Susan Sontag

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The Independent Online

The notion that "few have read their books" is just wrong of Susan Sontag, writes Paul Levy [further to the obituary by John Calder, 30 December] - as it was of Mary McCarthy's The Group, not to mention the several best-selling titles of Rebecca West and Germaine Greer.

The notion that "few have read their books" is just wrong of Susan Sontag, writes Paul Levy [further to the obituary by John Calder, 30 December] - as it was of Mary McCarthy's The Group, not to mention the several best-selling titles of Rebecca West and Germaine Greer.

Sontag's The Volcano Lover was a full two months on the New York Times best-seller list. This detail-perfect saga of Sir William Hamilton and Nelson's Emma was her best novel, an uncharacteristic (for the temperamentally experimental Sontag) huge, old-fashioned historical romance, but brimful of intellectual excitement, and showing a remarkable accuracy in its rendering of English speech and understanding of English social niceties.

I once told her how much I admired it, and she replied, shunning false modesty in a way that I appreciated and understood as a complicated compliment to my own good taste, "Yes - it's a fucking good book!" I would say the same of her last novel, In America, with its (perhaps too closely) fact-based, but wholly re-imagined tale of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska's attempt to start a Utopian community in California.

John Calder doesn't even mention her best-known work, the 1964 essay "Notes on Camp", which not only changed English-speaking culture by introducing a new descriptive category for discussing artistic activity, but showed that Sontag had a keen and sympathetic, pomposity-shunning sense of humour that allowed her to make some (then) deeply subversive observations about gay sensibility. In it she paved the way for taking (half) seriously the Pop Culture of the next decade and the Post-Modernist revaluation of it. Her words now sound prophetic:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on refinement.

She went on:

The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Who says Americans don't "do" irony?

Her epigrammatic thesis that, for America, photography did not so much capture the past as create it also depends on subtle and supple arguments informed by irony. This kind of thinking, and its expression, owes something to the dialectical teaching methods Susan Sontag (and I, only a few years later) experienced in the small, élite undergraduate programme at the University of Chicago, and owes something further to the role of Jews such as Sontag in American intellectual life.

No one can deny that Susan Sontag was as bold intellectually as she was physically, exposing herself to danger in distant parts when she thought it necessary, as well as bearing the pain and distress of cancer with nobility. Even when she was contrary (which she often was) she annoyed people stylishly and eloquently. She combined glamour and great beauty with formidable intellect and a genuinely visceral appreciation of music and the visual arts, as well as of words.

Isn't it just petty snobbery (and pathetic anti-Americanism) to accuse her of mispronouncing words and not having read the complete works of every non-English-speaking author she ever mentions? The few times I met her were in the company of people such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Howard Hodgkin, Mark Morris or Annie Leibovitz - and that's how I (and, I'm certain, posterity) will always think of her, as an artist among artists.

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