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This article is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

‘Reborn’: on Moser's Sontag David Herman
Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life (Allen Lane), £30

Susan Sontag always managed to find a ringside seat at the key moments of her time. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, she always seemed to be where the action was. In the late 1950s she was in Paris during the heyday of the new cinema of Godard and Truffaut. She was back in New York in the early 1960s, writing about Happenings, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. In the late Sixties, at the highpoint of the New Left, she travelled to Hanoi and Cuba. In the Seventies she debated Feminism with Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer. In the Reagan years she denounced communism and in the new eighties’ celebrity culture, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. During the siege of Sarajevo, she was there directing Waiting for Godot and she responded to 9/11 with a controversial article for The New York Times.

This was Sontag the public intellectual. However, the new biography by Benjamin Moser shows how little was known of the private person. This new Sontag was a woman often overwhelmed by depression, loneliness and a lifelong fear of death.

‘All my life,’ she wrote, ‘I have been thinking about death…’ Her second novel was called Death Kit and ends in an ossuary. Her best-known play was about Alice James who died of cancer. In perhaps her best book of essays, Under the Sign of Saturn, five of the seven essays are about dead subjects. In her later, darker work, during the 1980s and 1990s, she was drawn again and again to dead men, including Roland Barthes, Robert Maplethorpe, Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti. In 1995 she told an interviewer from The Paris Review, ‘most of the essays I’ve succumbed to writing in the past fifteen years are requiems or tributes.’ Perhaps this was what drew her to WG Sebald. She called her essay on him, ‘A Mind in Mourning’.

‘She was an inveterate visitor of cemeteries,’ her son wrote in his memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008) and in 1972 she wrote in her diary about writing an ‘Essay on cemeteries (or film?)’. ‘I prance around cemeteries all over the world,’ she wrote the following year, ‘– gleeful, fascinated…’

Her father, Jack Rosenblatt, died when she was five. He barely appears in Moser’s biography. Unlike her mother. There are few positive references to Mildred Rosenblatt. ‘My mother lay in bed until four every afternoon in an alcoholic stupor, the blinds on the bedroom window firmly closed.’ ‘Tired all the time. Was she drinking + taking pills then?’ ‘I didn’t feel, deep down, my mother ever liked me. How could she? She didn’t “see” me.’

Sontag’s childhood reads like the beginning of Jane Eyre. A sad, unloved child who doesn’t fit into an apparently indifferent family. Her only sanctuary is her reading. ‘When a small child’, she wrote, ‘I felt abandoned and unloved.’ ‘And shortly after I must have started hiding, making sure they couldn’t see me... Always (?) this feeling of being “too much” for them – a creature from another planet...’

‘The nailbiting,’ she wrote, ‘started at camp.’ Asthma, a year later. Illness was perhaps her great subject. She wrote one famous book about illness, a fine essay about AIDS, and was often drawn to female invalids – Alice James, bedbound, with hysteria then cancer, and Simone Weil. The asthma led her mother and stepfather (Army Air Corps Captain Nathan Sontag, another absent, elusive figure in Moser’s book) to move to Arizona and then southern California. ‘At high school,’ she once said, ‘I used to buy Partisan Review at a newsstand at Hollywood & Vine and read Lionel Trilling and Harold Rosenberg and Hannah Arendt.’

In 1949, she visited Thomas Mann in Pacific Palisades. She was always precocious. In 1995 she told Paris Review, ‘I remember reading real books – biographies, travel books – when I was about six. And then free fall into Poe and Shakespeare and Dickens and the Brontë’s and Victor Hugo and Schopenhauer and Pater, and so on. I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.’ By 1947, barely in her teens, she is reading Spender’s translation of Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, Gide, The Magic Mountain (‘the finest novel I’ve ever read’, she wrote a year later), Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. A year after that she graduated from North Hollywood High School and left home.  

Sontag was a student for most of the 1950s. First, Berkeley, then Chicago and Harvard, Oxford and Paris. She was only at Berkeley for one semester. She was barely sixteen. It was, she wrote, ‘The beginning of real life.’ In May 1949 she wrote, ‘I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK.’ ‘Everything begins from now – I am reborn.’ The word ‘reborn’ is crucial. What follows over the next ten years are two attempts to create herself anew: sexually and intellectually.

Perhaps the most striking revelation in Reborn, the first volume of her diaries, and now in Moser’s biography, is the account of her homosexual life in San Francisco in spring 1949, in bohemian Paris a decade later and then in New York. In the Preface to Reborn, her son David Rieff writes, ‘she avoided to the extent she could, without denying it, any discussion of her own homosexuality…’. Many could not forgive this reticence. Moser finds it unforgivable, especially in the chapter on AIDS. ‘AIDS sparked a revolution,’ he writes. ‘But it would be a revolution that Sontag would largely sit out: unable to speak certain words.’ He criticises her story, The Way We Live Now (1986), because it ‘was not about AIDS.’ It ‘was published into a context in which it was essential to name names – particularly the name of AIDS’, and she didn’t. He praises plays and novels about AIDS, ‘united by sheer heartbreak’. Beside them, he writes, ‘Sontag’s contribution seems thin, dainty, detached.’

In 1949, after Berkeley, Sontag transferred to Chicago. A year later, in 1950, she met ‘a thin, heavy-thighed, balding man who talked and talked, snobbishly, bookishly, and called me “Sweet”. After a few days passed, I married him’. Philip Rieff was a sociology instructor at Chicago. In January 1951 she wrote, ‘I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.’ It is the only journal entry for that year. There are no entries for 1952. Only a handful for the next three years. David Rieff, born in 1952, writes of her ‘impossible marriage to my father…’. In 1979, Sontag, now in her mid-forties, at the height of her fame, heard various accounts of her ex-husband’s Trilling lecture at Columbia University. It was called, ‘Homage to Mr. Casaubon’.

In 1957 she left Rieff and escaped to Oxford, then Paris. This was her second, crucial rebirth. In Paris she found her voice as a writer. It was a key moment in French culture. In a book on Sontag, Sohnya Sayres writes:
Bataille was still alive; Klossowski active… Cioran had published The Temptation to Exist in 1956; Butor’s novel La Modification received the Prix Renaudot in 1957; Robbe-Grillet had finished The Erasers, The Voyeur, Jealousy and had begun writing his essays on the new novel. Sarraute was discussed…In film Bresson was already well known; Resnais, Truffaut, Godard part of the renaissance.1

The impact was dramatic on a young woman away for the first time from 1950s America. Immediately she started writing in her journals about bohemians and ‘camp tastes’, pornography, Artaud and de Sade. She fell in love with film and modern theatre (‘Pirandello, Brecht, Genet – for all three ... the subject of the theatre is – the theatre’, 21 February 1958). A few days later, she met Sartre and heard Simone de Beauvoir talk on the novel at the Sorbonne. She went to ‘the [Cafe] Flore’ and the Deux Magots.

This gave her much of the intellectual capital she lived on, back in New York, in the early Sixties. She was one of the critics who introduced the French intellectual avant-garde to America. Three features were immediately apparent in her early writing. First, her love of the essay. It was a form perfectly suited to her range of interests and the speed with which she picked up ideas. Secondly, she was a great enthusiast. ‘I wrote as an enthusiast and a partisan,’ she wrote in the Preface to Against Interpretation. And, finally, she was a Europhile.

Above all, she caught the spirit of the times. ‘There were new permissions in the air,’ she later wrote in Where The Stress Falls, ‘and old hierarchies had become ripe for toppling… I saw myself as a newly minted warrior in a very old battle: against philistinism, against ethical and aesthetic shallowness and indifference.’2 She went on, ‘I thought  it normal that there be new masterpieces every month – above all in the form of movies and dance events, but also in the fringe theatre world, in galleries and improvised art spaces, in the writings of certain poets and other, less easily classifiable writers of prose. Maybe I was riding a wave.’3 ‘Artists were insolent again, as they’d been after World War I until the rise of fascism. The modern was still a vibrant idea…’4

When she died, Christopher Hitchens wrote, ‘By the middle 1960s, someone was surely going to say something worth noticing about the energy and vitality of American popular culture. And it probably wasn’t going to be any of the graying manes of the old Partisan Review gang.’5 ‘She was,’ wrote Cynthia Ozick, ‘the tone of the times, she was the muse of the age...’6

Television producers and magazine editors took to her. She was young, barely thirty when her famous essay, ‘Notes on Camp’, appeared. In her BBC documentary about Philip Johnson she appears in sunglasses, driving a sports car through Manhattan, the new cultural capital of the west. Unlike middle-aged men like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling (and Philip Rieff) grumbling about the Sixties, she loved them. She sensed something new and exciting was happening.

The Sixties was her time. She met Warhol and Jackie Kennedy and was photographed by Diane Arbus. She had affairs with Jasper Johns, Robert Kennedy and Warren Beatty. In 1965 she was spotted at a posh Manhattan restaurant having dinner with Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, William Styron and Jackie Kennedy. A friend describes a party: ‘Edmund Wilson was there, and Susan Sontag was there, and Malamud was there, and Lillian Hellman was there.’

Her journals are full of references to ‘the new sensibility’. The ‘Spirit of the age is being cool, dehumanized, play, sensation, apolitical’, she wrote. Her journals show how she tried to work out what was so distinctive about the new culture of 1960s New York: ‘New way – Rauschenberg, Johns – is through literalness’, ‘most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring, Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring.’  

What runs through these pages is her appetite for new experiences. In 1961 she drew up a list of the films she had seen recently. It goes on for over four pages. Von Sternberg and Pabst, Bergman and Kubrick, Casablanca and L’avventura. She started publishing essays and reviews for Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, The Nation and Commentary. Essays on Simone Weil, Camus and Lévi-Strauss. In 1966, Against Interpretation was published.

Her journals show a young person in overdrive. ‘The two great living writers, Borges and Beckett.’ (10 September 1966) ‘[Walter] Benjamin is neither a literary critic nor philosopher but an atheist theologian practicing his hermeneutical skills on culture.’ (12 November 1976) ‘The Russians didn’t have an 18th century.’ (20 September 1977) ‘Notional Rome in Shakespeare…’ (12 August 1978) ‘[U]se of American vernacular movement (from Mack Sennett comedy, Fred Astaire, black disco dancers), of American energy.’ (25 February 1979)

The range is typical. What is striking is her European canon. Europe was her cultural home from the visit to Thomas Mann in 1949 and her time in Paris to her love for Bergman, Canetti and Benjamin. ‘No American writer of her generation,’ writes David Rieff in the Preface to Reborn, ‘was more associated with European tastes than was my mother.’ ‘The Magic Mountain,’ she wrote when she was fifteen, ‘is a book for all of one’s life.’ In 1953, in a bookstore in Cambridge, she opens a volume of Kafka’s short stories, at a page of The Metamorphosis: ‘It was like a physical blow, the absoluteness of his prose.’   

American literature rarely affected her the same way. There are few illuminating references to American writers. She’s sniffy about Bellow (‘has not … produced a great body of work’) and indifferent to Roth. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams don’t get a mention. ‘Weakness of American poetry – ‘ she writes, ‘it’s anti-intellectual.’ There are two references to Lowell in Moser’s book. None to Berryman or Plath. ‘It is true,’ writes David Rieff in the Preface to Reborn, ‘that for her American literature was a suburb of the great literatures of Europe – above all German literature...’ In 1967, reviewing Against Interpretation, Cyril Connolly noted that ‘Miss Sontag has no use for the American novel…’

She never quite shook off the feeling of being the provincial from Arizona and California. ‘My innocence makes me weep’ she writes in her journal. Europe – which for her really meant Paris, Berlin, Venice (which she visited at least ten times) – was everything the schoolgirl from Tucson, Arizona longed to be. It meant being grown up, being intellectually and morally serious, in a way being American did not. Seriousness is a key word for Sontag.

The older she became, the more European. But her idea of ‘Europe’ changed, became darker, more elegiac. From the late 1970s and ‘80s, ‘Europe’ moved from Paris to central and east Europe. She had an important relationship with Joseph Brodsky. During the last thirty years of her life she wrote numerous essays on cultural figures from central and eastern Europe.7

A striking absence is her Jewishness. The daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt, the stepdaughter of Nathan Sontag, hasn’t much to say about being Jewish or Jewish culture. ‘Her Jewish origins were of scant interest to her,’ writes Rieff in his memoir. It’s the only reference to Jewishness in the whole book. There’s barely a single reference to the Holocaust in Moser’s 800-page volume. Look at the list of central and east European names. Just a few Jews among them.   

A final puzzling absence which runs through Moser’s biography: money. Moser chronicles the endless holidays. He lists a series of trips in the summer of 1966: London, Paris, Prague, back to London, back to Paris, Antibes, Venice (‘first night “Gritti Palace [Hotel]”, next three nights at the “Hotel Luna”‘), back to Antibes, then Paris and home to New York. Who pays for this? What does she live on as a freelance writer? Did Partisan Review and Commentary pay so well? Moser is fascinating about her relationships with patrons like Robert Silvers, her publisher Roger Straus and, above all, her long-term lover, the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Straus became her benefactor for years (and her occasional lover). He published all of her books, paid her advances for books she never wrote, often took care of her household bills, and contributed to her medical expenses. (He eventually hired her son David too, and kept him on the payroll for a decade.) Later on, Leibovitz paid for the mortgage, the maintenance, car services, a maid, a private chef, a studio, an office, assistants and vacations, and paid expenses for David. While they were together, Moser reports, she gave Sontag at least $8 million.

The financial costs of her medical treatment must have been enormous. Straus and Silvers helped raise money for the bills for her first two bouts of cancer, Leibovitz with the treatment for her final illness. Moser is damning about Sontag’s extravagance and sense of entitlement. ‘Her writings were peopled with divas,’ he writes. It’s clear he thinks she was the greatest diva of all.   

Worst of all, though, are Moser’s accounts of Sontag as a mother. In 1982, Sontag’s thirty-year-old son David Rieff endured a number of major crises: cocaine addiction, job loss, romantic break-up, cancer scare and nervous breakdown. At that point, Moser writes, Sontag ‘scampered off to Italy’ with her new lover, the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. ‘We couldn’t really believe she was getting on the plane’, Kincaid told Moser. She and her husband Allen Shawn took David into their home for six months to recover. He made an impact writing about Bosnia. She flew into Sarajevo to direct Godot and hoovered up all the publicity.  

There is much about the sadness of Sontag’s life in Moser’s biography, but little curiosity about depression as such. Relationships come to an end. Perhaps the most brutal ending was with Jasper Johns. There is a moment of crisis in 1971. ‘How depressed I was’, Sontag wrote. ‘I wanted to die.’ ‘My life fell down.’ ‘I touch a central place, where I have never lived before... and I find, to my horror, that the center is mute.’ This is what happens when she is saddest. Silence. No entries. ‘Mute’.

And then the central question: what is the relationship between this tremendous energy, over forty years of prolific writing and lecturing, films, stories and novels – and the battle with depression? In 1979 she writes: ‘I have an idea for a novel. A great idea.’ She writes in the margin, ‘“novel about melancholy”. It is, after all, my subject.’ Later, she adds, ‘Not for nothing was I born under the Sign of Saturn...’ This obviously feeds into the title for her book of essays of the same name, published in 1980. In perhaps the best interview with Sontag, Kevin Jackson quotes her: ‘I guess it’s [loss, melancholy] my great theme. I would love to write a book called The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s the greatest title there is.’

It’s one of the many books she never wrote. The journals are full of them. Which is the more telling: the energy that produced so many ideas for so many books? Or the obstacles that meant they were never written? There were so many brilliant essays but no single masterwork. In Under the Sign of Saturn she wonders about Benjamin’s inability to achieve a major work. Ten pages later, she writes about Syberberg and the question of ‘the Great Work’.

Pauline Kael dismissed her films. Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham rubbished her novels. There is no academic industry dedicated to her work, in the way that there is about Foucault or Said. What, then, will endure? Her essays. In an interview in 1988 she said:
there’s this great tradition in my head, people like Emerson, Leopardi, Chamfort, Valery and Barthes – a wonderful tradition, with on the one hand the aphorism and on the other hand a certain kind of very tight, condensed essay writing: a field of intellectual force and writerly virtuosity that I feel an enormous affinity with. If I were to dare to describe my own aspiration it would be as someone who continues in that tradition, at whatever level of achievement. And it’s a way of writing that breaks down the genres as we usually think of them: it’s the tradition of the artist-thinker, the thinker as artist, that unites writers as disparate as Wilde, Nietzsche, Benjamin and Adorno.

What she had in common with all of these writers was her range of interests. She wrote on critics like Barthes and Benjamin, thinkers like Simone Weil, Camus and Cioran, filmmakers like Godard, Riefenstahl and Fassbinder, writers like Canetti, Sebald and Walser, dance, photography and art, politics from Cuba and Vietnam to Bosnia and Abu Ghraib. The old Partisan Review crowd wrote about literature and politics. She wrote about film, photography and pornography.

In a tribute written in 2005, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote:
The last of the great New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review, she was the only one in that crowd who understood and appreciated film in a wholly cosmopolitan manner, as a part of art and culture and thought – something that couldn’t be said of Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Harold Rosenberg, Edmund Wilson, or any of the editors at the New York Review of Books.

Then there is her most distinctive gift as a critic: her originality. Her best-known work was associated with opening up new subjects: ‘camp’, ‘the pornographic imagination’, photography, illness, torture. And there was the originality of the questions she asked: What are fascist aesthetics? Why is Nazism erotic? Why are we fascinated by suffering bodies? Why are TB and cancer the great metaphorical illnesses? How did Kafka understand China – from Prague – in 1918-1919? Why are Jews and homosexuals the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture? Like her contemporaries, John Berger and George Steiner, she was a new kind of cultural critic. Perhaps this was what drew her to Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. They wanted to write about a new kind of culture, beyond the library.

In 2005 Susan Sontag was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. It was the perfect choice, the most literary of cemeteries. Near de Beauvoir, one hundred metres from Beckett, two hundred from Cioran. But there’s another reason why it was the perfect choice. Paris was where Sontag was reborn almost fifty years before. It’s where she found her voice as one of the great essayists of her time.

  1. Sohnya Sayres, Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (Routledge, 1990), p.31.
  2. Susan Sontag, Where the Stress Falls: Essays (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), p.269.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid, p.271.
  5. Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 29.12.04.
  6. Cynthia Ozick, ‘On Discord and Desire’, 2006, republished in The Din in the Head, 2006.
  7. Leni Riefenstahl (1975), Walter Benjamin (1978), Syberberg (1980), Canetti (1980), Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) was dedicated to Brodsky, Robert Walser (1982), Fassbinder (1983), Tsvetaeva (1983), Pina Bausch (a 1980s TV talk), ‘Wagner’s Fluids’ (1987), ‘The Idea of Europe’ (1988), Danilo Kis (1995), Sebald (2000),  Gombrowicz (2000), Zagajewski (2001), ‘Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo’ (1993), Brodsky (1997), Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke (2001), Victor Serge (2004), Leonid Tsypkin (published posthumously, 2005).

This article is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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