– What do we want from biography?
Facts, certainly. Names, dates, places. What happened. Some setting of the record straight.
– More than that.
To go back in time. To see the individual in their context.
– More than that.
For the act of reading to take on the intimacy of a meeting. For the page to become flesh.
– More than even that.
To go inside. To understand what made a person tick.
– What made Susan Sontag tick?
According to Benjamin Moser, an alcoholic mother. But there was also a dead father and a desert childhood – both senses. What made Susan tick might have been shame.
– Why ‘shame’?
Because she lied about her past. Because she was determined to leave it behind. Because she believed she could make herself into the person she wanted to be. Reality was disappointing. She preferred dreams. But she was not dreamy. Moser: ‘A belief in the reality of dreams had created Sontag and kept her going through a difficult life’. He notes the epigraph to her first novel, The Benefactor (1963) reads, ‘Je rêve donc je suis.’
– Tell me about the father.
Jack Rosenblatt. Born in New York in 1905. Died in China when Susan was five years old. The son of poor Jewish immigrants from Austrian-controlled Poland. Grew up in tenement housing. Ended up more than comfortably middle class. Homes in Tianjin, China (then the treaty port of Tientsin) and Great Neck, Long Island (the inspiration for Gatsby’s ‘West Egg’). First job: delivery boy at Julius Klugman’s Sons on West 38th Street, aged ten. Sent East to buy furs from Mongolian nomads, aged sixteen. Running his own import-export business, aged 25. To Susan, an unfathomable and exotic life. The template for a life that fell far from the tree. A hook on which to hang certain longings.
– Tell me about the mother.
Mildred Jacobson. Born in New Jersey in 1906. The daughter of middle-class Jewish immigrants from Russian-occupied Poland. Lost her mother, aged fourteen. Vivacious and extravagant with first husband, Jack. Vain and needy with second husband, Nat Sontag. Whole days spent in bed with vodka, masquerading as water, on the nightstand. Put on a good show when other people were around (done up like a movie star, airs and graces like a royal). To Susan, a stunted and incurious life. The template for a life concerned with appearances. A mirror in which to discover certain horrors.
– What idiosyncrasies of the mother were visited upon her daughters?
Didn’t tell her daughters their father had died until after the funeral. Didn’t tell her daughters the truth about his cause of death. Didn’t tell her daughters the whereabouts of his burial site. Didn’t tell her daughters about her remarriage until after the wedding. Expected her daughters to treat her like suitors. Susan: ‘She was “feminine” with me; I played the shy adoring boy with her’. Moser: Susan’s letters to her mother from college ‘read more like those of a concerned parent, or a passionate spouse, than those of a young daughter’.
– What were the daughters’ presiding memories of their mother?
For youngest daughter Judith, Mildred was a woman who preferred pretty lies to hard truths: calls her ‘the queen of denial’. For eldest daughter Susan, Mildred was a woman who was ice-cold unreachable: ‘I was (felt) profoundly neglected, ignored, unperceived as a child’. She told friends and lovers, ‘I had no mother.’
– How are we to understand this statement?
The same way Adrienne Rich understands Emily Dickinson’s famous statement, ‘I never had a mother’: ‘surely she meant in part that she felt herself deviant, set apart, from the kind of life her mother lived; that what most concerned her, her mother could not understand’.
– What specific idiosyncrasies of the eldest daughter were derived from the mother?
A tendency to pretention and secrecy. A fear of being alone.
– What specific idiosyncrasies of the eldest daughter were contrived in opposition to the mother?
An appetite for bizarre foods. A suspicion that sleep was a sign of weakness. A determination to see life’s purpose in terms of self-improvement.
Which brings me to an inevitable tension in any biography of Susan Sontag, including this one.
The biographer’s job is to explain by looking backwards. But Susan self-consciously willed herself into being by looking forwards.
– Tell me more.
Biographers seek what Sidney Lumet called ‘“rubber ducky” explanations’ of character: i.e. ‘Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer’. But the subject of this biography was fundamentally at war with this understanding of what constitutes a self. Susan lived life, and conceived of it, in the future tense.
– Who were witnesses to, or recognised, a life lived in the future tense?
Walter Flegenheimer, childhood friend: ‘I knew she’d become famous’. Harriet Sohmers, first girlfriend: ‘You have a great destiny’. Eva Kollisch, friend and lover: ‘It took away some of the joy to be with someone who is always thinking of her epitaph’. Michael Krüger, German publisher: ‘She was not a woman with a past’. Yoram Kaniuk, Israeli novelist she admired: ‘Susan rejected her history’.
– What succession of acts, or pronouncements, prove a life conceived of in the future tense?
As a child she was ‘obsessed with longing to grow up’. At eleven she determined not to be ‘asthmatic, helpless, unpopular Sue Rosenblatt’ anymore (and succeeded). At fourteen she primped in her journal for posterity. At fifteen she dreamed of moving to New York and writing for the Partisan Review (and succeeded). At 26 she described herself as ‘only the hope of a self’. At 27 she claimed she had ‘willed’ her relationships with her professor Philip Rieff and artist María Irene Fornés. At 66, she called an attempt to write her biography ‘a futile or unserious enterprise’ because her life, she felt, was far from over. At 71, on her deathbed, she refused to farewell friends and family.
– What evidence is there in the writing, fiction and nonfiction, to prove a life lived, or conceived of, in the future tense?
It’s no accident Susan’s early fictions take from the nouveau roman a refusal to provide psychological justification for their characters’ behaviour. It’s no accident that Susan celebrated works like Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, which rejects causality by showing ‘that something happened, not why it happened’. It’s no accident that Maryna Zalenska, protagonist of Susan’s final novel In America (1999), is an actress who lacks ‘an essence’ and possesses a ‘penchant for exertion’. Susan’s journals are brimming with what she calls, in an essay on Cesare Pavese’s diaries, ‘prospective thinking’: I want to [‘live in an intellectual atmosphere’, ‘sleep with many people’, ‘write like Djuna Barnes’, etc.]’. Lists of books to read and vocabulary to deploy at a later date abound. As son David Rieff said, her journals are the manual of a person who ‘self-consciously and determinedly went about creating the self she wanted to be’.
The point being there is something incongruous about a biography that looks for answers in the past of a person who, herself, believed she was always in a state of becoming.
– Should the views of the subject of a biography override the expectations readers have of biographies?
The author of this biography has let an opportunity go begging: to challenge what Sainte-Beuve called the ‘botanical’ approach – i.e. the genre’s habit of beginning with the father, the mother, often going even further back. Susan did not believe in roots of the inherited kind. She told Jonathan Cott in 1978: ‘My sense of things is that I’ve come very far. And it’s the distance I have travelled from my origins that pleases me. I’ve spent my whole life getting away. I think of myself as self-created. I like the fact that I did it myself’.
– Does Moser suggest that Susan’s career as a writer has roots of the inherited kind?
Moser admits: ‘Nothing in her family or education had given her any orientation in that world’. She came from nowhere. Or as Lillian Ross is said to have put it, far less kindly: she was a ‘Nobody’.
– Why did a ‘nobody’ from Tucson, Arizona dream of becoming, of all things, a writer?
Picture it: the concrete slab house, four tiny rooms, the dirt road, rattlesnakes … But she wasn’t from Tucson. There were eight different addresses in four different states before that. And one house after that: a stucco bungalow in the flatlands of suburban Los Angeles.
– But why a writer?
Precocity. Ample evidence for it. Produced her own newspaper – the Cactus Press – aged twelve. Admitted to UCLA Berkeley aged fourteen. Her professors at the University of Chicago, including the literary critic Kenneth Burke, said she was – in the words of Robert Boyers – ‘the most brilliant student they had ever met. Precociously, obviously, unmistakably brilliant. And she had read more than any other seventeen-year-old they had ever met’.
– Precocity does not explain an orientation towards literature.
Susan gave a talk about precocity two years before she died. ‘For the precocious,’ she said, ‘vocations seem to emerge without encouragement’. Her evidence was ex-lover, Jasper Johns. She asked him once why he had decided, aged six, to become a painter. He replied, ‘I must have seen a box of crayons.’
By this logic, books made Susan a writer. But there were other reasons. She would later say that reading had afforded her ‘relief from the tiresome duties of being a child’ and had the power to liberate a person from the ‘prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism’.
– Which books made Susan a writer?
First book read: Eve Curie’s 1937 biography of her mother Marie Curie. Made her, at seven or eight years old, ‘want to be a biochemist and win the Nobel Prize’. The latter ambition endured. Became depressed when J. M. Coetzee won the prize in 2003. (No chance she, another English-language writer, would win anytime soon.) Other books read: what Clive James termed ‘sludge fiction’ – i.e. what lower-middle class kids read because their parents don’t put the right books into their hands. (Not a problem for Susan’s son, David who was given Homer, Candide and Gulliver’s Travels at four.) Young Clive read Biggles; young Susan read the swashbuckling tales of Richard Halliburton. Susan: ‘Halliburton was my first vision of what I thought had to be the most privileged of lives, that of a writer: a life of endless curiosity and energy and countless enthusiasms.’ It took a teacher to suggest to both writers that the habit of reading wasn’t enough, that there were harder and more interesting books that deserved their attention.
– Who was that teacher for Susan?
‘Obscure, eccentric’ Mr Starkie from the Arizona Sunshine School.
– Which books did Mr Starkie recommend?
Serious books from Central Europe. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Theodor Storm’s Immensee. He loaned Susan his own tattered copies. They would ‘set the standard for what is exalted and intense’ for the rest of her life. At sixteen, she paid a visit to Thomas Mann after reading The Magic Mountain. At seventeen, she stole a copy of Dr Faustus from the Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. She would make a career of introducing serious Central European writers to Anglophone readers. Edmund White says she was the first to extol the virtues of Elias Canetti, W. G. Sebald and Danilo Kiš. The taste for Central European seriousness would never waver. The demeanour of seriousness would never slip. Seriousness became her calling card. Like literature, seriousness ‘drove a knife’ into her past and ‘warded off the drivel’ in the present.
– Tell me more about her seriousness.
She took subjects like pornography and science fiction movies seriously. She did not smile readily for men or cameras. She did not do irony or self-deprecation. She knew nothing of star signs. She was, Moser says, ‘humourless and excessively earnest.’ He understands Susan’s seriousness as a form of camp, which seems mistaken. Susan in ‘Notes on “Camp”’: ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman”’. But Susan’s seriousness was not ‘seriousness’. Susan in an early draft of ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’: seriousness meant being ‘prepared to act on it, put your body on the line, put your money where your mouth is’. Susan feared that ‘seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large’ in the 1960s. She knew that ‘the very idea of the serious (and the honourable) seemed quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people’ by the 1990s.
– Why did a woman who believed in putting one’s body on the line dream of becoming, of all things, a critic?
Susan did not dream of becoming a critic. She dreamed of becoming a novelist. She considered the fact that her essays were valued more than her fiction as ‘a species of neglect’.
– And should Susan’s essays be valued more than her fiction?
There is what we can do, and then there is what we wish for. As the verbose John Barth once said of his urge to write short stories, ‘The clown comes to want to play Hamlet, and vice versa; the long-distance runner itches to sprint’.
– But why a critic?
A habit, formed early, of turning to art in order to escape ‘the cultural desert of home’. An avidity to ‘see more, to hear more, to feel more’. A desire to impress people by having strong opinions. A love of quotation, aphorism and namedropping. An inclination to instruct bordering on imperiousness. A sense that she yearned to become ‘that persona, a writer’ but had nothing to say. If there is an object, then a critic always has something to say.
Or perhaps Susan became a critic because she met a man at a party.
– Which party?
A party hosted by Roger Straus – of Farrar, Straus and Giroux – at his townhouse on the Upper East Side in 1962.
– Which man?
William Phillips, co-editor of the Partisan Review.
– How did the conversation with William Philips proceed?
SS: How does one get to write for your magazine?
WP: You ask.
SS: I’m asking.
– Why did she ask?
An early brush with the Partisan Review at a Hollywood newsstand, aged fifteen. She found the magazine ‘completely incomprehensible’ but was determined to ‘crack the code’. It instantiated her fantasies of reinvention: ‘My greatest dream was to grow up and come to New York and write for Partisan Review and be read by 5,000 people’.
– What happened after she asked?
One short review of an Isaac Bashevis Singer book later and she was sharing equal billing with Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Adrienne Rich and Robert Lowell on the cover of the inaugural New York Review of Books. Two years later she was dining at Elaine’s with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Sybil Burton, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Moser: ‘It was the White House and Fifth Avenue, Hollywood and Vogue, the New York Philharmonic and the Pulitzer Prize: as glitzy a circle as existed in the United States, and indeed the world. It was one Sontag would inhabit for the rest of her life.’
– Inconceivable that writing criticism could land you at such a table.
Moser concedes its prima facie preposterousness: ‘reviews of Simone Weil were not the stuff of which celebrities were made’. He says numerous friends were ‘fascinated’ and ‘haunted’ by her fame ‘because it was so unprecedented’. Stephen Koch, for instance, couldn’t understand ‘why and how Susan became as famous as she did, and how she sustained that fame for decades, even through her most reader-unfriendly phases’.
– The twentieth century was the only century in history when being reader-unfriendly was a short-cut to literary fame.
Certainly, Susan endorsed difficulty: ‘We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least not high art.’
– Does Moser explain exactly why Susan got to be so famous?
She was charismatic without trying. She was beautiful without effort. She had energy to burn, and even then she took amphetamines to eliminate the need to sleep. In the early years especially she would read and write and view things around the clock, only getting up, Moser says, ‘to pee or to empty the ashtray, or get her next coffee’. She was, in her own words, ‘violently, naively ambitious’.
– That doesn’t explain how a critic got to be so famous.
She wrote the first truly contemporary criticism. She was one of the first to bridge the divide between high and popular culture: ‘just because I love Dostoevsky doesn’t mean that I can’t love Bruce Springsteen’. She had the knack of arresting juxtapositions: ‘the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes’. She had the knack of being epigrammatic: ‘Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their minds’. She wrote appreciatively: as she puts it in the note to Against Interpretation, hers was a criticism of ‘passionate partiality’.
– Nor does that.
Her criticism was championed. Roger Straus published her essays as collections, he paid her generous advances, he kept all her books in print during her lifetime. She also had the talent – like Woody Allen’s Zelig …
– She literally appears in Zelig.
…to be in the right place at the right time: Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s, Vietnam in the 1970s, Berlin in the 1980s, Sarajevo in the 1990s.
– Why did Susan think she became a famous literary critic?
‘You find some limb, and you go out on it’.
– Why did her contemporaries think she became a famous literary critic?
Norman Podhoretz explained it in his 1967 memoir, Making It: ‘Her talent explains the rise itself, but the rapidity with which it was accomplished must be attributed to the coincidental availability of a vacant position in the culture. That position was Dark Lady of American Letters, a position that had originally been carved out by Mary McCarthy in the thirties and forties. But Miss McCarthy no longer occupied it, having recently been promoted to the more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her long years of brilliant service.’ She was, in other words, an exceptional woman.
– There was room for only one woman?
Elaine Reuben explained it in a 1972 journal article: ‘For a woman below the Grande Dame it would seem there has been only one female role in the (male) world of culture, and the nature of that role is such that there can be only one Dark Lady per party. Or even per generation.’
– And do you think there was room for only one woman?
That is how patriarchal culture perpetuates itself. Let a woman in every now and then and you get to call it a meritocracy.
– And did Susan think there was room for only one woman?
She understood the inequalities underpinning the exceptional woman. See, for example, her 1973 essay, ‘The Third World of Women’: ‘Every liberal grouping (whether political, professional or artistic) needs its token woman. Her good fortune is like the good fortune of a few blacks in a liberal but still racist society. Any already liberated woman who complacently accepts her privileged situation participates in the oppression of other women.’ But she also understood it was not in her best interests, as an exceptional woman, to fight for flatter structures. See, for example, her 1969 essay ‘Trip to Hanoi’: ‘Of course, I could live in Vietnam, or an ethical society like this one – but not without the loss of a big part of myself. Though I believe incorporation into such a society will greatly improve the lives of most people in the world (and therefore support the advent of such societies), I imagine it will in many ways impoverish mine’.
Nevertheless, Moser draws the wrong conclusion about Susan’s feminism.
– What conclusion is that?
He claims she was a fair-weather feminist. That she shunned feminism’s imperatives the second they became unfashionable. That she mothballed three key essays on feminism from the early-1970s. That she declined invitations to be included in anthologies of women writers. That she, who had the power to make writers famous, celebrated mainly men.
– Why is Moser wrong?
Because he omits certain facts. For example, he barely mentions her overtly feminist play Alice in Bed (1991), written when the backlash was in full swing. And because he presupposes feminism must look a certain way. Susan was no Adrienne Rich: she didn’t march arm-in-arm with other women in the streets or insist on sharing literary prizes with them as a protest against patriarchal competition. But a distaste for the collective does not necessarily entail a repudiation of feminism. Demanding to be taken seriously as an intellectual was, for a woman in the twentieth century, a feminist act. Being seen to demand to be taken seriously as an intellectual made her a feminist role model: ‘If Sontag had not had a lineage when she was a young woman,’ writes Camille Paglia, ‘she had come to represent a lineage for the younger generation, who aspired to emulate her’.
– Why does Moser get it wrong?
As Victoria Glendinning once explained, ‘it’s no good finding all sorts of strangenesses and curiosities in our subject if in fact a lot of people were feeling like that at the same time’. A biographer must also be a social historian, and it turns out many women writers did feel like Susan when it came to feminism, including her heroes Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick. But Moser sometimes doesn’t use context to tenderise his portrait of Susan, leading to moral judgements that temper our faith in him.
– What is another example of a moral judgement that leads to a loss of faith in him?
His condemnation of Susan for not coming out in her lifetime. It is a presentist argument, which Gillian Beer defines as the error of taking ‘now as the source of authority, the only real place’. Moser’s praise for Susan’s visits to besieged Sarajevo, likewise, is premised upon a peculiarly contemporary thought: that we should become personally involved in events halfway across the globe that we do not have any connection to. In short, readers of biography do not need to be told it was wrong that Susan didn’t come out, or right that she rushed to Sarajevo. Readers of biography need to understand why Susan took strong stands on issues that she had no clear part in and was inclined to abstain from issues that she did.
– Should a biographer stifle his own ideological commitments, or those of his generation, when and where they clash with his subject’s?
A biographer should see such moments as an opportunity to ponder what startling revelation about his subject or her context that he might notice where there is such a clash.
– And what startling revelation about Susan is there in all of this?
That she was a woman who did not find empowerment in leaning in to any of the social identities she had to choose from: woman, queer, Jew. She preferred to escape from them. And there was a label that allowed escape from them: ‘writer’. Wrote Susan in her journal in 1959: ‘My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.’ This is not a million miles from Charlotte Brontë in 1849 writing to her publisher, ‘I am neither a man nor a woman but an author’. A writer might write about AIDS but never feel the need to come out. A writer might write about cancer but never feel the need to say she had it. It is this urge to claim the label ‘writer’ that even goes some way to explaining how awful she was.
– Tell me more.
She believed ‘good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity’. She believed she would never be one until she stopped wanting to be ‘good, liked, etc.’ and allowed herself ‘real arrogance, real selfishness’. This is the message of Alice in Bed: that, unlike her famous writer-brothers William and Henry, Alice James was a ‘career invalid’ because she failed to muster ‘the egocentricity and aggressiveness and the indifference to self that a large creative gift requires in order to flourish’. Think of the models for literary success of her time: Saul Bellow (blackballed Susan for a Macarthur Grant), Norman Mailer (called her a ‘lady writer’), Gore Vidal (told her, after struggling through The Volcano Lover, never to write fiction again). Hard for her not to think that being awful was the path to greatness. It is almost a credit to her that other people’s suffering, even in the abstract, became a preoccupation of her writing later in life.
– What was the nature of Susan’s awfulness?
She would leave you to foot the bill for a sumptuous multicourse caviar dinner if you stood her up for dinner. She would betray her friends by sleeping with their partners. She would be treacherous with other people’s secrets. She would make promises she never intended to keep. She would spread gossip about the sexual lives of her friends and acquaintances. She would reward largesse with condescension. She would renege on promises not to use material. She would lift sentences from other people’s work without conscience. She would shine her sun on you and then abandon you. This became a recurring pattern in later life: taking an emerging someone under her wing and then, suddenly and with no explanation, dropping them completely. She was grandiose, insensitive, dishonest, abusive. And it all got worse the older and more affluent Susan became. Joan Acocella says spending time with Susan was ‘like being in a cave with a dragon.’
– How does Moser explain Susan’s awfulness?
Daughter of an alcoholic (fears of abandonment). Overzealous amphetamine use (Cluster B personality disorder). Sense of invulnerability due to beating cancer (killed off the critical inner voice). An increasingly lavish lifestyle (limos, first-class tickets, private chefs, penthouse in Chelsea, holiday homes in the Hudson and the Seine). But the problem is that the worse Susan gets, the less Moser seems to want to get inside. ‘By what art,’ writes the biographer Lytton Strachey in his Elizabeth and Essex, ‘are we to worm our way into those strange spirits? Those even stranger bodies?’ Moser does not worm.
– Say more.
The biographer’s problem is the sculptor’s: how to bring back the dead. Language and stone must somehow make the subject live. The solution for biography, Janet Malcolm says, is to ‘rush massive transfusions of quotation to the scene’. Moser does this: the biography is bursting with the testimony of Susan’s associates. But the effect is distance and a kind of premature rigor mortis. Like the majority of her friends yet without their justifications, he withdraws from her. Throughout the second half of the book we stand on the outside looking on, not in. She becomes object. The butt of multiple gruesome anecdotes. The reader’s sympathies start to lie elsewhere. Moser’s loyalty appears to be with the living who have agreed to talk to him and not the dead who he has been charged to animate. We are left with the very thing we most wanted exorcised: the diva.
James Atlas, ‘Como Conversazione: On Literary Biography’, The Paris Review 151 (Summer 1999).
Gillian Beer, Arguing with the Past: Essays in Narrative from Woolf to Sidney (1989).
Jonathan Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (2013).
William Hemecker and Edward Saunders (eds), Biography in Theory (2017).
Sidney Lumet, Making Movies (1995).
Janet Malcolm, ‘A House of One’s Own’ (1995).
Andrew O’Hagan, ‘Not Enough Delilahs’. London Review of Books (June 2019).
Camille Paglia, ‘Sontag, Bloody Sontag’ (1994).
Jay Parini, Empires of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (2009).
Norman Podhoretz, Making It (1967).
Elaine Reuben, ‘Can a Young Girl from a Small Mining Town Find Happiness Writing Criticism for the New York Review of Books?’ College English (October 1972).
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976).
Daniel Schreiber. Susan Sontag: A Biography, Trans. David Dollenmayer (2014).
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1966).
–––, Alice in Bed (1991)
–––, ‘The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer’ (1962).
–––, ‘At the Same Time’ (2004).
–––,The Benefactor (1963).
–––, ‘Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie’ (1966).
–––, ‘Homage to Halliburton’ (2001).
–––,In America (1999).
–––, ‘Literature is Freedom’ (2003).
–––, ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964).
–––, ‘Pilgrimage’ (1987).
–––, ‘Precocity’ (2002).
–––,Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).
–––, ‘The Third World of Women’ (1973).
–––, ‘Thirty Years Later …’ (1996).
–––, ‘Trip to Hanoi’ (1969).
Virginia Woolf. ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939).
–––, ‘The New Biography’ (1927).