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130 × 200 mm
216 pages
29 illustrations
14 Feb 2014
Critical Lives

Susan Sontag Jerome Boyd Maunsell

‘My idea of a writer: someone interested in “everything”’, declared Susan Sontag (1933–2004). Essayist, diarist, filmmaker, novelist and playwright, her own life seemed to match this ideal. As well as writing in an unusually broad array of genres, Sontag wrote about a startling range of topics – from literature, dance, film and painting to cancer, AIDS and the ethics of war reportage. Few have captured the twentieth century in the same manner.

In this new biography Jerome Boyd Maunsell assesses the astonishing scope of Sontag’s life and work, tracing her growth during her academic career at Chicago, Oxford, the Sorbonne and Harvard, through her marriage to Philip Rieff at the age of seventeen, to the birth of her son David and her relationships with women. From Sontag’s literary life in New York to her diagnosis of cancer in the mid-1970s and her miraculous rebirth as a novelist and critic in the 1980s and ’90s, this biography puts intellectual development hand-in-hand with the personal, providing an integrated picture of Sontag as private person and public figure.

Drawing on her extensive diaries, Susan Sontag gives a far more intimate portrait than has been previously possible of Sontag’s struggles in love, in marriage, as a mother and as a writer. It offers an essential re-evaluation of a pivotal figure that is of interest to anyone concerned with literary history or culture.

‘Maunsell presents a nuanced account of Sontag’s intellectual development. He traces her ever-present subjects, above all the duty of the writer to direct attention, while seeing that her books arose “out of self-correction” and self-contestation, the result of a continuing “readiness to immerse herself in contemporariness”. Indeed, the achievement of Maunsell’s biography is that he makes sense of Sontag’s responsiveness to the contemporary, and the currency this gave her work for over half a century – a period long enough for her to repeatedly modify arguments or reason on the contrary. She was an oppositional writer, and the opposition was frequently wielded against herself. Maunsell champions her “crucially misunderstood” early novels, judged as failures in realism rather than on their own terms as Duchamp-like “endlessly reconstructable puzzles”, designed to resist analysis.’ – TLS

‘Above all, Sontag was a writer – with all the longing, doubt, envy and occasional sabotage of her own talent that implies. She seems more, not less, of a sympathetic character now that we know how much energy she put into constructing a persona called Susan Sontag, then playing the role with panache . . . This [is a] short but instructive biography . . . a svelte account of Sontag’s life.’ – Literary Review

‘The present clear, readable, and relatively brief biography, in Reaktion’s “Critical Lives” series, is the best available introduction to Sontag’s life. Maunsell pays extended attention to her work – essays, novels, short stories, and films – as well as her life.Recommended’ – Choice

‘Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work [of Sontag] and integrates the two effectively . . . Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.’ – Australian Book Review

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Jerome Boyd Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London. He is also the author of Portraits from Life: Modernist Novelists and Autobiography (2018) and his essays have appeared, among other publications, in frieze and the Times Literary Supplement.