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Desperately Not Seeking Susan

Benjamin Moser, interviewed by Matt Seaton
“The strong feelings about Sontag were exactly what I dreaded when I was first asked to do the biography. If I’d cared too much about that, I couldn’t have written it.”

On December 29, 2020, we published Benjamin Moser’s essay “Sarajevo Revisited.” Part memoir, part travelogue, part pensée, it reflects on his recent return to Bosnia, where he took part in the international literary festival Bookstan Sarajevo. The reason for Moser’s first visit to the city, in 2013, had been to retrace Susan Sontag’s steps there during the Yugoslavian civil war, when she famously put on a production of Beckett’s Godot in the city under siege—a story he memorably told for the Review in an adaptation from Sontag: Her Life and Work, his 2019 biography of the great critic and essayist. This year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Benjamin Moser

Beowulf Sheehan

Benjamin Moser

“In celebrating Sontag we were evoking the ideal of the free society itself, of individual dignity—and recommitting ourselves to it, despite everything,” he writes. “I realized that Sarajevo is so stirring because it is a place of despites. Despite the war. Despite the divisions. Despite emigration and poverty and pandemic…”

One might also read Moser’s essay as, in part, a staging-post on a journey to reclaim his life and autonomy as a writer, since, in the fifteen months since his biography was published, those things have remained bound up with Sontag’s afterlife and legacy. “I was told that this was the most reviewed book of the year,” he told me via email from his home in France. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that still, nearly a year and a half away from publication, someone is writing about it, somewhere in the world, nearly every day. That’s exciting, but it’s also a lot of opinions.”

Ah, yes, those opinions. Sontag was celebrated both for her own strong opinions and those that she inspired. So it was inevitable that her biography would do the same—act, in effect, as a proxy for what everyone wanted to say about Sontag by allowing them to contest what should or should not have been said about her by her biographer. I wondered how he had coped with all that.

“Those strong feelings were exactly what I dreaded when I was first asked to do this book, and I decided I didn’t care,” he said. “If I had cared, I couldn’t have written the book.”

He was given the assignment on the strength of his first book, Why This World (2009), a biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. “When I got an email telling me that a small committee had read the book and thought I was the right person to take on Susan Sontag, I was not excited,” he elaborated. “I felt only dread, to be honest.” He’d tackled Lispector, at that time a relatively obscure-seeming subject, with a certain naiveté—“I didn’t know how hard it is to deal with friends and enemies and rivals and photo permissions. And, of course, I wasn’t Brazilian. I didn’t know where the minefields lay.

“With Susan, I knew exactly,” he went on. “But I also knew just what a great subject she was. And she was.”

One of Moser’s many cultural reference points in common with Sontag was that they were both contributors to the Review, as he related:

Both Bob [Silvers] and Barbara [Epstein] worked with Susan over the years. As it happens, I got to know Barbara pretty well toward the end of her life; she assigned me my very first piece at the Review, I think on the strength of my being from Texas. (It was about Larry McMurtry.) I was really young, maybe twenty-three or something, and I was completely dazzled by her.

After she died, I had a more distant relationship with Bob, who was always extremely courtly and refined but also difficult, for me, to approach. So when I asked to interview him about Susan, he surprised me by immediately saying yes. And then talking to me with incredible candor. He died soon thereafter. We never met again.

And about being from Texas (Moser was born and brought up in Houston), what did that mean to him, I asked.

“In every country, the capital is made up of people who came there from somewhere else—New York is one big collection of valedictorians from Boise,” he said. “The risk is that a lot of these people despise the provinces they escaped.

“I’ve never pretended to be from anywhere else besides a sprawl where people expressed themselves through their choice of cars,” he added. “But I never thought that meant I couldn’t write about Brazilian literature or linguistic philosophy.”

As for Brazilian literature, I wondered how his interest in Lispector had come about. He’d originally planned to study Chinese in college, he explained, but was put off when his professor at Brown told the class it would take them a decade to gain enough proficiency to read a newspaper. Portuguese was the only other language offered him, and there it happened:

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I read A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star) by a person I had never heard of, Clarice Lispector. Though I don’t think I understood half the words, it was possibly the most beautiful book I had ever read. I became obsessed.

Besides publishing a biography of the writer, Moser has acted as editor for a series of new translations of her work—“On December 10, her hundredth anniversary, we published a centennial edition of The Hour of the Star,” he said. The Brazilian government has awarded him a prize for cultural diplomacy in helping to establish Lispector’s reputation as one of the great modern writers.

As he begins to move past these two long, intense biographical commitments, I wondered if there was anything, after all, he considers he might have done otherwise, regarding Sontag.

“There’s only one thing I think I would have phrased a bit differently: it has to do with Sontag’s attack on García Márquez,” he replied. “The story of García Márquez and Cuba is very complicated and would make a great book (for someone else), because I think that it is far more tangled than the ways in which it is usually represented, which is that he was an uncritical stooge of Fidel’s dictatorship. That’s what a lot of people believed and that’s what Sontag believed. I wish I had placed it in a bit more context in order to be fairer to the great Gabo.”

So what is he, in fact, at work on now?

A project now about my generation of Americans, the kids born around the bicentennial. We were the heirs to the greatest empire in the world, the last generation who could unironically believe in progress. And then? We’re like polar bears whose iceberg melted.

I think of us as the last Americans.

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