One of the many fascinating dimensions of Sontag is its scrupulous attention to Sontag’s futile struggle to reconcile mind and body. Even at 700 pages, the book is utterly riveting and consistently insightful, in no small part because of its faithful attention to nuance ... The great ambition of Moser’s book is its willingness to organize itself around guiding ideas rather than simply the chronology of events. Or rather, all of these events illuminate the structuring tensions of Sontag’s life ... Moser continually peels away the mythology of Sontag—as a single-name icon—to reveal the beating heart of a mortal woman underneath. The book takes this larger-than-life intellectual powerhouse and makes her life-size again ... If the project of literary biography involves staging a conversation between the intellectual and personal plotlines of a life, one of the most moving illuminations of Moser’s book is that Sontag’s intellectual plotline—the evolution of her ideas—offers more traditionally recognizable progression and resolution than the narrative arc of her personal life ... He honors the ways in which her life was never just one thing at once ... Many of the most exciting moments in his biography are the ones in which Moser brings himself to argue with Sontag directly ... By framing Sontag’s intellectual project within the landscape of her personal experience—bringing her cancer and her queerness and her fragility back into the picture—Moser honors Sontag’s intellectual legacy not just by arguing with her claims but by arguing with her mode—by wondering what additional layers of meaning her work might hold when it’s brought back into conversation with her personal experience.
... a book as handsome, provocative and troubled as its subject ... Moser...is triggered. His book has an interesting, jumpy, adversarial energy, with its author caught up in the drama and not so subtly taking sides in the clashes surrounding Sontag ... We encounter Sontag as a series of masks, motifs, symptoms and symbols, with her biographer presenting a set of master keys that might explain her behavior ... Where Moser shines is not in analysis but in narrative, no easy feat for a life committed to reinvention ... Moser offers an elegant, sensitive summation of the decades that followed [her] ugly divorce ... It’s a pity that Moser is only dutiful about the work, given that in a sense, the work was her real life, the place where she found the eros, the excitement and fulfillment she long sought; it is perhaps why he gives such centrality to her myth instead.
If the journals authenticate Moser’s dire portrait, his interviews with friends, lovers, family members, and employees deepen its livid hue ... unsparing ... By Moser’s lights, every writer who has been heavily edited can no longer claim to be the author of his work ... Moser’s biography, for all its pity and antipathy, conveys the extra-largeness of Sontag’s life ... Moser’s anecdotes of the unpleasantness that she allowed herself as she grew older ring true, but recede in significance when viewed against the vast canvas of her lived experience. They are specks on it. The erudition for which she is known was part of a passion for culture that emerged, like a seedling in a crevice in a rock, during her emotionally and intellectually deprived childhood. How the seedling became the majestic flowering plant of Sontag’s maturity is an inspiring story—though perhaps also a chastening one. How many of us, who did not start out with Sontag’s disadvantages, have taken the opportunity that she pounced on to engage with the world’s best art and thought?
[A] fascinating biography ... This all could as easily have been presented by Moser as a reason to shame Sontag, but in his hands it becomes a story about the shame and what she was trying to hide ... He sees in what she sought to hide the emotional truth of fiction — about her sexuality and also Mann’s. This complex sense of Sontag as a writer, made from who she was to herself and others, over time, strikes me as Moser’s real subject and the project of the larger book ... The resulting details are stunning in number and quality ... Moser’s Sontag is someone he works to understand as both a girl forever in love with her beautiful, alcoholic, widow mother and a woman who regularly castigated herself for not already being who she wanted to be, as if her ambition made a liar of her ... something of an intellectual and political history of the 20th century United States. And it is animated by some of its most historically significant gossip ... The book’s cover copy calls it 'a Great American novel in the form of a biography,' and if so, it is one Sontag never dared to write, ironically visible only in this story of her life.
Moser is both informative and disappointing on Sontag’s struggle to feel. He doesn’t see it—as I do, even more so after reading his biography—as the fruitful source of her greatest essays. To him, it is a pathology of her personality. He believes it stemmed from a lack of empathy and stunted her as a writer, a lover, a mother, and a friend. He is persuasive and illuminating about the origins of Sontag’s struggle to feel, but curiously dismissive of what it enabled her to say ... his tone takes a turn for the sour ... I had already been surprised by a prosecutorial tendency in several asides about her childhood...an oddly judgmental take on a troubled child. But...as Sontag resumes her flight toward freedom, Moser begins to quote judgmental observations from Sontag’s acquaintances, building an indirect case against her. Breezy speculation by means of quotation seems an odd way to get at biographical truth ... Moser seems to seize every opportunity to add a shadow to his Dorian Gray’s portrait of Sontag, even in ways that might reflect badly on himself. The biography...felt to me like a gathering storm of judgment and scandalmongering, a clamor of mean voices from the sidelines of Sontag’s life, to which her career and writings were, at best, a subplot ... this biography of Susan Sontag is...clearly a labor of disdain ... I wonder if a biographer who...had also truly admired her work, would have taken better advantage of the resources of her archive.
Moser’s monumental and stylish biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, fails its subject—a woman whose beauty, and the sex appeal and celebrity that went along with it, Moser insists upon to the point of occluding what makes her so deeply interesting ... Moser packs in an extraordinary amount of detail. Yet the book feels strangely vacuous, or at least no more psychologically revealing than either Sontag’s diaries or the earlier unauthorized biography by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. Aptly enough, the problem is one of interpretation. Moser’s analysis of Sontag’s life as an unwinnable battle between her public self and her private self traffics in the crudest of oppositions: appearance versus character, mind versus body, intellectualism versus eroticism, persona versus private self. Erecting these dichotomies is the biography’s narrative mode, its method of building intrigue and suspense ... Moser’s interpretations often fall back on armchair psychology, pathologizing Sontag’s relationships by making everything symptomatic of something else ... The more clinically Moser tries to pin down Sontag’s inner life, the more it wriggles away from him.
a skilled, lively, prodigiously researched book that, in the main, neither whitewashes nor rebukes its subject: It works hard to make the reader see Sontag as the severely complex person she was. But Moser doesn’t love her, and this absence of emotional connection poses a serious problem for his book. A strong, vibrant, even mysterious flow of sympathy must exist between the writer and the subject — however unlovable that subject might be — in order that a remarkable biography be written. And this, I’m afraid, Sontag is not ... it strikes me that because [Moser] doesn’t trust his own feelings, he often fails to probe as far as we’d like him to. There are times when this timidity twists his paragraphs into distinctly odd shapes ... If I have any other complaint about the book, it is that it is somewhat psychologically reductive. Repeatedly, it returns to the negative influence of the alcoholic mother — as though growing up the child of an alcoholic could explain a Susan Sontag — and repeatedly, it dwells on the fame that assaulted rather than gratified her, certainly never put her demons to rest. Somehow, neither of these explorations allows Moser to dive deep. On the other hand, he writes vividly of a woman of parts determined to leave a mark on her time; and makes us feel viscerally how large those parts were — the arrogance, the anxiety, the reach! No mean achievement.
Benjamin Moser’s authorized biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, is an epiphany of research and storytelling, the definitive life of a writer both more and less than the myth she fastidiously crafted...[with] many juicy revelations ... Sontag strides across Sontag like a colossus ... But Moser’s no hagiographer; he details Sontag’s middling fiction, her petty grievances, a childlike inability to take care of herself ... A searching meditation on the divided self, a warts-and-all appraisal of Sontag’s behavior, scrupulous readings of her texts: all speak to Moser’s luminous achievement.
Beautifully written and moving, Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work reveals with illuminating clarity Sontag’s ceaseless quest to understand and be understood; her often arrogant and condescending manner, even to those closest to her; and her attempts to use art to fashion herself into the iconic figure she became in life and death ... Moser’s monumental achievement captures the woman ... This brilliant book matches Sontag’s own brilliance and finally gives her the biography she deserves.
For much of its long, eventful haul, Moser’s Life resembles a movie goddess biography as much as a literary pilgrim’s progress, giving it a narrative tailwind that carries the reader through the public furores—the outcry over her 1966 pronouncement that ‘the white race is the cancer of human history,’ for example, used as a cudgel against her by conservative foes until their arms went numb—and developments in her personal life familiar from previous biographies, memoirs and profiles. While not stinting on explications and contextualizations of the books and the blow-ups, Sontag: Her Life provides everything we look for in our melodramatic accounts of sacred monsters ... If this handsome hunk of a biography is at times exhausting and exasperating, it’s partly because she—She—is exhausting and exasperating ... When it comes to humor, Moser, earnest and conscientious, often seems as pinched dry as Sontag was reputed to be (something her close friends deny), and a bit of priss (which she assuredly wasn’t). His subject’s sword-flashes of vainglory bother him far more than they ought ... Embedded in Moser’s biography is a deep, jagged tooth of ambivalence that’s more provocative, and revealing about the subject, than the usual range of mixed emotions that linger on ... reading this book I found myself missing her despite all of her infuriations and wishing she had allowed herself to know more fun, to take it easy from time to time.
In the end, the biography wants to be many things but fully succeeds at none of them. The first third of the book paints a psychological portrait of Sontag, centering on how her youth as the child of an alcoholic mother shaped her personality and drives. But the book loses this thread once Sontag becomes famous ... Mr. Moser also leaves incomplete the intellectual biography of Sontag that the book starts out to be. His explanation of her earliest influences, particularly German thought and fiction, is convincing, and he nods to how her thinking expanded when she encountered French philosophy and writers such as E.M. Cioran in the late 1950s and after. But she was always a hungry and eclectic reader, and his explanation of how the writers she continued to read through her adult life sent her in new directions feels incomplete, not fully baked ... More than anything, particularly in the second half, the book feels like a 'life and times' survey ... But here, with a few exceptions, the book feels ankle-deep, lacking the engagement with ideas and psychology that marked its first half ... The real flaw of Mr. Moser’s biography, though, is that it does little to spur today’s readers to return to Susan Sontag’s work.
The fame is what interests Benjamin Moser. His Sontag flows smoothly, with each of its forty-odd chapters as sharply paced as a short story. Nevertheless, it makes me uneasy. Moser’s front cover comes to us without words: just a Richard Avedon photo from 1978, with its subject in a dark turtleneck and loose leather jacket, lean and handsome and unsmiling, yet maybe just a bit amused. Looking at that image, I can’t help but wonder what the skeptical author of On Photography... would have said about the way it’s used here. It tells us that Sontag is as recognizable as a water lily or an Oscar winner: no words necessary. But that is in fact how Moser sees her ... She enjoyed the opportunities of fame—the people, the parties—and none of it would have been so immediately possible without a face that, while not conventionally beautiful, was made for the camera’s caress ... And yet that focus on stardom is distorting ... Moser loses the writer in the personality ... I finished his book feeling that I knew less than I should about the daily grind of being Susan Sontag—as opposed to the public staging of a persona with the same name. Moser tells us that she wore a lot of scarves, didn’t exercise, liked dim sum, and used speed for many years to help her meet her deadlines. Yet did she have a favorite restaurant? How did she take her coffee, and where did she like to shop? Sontag offers little sense of its subject’s quotidian life, for all that Moser interviewed hundreds of people who knew her.
No future biographical study of this author, and we can hope that there will be many, will be able to progress without the foundation provided here ... Moser...tells a good story ... Moser tends to strike an effective balance between the kind of immersive detail Sontag specialists will eagerly expect and the kind of broader narrative momentum that ordinary readers will appreciate (and that might turn a few of them into Sontag specialists, always a pleasant side effect). For all that she might have privately wanted a hagiography, Sontag would almost certainly have publicly excoriated one, and Moser stops just short of the line ... With depressing inevitability, Moser concludes, 'What mattered about Susan Sontag was what she symbolized.' Thankfully, he’s much closer to the mark when he points out that Sontag 'set the terms of the cultural debate in a way that no intellectual had done before, or has done since.'
Chief among the many astonishments of the Sontag diaries—which Moser excerpts and expounds upon at length, including entries that have never been published—is the extent to which they reveal the commanding, valiant public figure at her most defenseless, often emotionally devastated by her female lovers...and consumed by how good or bad she was in bed ... With Sontag, Moser intelligently brings together both public and private, onstage and off-. His scrutiny of her essays, fiction, films, and political activism is clear-eyed, his analysis of her tumultuous affective life sympathetic (if at times slightly less astute). Sontag offers a thoroughly researched chronicle of an unparalleled American figure and the institutions tied to her ... It is deft and sometimes dishy (especially succulent: the details of a brief affair with Warren Beatty) ... Sontag rescues Sontag from further inanity, reminding us of the majesty of so much of her writing—even (especially?) that composed by someone who endured (and later inflicted) extreme debasement.
Despite unprecedented access to Sontag’s archives, a wealth of insider interviews, and a life full of astounding events to reflect on, Moser spends much of his eight-hundred-plus-page tome in an extended symptomatology. Not content to scratch the surface of Sontag’s elegant, gloomy complexity, he insists on boring holes into it and exploring the psychoanalytic abyss he assumes must lie within ... In its later chapters, the book feels less episodic and analytic and more narrative; there is a clearer sense of scene and setting. Particularly illuminating is the treatment of Sontag’s relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the writer’s partner later in life and until her death ... The details of their relationship are surprising and often unpleasant, but Moser elicits blunt and candid statements from Leibovitz, whose evident cooperation makes the topic feel much less sordid and invasive ... Too often in Moser’s biography we find not individual works with individual meaning and merit, but rather a dense palimpsest of memories. Not Sontag’s memories, but our own memories of the book’s first chapters ... Tying the meaning of Sontag’s work only to her own history, Moser makes history itself merely a reflection of Sontag’s tormented genius, forgetting his own observation that Sontag 'envisioned a new approach, one freed from the morbid introspection she called ‘psychology.’'
One of the problems with literary biography is the short shrift it inevitably gives to literary experience, which is solitary and, for long stretches, leaves no visible trace: but fundamentally the lives of literary people are inexplicable without the lived experience of reading and writing—its frustrations, its digressions, its adventures, its expansive essence. This defect is acutely felt in the case of Moser’s biography, because there are so many powerful distractions from what Sontag specifically thought and wrote—among them her eventual fame, her beauty, and her gregariousness, which leave behind a trail of voluble witnesses with colorful stories. Sontag herself, as this biography poignantly records, suffered from these distractions. Moser’s assemblage of this social residue amounts to a very interesting book, deeply gossipy, with its vital thread drawn out ... It almost seems like the subject of this book is all the things pulling Sontag away from what she was supposed to be famous for ... Author and reader are quick to judge. And yet how long would the catalogue be of male writers be who neglect children or treat lovers poorly? Does one even ask these questions of male writers? ... ust because Sontag herself (as one would) expressed fears that her troubled intimate life limited her as a person does not mean we should accept these darker-hour recriminations ... There something dispiriting about a compromised relationship with 'the body' inevitably emerging at the center of the imagined life of a powerful woman.
Benjamin Moser is the first Sontag biographer to have had full access to her journals. He draws upon them with tact, empathy, and truly extraordinary insight, weaving her life together with her work ... One of the great pleasures of this authoritative work is Moser’s confident, clever, erudite voice. He writes with a deep understanding of literature and intellectual history, and with considerable sympathy for his subject ... In short, Moser’s Sontag is a landmark achievement.
...engrossing, unsettling ... In 2013, when Moser signed up to write Sontag’s authorized biography, he took on a hazardous task: how to recount the eventful life, influential ideas and significant achievements of a legendary public intellectual, and assess the overall legacy of an outrageous, infuriating great person? ... Moser has had the confidence and erudition to bring all these contradictory aspects together in a biography fully commensurate with the scale of his subject. He is also a gifted, compassionate writer ... His narrative is selective, and he is wholly on Sontag’s side; but he never backs away from making negative, even lacerating, judgements on specific aspects of her writing, politics, ideas, relationships and behaviour. That openness wins the reader’s trust, but also leaves room for dialogue and disagreement ...Moser suggests several less-than-convincing explanations for her insensitivity. She had some of the traits of an adult daughter of alcoholics; she had symptoms of amphetamine addiction; she suffered from various emotional side effects of gay self-hatred ... interview by interview, anecdote by anecdote, chapter by chapter, I had the distressing sense of the flawed but passionate woman of genius fading away and a genderless disappointing great person taking her place.
...Moser does rather a brilliant job. Over the course of 700 pages, we have Sontag as daughter, friend, lover, wife and mother, but Moser’s writing is appropriately bold and anecdotal, so there is less the feeling of years accrued than of selves tried out. He’s an essayist, taking on an essayist, and his best passages are biographical readings of her writing. His assessment of her novels is punchy and insightful ... He makes good use of the archives, quoting from a revealing selection of unpublished diary entries, letters and essays ... I found Moser less interesting on psychology, and this again may be appropriate, given that Sontag’s friends repeatedly criticised her for her lack of psychological insight. It’s not that Moser isn’t insightful—his judgments usually ring true—more that he doesn’t have the kind of novelistic curiosity some biographers have. Sontag’s son David, and her husband, lovers and friends, don’t emerge as real people. Sontag herself does, to an extent, but Moser has a tendency to diagnose her disorders with the language of a psychology manual ... We need her now, more than ever, and this biography keeps her defiantly alive: argumentative, wilful, often right, always interesting, encouraging us to up our game as we watch her at the top of hers.
... exceptional ... Moser synthesizes historical events with moments in Sontag’s life while comprehensively analyzing her major works ... Moser skillfully describes how Sontag often struggled with basic everyday responsibilities ... This excellent portrait of a complicated, brilliant individual will appeal to those interested in late 20th-century culture, LGBTQ studies, and literary scholarship.
It is painful if instructive to read these passages since Sontag has long personified the culture and cleverness New York’s Jewish intellectuals gave to the world ... In Sontag, the mask slips: the unimpeachable doyenne of radical chic often appears foolish, and her favoured mode of assertion without evidence is her undoing ... Moser doesn’t let his subject off the hook. To a divided world she brought a divided self, he suggests ... Why read Sontag now? Moser’s sensible suggestion is that she showed what few have managed to do: to remain anchored in the canon of high culture while embracing...the culture industry ... There is another reason why Sontag remains relevant. Long before our age of selfies, her concern was that we don’t so much consume images as get consumed by them ... Sontag, for all her faults, fought a long battle against our chronic voyeurism, no less praiseworthy for being on the losing side.
The mountain of unpublished papers in her archive at UCLA, together with the two published volumes of her Journals & Notebooks, have provided Moser with complete access to Sontag’s inner life. Placing the public and private Sontags back to back, he creates a portrait of a woman with 'an uncanny understanding' of her own character, and no understanding whatsoever of anyone else’s ... Moser is good at elucidating Sontag’s ideas and putting into context the fecundity of her thought. He discusses her 'Olympian' sex life with sympathy and insight...and is unbiased when it comes to evaluating her writing ... He is less good, however, at knowing what to leave out, resulting in a book that is repetitive, overweight and clogged with irrelevancies. In addition to which the structure is confusing and there are too many self-regarding sentences ... These failings would matter less had Sontag herself not been a master of brevity; it is surprising that Moser could have spent so long in her company without imbibing some of her skills. While there are things to admire here, the biography is not an aesthetic achievement.
Mr. Moser recounts Sontag’s youth and early adulthood with energy and compassion ... Mr. Moser also presents evidence for some revelations that seem less shocking than he may have supposed ... [Moser] takes pains to expose the self-absorption at the heart of Sontag’s creations ... Mr. Moser shows commendable tenacity in synthesizing his subject’s hectic life and complex work. But Sontag was a lot, and any quest to be definitive about her risks being too much. There is welcome relief when he turns his attention, briefly but passionately, to any other subject ... In the end, Mr. Moser’s perceptive and exhaustive chronicle is a lesson in how swiftly even the grandest personality can exit from the scene.
... capable of detached bemusement at its subject’s unstoppable advance ... What still hangs around the room like a bad smell are the shell-shocked accounts of what engaging with Sontag in person could be like. These make this wry, clever, rather sly biography a richly engaging volume ... a memorable and evocative biography. It keeps a proper distance, and if it makes the occasional excessive claim for Sontag’s writings, especially the fairly negligible fiction, that is forgivable. Moser maintains sympathy, not just for his out-of-control subject, but for her quailing court. I wish, however, he had spent more time discussing the European intellectuals who encountered her and with whom, in a Paris cemetery, she was eventually buried. Did they think her as chic as she thought them? Did they honour the longed for comparison with Roland Barthes? Hard to tell from this account ... It’s going too far to call Moser’s biography comic in tone, but what it does possess is what its subject notably lacked — a sense that one of the tools of analysis, thought and intellectual engagement is the possibility of laughter; that laughter, in the end, may be a better tool than the customary hyperbole.
... breaks new ground by virtue of his access to private archives, sagacious close-readings of Sontag’s radical writings, and conducting of hundreds of interviews. Moser discerns fresh significance in Sontag’s venturesome life and troubled psyche, from her precocious ardor for books and her youth in Hollywood to her sadomasochistic relationship with her alcoholic mother, her disassociation from her body, her lifelong reluctance to fully acknowledge her lesbianism, and her deep insecurity behind the glamorous façade of her renown. In clear-cut and supple prose, Moser avidly presents provocative facts and insights ... Moser also offers thrillingly clarifying analysis of the fiction of which Sontag was so proud, and her culture-altering criticism in which she broke down the barrier between popular and fine arts, interrogated the ethics of photography, scrutinized the implications of fame, metaphor, and pain, and declared that 'literature is freedom.'
Moser’s socially panoramic, psychologically incisive biography does a superb job of charting Sontag’s self-invention...But he is overgenerous in praising her as a philosophical successor to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; she surely belongs in a tradition of cerebral showbiz that includes Tom Wolfe and her envious epigone, Camille Paglia, and is well defined, in Moser’s inadvertently deadly phrase, as 'the world’s most authoritative blurber' – an enthusiast for the ideas of others, a vociferous barker at an avant-garde carnival ... As the book develops, Moser’s initial admiration for Sontag struggles to cope with the unlovable details of her behaviour imparted by his sources, and he comes to see her intellectual obsessions as a reflex of her personal kinks ... In his conclusion, Moser sums up 'what Sontag symbolised' by reciting truisms about tolerance, diversity, female empowerment and opposition to political cruelty. But the moral contradictions of the life he so unsparingly chronicles undermine this well-meant tribute. The artful games played by the will may be malevolent and the value of style is doubtful if the best it has to show is a photograph of Sontag as 'a beautifully dressed corpse – nothing more'.
Moser is critical of Sontag's refusal to identify as a female writer, as a Jewish writer, and as a gay writer, yet he details why she was leery of that ... Moser is a tenacious biographer, keeping a tight hold on his narrative and reaching firm conclusions. He is very tough-minded, as Sontag herself was at her best, and his mind is like Sontag's in that he can make very sharp turns and land decisive blows ... when he quotes from Terry Castle's very funny 2005 article about her friendship with Sontag, he includes the section where Sontag is at her most absurd—showing Castle how to run from sniper fire while they are in a pricey shopping area —but does not include the key scene where she yells at Castle for criticizing Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which exposes her vulnerability ... Towards the end of this book, it does begin to feel like Sontag's many character flaws are being crushingly itemized without enough attempt at explanation and relief ... Sontag had the highest standards, and Moser has very high standards when judging both her work and her as a person, and both the aesthete and the masochist in her would expect and want nothing less.
Benjamin Moser is forgivably reluctant, while offering up his 800-plus pages, to dispute Sontag’s claims to our attention. He praises her work whenever he feels conscientiously able to ... he claims that her aphoristic talent was 'hardly inferior' to that of Walter Benjamin. But he cannot conceal a sense of exasperation about the four films she made from the late 1960s onwards – a side career he calls 'abortive' – and the opacity and laboured earnestness and torturous evasions he identifies in much of the non-fiction ... Moser doesn’t lavish too much attention on his subject’s hairstyle and bone structure, but he is keen to present her career as largely a matter of appearance or image-projection – of wanting to be seen a certain way. In one of many withering but persuasive assessments, he argues that Sontag’s cultural centrality was a product of a kind of dishonesty ... Though he never stints the reader on historical detail, the book is at its best as an exercise in psychoanalytic criticism: the story of a woman who developed a persona, in the world and on the page, to defend herself against uncomfortable truths ... he presents a reading of her work as a product of her character ... Moser is tougher still on Sontag’s 1989 coda, Aids and its Metaphors ... Sontag’s preference for linguistic analysis and the passive voice allowed her to avoid using 'I,' so she never says what the Aids crisis means to her nor, crucially for Moser, does she address her own status as a gay woman ... The last few hundred pages of Moser’s book are relentless, at times harrowing ... While there can be no doubting the brilliance – the sheer explanatory vigour – of Moser’s biography, it makes for a disillusioning experience. Does Sontag: Her Life constitute any kind of tribute? Though Moser is generally sympathetic, the answer is no.
Moser has managed the near-impossible feat of capturing Sontag in all of her dark brilliance and pointed contradictions ... with his immense research and intensive interviews with friends, adversaries, lovers, and living witnesses, Moser has managed to create a high-definition portrait not only of Sontag the stylish, cerebral New York icon, but also Sontag the blinking, blood-and-bone human.
Drawing on some 300 interviews, a rich, newly available archive of personal papers, and abundant published sources, biographer, essayist, and translator Moser...offers a comprehensive, intimate—and surely definitive—biography of writer, provocateur, and celebrity intellectual Susan Sontag...Sympathetic and sharply astute, Moser recounts the astonishing evolution of Susan Rosenblatt, an impressively bright and inquisitive child of the Jewish middle class, into an internationally acclaimed, controversial, and often combative cultural figure ... A nuanced, authoritative portrait of a legendary artist.
In this doorstopper biography, Moser...for whom Susan Sontag was 'America’s last great literary star,' exhaustively and sometimes exhaustingly chronicles his subject’s life ... His book leaves readers with a sweeping, perhaps definitive portrait of an acclaimed author, though one likely to deter all but her most ardent admirers with its length.
It’s Sontag’s own talent for metamorphosis that fascinates Benjamin Moser in his authorised biography of one of the 20th century’s most towering intellects ... It wasn’t that I disagreed with Moser’s observations, but I did long for a more nuanced analysis. His diagnoses of Sontag as having a “Cluster B” personality disorder, for example – “fears of abandonment and feelings of inconsolable loneliness, which trigger frantic neediness; antisocial behaviours such as rudeness (it is hard for such people to feel empathy) and volatility: mood swings that doom relationships”, which he traces back (like so many of her issues) to her mother’s alcoholism – reads like armchair psychology. Despite being a formidable work of scholarship, ultimately Moser’s biography offers us only a dim, flickering illumination of Sontag’s inner life.