Book Reviews - Autumn 2019

Image Is Not Everything

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A definitive portrait of a celebrated American intellectual

By Steven G. Kellman | September 3, 2019
Sontag in 1967. She was temperamental and imperious, but was also one of her era's most prominent and respected weathervanes. (Everett Collection)
Sontag in 1967. She was temperamental and imperious, but was also one of her era's most prominent and respected weathervanes. (Everett Collection)

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser; Ecco, 832 pp., $39.99

No verbiage mars the visual immediacy of Sontag: Her Life and Work. The biography’s cover is filled entirely by a photograph of its subject, a cynosure of American cultural life from the 1960s until her death in 2004. An androgynous figure who might have been a fashion model if she were not an essayist, novelist, filmmaker, and activist, she is both seductive and defiant as she challenges the viewer with a knowing gaze. Sontag did, in fact, appear in an Absolut Vodka ad, and her glamorous image was captured by many of the most prominent photographers of her time, including Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Andy Warhol, and her longtime companion, Annie Leibovitz. The gap between image and reality—like the gap between Susan Sontag and the celebrity “Susan Sontag”—was her persistent theme, most trenchantly explored in her 1977 book, On Photography. Though rarely at a loss for words, she was, famously, “Against Interpretation,” preferring pictures to words but “reality” itself to either verbal or visual representations of it.

Sontag was a temperamental, imperious diva and, to many, a bully. In 1996, when Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock tried to write her life, she responded in fury, forbidding access to her papers and commanding her friends not to cooperate. Daniel Schreiber’s German biography, subtitled Geist und Glamour, appeared in 2007, but he, too, was handicapped by lack of access. By contrast, Benjamin Moser, the biographer and champion of Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, has been able to examine letters and diaries and interview almost everyone with anything worth telling. The result is not only the definitive study of a gifted and vain intellectual but also a fascinating account of changing wind patterns as recorded by one of the era’s most prominent weathervanes.

Susan Rosenblatt was five when her handsome, dashing father died. Nathan Sontag, who married her widowed, alcoholic mother, did not legally adopt her, but she took his name because it sounded less Jewish. As a 17-year-old at the University of Chicago, Sontag enrolled in a sociology course taught by 28-year-old Philip Rieff. Ten days later, they were engaged. The union lasted eight years and produced one son, David, whom Sontag treated as a peer rather than a child and alternately smothered and neglected.

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