Edmund White on Susan Sontag

Edmund White remembers Susan Sontag, who passed away in 2004:
Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag was one of the last public intellectuals in America. Though she sometimes taught, she hated teaching. Unlike an academic, her interests were far-ranging. She wrote about the movies, about such key French writers as Roland Barthes and Antonin Artaud, about photography, about cancer, about Aids, about fascism – and she wrote two big, ambitious novels towards the end of her life. She wrote plays and directed some, directed movies, appeared on endless panels discussing countless topics. When Elias Canetti won the Nobel prize, Susan's was the only essay about him in English. She was the first one I knew to mention WG Sebald, Danilo Kiš and Roberto Bolaño – all considered major literary figures now.

Sontag also took unpopular political positions. On 6 February 1982 she delivered a speech at Town Hall in New York in which she denounced communism as a form of fascism, which enraged the left. After 9/11 she offended everyone by writing in the New Yorker that it was foolish to describe the suicide pilots who flew into the World Trade Centre as "cowards".

Since her death several people who knew her have written disobliging portraits of her. I tried to make mine in City Boy even-handed but, like the other writers no doubt, I was surprised by the depth of my wounded and negative feelings. She could be high-handed and dismissive, probably the result of her being so famous throughout her life; for every old friend who fell by the wayside there were a hundred new candidates springing up in her path.

I once told her I wanted to write a biography of her called The Dandy and the Rabbi; she quickly substituted the word "Priest", since (like Proust) she preferred the "universality" of Catholicism to what she perceived as the singularity of Judaism. What I meant by the title was that when she was with moralists she'd become an aesthete, but when she was surrounded by aesthetes she'd take a high moral tone. Those did seem to be the opposing forces in her intellectual life – and they generated a fascinating discourse over many decades. She was irreplaceable and she won't be replaced.