Sontag

"Sontag: Her Life and Work" by Benjamin Moser

SONTAG: Her Life and Work. By Benjamin Moser. Ecco. 816 pages. $39.99.

It’s almost impossible to sand down Susan Sontag or even to come up with a consistent through-line for her life. She is always so completely alive on the page: feisty, vulnerable, brilliant, contradictory.

Here, for instance, are the opening words of Sontag’s first journal (of more than 100), begun in 1947 when she was 14: “Someday, I will show these to the person I will learn to love: — This is the way I was — This is my loneliness.”

Benjamin Moser, Sontag’s most recent biographer, settles on childhood wounds as the source of her drive. He declares Sontag to be “America’s last great literary star.”

“She was incongruous: a beautiful young woman who was intimidatingly learned.” And so he will continue with a story of contradictions as if Sontag were singularly divided: beautiful but brainy, unsure but swaggering, “Miss Librarian” (Sontag’s name for her scholarly self) but a celebrity.

Susan Sontag began her life as Susan Rosenblatt, the child of young, gallivanting parents who often left her and her sister home with a nanny while they traveled. Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, was a “slum dropout” who began working at age 10. By the time her mother Mildred met him, he was a fur trader in China with a grand house and servants.

Mildred was notoriously self-centered. She specialized in post-hoc disclosures; Jack Rosenblatt was dead (of tuberculosis) and buried for a year before she gave their daughters the news. When Mildred did remarry (to Mr. Sontag, whose name they took), her daughters didn’t learn about it until the ceremony was over. For all Sontag’s distrust of labels, she was the adult child of an alcoholic mother.

A story survives from fifth-grade Susan Sontag, the new girl at her school in Tucson. On the playground, Sontag approached Walter Flagenheimer, a Jewish refugee. She asked if he and his friend were in the intellectually gifted program and explained that she had enrolled too late to be admitted. “Can I talk to you?” she asked. “Because the kids in my class are so dumb I can’t talk to them.”

After many moves — Moser counts eight — the Sontags ended up in Los Angeles.

David Rieff said of his mother that her biggest fear was “an inconsolable sense of being always the outsider.” For all her fears, the story of Sontag’s life is that she sought someone to talk to, found her crowd and became the ultimate insider. In L.A., she discovered the failed promise of the golden land.

If her fellow students were the citizens of Lower Slobovia (as she said in the funny piece for the school newspaper), there were always books to take her elsewhere. She read every volume in the Modern Library series, loving especially the swashbuckling Richard Halliburton. She picked up a “Partisan Review” at the newsstand and launched the great dream of moving to New York City and writing in its pages. It’s heartening how many dreams Sontag fulfilled.

Almost from the start, Sontag was living her story and simultaneously telling it. She was out there, in public. The record is huge and various, the alternative storylines exhausting. If she had been a different sort of person, Sontag would have staged her life as a trauma narrative. What happened most often was that she turned debits into credits. She moved on from disaster, just found a different narrative.

She left California to study at the University of Chicago, where she met her only husband, Philip Rieff, who was a professor there. David Rieff, her son, was born when she was 19. Philip Rieff’s fame began with a book, “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist,” ghostwritten by Sontag from his notes. He always denied it, but 40 years later, a package arrived for Sontag at her New York apartment. Within was a copy of Rieff’s “Freud,” inscribed: “Susan, love of my life, mother of my son, co-author of this book: forgive me. Please.”

Sontag made it to New York; started teaching at Columbia; met Roger Straus, founder of Farrar Straus Giroux, who became her publisher; did one of Warhol’s four-minute screen tests; published “Notes on Camp” in the “Partisan Review”; hung out with the “400 lesbians of Europe”; wrote “Notes on Photography” after visiting the posthumous Diane Arbus exhibit; had a radical mastectomy; published “Illness as Metaphor” without mentioning her own cancer; became the sometime partner of Annie Leibowitz; became president of PEN at the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; staged a famous production of “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo ..." The list goes on and on.

Benjamin Moser’s hefty book is something of a takedown. How ironic that Sontag, who understood so well how a person becomes an image, should be made into a caricature. Still, Moser has done his research. The essential Sontag is here in all her complexity, her triumph. She longed for a freelance life, and she had one.

Moser doesn’t cut her any slack, but Sontag wasn’t one to cut herself much slack either. See, for example, the tongue-in-cheek epitaph she wrote for herself at age 16: a tombstone doodle with the words, “Here lies / (as she did throughout life) / Susan Sontag / 1933-195?”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.