In the Sontag Archives

Benjamin Moser in The New Yorker:

SontagAny biographer knows the unease, sometimes verging on nausea, that extended research into a single person’s life brings. I never met Sontag or Clarice Lispector, the subject of my last book. But after years of research, interviews, reading, and travelling, I probably know more about both of them than anyone outside their most intimate circles. I know about their sex lives and finances and medical records and professional failures, about their difficulties with their children and their parents, about the painful secrets that they desperately longed to conceal.

Even without these struggles, which are part of every life, the form, too, imposes choices. Just as history is not the past itself but a story about the past, biography is not a life but a life story. Just as a novelist gets to know his or her characters, a biographer gets to know his, too, and, in the face of the sprawling chaos of an entire life, knows that whatever he can tell about the subject is only a small selection that fits a narrative chosen according to his own tastes and interests.

He is also always aware that the biographer’s position, which necessarily involves judgments about the subject’s character and the choices she made, is profoundly unjust, for the simple reason that the subject herself cannot be consulted.

I am familiar with these concerns, and have always borne them in mind. Still, reading papers and manuscripts is one thing. Looking through someone’s e-mail is quite another, and the feeling of creepiness and voyeurism that overcame me as I sat with Gonzalez struggled with the unstoppable curiosity that I feel about Sontag’s life. To read someone’s e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time. If most e-mails are not interesting (“The car will pick you up at 7:30 if that’s ok xxx”), others reveal unexpected qualities that are delightful to discover. (Who would have suspected, for example, that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading “Whassup?”) One sees Sontag, who had so many friends, elated to be in such easy touch with them (“I’m catching the e-mail fever!”); one sees the insatiably lonely writer reaching out to people she hardly knew and inviting them to pay a call. In their reactions, one reads their bemusement, how hesitant they were to bother the icon, with her fearsome reputation.

Read more here.