A sensitive, cleareyed biography of an intellectual star, first published in Germany in 2007.
Despite lack of access to Sontag’s letters and diaries, being edited by her son at the time, Berlin-based writer Schreiber has made excellent use of extensive interviews with Sontag’s friends and lovers, as well as her published interviews, to create a perceptive and revealing portrait of his restless, glamorous and egotistical subject. Intellectually precocious, Sontag (1933-2004) began college at 16; the following year, after a 10-day courtship, she married her sociology instructor, Philip Rieff. When Rieff took a position at Brandeis University, they moved to the Boston area, where, when she was 19, their son was born. At 24, she was ready to write a doctoral dissertation at Harvard when theologian Paul Tillich recommended her for a fellowship at Oxford. Leaving her husband and son, Sontag traveled abroad for the first time, discovered Paris and launched her startling career. Central to Sontag’s success was her relationship with Roger Straus, her publisher, mentor and unfailing champion. At Straus’ legendary parties, she met such prominent figures as Edmund Wilson, Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, George Balanchine and Richard Avedon. They introduced her to others, and soon she was a “dramatically beautiful presence” among the New York literati. Her breakthrough to intellectual stardom was an iconoclastic essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” (1964), which skewered “the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.” Schreiber follows Sontag’s wide-ranging career after this auspicious start, which included fiction, several volumes of essays and monographs, films and plays. Most notable are Illness as Metaphor (1978), the essay collections Against Interpretation (1966) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980); On Photography (1977), Regarding the Pain of Others (2002) and the novel In America (2000).
Schreiber’s intelligent reading of Sontag’s works and his fair and balanced handling of the impassioned controversies she generated admirably serve both his subject and his readers.