When Susan Sontag died in the winter of 2004—at seventy-one, far too soon for her powers to have been exhausted or her intellect to have been slaked—she left a memorable and mottled trail. Much of her life will endure in photographs—but cameras, she argued, do not so much defeat transience as render it “more acute.” Still, here she is on the back cover of my browning paperback copy of The Benefactor, a first novel published in 1963, when she was twenty-nine: dark-haired, dark-browed, sublimely perfected in her youth. The novel, which reads like an audacious, sly, somewhat stilted translation from the French of a nineteenth-century philosophical memoir, ends with “a photograph of myself”—the self of the old narrator, who is contemplating his death. How distant death must have seemed to the young novelist then! In another photograph, dated 1975, she is lying on her back, hands under her head, with strongly...


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