Even today, Susan Sontag (1933-2004) is regarded as America’s “last literary star”. Benjamin Moser has just written his immense biography.
The world – that is, a small group of VIPs who used to dine at Elaine’s, a prominent restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side – discovered and then honored Susan Sontag in 1964 when she published, at 31 and after a first novel, an essay titled Notes on “Camp” (Camp Style in French).
The intellectual sphere, across the Atlantic, immediately takes these few dozen pages for a “little revolutionary bomb”. And there, a divinely beautiful young woman, Susan Sontag becomes a beacon of ideas and debates… Over the years, we will find her committed to feminist and homosexual causes, we will meet her on war grounds, for example, at the twilight of the XXe century, in Sarajevo in a fragmented Yugoslavia…
From a life as luminous as it was disturbed, marked by personal, political and ideological struggles, the American writer, journalist and translator Benjamin Moser (renowned specialist in the Brazilian author Claire Lispector) wrote an immense biography, simply titled sontag and rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. To (try to) understand his character, Moser was able to access, the French publisher tells us, “many unpublished archives and relatives of Sontag who had never spoken about it before. ‘she”.
Among his relatives, his last companion, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Thus, closer to his subject, Moser evokes an episode recorded in 1964: “Susan Sontag got into the rickety elevator of a building on 47e East Street and entered a loft on the third floor, rented for a hundred dollars a year. Decorated with aluminum foil and known as the “Factory”, this place was a guerrilla outpost, and the genius who presided over this place was a certain Andy Warhol.
The feat of a biography full of empathy but without the slightest complacency
For many, Susan Sontag is first and foremost a photo. Brown hair with a white streak: after cancer, her hair which had become so white that she had it dyed black, except for one streak, so as not to forget this rotten crab that had not had her skin… But , as a perfect “American-style” biographer, Moser did not stop at this story. For him, Susan Sontag takes us “back to a time when writers could be not only respected but famous. She was an essayist, director, playwright, novelist, activist. But she was perfectly aware that she was more famous for her image than for her writings. Even today, almost twenty years after her death, many people still love her, and many still hate her! Sigrid Nunez, American writer and who was his daughter-in-law, evokes a “wonderful, terrible and dizzyingly complex character”.
In this monumental biography, Benjamin Moser wonders. How to explain that Susan Sontag was able to experience planetary fame when she had written an ordinary novel and hard-to-read essays on Georg Lukacs, Nathalie Sarraute or even Isaac Bashevis Singer? He puts forward an element of response: “She has achieved this, by positioning herself at the junction point between art, culture, politics and sexuality at a time marked by profound upheavals on these questions. That’s what made her a role model for an entire generation, and she managed to remain that authority figure until the end of her life.”
The great American writer Michael Cunningham considers it “difficult to imagine the cultural landscape without Susan Sontag, while the Canadian Margaret Atwood addresses her literary colleagues: “Know that if Benjamin Moser write your biography, EVERYTHING will be revealed…”
With sontag, a sum of nearly 900 pages, Benjamin Moser has managed the feat of writing a biography with empathy but without the slightest complacency. An essential book which shows, definitively, that “one is not born Susan Sontag: one becomes one”.
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[Littérature] Sontag by Benjamin Moser