(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this collection of forty-one essays, published thirty-five years after the collection Against Interpretation launched Sontag’s reputation as one of the most important American intellectuals, Sontag reaffirms her commitment, as she says of the painter Howard Hodgkin, “to work on behalf of, in praise of, beauty.” Sontag comes not to bury but to praise what she has encountered in her travels through books, museums and galleries, darkened theaters, dance and music halls, and even foreign geographies, where she has sought out such exotica as garden grottoes and volcanoes. Although many of the individual essays take up and articulate the sensual and intellectual riches of a particular subject simply for the sake of celebrating its creation, the essay collection as whole can also be seen as a kind of apologia pro vita sua for Sontag’s own vocation as a consummate mental traveler who is “interested in everything,” and who has continually pursued what might be termed the voluptuousness of artistic experience and knowledge.

Although most of the essays are preoccupied with delineating the small and large pleasures of her aesthetic encounters, Sontag also shares her worries about what she sees as the threatening demises of what she holds most dear—books, the art of reading as the inculcation and nurturing of the inward self, high critical seriousness, the cinema, and even “the idea of Europe.” Moreover, while there are spirited defenses of modernism and modern art throughout the essays, the collection ultimately reveals Sontag’s investment in the Romantic ideal that art should be a vehicle for self-transcendence. Not all of the essays in the collection are equally strong, and there are quite a few of them that are too thin or too occasional—some pieces were originally written for gallery exhibition catalogues and performance programs, some are all too brief prefatory appreciations, and there is even one “note,” on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615), written for a National Tourist Board of Spain catalogue. Moreover, much of the writing gathered here could be faulted for lacking the focus, power, and originality of Sontag’s earlier expository writings; nevertheless, quite a few of the essays more than amply demonstrate what Sontag believes emerges in the writing of Roland Barthes—“a vision of the life of the mind as a life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure.”

By way of exemplifying the multiple levels of her aesthetic sensibility, Sontag has divided the collection into three sections, “Reading,” “Seeing,” and “There and Here,” each of which encapsulates a distinctive mode for encountering world culture: reading, seeing, and traveling. The first section, therefore, is mainly comprised of writing on literature in a variety of shorter and longer forms—critical essays and appreciations, as well as book forewords and introductions. As is typical with most of Sontag’s forays into literature, the emphasis is on the work of Continental writers, such as W. G. Sebald, Roland Barthes, and Danilo Kiš, and on lesser-known international writers. Only the title essay, “Where the Stress Falls,” an exposition of the modern techniques of narrative perspective in the novel originally written for The New Yorker, focuses on American writing—that of the little-known novelist Glenway Wescott as well as the more renowned authors Ford Madox Ford, Randall Jarrell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.

The essays in this section perform a variety of critical functions. In some cases, Sontag simply wishes to introduce the work of an author whom she feels has been little appreciated, and therefore she has included some short essays that originally served as prefaces in editions of an author’s work. For example, there is a spirited introduction to the little-known Latin American “masterpiece,” Memórias póstumas de Brás Cunas (1880), an imaginary autobiography by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, which Sontag believes is as noteworthy and “modern” as Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), and upon which she bestows the title of “greatness” because it is “one of those thrillingly original, radically skeptical books that will always impress readers with the force of a private discovery.” Likewise, she lavishly praises the storytelling talents of Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1918-1986) who, although famous in his home country in his lifetime and highly influential upon other Spanish-speaking authors, was relatively unknown in the United States until Sontag arranged for a new English translation of his novel Pedro Páramo (1955) in 1994.

In other cases, the appreciation of an author’s work is an occasion to articulate the pleasures and insights to be gained from slightly larger subjects. Therefore, in her introductions to prose works by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva and the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (“A Poet’s Prose” and “The Wisdom...

(The entire section is 2049 words.)