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Susan Sontag Biography

(1933–2004), The Benefactor, Death Kit, nouveau roman, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will

novel american style california

American novelist, critic, and film-maker, born in New York City, educated at the Universities of California, Chicago, and Harvard. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California. Though Sontag is best known for her prolific and influential cultural criticism, she sees herself primarily as a writer of fiction. Her first novel, The Benefactor (1963), is an ambitious work in which a male, European narrator, Hippolyte, examines, in elegantly austere prose, his experiences and sensibilities, and often outrageous dreams. The novel's disquisitions on absurdity and aesthetics caused critics to discern the influence of Kafka, Beckett, Sartre, and Camus, but Sontag has recast her European borrowings in a distinctive, contemporary American mould; this is evident in her next novel, Death Kit (1967), which again focuses on a male figure, the American Diddy, and in its bold and occasionally violent style bears a comparable relationship to the nouveau roman. Style was of primary importance to Sontag in the first decades of her fame; her essays on literature, cinema, photography, and other art forms are collected in several volumes, including Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). But, from the mid-1970s, her writings indicated a slight shift in position; she stated that she then realized the importance of a historical perspective. Her moral preoccupations are evident in her book-length essays: ‘On Photography’ (1977), ‘Illness as Metaphor’ (1978), inspired by her own encounter with cancer, and ‘Aids as Metaphor’ (1989). Sontag's reputation as a writer of fiction was built largely on her innovative, quirky stories, collected in I, etcetera (1977). However, her later novel The Volcano Lover (1992) signalled a new phase in her career. Ostensibly a historical romance inspired by the lives of William (the volcano lover of the title) and Emma Hamilton, this ambitious polyphonic work—told in first-, second-, and third-person voices by a variety of narrators both central and peripheral—conflates Sontag's thoughts on aesthetics and history, revolution and feminism, destiny and passion with intelligence, wit, and, above all, style.

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