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Arts & Culture

‘I had a chance on something random’: Benjamin Moser’s journey from Brown to Pulitzer Prize

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Moser ’98 offers metaphorical view of late intellectual Susan Sontag

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Among the thousands of diaries, essays and film scripts in the University of California at Los Angeles’ archive of the late literary giant Susan Sontag, there is a photo of Sontag’s mother and grandmother — Mildred Sontag and Sarah Leah Jacobson —  posing during an early Hollywood production about the Armenian Genocide. Out of the “100 anecdotes you could choose,” Benjamin Moser ’98 picked this photo to begin his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” a chronicle of her journey and the legacy she left for her readers.

While an undergraduate at Brown, Moser concentrated in History and Portuguese. After first endeavoring to study Chinese, Moser eventually switched to Portuguese, a language that he never thought about learning, but ended up loving. In his third semester, Moser began reading books by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, which he “totally fell in love with.”

Lispector left him “fascinated by this world of great intellectual women in the 20th century.”

Since then, Moser has spent nearly 20 years publishing Lispector’s completed works in English and other languages. In 2009, he published a biography of the Brazilian novelist.

In her story, Moser found some comparisons to Sontag’s, another 20th century woman writer whose notable works include “Notes On ‘Camp’, “Against Interpretation” and “On Photography.”

“I didn’t realize how different their lives have been and how foreign it was like … what a strange world they inhabited even though they seem very contemporary,” he told The Herald.

With Lispector from his years at Brown in mind, Moser began writing Sontag’s biography in 2012. Over the course of seven years, he poured through countless diaries, film scripts, essays and personal notes and conducted 573 interviews — tracing Sontag’s paths across countries, and following her footsteps in New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Sarajevo.

Moser’s final product — an 832-page-long biography of Sontag — is really “a short book,” he said. Ultimately, the author thought it felt superficial, because he “left out so much.”

“I left 90 percent of what I knew about her” out of the book, he said. The research he conducted acted as a “foundation, it’s your basis.”

“But it’s also your challenge. Because when you have so much stuff, it can really overwhelm you.”

Organization became a priority during Moser’s research phase — selecting and omitting certain episodes of Sontag’s life for his book was like a “jigsaw puzzle.”

“Sometimes they’ll have some amazing quote or story and it just doesn’t fit. … You feel it almost physically, like when you’re reading it, your eyes will stop — and you think no, I have to just leave it out.”

Since winning the Pulitzer Prize, which was announced May 4, Moser’s version of Susan Sontag’s life has received mixed reviews from critics. The Los Angeles Review of Books claimed the book was  a “travesty” for arguing that Philip Rieff’s “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist” was actually written by Sontag.

But Moser anticipated the polarizing reception of his biography. “You’re always surrounded by people who are sort of looking over your shoulder and judging you,” he said.

“With a figure like Sontag, there’s no way people will agree with everything I say about her. … I have a point of view about a lot of things that are in the book, so I’m not trying to hide that because I also think it’s a disservice to Sontag,” he said. “She was a figure that was a focus of debate for her whole life.”

In his biography of Sontag, Moser offers a multidimensional portrait of the great American intellectual: her legacy, her radical thoughts and her journey from suburban girl to one of the most emblematic symbols of cosmopolitanism in the 1960s. He said the process of diving into Sontag’s life was like entering a marriage.

His perception of Sontag changed over the course of his research and writing, like “the person that you met on your first date versus the person you’ve been married to for 50 years.”

Sontag’s dynamic nature “moves with culture and history” and keeps her legacy interesting and relevant, Moser said. If a person’s story is “static, they’re just like a statue on a horse, they’re just not that interesting.”

“I hope this Pulitzer Prize means that even more people will get to know her and engage with her and see how current her concerns are,” he said. “I hope she would understand that even when I point out things that I don’t think she got right, I’m doing it to the service of the debates that she was such a central part of for so many years.”

During college, Moser was told that he was “the only person in (his) class at Brown who was in the bottom half” of his high school class. For him, Brown was really a “liberation”: The open curriculum allowed him to choose a path, explore his interests and “strengthen the areas (he) was good at.”

“The reason why I have a Pulitzer Prize is because I had a chance on something random,” he said. “Studying Portuguese, which led to my career.”

Brown was an exploratory environment, he said, where people were “willing to take risks and explore things. And that’s exactly what you need as a writer.”

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