While it is hard enough to find a good book of criticism, to find a good book of criticism about criticism is nearly impossible. Yet Craig Seligman’s “Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me,” is just that. Branching out from an encyclopedic knowledge of both Susan Sontag’s and Pauline Kael’s work, the author explores every corner of his subjects’ minds and hearts. It is a work strong enough to captivate even those with no prior knowledge of either Kael or Sontag.
The book’s driving force is the author’s relationship to his two formidable subjects. Seligman’s feelings for the late Kael are proudly affectionate. As a young man, he devoured her writing; as a young adult, he was her typist and fact-checker at The New Yorker; later, he was her friend. His love for Kael is so powerful that it is never diminished by his clear-eyed understanding of her foibles as a human being and a writer.
The author’s feelings for Sontag are more complex, and, though not as poignant, they are more compelling. If Kael was a prickly pear, Sontag is a porcupine. She has a unique ability to alienate, even enrage, her readers – as anyone who remembers her all-too-honest postscript to the tragedy of Sept. 11 knows only too well. Seligman’s respect for Sontag as a thinker is vast, but it is his misgivings about her as a human being that make for good reading.
In a chapter spent assessing his subjects’ harshest critics Seligman is astoundingly fair. He strives to honor both the light and the dark side of his subjects – and to understand the nature of both.
Something that separates the book from so much critical thinking these days is the way in which the author invests not merely his intellect in his subject, but his whole heart. The final pages, in which he remembers where he was when he first read certain reviews of Kael’s, feature exquisite prose and are profoundly moving.
Ultimately, the book provokes deep affection and understanding for its subjects. With a strong overview of the works and careers of Sontag and Kael, and glimpses into their minds and spirits, the reader is ready to approach (or reapproach) their work, enriched by Seligman’s honest sentiment and sound judgment.