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Three Biographies to Enjoy in Quarantine

The lives of Susan Sontag, Bernard Buffet and Claude Lanzmann

Aniela Rybak | 15 June 2020

During the first three weeks of Warsaw’s lockdown (two of which I spent alone in quarantine), I read three different biographies that made me reflect on the genre in general, beyond just the lives of the three individuals. Now, when we may feel that our lives have been put on pause, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to read about somebody else’s experiences. Virginia Woolf, in her essay The Art of Biography, asks whether biography can be considered art. She not only comes to the conclusion that this genre is as valuable as other types of literature, but also says that sometimes a fact highlighted in a biography will stay with its reader for a long time and return to them in the most unexpected of ways. I want to recommend to you these three books, because I am pretty sure some of their fragments will linger on in the memory of their readers for longer.

Susan Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser

Cover of Susan Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser (Cover Allen Lane, Penguin Books)

This recent Pulitzer Prize winner was a real page-turner. The reason behind this might not have only been the book itself, but mainly my growing fascination for Sontag. Nevertheless, Moser presents his subject in an absolutely fascinating way. Focused mainly on the writer’s personal life, he intertwines the narrative with fragments of her own writing. The way he presents the image of Susan Sontag is definitely interesting - an intellectual travelling across the US and Europe, settling down in New York and becoming a significant member of the local artistic circle, spending time with Andy Warhol and developing a relationship with Annie Leibovitz. However, at the same time, Moser does not hesitate to show us her vulnerability. He writes about her sexuality, relationship with her mother, and her lack of self-confidence without any boundaries. His biography almost does not leave anything to the imagination; it describes every aspect of Susan’s life. Moser’s approach is deeply personal, but because of this, he manages to reflect on how complex and intriguing of a personality Susan Sontag was.

Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Mega Artist by Nicholas Foulkes

Cover of Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist by Nicholas Foulkes (Arrow, Penguin Books)

Prior to reading his biography, which I received as a gift, I did not know anything about Bernard Buffet. Never heard his name or seen his art, even though he was a world-famous celebrity at the peak of his career and the youngest artist to win a prestigious Prix de la Critique. At one point, he was even considered more admired than Picasso, the most popular painter in the world. The aim of this book is to try and bring Buffet out of his shadow, breaking the myth that he was only a careless individual spending ridiculous amounts of money on extravagant cars or enormous houses. Foulkes is trying to prove to his readers that Buffet was first and foremost an extremely creative and prolific artist (he created more than 8,000 works), which was the reason why he became well-known in the first place. Foulkes describes the excitement of living in Paris in the second part of the 20th century in a way that makes you want to move there immediately and become part of the Artistic Bohemia.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoire by Claude Lanzmann

Cover of The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The last book I want to mention is actually an autobiography, which makes it a little bit different from the other two. Lanzmann is mainly known for his 9-hour long film Shoah (1985) about the Holocaust. Apart from being a filmmaker, he was also a writer-- a very good one if I may add. It is always tricky to judge someone’s autobiography; after all, they have decided to share their most private thoughts and experiences with the world. Lanzmann is inviting the reader on an adventure throughout his life, but none of the stops are particularly long - his story unravels while maintaining a good pace. It is well balanced, with personal anecdotes and information on his many works. Even though it is difficult to write about oneself and not become too arrogant, I think Lanzmann did manage to avoid doing so. Additionally, the book can be enjoyed even by someone with little knowledge of his other works.


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