Sontag: Her Life – Desperately seeking Susan

Review: Benjamin Moser’s authorised biography has a strong claim to definitive status

Susan Sontag in France, 1972. Photograph: Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet via Getty

Susan Sontag in France, 1972. Photograph: Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet via Getty

In 1965 Susan Sontag – fresh from publishing her landmark essay Notes on “Camp” – was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’ ” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol or dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

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