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Reviews for Sontag: Her Life and Work

by Benjamin Moser

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A sweeping biography reveals personal, political, and cultural turbulence.Drawing on some 300 interviews, a rich, newly available archive of personal papers, and abundant published sources, biographer, essayist, and translator Moser (Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, 2009) offers a comprehensive, intimateand surely definitivebiography of writer, provocateur, and celebrity intellectual Susan Sontag (1933-2004). 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. Even as a child, Sontagshe changed her name after her mother's second marriagesaw herself as exceptional: smarter than her classmates, so widely read and articulate that she astonished her professors. Nevertheless, although certain that she was destined for greatness, she was tormented by an abiding fear of inadequacy. Moser recounts Sontag's education, friendships, and sexual encounters; her realization that she was bisexual; and her wide-ranging interests in psychoanalysis, politics, and, most enduringly, aesthetics. He offers judicious readings of all of Sontag's works, from her 1965 "Notes on Camp,' " which, according to Nora Ephron, transformed her from a "highbrow critic" to "a midcult commodity"; to the late novels of which she was proudest. Her private life was stormy. At 17, she married her sociology professor, Philip Rieff, after they had known each other for 10 days, and within two years, she was a mother. Neither marriage nor motherhood suited her. Devoid of maternal instinct, she was unable to care about anyone, said Jamaica Kincaid, "unless they were in a book." Instead, among her many loversRichard Goodwin, Warren Beatty, Joseph Brodsky, Lucinda Childs, Annie Leibowitz, to name a fewshe sought those who would care for her: publisher Roger Straus, who sustained her "professionally, financially, and sometimes physically"; and women who kept her fed, housed, and clean. Difficulties with basic hygiene, Moser notes, "suggest more than carelessness" but rather a persistent sense of alienation from her bodyand exaltation of her mind.A nuanced, authoritative portrait of a legendary artist. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.