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Notes on Sontag [Hardcover]

Phillip Lopate

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Book Description

March 29 2009 Writers on Writers

Notes on Sontag is a frank, witty, and entertaining reflection on the work, influence, and personality of one of the "foremost interpreters of . . . our recent contemporary moment." Adopting Sontag's favorite form, a set of brief essays or notes that circle around a topic from different perspectives, renowned essayist Phillip Lopate considers the achievements and limitations of his tantalizing, daunting subject through what is fundamentally a conversation between two writers. Reactions to Sontag tend to be polarized, but Lopate's account of Sontag's significance to him and to the culture over which she loomed is neither hagiography nor hatchet job. Despite admiring and being inspired by her essays, he admits a persistent ambivalence about Sontag. Lopate also describes the figure she cut in person through a series of wry personal anecdotes of his encounters with her over the years.

Setting out from middle-class California to invent herself as a European-style intellectual, Sontag raised the bar of critical discourse and offered up a model of a freethinking, imaginative, and sensual woman. But while crediting her successes, Lopate also looks at how her taste for aphorism and the radical high ground led her into exaggerations that could do violence to her own common sense, and how her ambition to be seen primarily as a novelist made her undervalue her brilliant essays. Honest yet sympathetic, Lopate's engaging evaluation reveals a Sontag who was both an original and very much a person of her time.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (March 29 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691135703
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691135700
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12 x 2.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 249 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,117,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009

"With the thoroughness and clarity of a latter-day Edmund Wilson and an urbanity and wit that are all his own, Phillip Lopate has given us, in the modest guise of these Notes, an extraordinarily rewarding study."--Rachel Hadas, Times Literary Supplement

"Notes on Sontag achieves a remarkable evenhandedness, caressing even as it kicks. The author gives ample credit where it's due, particularly when he champions Sontag's unparalleled aphoristic style and her essays. Throughout, Lopate, a beautiful and sometimes very funny writer, exudes a relaxed self-awareness about his own strengths and weaknesses, admitting, for instance, that he once sought Sontag's approval (she was an acquaintance). In the end, his toughness and self-knowledge actually enhance his praise. He takes Sontag seriously, and even if he finds her ridiculous at times, his persuasive prose makes it clear that he misses her: 'Sontag's best ruminations have a power and cohesion that merit countless revisitation, both to savor their insights and wonder how she did it.'"--Time Out New York

"Lopate has produced an absolute gem of a book. In places personal (he knew Sontag for many years), but more often focused on the work itself--essays, fiction, films, reviews--this book stands as the best appreciation of Sontag in print and is an ideal introduction to this major American thinker."--Choice

"Lopate's book . . . is a deeply personal study of an intellect and a provocative public figure. It is an excellent introduction to Sontag, a brief yet tantalizing piece of work for those inspired by, and those who wish to discover, her."--Anette Carter, Women's News

"A reflection on both Sontag's specific oeuvre and literary life in general, Notes on Sontag. will reward both those who know Sontag's work well and those only beginning to make her acquaintance."--Jennifer Burns, Virginia Quarterly Review

"[T]he book offers a multifaceted, challenging and vivid picture of an elaborate personality--all conveyed through a very personal lens."--Mihaela Culea, European Legacy

"A multi-level monograph that deals with her life and writings together and takes a deep bite out of the cultural issues that Sontag's journals merely make a dent in, such as her ability to make a fictional character out of herself and in fact to build a whole narrative style without recourse to psychology. Lopate is also a clear and careful writer of prose."--George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun

From the Inside Flap

"Phillip Lopate is so sensible that we can overlook just how smart and audacious he also is. In Notes on Sontag, he manages a dazzling, melancholy anatomy as Robert Burton would have understood the notion, and his interrogation of Sontag is all the more impressive and resonant because this is a self-interrogation too, shrewd, ardent, skeptical, canny."--Robert Polito, director of the New School Writing Program

"Susan Sontag was an indispensable writer, and she has now been engaged by an equally indispensable writer whose essential charm, irreverence, and gift for the unexpected make him an ideal guide to Sontag's work. Lopate's book is at once intensely personal and rigorous, never less than passionate in its commitment to what is most bracing and individual in Sontag's writing."--Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi

"This is just what we need: a book on Susan Sontag by a writer allergic to hype and genuinely fascinated by Sontag's ideas and the implications of her cultural presence. Lopate is exacting in his estimates--able to praise and criticize with equal sureness. He speaks straight, from eye-level, as a literary colleague: he knew Sontag and has heard all the stories. More important, he knows the work and its subjects--the novels, films, and debates--deeply. Notes on Sontag is a portrait of the author; it is also a portrait of an era in American intellectual life."--Sven Birkerts, author of Reading Life: Books for the Ages

"Lopate and Sontag are an inspired pairing. Lopate has just the right distance on Sontag--neither sycophant nor peer--to write trenchantly and sympathetically about her achievements, but he's also unsparing about her occasional idiocies. Some of the best things in the book are the personal vignettes about close encounters with Sontag, where Lopate stands in for the reader and fan, often getting burned in the process."--Christopher Benfey, Mount Holyoke College

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Art of Balance April 12 2009
By bettina podler - Published on
There's great imaginative sympathy in this assessment of Sontag and her work, and no knife in the ribs. It's utterly unlike those remembrances of literary celebrities by contemporaries who establish their authority by boasting of intimacy with the subject and then use these occasions to tell secrets and destroy reputations.
Judicious though the book is, Lopate's tone is anything but solemn. Instead, he registers his interest, approval, exasperation, amusement, disapproval, envy of Sontag, conflicted longing for friendship with her, etc., as he goes along. He writes here both as critic and as personal essayist and what he creates is a kind of double portrait. By acknowledging and examining his reactions, he frees himself from their control; that makes his stance toward his subject particularly supple, and his insights multi-angled.
Through his career as a personal essayist, Lopate has valued balance. He has demonstrated the art of balance in his own personal essays and students and admirers have taken note. It hasn't been a cautious, middle-of-the-road kind of exercise, but a real struggle, at times a painful one, requiring the disclosure of much that is unbecoming. Over and over he has achieved it (would that Sontag had!). Here he has done it again, and with this little book, has -- I believe -- truly established himself as a literary senior statesman.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lopates take on Sontag June 7 2010
By Randall L. Wilson - Published on
Philip Lopate is a wonderful essayist with an always engaging personal style. He does a credible job at reviewing Sontag's work and personality as he experienced it and her. He also comes clean on his need for her approval and having to live with the fact that he never got it.

But I think he dances around the elephant in the room which is Sontag's self-mythology that spawned a cultural equivalent about her. While much of her writing is laudable, incisive and even brillant, it will be her iconic status as both the high priestess of intellectual seriousness and that of the sexy, man-eating intellectual that will forever cast a shadow over often her impressive work.

Maybe Lopate was too close to both aspects - the intellectual elite where Sontag really matters and his own personal even if tenuous relationship with the diva.

For all her brilliance, Sontag is said to have been a petty, insecure, often cold and insensitive snob who was unable to transform her acute intelligence into productive self awareness and dare I say, grace as she aged.

That is what made her iconic, the towering intellectual who was clueless about human beings. I believe that her soaring gracelessness is the stuff of New York intelligentsia legend. Lopate hints at this reputation and gives us just a taste of it in the book. Rather than tip-toe around the Sontagian personality, that toxic mixture of myth making, extreme vulnerability, massive ego, and extreme vitality, he should have confronted it directly along with her writing. For the truth is that Sontag will forever remain a legendary personality that will be remember long after anyone remembers the title of a single one of her books.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fair Dec 29 2010
By Steiner - Published on
Phillip Lopate is an essayist writing a warm essay about a great essayist, the late Susan Sontag. This little book is an incisive account of Sontag's accomplished aesthetic and cultural writings; it traces her career from the stylish and radical defender of camp to the solemn moralist of Regarding the Pain of Others. Lopate strives for balance in his account, he constantly weighs her achievements against her failings as a novelist in such a way as to present a reasonably fair assessment. There are naturally many moments of Lopate's own insecurity in this text-too many anecdotes regarding Sontag's failure to see his talent. But still, this is a rich and valuable text.
4.0 out of 5 stars not bad Jan. 27 2014
By Zöe - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
He gives some rare seen details about Sontag, it feels like a combination of memoir and a long essay. ^^
7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Much Ado About Noting March 23 2009
By Charles Weinstein - Published on
Phillip Lopate, warm and sane as ever, labors diligently to persuade us that Sontag is a major intellect and a permanent writer. He fails, of course, but that is Sontag's fault and not his own. Lopate can be faulted for his Manhattan insularity, his dated cinephilia, his excessive loyalty to formative youth experiences (the latter accounting for both his datedness and his insularity). But these are human frailties, and Lopate is never less than attractively human, something which can hardly be said of Sontag.

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