This is a memoiristic book and a dual portrait, built around intense friendships with two leading public intellectuals who achieved celebrity status—Susan Sontag on a global scale, George Steiner principally in Europe, though also for a time in the US. For audiences at Woody Allen movies Sontag was the prime embodiment of the term “intellectual,” whose famous 1965 essay “Notes on Camp” won her an enormous following. For viewers of French, German and British television over decades Steiner was the primary interview show talking head, igniting controversy on many fronts, while also commanding a loyal audience for thirty years as a book critic at The New Yorker. To know Sontag and Steiner, as this memoir suggests, was often to feel overmatched and yet also bemused and awe-struck. Both of them gave off an air of omniscience and self-confidence, as if they had taken to heart the words of the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, who wrote, “I cannot become modest; too many things burn in me.”
Maestros & Monsters is the work of a well-known public intellectual who was close to Sontag and Steiner over a half century, and who managed to bring them together on several occasions—the only times they ever met. Those encounters are among the most bizarre episodes in this narrative, which also features extended encounters with such literary figures as Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Phillip Rieff, James Wood and others.
Part One: The Fascination of What's Difficult: Susan Sontag
Chapter 1 Seriously Uncool? 21
Chapter 2 Is This Rude? 34
Chapter 3Disappointments and Dismissals 44
Chapter 4 Authority Figure. 58
Chapter 5 Turn of the Cultural Wheel 70
Chapter 6 The Therapeutic 80
Chapter 7 To Teach or Not 90
Chapter 8 Motherhood and Sexuality. 99
Chapter 9 Rhapsode 106
Part Two: Impossible to Tell: George Steiner
Chapter 1 A First Meeting. 113
Chapter 2 I Had a Good Time 120
Chapter 3 Under Attack 128
Chapter 4 Master Teacher 139
Chapter 5 An Evening with Arthur Koestler. 151
Chapter 6 A Brave Beginning 162
Chapter 7 Creative Distortion. 170
Chapter 8 I Wish You Hadn't Done That. 182
Chapter 9. An Academy of One 195
Names Index 217
About The Author219
ROBERT BOYERS, born in 1942, founded the American quarterly magazine Salmagundi in 1965 and continues to edit the journal, to teach at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and to direct the New York State Summer Writers Institute. As a graduate student at New York University in 1965 he first got to know George Steiner, and a year later began correspondence with Susan Sontag, these initial contacts leading to intense, sometimes difficult friendships that persisted over decades. Boyers is the author of hundreds of periodical essays and of a dozen books, most recently a widely discussed book on the "culture wars" entitled The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy & The Hunt for Political Heresies. His other books include two works on politics and the novel, a volume of short stories and a 2015 book on The Fate of Ideas. In 2009 he edited and wrote the introduction for George Steiner at The New Yorker, a book that has been published in more than twenty languages.
Short Biographies of the Subjects of This Memoir:
SUSAN SONTAG, born in 1933, was the best-known public intellectual in the United States for about forty years, roughly from the appearance of her famous essay Notes on Camp in 1965 until the time of her death in 2004.Though she made feature films and wrote a good deal of fiction--she won the National Book Award for her novel In America in 2002--she was principally read and admired as an essayist, critic and polemicist. She was also widely admired as a human rights activist who wrote about her experiences in war zones in Sarajevo, the Middle East and Vietnam. Her many books include Illness as Metaphor, On Photography, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Under the Sign of Saturn and At the Same Time. A biography of Sontag by Benjamin Moser won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
GEORGE STEINER, born in 1929, was a European intellectual and man of letters who attracted an enormous following in the United States, initially based upon the publication of early books like The Death of Tragedy, Tolstoy or Dostoyevski and Language & Silence. But his influence also had much to do with his role as a regular book critic for The New Yorker Magazine and with the periodical writing he did for the leading newspapers and magazines. Many readers regarded him as the most learned thinker of his generation, and also as the most thrilling lecturer they had ever seen, His major books include After Babel,Antigones, Extraterritorial, Real Presences and a controversial “Holocaust novel” entitled The Portage to San Cristobal of AH. He died in 2020.
A delicious portrait of two difficult, brilliant intellectuals, and a spirited vindication of criticism as a noble calling.--Garth Greenwell
This superb book takes us back to the last moments of the golden age of American letters. --Cornel West
Robert Boyers has been in close contact with every seismic shift in literary, intellectual, artistic, and academic quarters.--Joyce Carol Oates
A moving contribution to the history of our intellectual culture.--Darryl Pinckney
A thrillingly generous book ... in the grand tradition of Samuel Johnson's "Lives of the Poets," Sainte-Beuve's biographical sketches, and Turgenev's "Literary Reminiscences."--Philip Lopate