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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

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Sigrid Núñez was an aspiring writer when she first met Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Núñez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Núñez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Núñez, “Who says we have to live Sigrid Núñez was an aspiring writer when she first met Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Núñez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Núñez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Núñez, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” Sontag’s influence on Núñez, who went on to become a successful novelist, would be profound. Described by Núñez as “a natural mentor,” who saw educating others as both a moral obligation and a source of endless pleasure, Sontag inevitably infected those around her with her many cultural and intellectual passions. In this poignant, intimate memoir, Núñez speaks of her gratitude for having had, as an early model, “someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.” For Sontag, she writes, “there could be no nobler pursuit, no greater adventure, no more rewarding quest.” Núñez gives a sharp sense of the charged, polarizing atmosphere that enveloped Sontag whenever she published a book, gave a lecture, or simply walked into a room. Published more than six years after Sontag’s death, Sempre Susan is a startlingly truthful portrait of this outsized personality, who made being an intellectual a glamorous occupation.


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Sigrid Núñez was an aspiring writer when she first met Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Núñez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Núñez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Núñez, “Who says we have to live Sigrid Núñez was an aspiring writer when she first met Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Núñez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Núñez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Núñez, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” Sontag’s influence on Núñez, who went on to become a successful novelist, would be profound. Described by Núñez as “a natural mentor,” who saw educating others as both a moral obligation and a source of endless pleasure, Sontag inevitably infected those around her with her many cultural and intellectual passions. In this poignant, intimate memoir, Núñez speaks of her gratitude for having had, as an early model, “someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.” For Sontag, she writes, “there could be no nobler pursuit, no greater adventure, no more rewarding quest.” Núñez gives a sharp sense of the charged, polarizing atmosphere that enveloped Sontag whenever she published a book, gave a lecture, or simply walked into a room. Published more than six years after Sontag’s death, Sempre Susan is a startlingly truthful portrait of this outsized personality, who made being an intellectual a glamorous occupation.

30 review for Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

  1. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

    I adore this book. It made me want to do 3 things: 1. Read more of Sigrid Nunez. 2. Read more Susan Sontag. 3. Be Susan Sontag, or at least believe I could be Susan Sontag. This book is perfect in many ways, from the length to its treatment of the topic. It is based on a pretty implausible premise (but a true one): she was Susan Sontag's assistant and was dating Sontag's son and then moved in with them. Sounds completely nuts. And something that led to a messed-up relationship with Sontag and the I adore this book. It made me want to do 3 things: 1. Read more of Sigrid Nunez. 2. Read more Susan Sontag. 3. Be Susan Sontag, or at least believe I could be Susan Sontag. This book is perfect in many ways, from the length to its treatment of the topic. It is based on a pretty implausible premise (but a true one): she was Susan Sontag's assistant and was dating Sontag's son and then moved in with them. Sounds completely nuts. And something that led to a messed-up relationship with Sontag and the son and the literary world. But how amazing of an experience? And how fortunate we are that she is such a good writer as well, so she can share some memories of it with us. I'm sure Nunez could have written a much longer book about these experiences, and I think it is extremely good judgment that she has condensed them down into a literary work in its own right, not just because of the subject. And I think the point of this book is not to make people want to be Susan Sontag (it is not a mean portrait or a slander by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hardly flattering in some points), but that's what happened to me when I read this book. Perhaps I fancy that Sontag seems like a really extreme version of my college self, which is something I always secretly wish I could go back to. I could be sleepless, drugged up on caffeine, writing for days at a time, reading a lot, collecting books, thinking constantly, drinking little, judging other women for femininity, etc. I also think I use "boring" a lot. See? I'm almost there. Sadly, that's not what my life is like, and I have a job (a huge sign of failure for Sontag), but there is always a dream of success. (I'm being partially facetious; it's up to you to figure out how much.) --- FAVOURITE QUOTES --- "Looking back, I only wish that I could feel more joy -- or, at least, that I could find a way of remembering that is not so painful." (35) "After all, what mattered was the life of the mind, and for that life to be lived fully, reading was the necessity." (84) "She often struck me as someone who wanted to be feeling ten times what she actually felt. Ten times happier, or ten times sadder, or ten times more stimulated by whatever it was that had her attention. (Could this have been at least partly at the root of her hunger to watch so many movies and performances -- to repeat every experience that gave her pleasure -- such a staggering number of times? Never enough: what a cruel ethic to live by." (133)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Julie Ehlers

    In general, [Susan] had contempt for people who didn't do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they were very poor, made their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile. She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they were willing to acknowledge. She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, In general, [Susan] had contempt for people who didn't do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they were very poor, made their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile. She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they were willing to acknowledge. She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, and she was always after me to take that control. "Stop letting people bully you," she would bully me. I don't know, Susan Sontag sounds kind of awesome. Sempre Susan is a unique book. When Sigrid Nunez (winner of a 2018 National Book Award) was just starting out as a writer, she worked very briefly as Susan Sontag's assistant, began dating Sontag's son David, and moved in with the two of them for what seems like a relatively brief amount of time, a year or so. This is Nunez's memoir of that time. It's different from any biographical treatment, not only because Nunez was actually living with her subject, but also because Sontag was going through cancer treatment for at least part of that time. So this short book is an encapsulation of an unusual period of both Sontag's and Nunez's lives. The book is well-written and highly entertaining and definitely gave me a good idea of what Sontag was like as a person, but the tone of it bothered me. I have no doubt that Sontag could be difficult, but she was also clearly operating on a different plane from most of us, and I thought Nunez was a bit too snarky about her (as the quote above might imply). It's ultimately a fond portrayal, but even after all these years, Nunez obviously still sees Sontag as something of an annoying parental figure, despite her brilliance. Really, this book made me realize how difficult it is to write a portrait of a highly influential person that actually does them justice. Even an acclaimed author like Nunez isn't totally up to the task. It's hard to believe anyone would be, although a massive bio of Sontag is coming out later this year, so I guess we'll see. I read this book because I'd recently seen the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag, and it made me curious to learn more about Sontag and of course to read her work. I plan to do both in 2019, and despite its flaws Sempre Susan was a good introductory text.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Khush

    It is a fast-paced book on Sontag. I never doubted what Nunez says about Sontag, but I am not so sure about things that she does not say about herself. For instance, she had such close access to Sontag, but she wrote about working for Sontag as if it were just another job. Before she began working for her, she knew who Sontag was and what she was getting into, but she edited that part completely. I assume that she must have been on cloud nine for getting to know Sontag. Also, the way she writes It is a fast-paced book on Sontag. I never doubted what Nunez says about Sontag, but I am not so sure about things that she does not say about herself. For instance, she had such close access to Sontag, but she wrote about working for Sontag as if it were just another job. Before she began working for her, she knew who Sontag was and what she was getting into, but she edited that part completely. I assume that she must have been on cloud nine for getting to know Sontag. Also, the way she writes about the whole ‘affair’ with Sontag, at times, it seems like she must have had a relationship with Sontag, and Sontag's son was merely used to make it all look 'proper.' I enjoyed the book. Usually, people write about others when they admire them. In Nunez case, it is quite clear that she hated Sontag. She brilliantly showed how mean Sontag was (and I trust Nunez voice), but I also found it petty. She ends the book on a very negative note. I feel that Nunez is taking a subtle revenge on Sontag for being so successful and so articulate. One of the most striking observations that Nunez makes is that Sontag has no sense of humor. It immediately strikes as true. However, the kind of writing Sontag did, hardly required humor. In other words, her writing never distracts or feels 'less' in any way because of the absence of humor. One is glued to Sontag's forceful sentences, marked by originality, passion, and intelligence. I also wonder what does Nunez think about Walter Benjamin? Is their enough 'humor' in his writing? Despite biographer's intention, I loved reading the book and knowing about Sontag's (endearing) flaws. By the way, I do not mind 'mean' people if they can speak and write like Sontag.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

    Because I enjoyed reading Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind when I saw Sempre Susan on the “new non-fiction” shelf of the Chicago Public Library, I thought it would be worth reading. The subject of this memoir is the late, iconic intellectual, writer and activist Susan Sontag; and it centers specifically on when Nunez met Sontag in 1976---they were ages 25 and 43, respectively. It was fun to read that Sontag believed in reading one book a day and that her personal library consisted of li Because I enjoyed reading Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind when I saw Sempre Susan on the “new non-fiction” shelf of the Chicago Public Library, I thought it would be worth reading. The subject of this memoir is the late, iconic intellectual, writer and activist Susan Sontag; and it centers specifically on when Nunez met Sontag in 1976---they were ages 25 and 43, respectively. It was fun to read that Sontag believed in reading one book a day and that her personal library consisted of literally thousands of physical books! From Nunez’s non-idealized portrait, I understood Sontag to be brilliant, ambitious, generous, and idiosyncratic; someone whose insecurities translated into exaggeration, and, often an imposition of her body and ideas in the lives of others. It’s likely that any fierce [American] woman intellectual who emerged on the New York scene in the late 1960s and early 70s came across like a force of nature even if that wasn’t her style. While Sontag had “elite” tastes, and privileged European male intellectuals, she had no shortage of friends, lovers, and admirers throughout her adult life. Nunez writes of her mentor in a very candid, fluid, respectful, and thought-provoking style that makes me consider returning to Sontag’s texts---which I found too cool and impenetrable for my taste when I’ve tried to read them in the past.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joshie

    It’s no secret I immensely adore Susan Sontag for her intelligence, eloquence, and profound love for literature and cinema. Her serious demeanour with the manner she carried herself, her thick hair, the timbre of her voice make me swoon with admiration. Sempre Susan colours in the obscured shade of humanness frequently eclipsed by Sontag’s public persona and intellect. As such there’s no surprise (but there’s still disappointment) to see Sontag as a flawed, set of contradictions and complication It’s no secret I immensely adore Susan Sontag for her intelligence, eloquence, and profound love for literature and cinema. Her serious demeanour with the manner she carried herself, her thick hair, the timbre of her voice make me swoon with admiration. Sempre Susan colours in the obscured shade of humanness frequently eclipsed by Sontag’s public persona and intellect. As such there’s no surprise (but there’s still disappointment) to see Sontag as a flawed, set of contradictions and complications, at times nasty and unkind (one time she suggests in front of other people Nunez and her son stick to oral sex alone so as not to bother with birth control), and surprisingly had the inclination to incessantly chatter to fill in the quiet (be it whilst peeing or making a cup of coffee in the kitchen). Her desire to be remembered as a fiction writer instead of as an essayist/philosopher was a lasting frustration; she also lamented the years she lost because of writing essays, even her inaptitude to sketch certain feelings, certain imagery into her fictional work and the disdain she had of her years as a professor whilst happily nostalgic with her time as a student. “In general, she had contempt for people who didn’t do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they were very poor, made their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile.” Nunez’ reminiscence makes an unsuccessful effort to avoid any kind of bias but her reverence leaks in Sempre Susan; and opposite Sontag’s sometimes cruel ways Nunez was movingly empathetic. Having lived with Sontag whilst she was Sontag’s son’s, David, girlfriend, their relationship was rather complex, mostly a muddled and blurred plane of a mentor and mentee where there’s rivalry for David’s love and attention. I find Sontag was selfish in this regard. She never wanted her son to be completely independent (people insinuated incestuous relationship between them which I haven’t personally heard of) whereas she went to college at 15, got married at 17 and had David at 19 which she affixed to her eagerness to grow-up; childhood having been a boring time in her life (in one interview she stated “childhood has wasted on me”) besides having to deal with an alcoholic mother. At the same time, it showed her vulnerability beyond her questionable, unusual ways of having brought up her son which she was so often proud of (or perhaps done only to console herself), her refusal to yield to mortality yet elation to having been brushed with it several times. Of course, this memoir is not without its absurdly odd/funny recollections of how Sontag never understood why owning a lot of underwear was necessary when one can own a pair and wash the other at night, her belief women exaggerate the inconveniences of menstruation, and the dislike she had for people who go to therapy (albeit she went to one herself) or take antidepressants because she believed stoicism was the perfect response to depression. It's interesting (and a comfort) to read about Sontag’s preference to sit in front of a theatre screen, how she highlighted books with pencils, and her devotion to beauty in all its forms and interpretations amidst her small insecurity with her looks (one time she said, “Here’s a big difference between you and me. You wear makeup and you dress in a certain way that’s meant to draw attention and help people find you attractive. But I won’t do anything to draw attention to my looks. If someone wants to, they can take a closer look and maybe they’ll discover I’m attractive. But I’m not going to do anything to help them.”) However Sempre Susan may come off as clanky and intermittent in places and jumps from one memory to another like a puzzle solved without an image to rely on but to form upon. Its briefness made me want more; and so does my love for Susan Sontag which reached extremely new heights. To end the memoir with one unforgettable, devastating dialogue from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story aptly puts life’s trickles of heartache and shame, how it may palpably feel very long yet insufficient to fully clasp and hold all of our desires and pleasures. Notes — — -She didn’t like Kerouac and didn’t see Carver’s influence as something to cheer on. -She bit her nails. -She called herself a melancholic. -She didn't like being called 'Sue.' -“If I’m close to someone, even if it’s just a friend, I always feel some sexual attraction to that person.” -Advice from Susan: if you cry once, people feel sorry for you. But if you cry every day, they just think you’re a drag. -Some of Susan’s favourite words: servile, boring, besotted, exemplary, serious. -She made it a point to see one film a day at theatres.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Vartika

    In college, Susan Sontag had much the same hold on me as she did on most students aspiring towards bohemia: when it came to the coffee, cigarettes and turtlenecks, the proneness to declaring things "boring" or "servile," the feverish reading, and the episodic but copious writing, we were here; and in all our essayisms and forays into taste-making we wanted to be her. Besides, we had all read On Photography —there simply wasn't anyone cooler, at least as far as the aesthetics of being a public In college, Susan Sontag had much the same hold on me as she did on most students aspiring towards bohemia: when it came to the coffee, cigarettes and turtlenecks, the proneness to declaring things "boring" or "servile," the feverish reading, and the episodic but copious writing, we were here; and in all our essayisms and forays into taste-making we wanted to be her. Besides, we had all read On Photography —there simply wasn't anyone cooler, at least as far as the aesthetics of being a public intellectual were concerned. It didn't even matter that her novels were (mostly) unreadable crap. It surprises me then that the brief time that Sigrid Nunez spent working for Sontag, dating her son David, and sharing an apartment with the both of them didn't drive her insane. Or perhaps it did, but she did pull a mighty fine memoir out of it. Sempre Susan is a stimulating and candid recollection of the time Nunez spent with Sontag, and unlike most things written about her, does not deify. On the contrary, it humanizes her—as flawed, snobbish and idiosyncratic, and as wretched for her influence as she was enlightened. There are instances in this memoir where Sontag really does come across as quite mean, especially towards the author—and yet, Nunez does not write about her with vindictiveness but with puzzlement, confusion, and—in stark contrast with Sontag's own lack of it—humour. Moreover, even as she lays out Sontag's insecurities and inadeptness at maintaining relationships, the author dignifies her with empathy: her disdain for teaching, her indignation and regret regarding her writing, her relationship with therapy and her unhealthy motherly attachment with her son, and the curious way she dyed her hair (the two white strands were not bleached, but rather the only parts of her crown that she didn't touch!) are all treated with grace and sensitivity, even beauty. Overall, Nunez does not attempt to displace Sontag as an icon—she merely writes of her as a real one. A nail-biting, obsessively talkative, reluctantly feminist, self-conscious, mortally malcontented one. I started reading this while balanced atop a lumpy cushion at the foot of a friend's couch in New York, and—despite my physical discomfort—did not move until I was finished. I exclaimed a lot, underlined even more, and found a lot to discuss with my friends after. We are not undergraduates anymore—haven't been for a while—and neither do we blindly idolize Sontag, but this book made us admire an altogether different side of her.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Declan

    Wonderfully readable and utterly lacking in vindictiveness despite the difficulties Sigrid Nunez faced at times in dealing with Susan Sontag, not least when Nunez was in a relationship with Sontag's son David. That she remains puzzled by some aspects of the great essayist's behaviour makes the book all the better. No cheap and easy analyzing, just a kind of sadness that someone who could so clearly and deeply feel the weakness or greatness of films and novels evinced so little awareness of how s Wonderfully readable and utterly lacking in vindictiveness despite the difficulties Sigrid Nunez faced at times in dealing with Susan Sontag, not least when Nunez was in a relationship with Sontag's son David. That she remains puzzled by some aspects of the great essayist's behaviour makes the book all the better. No cheap and easy analyzing, just a kind of sadness that someone who could so clearly and deeply feel the weakness or greatness of films and novels evinced so little awareness of how she - in her worse moments - could make other people feel. For me, as someone who has huge admiration for her writing and her unapologetically serious devotion to great art, the biggest shock of this memoir was finding out that Sontag had absolutely no appreciation of the beauty of nature. I have many books with her recommendations on the back of them and I like many of the same films she did, but we would not have got on. She loved city life, hated being alone and could not understand why anyone would want to spend time in the countryside. In those regards at least, I am her complete opposite. But she is still a hero of mine.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    3.5 rounded up It turns out Sigrid Nunez has a lot of feelings about Susan Sontag, having lived with her in her New York apartment for a period of time when she was dating Sontag's son, David Rieff. Whilst most of these feelings are not complimentary she paints a vivid portrait of Sontag's personality, and it's clear she shaped her life in many ways (whether that was what Nunez wanted or not). 3.5 rounded up It turns out Sigrid Nunez has a lot of feelings about Susan Sontag, having lived with her in her New York apartment for a period of time when she was dating Sontag's son, David Rieff. Whilst most of these feelings are not complimentary she paints a vivid portrait of Sontag's personality, and it's clear she shaped her life in many ways (whether that was what Nunez wanted or not).

  9. 5 out of 5

    Gretchen Rubin

    This very short, impressionistic memoir whetted my appetite to learn more about Susan Sontag and her work.

  10. 4 out of 5

    John Pistelli

    I'll admit to a prurient interest in Sontagiana. I've always liked Sontag—well, always is a Sontag-like exaggeration, but I do believe I bought a '60s paperback of Against Interpretation, with her face in close-up on the cover, at the age of 16 or so from the now-defunct Eljay's Books on Pittsburgh's South Side. Since then, many of her famous essays from "Against Interpretation" itself to Regarding the Pain of Others have in whole or part burned their way into my brain. She is of that select com I'll admit to a prurient interest in Sontagiana. I've always liked Sontag—well, always is a Sontag-like exaggeration, but I do believe I bought a '60s paperback of Against Interpretation, with her face in close-up on the cover, at the age of 16 or so from the now-defunct Eljay's Books on Pittsburgh's South Side. Since then, many of her famous essays from "Against Interpretation" itself to Regarding the Pain of Others have in whole or part burned their way into my brain. She is of that select company of great and aphoristic essayists—with Hazlitt, Emerson, Thoreau, Wilde, Chesterton, Woolf, Orwell, Baldwin, Didion, Hitchens, Vidal, Paglia, Bloom, Zizek—that, whether you agree with them or not, come up with unimprovable and unforgettable formulations. I remember welcoming (and quarreling with, as when she advocated "liberal imperialism" in her 2003 C-Span2 interview) her contributions when she was alive; and I even remember quite vividly where I was when I read that she had died (admittedly, I was in a—to me—strange place in those pre-constant-connectivity days: a cybercafe on a cold December morning somewhere on the eastern edge of Rome). I am surprised that I have only rated one of her books on Goodreads, as I feel like I have read many, many of her essays; but I suppose I read them non-consecutively, without reading her collections themselves cover to cover. Sorry for all this autobiography—but then Sempre Susan is a memoir. It recounts the period in the late 1970s during which its author dated David Rieff, Sontag's son, and lived with the two in Sontag's apartment. The title, which sounds to me like a sitcom (perhaps I am thinking of Suddenly Susan), refers to the fact that Sontag's eminence in the New York literary world was such that everyone simply called her by her first name, including her son. Like many intimate portraits of Sontag, this one is ultimately unflattering—a portrait of a person more selfish and less exceptional than she understood. Sontag came from nowhere and created herself as a central figure in international culture, and the intimate portraits tend, unavoidably, to show the seams in that self-construction (she couldn't be alone! she insulted people! she endlessly resented her mother! she couldn't cook! she was an overbearing mother!). While Nunez writes about Sontag in this manner, she does so with "even-handed good humor and more than a little compassion," as Lydia Davis observes on the back cover. Nunez's tone is warm and bemused ("Oh, that Susan," you imagine her sighing with fond exasperation), not condemnatory at all, even as Nunez admits that Sontag's sensibility was somewhat alien to her own. In fact, my one complaint about this memoir is that Nunez tells us almost nothing about herself or her own background, which led me to wonder from what perspective exactly she was judging Sontag. Anyway, I am interested in Sontagian gossip less because I want to judge her (for instance, as a coldly aloof but insanely needy friend/mother/lover, as she seems to have been) and more because I have always (always!) wanted to be her. I find her life of endless reading, obsessive writing, and cosmopolitan urbanity utterly attractive, and I like to live it vicariously through books. Some of Sontag's qualities that puzzle Nunez I frankly share—her conviction that her childhood was a waste of time, for instance, or her Wildean contempt for nature. And Sontag's personal failings seem rather trivial to me; I have personally known people who behaved far worse without having managed to contribute anything to the world as brilliant as "Fascinating Fascism" or Regarding the Pain of Others. I love this moment of witting or unwitting high camp (would I know it was camp without Sontag?) that Nunez records:(Once, when she was struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren't being supportive enough, she said, "If you won't do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.")I am not really fond of attacking great writers or artists for how they conducted their personal lives, whether it's sexist men doing it to women or feminist women doing it in turn to men or whatever the situation is. Could the critics pass this test? Whose personal life would escape censure? And what, really, does it matter to literary history if you were a good mother or not? The only revelation in this book that shocked me was intellectual rather than personal: Sontag, who wrote so authoritatively about German-language literature and culture, did not read German. (Then again, neither do I). Nunez also shares a very strange anecdote toward the end of the book about Edward Said, but it is Said who comes off poorly there, not Sontag. A writer's politics are a more important question than his or her personal life, in my view, but this book doesn't really deal with that issue. If I were going to criticize Sontag, it would probably be for her political activities, from the overwrought radicalism of the 1960s ("The white race is the cancer of human history") to her self-aggrandizing "liberal imperialist" interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which Toni Morrison and Fran Lebowitz amusingly mocked in Stockholm, as John Leonard reproachfully reports:[I didn't know] about the scam she pulled with Lebowitz on an English reporter. They knew this reporter would ask what she intended to do with her $825,000 in prize money. By prearrangement, Toni said she would go to Somalia and mount, in Mogadishu, a stage production of The Emperor Jones. I’m generally not in favor of Susan Sontag jokes by people who’ve stayed home from Bosnia. [...] And when this English reporter checked his story with Lebowitz, she confirmed it except for The Emperor Jones; the play instead would be, Fran said, A Raisin in the Sun.Sontag's much-resented comments after 9/11, though, seemed correct to me at the time and seem correct to me now; I am also not bothered by her notorious remarks—"fascism with a human face"—at the 1982 Solidarity rally. (Sontag's Wikipedia page has a useful summary of all these controversies, with quotations.) I think that, like so many activist writers of the 20th century, she should have just stayed at her desk—not that she was even close to being the worst of the lot. Back to Nunez's memoir. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this exemplary (a Sontagian word) twentieth-century life. Some highlights follow. Sontag on feminism:She was a feminist, but she was often critical of her feminist sisters and of much of the rhetoric of feminism for being naïve, sentimental, and anti-intellectual. And she could be hostile to those who complained about being underrepresented in the arts or banned from the canon, ungently reminding them that the canon (or art, or genius, or talent, or literature) was not an equal opportunity employer. She was a feminist who found most women wanting.Sontag on teaching:Teach as little as possible, she said. Best not to teach at all: "I saw the best writers of my generation destroyed by teaching." She said the life of the writer and the life of the academic would always be at odds. She liked to refer to herself as a self-defrocked academic. She was even prouder to call herself self-created. [...] Besides, Susan had never wanted to be anyone's employee. The worst part of teaching was that it was, inescapably, a job, and for her to take any job was humiliating.Sontag and class:After I published a memorial essay in which I had written that Susan was not a snob, I head some outraged responses: everyone knew that she was a terrible snob! What I meant was that she did not believe a person must be lacking in any worthy quality simply because of his or her roots, no matter how primitive or deprived; she was not a class snob. She was the kind of person who noticed that the uneducated young woman who cleaned her house for a time had "beautifully, naturally aristocratic manners." On the other hand, she never pretended that a person's success did not depend—and to no small extent, either—on being connected...or that she didn't know what Pascal meant when he said that being wellborn can save a man thirty years. [...] She could not have cared less if a person came from a "good" or a "bad" family; she knew the distinction was specious. Wherever you were from, what really mattered to her was how smart you were—for, needless to say, she was an elitist.Sontag on American vs. European literature:Among living American writers, she admired, besides [Elizabeth] Hardwick, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Leonard Michaels, Joan Didion, Grace Paley. But she had no more use for most contemporary American fiction (which, as she lamented, usually fell into either of two superifical categories: passé suburban realism or "Bloomingdale's nihilism") than she did for most contemporary American film. In her view, the last first-rate American novel had been Light in August, by Faulkner (a writer she respected but did not love). Of course, Philip Roth and John Updike were good writers, but she could summon no enthusiasm for the things they wrote about. Later, she would not find the influence of Raymond Carver on American fiction something to cheer. It wasn't at all that she was against minimalism, she said; she just couldn't be thrilled about a writer "who writes the same way he talks." What thrilled her instead was the work of certain Europeans, for example Italo Calvino, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke, Stanislaw Lem. They, along with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, were creating far more daring and original work than her less ambitious fellow Americans. She liked to describe all highly inventive form- or genre-bending writing as science fiction, in contrast to banal contemporary American realism. It was this kind of literature that she thought a writer should aspire to, and that she aspired to, and that she believed would continue to matter.On that note, and here I'll end, Nunez, like many others, tells us that Sontag often lamented that she was not taken seriously as a novelist, no matter how acclaimed she was as a critic. I am as guilty of this as anyone else; I finished this book determined to give Sontag her due by trying one of her novels—most likely The Volcano Lover. But if I do not admire it, I will not hesitate to say so—for Western culture.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jakub

    "Sempre Susan" proved to be an interesting, stimulating read, despite my lack of interest in the private life of Susan Sontag. This short memoir did not change that disinterest but nevertheless is gave much food for thought revolving around perception, fame and self-creation. "Sempre Susan" proved to be an interesting, stimulating read, despite my lack of interest in the private life of Susan Sontag. This short memoir did not change that disinterest but nevertheless is gave much food for thought revolving around perception, fame and self-creation.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lulufrances

    Nunez‘ writing and my tastes click really, really well, so her writing about Susan Sontag, someone who has always been fascinating yet distant to me (despite having read a bit of her work), worked a treat! Nunez paints a very human figure and shows as many sides as she can of Sontag‘s being and it felt a bit like a mystery being spoiled but in a good way. Recommended!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Steve Turtell

    This is the last thing by or about Susan Sontag I ever intend to read, and confirms me in my opinion of her. Yes she was sometimes brilliant, but she was never in the first rank of writers that she aspired to and demanded to be placed within. Her fiction is unreadable, even the one for which she got the National Book Award as a consolation prize for--the year she won she beat out Charles Baxter, Alan Lightman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Francine Prose--all much more talented writers than Sontag ever This is the last thing by or about Susan Sontag I ever intend to read, and confirms me in my opinion of her. Yes she was sometimes brilliant, but she was never in the first rank of writers that she aspired to and demanded to be placed within. Her fiction is unreadable, even the one for which she got the National Book Award as a consolation prize for--the year she won she beat out Charles Baxter, Alan Lightman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Francine Prose--all much more talented writers than Sontag ever was. Her essays, even when they lead you to other, better, more interesting writers than herself are nothing more than introductions, and once you've read them you can go on to the writers themselves. The truth is she never left grad school, which this memoir confirms. For years I've said that every six months or year Sontag would deliver the best fucking term paper anyone had ever seen. That's her accomplishment. She kept herself out of even those works where she could have been a better and maybe even a great writer if she'd been willing to reveal more than her brain: Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and It's Metaphors. Save your time. Look at the titles of her essays and then go read the person she's writing about. My prediction, in twenty years no one will be reading or talking about her as much as they were when she was alive. There'll be no need to. Unless you want to learn how to become a literary power broker: she was brilliant at that.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Laurie Neighbors

    In the midst of reading this book, I met my partner for dinner one evening, and we sat in the corner of the restaurant near our house, the one that we eat at all the time. The one with the porkchops. I ordered fish tacos and he ordered some fusilli with sausage and while we waited I told him about this book -- with more intensity than I had told him about any book in a while, since Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," and definitely with more words than I'd ever talked about a memoir (except for In the midst of reading this book, I met my partner for dinner one evening, and we sat in the corner of the restaurant near our house, the one that we eat at all the time. The one with the porkchops. I ordered fish tacos and he ordered some fusilli with sausage and while we waited I told him about this book -- with more intensity than I had told him about any book in a while, since Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," and definitely with more words than I'd ever talked about a memoir (except for his, of course) since I am deeply critical of the memoir genre (except when he uses it, of course). What I couldn't stop talking about was not just Sigrid Nunez's portrait of Susan Sontag but her balance (when she was balanced) and lack of balance (when she chose to be unbalanced) and how the book was both immediate (in the sense that it felt that we were right there with her twenty-something self as she was thrown into the deep water of Susan Sontag's apartment) and reflective (in that she told this story with such wholeness of understanding). Nunez understood this other woman, this other very complicated woman -- the way that women understand women. It was quite touching. It made me love Sontag even more, even in Nunez's most unflattering (yet always empathetic) portrayals. Recently I started Sontag's son's memoir or her death. I doubt I will finish it. He writes like a fish.

  15. 5 out of 5

    G

    Life may be disappointing, but this funny, nostalgic book is anything but. It strikes just the right tone, and captures the conflicting feelings we can have about those who influence us in obvious and indirect ways.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Martina

    Having finished the book already yesterday, I am still at a loss what to make of it. It would be a task for a psychologist to write about this book which read like a case study. What a relationship between these two women and much more influential, detrimental and somewhat haunting for Nunez. It was an agonizing read. I am not a particular fan of Susan Sontag, more like an admirer of her razor sharp essays, her brilliance as the author of „Illness as Metaphor“, „On Photography“ or „Notes on Camp Having finished the book already yesterday, I am still at a loss what to make of it. It would be a task for a psychologist to write about this book which read like a case study. What a relationship between these two women and much more influential, detrimental and somewhat haunting for Nunez. It was an agonizing read. I am not a particular fan of Susan Sontag, more like an admirer of her razor sharp essays, her brilliance as the author of „Illness as Metaphor“, „On Photography“ or „Notes on Camp“ and others. In my student days she shone like an icon for her intellectualism; her personality was never an issue. Later on I read and heard about her allegedly difficult character but I didn‘t really care, just took notice of it. Now here we have a book of a writer, an author in her own rights, someone who worked for her, lived under the same roof as her and was, for a time, David Rieff‘s girlfriend. A young woman, aspiring writer, now an acclaimed author. The description of her years spent with Sontag is one big attempt getting rid of the ghosts of the past, of the hurtful remarks, of the feeling not to be good enough, intellectual enough, active enough, not well read and curious enough. She is describing Sontag as an very flawed, disturbed person, makes her a human being, approachable on the one hand, and an truly unpleasant, inpolite, self-centered person on the other hand. Nunez suffered and has not forgiven. She‘s haunted. In a way, it was more a Book about herself than about Susan Sontag. But the book felt irritatingly flat, hostile, full of suppressed emotions. If I didn‘t care for Sontag as a person, I wanted to really like her while reading about her shortcomings which were so merciless listed. I had the impression that Sontag was woman who never got over her childhood, who struggled with her background, her dreams, her expectations, hungry for love, acknowledgement and most of all assurance. Maybe Nunez should have written the account for herself. Why publish it? It is so personal that I feel embarrassed to witness all the situations Nunez describes and cannot see much good in it. Accordingly, the organising of the book and the language used is quite „disturbed“ as well. Three stars are given out of sympathy and empathizing with her experiences; but, honestly, this account can‘t really be judged.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Susan Valentine

    A fascinating and well written perspective on Susan Sontag that is also revealing of the writer, Sigrid Nunez, and her own path of becoming. Nunez is direct and candid, even harsh at times, but her admiration for Sontag is evident. I found her descriptions of Sontag’s relationship with her son most interesting. Amazing that their lives intersected in this way!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dorrit

    I can't wait for cancel culture to catch up to Susan - Susan - Sontag. She's so mean! I can't wait for cancel culture to catch up to Susan - Susan - Sontag. She's so mean!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Cody Sexton

    Real writing, will tear your guts out. At the age of 25, Nunez, a recent Columbia graduate, came to work alongside Sontag as her secretary. Within weeks she had started dating Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and within months she had joined the two in their apartment on the Upper West Side. It was a very unconventional arrangement, as many people, they’re friends included, commented, but as Sontag quipped, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” With simple and yet devastating clarity, Nunez lays Real writing, will tear your guts out. At the age of 25, Nunez, a recent Columbia graduate, came to work alongside Sontag as her secretary. Within weeks she had started dating Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and within months she had joined the two in their apartment on the Upper West Side. It was a very unconventional arrangement, as many people, they’re friends included, commented, but as Sontag quipped, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?” With simple and yet devastating clarity, Nunez lays out for us how an intense influence can be as deforming to a person as it is enlightening. Nobody becomes a writer, or wants to become a writer, because they have a fulfilling, stable, or conventional, life. Hardwick used to tell her Barnard students that you had to be really bored with life to become a writer. Which begs the question, am I drawn to the written word because I was, or am, essentially a lonely, perhaps even a depressed, person? I don’t know. The only real answer I have to this question is that growing up my mind was dominated with one obsessional disposition, that I didn’t want to grow up and tolerate a life that everyone thinks they’re supposed to. Walter Dean Myers said that when he “began to read, he began to exist.” It was the same for me. Which is also why, for the most part, I didn’t bother to excel at school. Most of my education took place after class, where I escaped into a world of books. I watered my mind with them and soon I had a garden. My first feeling about everything I write is that it’s shit, but the real hell of it is is that if you aren’t regularly tormented by self-doubt, your work probably is shit. A sense of failure clings to you like widows weeds. The question you have to ask yourself is whether what you’re writing is necessary. Writing should be a cudgel wielded to chase away the marauders who would choose to burn down the precious things of the human heart. But words still count. They still break hearts, and they still heal. They still matter. But as a rule, every writer would probably be better off doing something else, almost anything else. The only thing I know for sure about writing is that people who write drink bourbon and sit around in bars using words like, "servile.” Writing is an unnatural act, and it takes great skill to make it sound natural. Writing is like a secret you don’t want to tell but want everyone to know. I have always felt that my interests and pursuits were never recognized as meaningful to my family and friends. That was the sense I generally had. It almost felt like contempt. I don’t know what I did to be so hated. If it was just being myself, then I guess that’s just the price I had to pay. But in the end, none of it matters anyway, what happens to you in life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.

  20. 5 out of 5

    KOMET

    I first became aware of Susan Sontag the public intellectual/essayist/activist roughly 20 years ago. She intrigued me because, given the incipient strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., I didn't think we Americans had any publicly acknowledged (and accepted) public intellectuals. This book, in which the author details her relationship with Sontag, was both eye-opening and revelatory. Here was a woman who was fully aware of her wide-ranging literary and intellectual talents. Yet, she felt ch I first became aware of Susan Sontag the public intellectual/essayist/activist roughly 20 years ago. She intrigued me because, given the incipient strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., I didn't think we Americans had any publicly acknowledged (and accepted) public intellectuals. This book, in which the author details her relationship with Sontag, was both eye-opening and revelatory. Here was a woman who was fully aware of her wide-ranging literary and intellectual talents. Yet, she felt cheated and insecure because of what she said was "the lost decade" of her life. That is in reference to the decade before Sontag's first appearance in print, when she was a wife and mother. I was also surprised to learn, from the author, of Sontag's desire to be appreciated more for her fiction writing than as the superb essayist she was. Frankly, until Sontag's novel, "THE VOLCANO LOVER", I never thought she had ever dabbled in fiction. All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. It has whetted my appetite to learn more about Susan Sontag, the writer and the person.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tina Tinde

    What an intimate and riveting portrait of the "mad scientist" that Susan Sontag appears to have been. I read her novel The Volcano Lover when it came out, but believe Nunez when she points out that Sontag's strength was as an essayist. As is often the case, brilliant people are not able to master all aspects of their life with the same brilliance. I laughed several times at the wit of Sigrid Nunes, and was very moved by some tragic sides to Sontag's life that Nunes described very sharply. A woma What an intimate and riveting portrait of the "mad scientist" that Susan Sontag appears to have been. I read her novel The Volcano Lover when it came out, but believe Nunez when she points out that Sontag's strength was as an essayist. As is often the case, brilliant people are not able to master all aspects of their life with the same brilliance. I laughed several times at the wit of Sigrid Nunes, and was very moved by some tragic sides to Sontag's life that Nunes described very sharply. A woman of stark contrasts and ardent passions, and perhaps with undiagnosed mental challenges, Sontag's behavior was as unconventional as they come, but were her talents for denial uncommon? I don't think so. I loved this observant memoir, read its 140 pages in one evening, as I couldn't stop.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    Susan Sontag was an important cultural figure for four decades and an inspiration for many women of the time. Sigrid Nunez, whose lovely novel, The Friend, deals with grief and writing, gives us a respectful and very restrained memoir about her experiences living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, while Nunez and Rieff were romantically involved and Nunez was a not-yet-published writer. There's no voyeurism here, but as Nunez makes clear, Sontag was a piece of work--complex and conflicted, na Susan Sontag was an important cultural figure for four decades and an inspiration for many women of the time. Sigrid Nunez, whose lovely novel, The Friend, deals with grief and writing, gives us a respectful and very restrained memoir about her experiences living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, while Nunez and Rieff were romantically involved and Nunez was a not-yet-published writer. There's no voyeurism here, but as Nunez makes clear, Sontag was a piece of work--complex and conflicted, narcissistic and neurotic as well as undeniably brilliant--a writer who couldn't bear solitude. I hope we'll someday have a full biography of Sontag, because this slim, fascinating book leaves me wanting more.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    A really interesting balance of Sontag anecdotes and Nunez's own reflections of how Susan was in real life (Nunez dated Sontag's son for a long time and lived with them as well). I love Nunez's crisp, clear, and subtly funny way of writing about this interesting American treasure (who also seemed to be a pretty difficult person at times). A really interesting balance of Sontag anecdotes and Nunez's own reflections of how Susan was in real life (Nunez dated Sontag's son for a long time and lived with them as well). I love Nunez's crisp, clear, and subtly funny way of writing about this interesting American treasure (who also seemed to be a pretty difficult person at times).

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lynne

    A beautifully conceptualized and written, complex, kind, and smart memoir. A relationship that feels palpable, and Susan Sontag feels close. Brava to Sigrid Nunez, and thanks.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    read this in one day, so elegant and beautiful

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I loved this book. It contained two of my favorite things - Nunez's captivating writing, and reflections on Sontag. Of course, these two things together and intertwined, compounded my delight! I wish I had read Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir closer to this book, as that had been my main prior exposure to Sontag's son. But mainly I enjoyed spending time with Nunez and with the world she shared with Sontag (nyc at the time, the audiences they entertained or interacted with), and her ref I loved this book. It contained two of my favorite things - Nunez's captivating writing, and reflections on Sontag. Of course, these two things together and intertwined, compounded my delight! I wish I had read Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir closer to this book, as that had been my main prior exposure to Sontag's son. But mainly I enjoyed spending time with Nunez and with the world she shared with Sontag (nyc at the time, the audiences they entertained or interacted with), and her reflections on Sontag that became reflections on herself. In particular, I was interested in Nunez's discussion of Sontag's views of gender, especially from the perspective of a young woman.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Elliot Ratzman

    Sontag is an intellectual’s intellectual: essayist queen, (meh) fiction writer, (bad) filmmaker—a torrent of taste-making. Reading about her small habits, her eccentricities, her anxieties and her faults—it’s like the central casting stereotype of “New York intellectual.” Nunez was Sontag’s assistant and then the girlfriend of her son, David Reiff, and lived with them on the Upper East Side in the mid-70s. It’s a fine portrait of good and bad behaviors, curious habits, artistic judgement, and ch Sontag is an intellectual’s intellectual: essayist queen, (meh) fiction writer, (bad) filmmaker—a torrent of taste-making. Reading about her small habits, her eccentricities, her anxieties and her faults—it’s like the central casting stereotype of “New York intellectual.” Nunez was Sontag’s assistant and then the girlfriend of her son, David Reiff, and lived with them on the Upper East Side in the mid-70s. It’s a fine portrait of good and bad behaviors, curious habits, artistic judgement, and charming conversations, and—besides the cigarettes—generates the desire to be part of that lost world, Sontag’s world. “She was so New York. An in her boosterism, in her energy and ambition, in her can-do, beat-whatever-the-odds spirit, in her childlike nature—and in her belief in her exceptionalism and in the power of her own will, in self-creation, and in the possibility of being reborn, the possibility of endless new chances, and of having it all—she was also the most American person I know.”

  28. 4 out of 5

    Aga

    I have always idealised what it would be like to be a writer, probably because I love books. Sempre Susan is a second book this year which showed me how imperfect and difficult writers’ life can be. Yet, I want to move in with Susan, just like Nunez, I want to be there and see Sontag’s creative process and listen to her...her wisdom, her view on everything, but also her bragging on about stuff, her philosophizing, mentoring, advice, outrage and criticism. I haven’t yet read anything by Sontag bu I have always idealised what it would be like to be a writer, probably because I love books. Sempre Susan is a second book this year which showed me how imperfect and difficult writers’ life can be. Yet, I want to move in with Susan, just like Nunez, I want to be there and see Sontag’s creative process and listen to her...her wisdom, her view on everything, but also her bragging on about stuff, her philosophizing, mentoring, advice, outrage and criticism. I haven’t yet read anything by Sontag but having read ‘Friend’ by Nunez I decided to read another of her books. Now I think it was a great idea, it will contextualise what I am going to read by Sontag. Aside that, I really like Nunez’ writing. It flows and grabs my attention immediately. She is intellectual in her books but not pretentious or pompous which sometimes goes hand in hand. Now onto Sontag’s works.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Aparna K

    This was an interesting, quick read about Susan Sontag, especially to read it through the POV of someone who entered into her life in a super unconventional way. I haven't read much of her work (I've been taking my time with Against Interpretation and slowly cherrypicking essays to read) and she seems like a complicated person to have known in real life. But I feel like there's something to be said for artists/writers/filmmakers that are deified in intellectual circles to be re-characterized as This was an interesting, quick read about Susan Sontag, especially to read it through the POV of someone who entered into her life in a super unconventional way. I haven't read much of her work (I've been taking my time with Against Interpretation and slowly cherrypicking essays to read) and she seems like a complicated person to have known in real life. But I feel like there's something to be said for artists/writers/filmmakers that are deified in intellectual circles to be re-characterized as normal people with flaws. It's weird to picture this woman, one of the most influential writers of the last fifty years, regularly eating a whole package of bacon for dinner. I might not ever be able to write like Susan Sontag but at least I eat better than she did.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    A deliciously candid portrait of Susan Sontag from Sigrid Nunez, who, before she came into her own as a writer, was Susan's assistant, dated her son, and lived with them both for a short time. Nunez's account is clear-sighted and affectionate with no holds barred. I have some quibbles with how Nunez writes about Susan's relationship to gender and parenting, in that her framing seems uncritically straight-centric, but mostly I enjoyed the heck of this - I loved especially Nunez's discussion of Su A deliciously candid portrait of Susan Sontag from Sigrid Nunez, who, before she came into her own as a writer, was Susan's assistant, dated her son, and lived with them both for a short time. Nunez's account is clear-sighted and affectionate with no holds barred. I have some quibbles with how Nunez writes about Susan's relationship to gender and parenting, in that her framing seems uncritically straight-centric, but mostly I enjoyed the heck of this - I loved especially Nunez's discussion of Susan's process and her memories of so many of Susan's opinions and declarations. This is one of those books that will make you want to read a hundred other books, and write, and read, and write.

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