Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Kael?

How two women authors molded two male writers they never knew

Seligman goes much easier on Kael, to whom he admits he was personally close, even nursing her during some of her declining years when she suffered from Parkinson's disease. He doesn't schtush over her, gaily celebrating her triumphant reign at The New Yorker and her clashes with other film critics (like Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory Kael trashed witheringly) while defending her post-'70s writing—most of us think of it as in severe decline—as reviews that are accomplishments of high style. He couldn't be more wrong about that: you can read the reviews from the mid-'70s collected in, say, Reeling and feel the pressurized intelligence of a writer for whom every movie is an expression of a boiling, roiling national consciousness. Read her last book, Movie Love, and she seems as though she's given up on movies (especially foreign films, which she nearly abandoned), saving her enthusiasms for Steve Martin comedies and Star Trek sequels.

But what Seligman does accomplish throughout these four lengthy essays that really are "essays" in the original sense—attempts to think through a subject by writing about it, the essays serving as records of his process of discovery—is a demonstration that his own sensibility was formed by facing conflict and wrestling contradiction, which is of course how all interesting sensibilities are forged. Sontag liked to quote Oscar Wilde: "A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true." Wilde was right (and of course wrong) about that, and this book's dwelling on the contradictions these women created in a young writer's mind is continually revealing and insightful. It's Seligman's Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man.

SONTAG AND KAEL: OPPOSITES ATTRACT ME BY CRAIG SELIGMAN; COUNTERPOINT. HARDCOVER, 231 PAGES, $23.

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