Category Archives: Intellectual

CONVERSATION IN FLUX

The other day, following a conversation with a friend that ranged over current politics and political engagement, then moved on to changing modes of interpretation in the digital world, and ended up with my friend and I exchanging Netflix recommendations, I paused to reflect on the implicit understandings that had under-girded our conversation. These understandings formed a common ground we both drew on in the course of our conversation. The common ground itself represented an intellectual and cultural terrain established primarily through books we had read over many decades; these books (and their authors) had become touchstones in our on-going quest to understand the world around us.

In the past half hour, I said to him, we have drawn on, or alluded to, several books and authors. There was Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift when talking about the digital age; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifewhen discussing identity and social media; Arendt’s Totalitarianism, Orwell’s essays and his 1984when attempting to understand the appeal of Trump; we have mentioned Sontag, Tony Judt, Masha Gessen, Camus, and many others. Also in our discussion, we have assumed that we both know the defining events of the modern era, that if 1848 or 1870 or 1905 are mentioned these will immediately conjure up the same events for us both: war and revolt across Europe (1848), a unified Germany and subsequent influx of Russian Jews escaping the pogroms (1870), the first (and failed) Russian Revolution (1905).

When we talk, I said to him, there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we take for granted; it’s not made explicit, it’s background – like respiration. If we were to bring all this material into the conversation, a thirty minute sprightly conversation would become a three hour turgid waffle.

My friend and I share a similar background. We are white, Jewish, secular, and of European descent (for him recently, for me far more remote); our touchstones reflect this. These touchstones both embody and reflect the tools we use in our understanding of the modern world. We could be exploring the appeal of Trump, the role of celebrity in shaping values, the slippery nature of values in secular societies, authoritarianism and popularism in the western world, the assault on the imagination and creativity generally in the digital age, the human capacity for delusion, we could be exploring any number of facets of the contemporary world but in our explorations the interpretative frameworks we would be using would reflect substantial intellectual inputs, the majority of which are of long-standing.

 

In my twenties and thirties, when much more time was spent in other people’s houses than is the case now, I used to study book shelves. A person’s books revealed who they were and what was important to them; their books also informed their worldview, their interpretative framework. Of course there were times when the books were misleading. There was one woman I knew whose shelves were heavy with Hegel and Habermas, as well as Adorno and Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt school (making a comeback, incidentally, with the rise of the pop president). Whenever this woman and I went away for a weekend, two or three of the heavy boys would come along with us; and, at home, two or three of the books would sit on her bedside table. The pattern did not change over the two years we were close. She would, on occasion, read a page or two, but no significant inroads were made in any of the books. I expect they still sit on a shelf somewhere, bookmarks poking out of early chapters.[i]

With most people, however, I found the book-cases a reliable guide to who they were, and if there were no books displayed back in those paper-filled days, that was a reliable guide too. The bookcase scrutiny test also provided for a sense of location and belonging. You learned who belonged to your intellectual and political tribe. Amongst those of us who were readers, there was enormous common ground, and while times have changed and books are not so much on display, the common ground established decades ago, is still revealed when we are in conversation today.[ii]

Common intellectual ground does its work quietly, until you find yourself in a situation where it is missing. Someone wants to discuss the rise of popularism but has none of the touchstones you have. So you can swap a few facts, but when it comes to ideas you’re stymied. Ideas have roots, and if the roots are different, or, which is often the case, missing entirely, how then do you converse?

In these fast-paced times of fleeting knowledge and multi-tasking, common ground is still being established, but the shared touchstones now tend to have a shorter lifespan than their forebears, and they are less likely to be books. A few years ago, feasting on The West Wing and Six Feet Under, a dedication to Seinfeldand being sure to see the latest Woody Allen film even though Woody had gone off the boil since he went off with the stepdaughter implied a raft of common knowledge and assumptions. TV series as touchstones have now morphed into streaming. Who is binging on what carries far more information than just the name of the series.

The laying of solid ground takes time, and our presentday touchstones have a relatively limited lifespan. Indeed, it’s the discontinuities that prevail these days, not the continuities. The contraction and weakening of shared solid ground have repercussions both for the exchange of ideas as well as the sense of who we are and what we believe. As for that old fundamental sense of connection rendered through books and conversation, social media platforms with all their pleasures and pains, their fickle rewards and lasting punishments have taken over that role.

The way we are communicating is changing rapidly: texts and tweets, Facebook and Snap chat, emails (but perhaps for not much longer) and chat rooms. Phone calls are fast going the way of the dodo, and face-to-face communication, with mobile phones screen-side up and in reach, is constantly interrupted.

Conversation is a skill, and like all skills it requires practice. Common conversational ground is not forming as it once did, and when it does appear. shared touchstones tend to be ephemeral. In the wind and dust of these times, in the bright lights and glittering promises of our age, conversation itself is on shaky ground.

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[i]This same woman was described by some as ‘a genius’. A few years after our friendship had dwindled out, I heard her referred to as ‘an unproductive genius’. Such an oxymoron: the products are the proof of genius; without the products all that’s left is groundless reputation and myth-making.

[ii]The common ground does not remain static. Books and authors are added over the years, and some figures drop away. In recent times, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Timothy Snyder, Alberto Manguel and others have been added to my cultural and political terrain, and I expect Jia Tollentino will earn a place there before too long. With fiction, Elizabeth Strout, Siri Hustvedt and Julian Barnes are in, while out go Lawrence Durrell (extraordinary how a writer so influential in your twenties can become not only irrelevant but actually anathema a few decades later), D.H. Lawrence, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter was perfect for the self-destructive twenties: so much fun to be had while heading for the precipice).

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

SUSAN SONTAG REVIEW

The following review was published in Australian Book Review, March 2015 issue.

ABR has grown in recent years and is well worth a look – both the print version and the on-line version. I’ve just joined the board of ABR, and as a trenchant non-board, non-meeting sort of person, this act says volumes about the publication.

 

SUSAN SONTAG. A Biography. Daniel Schreiber. Trans from German: David Dollenmayer. Northwestern U Press, Evanston, Illinois. $62.95 cloth, 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8101-2583-4.

Susan Sontag. Jerome Boyd Maunsell. Critical Lives Series. Reaktion Books. London. $29.99 pb, 214 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78023 288 1

Susan Sontag

At the age of eight I wanted to be a novelist. By the age of eighteen, having fallen in love with an intellectual, I aspired to be a novelist with sturdy intellectual credentials. There was much work to be done. My beloved set me a course of essential reading, including Susan Sontag’s first two essay collections and her two early novels.

The intellectual lover moved on as youthful lovers do, but Sontag remained: a reliable and enduring guide through my formative years. And while she was not my only guide, she was the most compelling, the most provocative and, indubitably, the most beautiful.

Her essays revealed who I should be reading, whose films I should be seeing, whose art I should be viewing. Sontag alerted me to the style of camp, the power of metaphor, to the complex meanings of photography and pornography. There was a moral imperative operating here – to not know was to be intellectually negligent – and an urgency too: her enthusiasms, the ideas that captivated her and the people she admired, were essential to an intellectual in the making. Sontag introduced me to Walter Benjamin, Borges, Simone Weil, Artaud, Barthes, Elias Canetti and many other luminaries. She shaped my understanding of the films of Godard and Bergman. It was Sontag who had me lining up for hours outside a San Francisco theatre, under assault from neo-Nazis, in order to see a one-off screening of Syberberg’s seven-hour marathon, Our Hitler. A Film from Germany.

The first three essay collections, Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), contain many pieces that still pack a punch today. In contrast, the two early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) were always a struggle. At my first attempts, and with the blindness of the acolyte, I believed my failure to appreciate them was indeed my failure, and not the fault of the work; back in those days, Susan, my Susan, was infallible. That the novels were bad – which they are – simply was not an option.

Sontag’s intellect was voracious, her passion for life was insatiable. She wrote essays, monographs, fiction, she directed plays and films, she was a political activist, she was president of PEN, she travelled extensively, she had many friends and lovers.

From the beginning she was the sort of writer to go against mainstream ideas. In the 1960s, when most intellectuals were narrowly focussed on high culture, she argued the case for popular culture. By the 1990s, when pop culture was thriving and high culture was languishing at the university gates, she took up the banner for high culture. In an interview with Allan Gregg conducted in the late 1990s she said that the role of the writer is to be ‘somewhat adversarial’.

Sontag was forceful, she was eloquent and, yes, she was adversarial. Such characteristics inspire strong responses – accolades as well as criticism. But the qualities which produce exciting, contentious, courageous work are unlikely to emerge from a sweet, gentle, empathic nature. As Yeats suggested: it’s ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’. Some of the responses to Sontag have garnered considerable notoriety, such as Camille Paglia’s diatribe, ‘Sontag Bloody Sontag’ (Vamps and Tramps, 1994), and Terry Castles’ wry, disarmingly honest yet appreciative essay, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB 17/3/2005). A particularly informative and well-received essay about Sontag’s life and work is Joan Acocella’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ published in The New Yorker of 6/3/2000, while a staggeringly mean-spirited essay has come from Elliot Weinberger in his review of At the Same Time, Sontag’s posthumous collection (NYRB, 16/8/2007).

Daniel Schreiber’s biography, originally published in German in 2007, is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study to have appeared after Sontag’s death in December 2004. During the writing of his book, Schreiber was aware that David Rieff, Sontag’s son, planned to publish his mother’s journals. The first volume of these, Reborn, was not to appear until 2009 and Rieff refused Schreiber’s request to view the diaries prior to publication. Rieff’s own deeply personal and anguished memoir of his mother’s last illness and death, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was not published until 2008, and Rieff himself granted only one interview to Schreiber. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner for the last fifteen years of her life, refused Schreiber an interview. To write a biography without input from major players and source material is a risky exercise. In Schreiber’s case, he has failed to pull it off. His is an irritating, amateurish, tepid biography that provides a pedestrian overview of Sontag’s work and fails to illuminate the woman herself.

A good deal of Schreiber’s material is drawn from interviews with Sontag ‘friends’ – Stephen Koch, Richard Howard, Steve Wasserman, Wendy Lesser among others. The nature of these friendships, their duration and dynamic, is given little or no explanation in the text. This, combined with the absence of an acknowledgements section, leaves the reader unable to judge both the worth and integrity of this source material. Sontag valued friendship; at the same time, she was quick to judge and would sever relations with friends if they disappointed her. Enduring friendship was not one of her strong suits, so when ‘friends’ provide so much information we need to know something about them. (An entertaining account of friendship Sontag-style is given by Terry Castles in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ – an essay which, incidentally, includes no mention of any sexual connection between these two alpha females. Yet Schreiber refers to Castles as ‘Sontag’s later lover’ (p.93), referencing an interview he conducted with Castles. Terry Castles has never been coy in print. If she and Sontag had dallied, not to have included this titbit in her essay but conveyed it to Schreiber for his book strikes me as very out-of-character.)

The published sources Schreiber uses are commonly known to Sontag followers, the book lacks a proper index, it contains no images. I did not learn anything new, and was constantly frustrated by what had been left out.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work and integrates the two effectively. Maunsell draws judiciously on the journals as well as Sontag’s body of work. He also makes relevant use of Rieff’s memoir, as well as Sempre Susan (2011), a memoir written by Sigrid Nunez, an early girlfriend of Reiff’s, who lived with him and Sontag in the 1970s. Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.

Susan Sontag was a brilliant and original essayist who wanted her reputation to rest on her fiction. She wrote four novels and published a volume of short stories. Of the novels, three of them, including her last, In America (2000), make for poor reading; only the third, The Volcano Lover, an historical romance shaped around the collector and diplomat, William Hamilton, his beautiful young second wife Emma, and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty, displays the fine focus, the sense of continuity and cohesion, and an intense interest in character that marks good fiction. There’s a tragic dimension to the brilliant essayist who wanted to be recognised as a brilliant novelist.

Susan Sontag did not suffer fools gladly, indeed, she did not suffer them at all. She was impatient with slowness, stupidity and those who held opinions which differed from her own. Deification often occurs when an esteemed person dies, when the person enters what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead’. This has not happened in the case of Sontag, perhaps because deification occurred during her life. But now that she can no longer speak for herself (except in the painfully personal diaries – which make her an even easier target to would-be detractors), people are not holding back.

Only the mediocre person is always at their best, as Somerset Maugham self-consciously said. I have recently re-read Sontag’s essays and monographs. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote nor was I bowled over by all her choices of topic, but I was stimulated and invigorated by the originality of her ideas, by the exactitude of her expression, by the breadth of her knowledge. And grateful too: her work remains a rare pleasure.