Susan Sontag: A Biography

Daniel Schreiber, trans. from the German by David Dollenmayer. Northwestern Univ, $35 (280p) ISBN 978-0-8101-2583-4
In this crisp and dispassionate biography, German critic Schreiber describes his subject’s life—what Sontag herself called a project—as a series of self-inventions and calculated publicity stunts that sustained extraordinary intellectual stardom. While the chapter titles evoke major epochs of her life (“Camp,” “Radical Chic”), the chronological structure delivers less of a narrative than an ongoing depiction of Sontag as a temperamental diva unable to achieve consistency in her creative output. Though he offers strong, brief analyses of her influential publications and broad, competent summaries of the cultural movements during her life, Schreiber appears puzzled by Sontag’s “status as intellectual icon.” Since he finds her work “of questionable quality” and many of her later essays lacking “intellectual intensity,” he accounts for Sontag’s rise to literary eminence as a combination of sheer ambition and an avant-garde attitude that “exactly suited the spirit of the times.” Annoyed with “her tendency to mythologize her life,” Schreiber resists romanticizing his subject and ends up stripping his narrative of any warmth or insight. Still, Sontag’s widely varied artistic interests, fearless, broad-ranging mind, and steadfast insistence on the value of art, intellect, and good criticism shine so vividly through Schreiber’s carefully assembled sources that she exerts her own fascination on the receptive reader. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 04/14/2014
Release date: 08/01/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
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