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Benjamin Moser and the writing of Susan Sontag’s life

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Some of Sontag’s early essays appear so gnomic by today’s standards that they almost offer themselves up as sacred texts: her throwaway curiosity about “alluring and troubling problems”; her comparison of the films of D.W. Griffith with the novels of Samuel Richardson – an idea so apparently obvious that details are deemed irrelevant. She was modest in the sense that her thinking was often formulated as exploratory, and self-important in that she always seemed sure – in her public writing – of the value of her own sensibility.

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Hundreds of people spoke about her to Moser, and the grudges borne can almost be taken at random. One of her friends describes Sontag as “treacherous” and adds that she was “pathologically immoral”; others call her “that bitch”. It gets worse later, when people witness Sontag’s treatment of her long-term lover Annie Leibovitz. (“You’re so dumb, you’re so dumb,” Sontag would tell her, in public.)

“I’m glad you ask that because that’s sort of important to me,” Moser says when I ask if this biography is authorised. He clarifies: “I’m the authorised biographer. This is not the authorised biography.” In other words, Sontag’s son and agent and publisher approached Moser and asked if he’d consider taking on the project. But they have not “authorised” the result.

When they first wrote to him, Moser was the young and respected biographer of Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer who died in 1977. The son of a lawyer and bookseller, Moser had grown up between Houston, Texas and France. He studied Portuguese at university, and felt, in relation to the under-known Lispector, “a calling”.

Sontag was another proposition altogether.

“Everybody knew all the famous stories,” he says, and “the famous lovers” – from Leibovitz to Jasper Johns and Bobby Kennedy. And yet he didn’t really know what he was getting into. Moser compares it to an arranged marriage.

What gave him pause, if anything?

“Doing a biography is really intimate,” he says. “You are stepping into the most personal territory in everybody’s life. All the things that set people off …”

Susan Sontag pictured in 1975 by Peter Hujar.

Susan Sontag pictured in 1975 by Peter Hujar. Credit:The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So was his hesitation over whether he wanted to be immersed in all of that or whether he wanted to expose it?

“Whether I wanted to be in it.”

Sontag, who died in 2004 at the age of 71, had left all of her diaries, all of her papers and her computer to the University of Southern California. The fact that much of this material was open was one of David Rieff’s reasons for presenting and publishing her diaries himself. And, presumably, for being involved in the selection of his mother’s biographer.

“It was not, you know, unconsensual invasion,” Moser says of his archival scour. “But still, along with that kind of access comes a real responsibility to be respectful, and to be tactful.”

There were sexual details he withheld, he says, because he decided they contributed nothing to any point he was trying to illustrate. But the biography doesn’t read as holding back. The aim there, he suggests, is empathy.

“Biography is an art of emotional comprehension. You want people to understand them and you want them to be, um, loved I guess also.”

Did he love Susan Sontag? I ask.

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“Yeah,” he says. “Didn’t always like her.”

Moser’s book has been praised and criticised, and his own reaction to that appears to be, in part, an awareness of other people’s fascination with his subject – a sense that they are largely responding to Sontag herself, and not to her biographer. That’s probably true. But you do need to trust the teller, and Moser is a curious guide – deeply committed to his intellectually ambitious project, a deft balancer of certain tricky testimonies, yet occasionally so sweeping in his assessments of human behaviour as to render the rest somewhat suspect.

Here’s an example. In the introduction to Sontag, Moser informs us that “there is something Olympian about [Sontag’s] sex life”.

He goes on: “How many American women of her generation had lovers, male and female, as numerous, beautiful, and prominent? But reading her diaries, speaking to her lovers, one leaves with the impression that her sexuality was fraught, overdetermined, the body either unreal or a locus of pain.”

It’s unfair to judge an 800-page biography on a single conjunction on page 10, but the question is whether the reader finds the biographer sufficiently insightful to follow him further.

Some readers will have a number of difficulties with that passage. The idea of an “Olympian” sex life sets off the first rumble of scepticism. Then there’s the rhetorical formulation: how many American women? Beyond that, the terms of the appraisal are unsettling: the tally, the beauty, the fame. And, perhaps most troubling for the reader of a life, the “but”. “But … one leaves with the impression that her sexuality was fraught.” Why is that a “but”? The two halves of that paragraph – even should you buy into the first – seem entirely related.

Of course, it’s unfair to judge an 800-page biography on a single conjunction on page 10, but the question is whether the reader finds the biographer sufficiently insightful to follow him into the rest of the volume.

One of the big stories of his biography – trailed as news earlier this year – is that Sontag was the true author of a book on Freud thought to have been written by her husband, Philip Rieff. Rieff was a decade older than her and her professor, and many women of Sontag’s generation found this “news” to be par for the course.

Moser’s evidence is convincing enough, but he embraces it with gusto that seems to ignore the interest of the doubt: what happens in the matter of credit-taking when the student, who is a woman in the years before second-wave feminism and therefore apparently in shadow, later becomes much more famous – and famously imperious – than her male counterpart? In an intellectual work, what part of thinking is the writing itself? How much did it matter to the protagonists, should it matter the same amount to the rest of us, and is any of this measurable in relation to the larger question of: did they love each other?

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Moser is more deft, and darker, in his reporting of the Leibovitz relationship, though he tells me – leaving the question open – that he wondered how he would have written it had the relationship been heterosexual. Sontag, this question may leave us to think, was an abuser, and Leibovitz, who spoke to him, a loving masochist.

I ask Moser if there’s something Sontag did that wouldn’t have existed without her. Was there something she did or was or came to represent through the forces that gathered around her?
“I think what’s really original about her, and what she really created, was the idea of herself.”

Moser tells me that in the course of his research, he met hundreds of women who “had their entire lives changed because of her”. Moser finds this moving: “that you could make people feel that they could be a writer or they could be a choreographer, they could be a director. I think that’s still percolating through the culture – everything that she did, in that respect.”

Is that part of the reason why so many people were also out to get her? Later, I found myself thinking that to imagine Sontag as a pioneer was not quite right; if what she pioneered was the idea of herself, then she was not just an example but the end result. In which case this biography, with all the adoration and venom it contains, is both an assessment and a purge.

Maybe she was Susan Sontag so that no one else had to be.

Sontag: A Life is published by Allen Lane at $59.99.

The Telegraph, London

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