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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Cover of Maestros & Monsters: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner
Tony RobertsRobert Boyers, Maestros & Monsters: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner (Mandel Vilar Press) £20.30

The life informs the work. Tel arbre, tel fruit, as Sainte-Beuve – likened to the author in a laudatory comment on the cover of the book under review – once wrote: as with the tree, so with the fruit. In many writers one feels this strongly. As the wonderfully incorrigible William Empson wrote, ‘To say that you won’t be bothered with anything but the words on the page (and that you are within your rights, because the author didn’t intend you to have any more) strikes me as petulant… If you cared enough you would.’

How pleasing then, for like-minded readers, to chance on a well-written, insightful and affectionate memoir like Robert Boyer’s Maestro & Monsters. And one is doubly fortunate because his subjects, Susan Sontag and George Steiner, were flamboyant intellectuals, major cultural critics of the ’60s, that radical time when the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture collapsed.

What they held in common, aside from being brilliant, Jewish, combative, admired and vilified (and alumni of the University of Chicago), was a relentless devotion to the written word, a profound seriousness, and an unremitting concern about the fortunes of culture. They were elitist (or grew to be in Sontag’s case), both of them publicly indifferent to the hostility they generated by a whiff of superiority. More importantly, they brought to the attention of literary inclined readers in America and Europe the fruits of their readings in European culture. Ironically, the French-born Steiner could be scathing on American culture (‘The ...

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