“Sontag”: a “terrible and dizzyingly complex character”

“Sontag”: a magnificent biography by Benjamin Moser on the great American intellectual Susan Sontag (c) Gil Gilbert

Books. A pavement. No less than 900 pages to evoke and tell the life of a great intellectual and an American “literary star” (the last, some say). At the maneuver, the impeccable Benjamin Moser– Pulitzer Prize 2020: nothing from the life, deeds and gestures of Susan Sontag (1933-2004) did not escape him. His biography is a model of its kind…

“Sontag” : a “terrible and dizzyingly complex character”

estag benjamin moser
Sontag by Benjamin Moser

Even today, she is regarded as America’s “last literary star”. Her name ? Susan Sontag. The world, that is to say a small group of VIPs who used to dine at Elaine’s – a prominent restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, discovered her and then honored her in 1964 when she published , at 31 and after a fairly banal first novel (“The Benefactor”), an essay titled “Notes on Camp” (in French, “Camp style”).

The intellectual sphere, across the Atlantic, immediately takes these few dozen pages for a “revolutionary little bomb”. And there, divinely beautiful young woman, Susan Sontag (1933-2004) became one of the beacons 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, during the last decade of the 20th 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-translator Benjamin Moser (renowned specialist of the Brazilian author Claire Lispector) wrote an immense biography, simply titled “Sontag”– awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

To (try to) identify his character, Moser was able to access, the French publisher tells us, “to many unpublished archives and to relatives of Sontag who had never spoken of her before”– among his relatives, his last companion, the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Thus, closer to his subject, Moser evokes an episode pointed out in 1964: “Susan Sontag got into the rickety elevator of a building on 47th East Street and entered a loft on the third floor, rented for a hundred dollars a year. Decorated in 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”.

For many, Susan Sontag is first and foremost a photo. Brown hair with a white streak – after cancer, her hair had turned white which she dyed black, except for one streak so as not to forget this rotten crab that had not had her skin… But, as a perfect biographer “American style”, Moser did not stop at this story.

For him, Susan Sontag takes us back “at 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 offers part of an answer: “She has achieved this, by positioning herself at the intersection point between art, culture, politics and sexuality at a time marked by profound upheavals on these issues. This made her a role model for an entire generation, and she managed to remain that authority figure for the rest of her life.”.

The great American writer Michael Cunningham (among others, ” Hours “– 1998) there is also a comment: “It’s hard to imagine the cultural landscape without Susan Sontag… An extraordinary life that required an extraordinary biography: it’s done”while another author, Canadian Margaret Atwood, addresses her fellow writers: “Know that if Benjamin Moser takes a liking to writing 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 indispensable book which shows, definitively, that“one is not born Susan Sontag: one becomes”.

Serge Bressan

  • To read : “Sontag» by Benjamin Moser. Translated by Cécile Roche. Christian Bourgois publisher, 900 pages, €39.
  • To read alsoyou : “Camp style” by Susan Sontag. Translated by Guy Durand. Christian Bourgois publisher, 74 pages, €7.


“In 1957 – when New York was still struggling to shed its old provincial remnants and London was no more than the breathless capital of a collapsing empire – Paris reigned in the firmament of cities most sophisticated in the world. The prestige of the French language was equal, if not superior, to that of the English language; Paris was synonymous with art and architecture, science and philosophy, fashion and worldliness, sex and luxury perfumes. Susan went to Paris to find all that, of course, but above all to rediscover a previous version of herself, the young woman for whom the doors of happiness were still open, the one who had known recognition at Berkeley and was immediately found stuck in an impossible marriage”.

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“Sontag”: a “terrible and dizzyingly complex character”