to deter all but her most ardent admirers with its length. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

In all the complex splendor of her brilliance and controversial intrepidness, Sontag has inspired numerous profiles and explications. Moser, whose superb Why This World (2009) cast new light on writer Clarice Lispector, draws on all of it in this watershed biography of America's last great literary star, and breaks new ground by virtue of his access to private archives, sagacious close-readings of Sontag's radical writings, and conducting of hundreds of interviews. Moser discerns fresh significance in Sontag's venturesome life and troubled psyche, from her precocious ardor for books and her youth in Hollywood to her sadomasochistic relationship with her alcoholic mother, her disassociation from her body, her lifelong reluctance to fully acknowledge her lesbianism, and her deep insecurity behind the glamorous façade of her renown. In clear-cut and supple prose, Moser avidly presents provocative facts and insights as he chronicles Sontag's brief early marriage, how she raised her son, her amphetamine use, political evolution, tempestuous affairs with men and women, bouts with cancer, and crucial bond with photographer Annie Leibovitz. Moser also offers thrillingly clarifying analysis of the fiction of which Sontag was so proud, and her culture-altering criticism in which she broke down the barrier between popular and fine arts, interrogated the ethics of photography, scrutinized the implications of fame, metaphor, and pain, and declared that ""literature is freedom.""--Donna Seaman Copyright 2019 Booklist

Library Journal
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For this exceptional biography, critic Moser (Why This World) gains rare access to the closed archives of Susan Sontag (1933–2004), conducting interviews with those who knew her best, including son David Rieff and partner Annie Leibovitz. Moser synthesizes historical events with moments in Sontag's life while comprehensively analyzing her major works. After a difficult childhood with an inattentive mother, Sontag quickly rose to prominence as an essayist (On Photography), novelist (In America), filmmaker (Promised Lands), and "authoritative blurber" who could bring authors and artists fame by expressing admiration for their work. Sontag bravely battled cancer three times and openly supported Salman Rushdie (after Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against the author) while others stayed silent. She also criticized postmodernism despite its mass acceptance in academia. Moser skillfully describes how Sontag often struggled with basic everyday responsibilities, showing compassion and support for war victims (visiting Bosnia and North Vietnam) yet treating those closest to her cruelly, always considering herself an outsider. VERDICT This excellent portrait of a complicated, brilliant individual will appeal to those interested in late 20th-century culture, LGBTQ studies, and literary scholarship. [See Prepub Alert, 3/11/19.]—Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Media, PA