Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

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Overview

A poignant, intimate memoir of one of America’s most esteemed and fascinating cultural figures, and a deeply felt tribute.

Sigrid Nunez 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 Nunez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Nunez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag ...

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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

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Overview

A poignant, intimate memoir of one of America’s most esteemed and fascinating cultural figures, and a deeply felt tribute.

Sigrid Nunez 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 Nunez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Nunez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Nunez, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?”

Sontag’s influence on Nunez, who went on to become a successful novelist, would be profound. Described by Nunez 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, Nunez speaks of her gratitude for having had, as an early model, “someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.”

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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Sontag once wrote about feeling estranged from the ‘Susan Sontag’ who stood on the spine of the books she had written. In Nunez’s Sempre Susan, the gap between the writer and the person who wrote the books is made all the more vividly real—a reminder of the extraordinary transformative work that goes into writing in the first place.”—Slate

“Nunez, an uncompromising talent in her own right, offers the most vibrant and multifaceted portrait of Sontag to date.”—Vogue

“Graceful, respectful and achingly honest.”—Kirkus

“Nunez has constructed a eulogy that mythologizes and humanizes one of the most intimidating figures of contemporary culture.”—The Boston Globe

“Nunez’s book is an elegy for a great woman and the company she kept, the vanished salon where she was the center.”—The New York Observer

“ ‘Looking back,’ Nunez writes, ‘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.’ For the reader, if not for herself, she has.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“The iconoclasm of the fearless intellectual Susan Sontag . . . continues with novelist Nunez’s thorny remembrance of the woman who was her literary mentor as well as her boyfriend’s mother. . . . What emerges from this conflicted portrait is a vulnerable woman recovering from illness who could not be alone; Sontag was supercilious, insecure, yet vulnerable to beauty and love, fiercely uncompromising, and surely, as Nunez intimates by the end, the finest teacher a young writer could ever have had.”—Publishers Weekly

“When Susan Sontag, 43, needed help catching up with correspondence in the wake of a radical mastectomy in 1976, friends suggested Nunez, then a 25-year-old writer wannabe, now an acclaimed novelist. Sontag was avid about sharing her knowledge, enthusiasms, and even her adored son, David Rieff, with Nunez, who ended up moving in. Now, six years after Sontag’s death, Nunez chronicles those heady and unnerving times in a boldly intimate, stingingly frank, and genuinely fascinating memoir. . . . Sontag averred that getting to know famous writers can be disappointing, but there is nothing diminishing about this up-close-and-personal account of one interlude in Sontag’s remarkable life of blazing literary accomplishment, activism, and valor. And Nunez herself is intriguing. Readers of this thorny remembrance will hope that Nunez tells her own story next time.”—Booklist

“Sigrid Nunez’s intimate portrayal of Susan Sontag will fascinate both ardent Sontag fans and those who have never read her work. This memoir is at once a window into the writing life in general, an examination of the complexities of one artist in particular, and a tribute to the lost intellectual New York City of the 1970s. Remarkably, it’s as honest as it is affectionate and as sad as it is charming.”—Curtis Sittenfeld

“Sempre Susan is written with quiet authority, flashes of poetry, and a steady accumulation of startling, precise details, some apocryphal (Sontag didn’t know what a dragonfly was? drank blood as a child?), until by the end Sontag the Myth comes to life. What is amazing about this wonderful book is that by the end we know as much about Nunez as we do about Sontag, by the very focus of her attention, by her perception of the myth, by her compassionate interpretation.”—Nick Flynn

“This detailed, nuanced account of the more private side of a complex, contradictory public figure is told with even-handed good humor and more than a little compassion. Utterly absorbing.”—Lydia Davis

“The best thing written about Sontag.”—Edmund White

 

“Nunez, an uncompromising talent in her own right, offers the most vibrant and multifaceted portrait of Sontag to date.” —Vogue

“Sontag once wrote about feeling estranged from the ‘Susan Sontag’ who stood on the spine of the books she had written. In Nunez’s Sempre Susan, the gap between the writer and the person who wrote the books is made all the more vividly real—a reminder of the extraordinary transformative work that goes into writing in the first place.” —Slate??

“Nunez’s book is an elegy for a great woman and the company she kept, the vanished salon where she was the center.” —The New York Observer

Publishers Weekly
The iconoclasm of the fearless intellectual Susan Sontag, who died in 2004 of leukemia, began to be revealed with her son David Rieff's memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, and continues with novelist Nunez's (Salvation City) thorny remembrance of the woman who was her literary mentor as well as her boyfriend's mother. Sontag was 43, Nunez 25, when the young editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books was hired by the famous writer to help her sort her correspondence at her Riverside Drive apartment in 1976. As a fledgling writer, between college and grad school, Nunez was in awe of Sontag's reputation, her mighty pronouncements, unconventional flair for life, and her critical reading and movie lists; the young writer promptly read her books (knowing Sontag would ask her if she had: "She didn't have a beautiful style," Nunez concludes). Soon Nunez was introduced to Sontag's son, David Rieff, who was a year younger and a student; they began a romance, sanctioned by Sontag, and Nunez moved into the apartment with them, in an increasingly problematic arrangement. What emerges from this conflicted portrait is a vulnerable woman recovering from illness who could not be alone; Sontag was supercilious, insecure, yet vulnerable to beauty and love, fiercely uncompromising, and surely, as Nunez intimates by the end, the finest teacher a young writer could ever have had. (Apr.)
Slate - Meghan O'Rourke
“Sontag once wrote about feeling estranged from the “Susan Sontag” who stood on the spine of the books she had written. In Nunez’s Sempre Susan, the gap between the writer and the person who wrote the books is made all the more vividly real—a reminder of the extraordinary transformative work that goes into writing in the first place.”
Vogue - Meghan O'Grady
“…Nunez, an uncompromising talent in her own right (The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City), offers the most vibrant and multifaceted portrait of Sontag to date.”
Lydia Davis
“This detailed, nuanced account of the more private side of a complex, contradictory public figure is told with even-handed good humor and more than a little compassion. Utterly absorbing.”
Edmund White
“The best thing written about Sontag.”
The Boston Globe - Alice Gregory
“Nunez has constructed a eulogy that mythologizes and humanizes one of the most intimidating figures of contemporary culture.”
The New York Observer - James Camp
“Ms. Nunez's book is an elegy for a great woman and the company she kept, the vanished salon where she was the center.”
San Francisco Chronicle - Craig Seligman
“‘Looking back,’ Nunez writes, ‘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.’ For the reader, if not for herself, she has.”
Curtis Sittenfeld
“Sigrid Nunez’s intimate portrayal of Susan Sontag will fascinate both ardent Sontag fans and those who have never read her work. This memoir is at once a window into the writing life in general, an examination of the complexities of one artist in particular, and a tribute to the lost intellectual New York City of the 1970s. Remarkably, it’s as honest as it is affectionate and as sad as it is charming.”
Nick Flynn
“Sempre Susan is written with quiet authority, flashes of poetry, and a steady accumulation of startling, precise details, some apocryphal (Sontag didn’t know what a dragonfly was? drank blood as a child?), until by the end Sontag the Myth comes to life. What is amazing about this wonderful book is that by the end we know as much about Nunez as we do about Sontag, by the very focus of her attention, by her perception of the myth, by her compassionate interpretation.”
Emily Gould
“Sempre Susan is as epigrammatic, funny and brutal as its subject. Sontag fans, haters, and agnostics alike will find that it contains indispensable lessons, both explicit and subtle, about how and how not to write, and how and how not to live.”
Library Journal
Novelist Nunez (Salvation City) first met essayist, critic, and fiction writer Susan Sontag when she took a part-time job helping Sontag with correspondence in 1976 as Sontag recovered from breast cancer surgery. Later Nunez had a relationship with Sontag's son, David, and lived for a time with both of them. An aspiring young novelist at the time, Nunez here writes of being in awe of Sontag, who, as a leading commentator on modern culture, wrote about such diverse topics as pornography, photography, illness, and revolution and seemed to know everyone in the arts and generate excitement wherever she went. Although Sontag could be demanding and narcissistic, Nunez found her a valuable mentor with an engaging sense of humor, contrary to her public reputation. Surprisingly, Nunez discovered that despite her accomplishments Sontag was plagued by insecurity and a sense of failure, perhaps the result of her dysfunctional childhood. VERDICT A skilled writer, Nunez brings an up-close perspective to this revealing yet compassionate memoir. Recommended for memoir enthusiasts and Sontag fans.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594633348
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 1,420,942
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez has published six critically acclaimed novels, including The Last of Her Kind and Salvation City. She has contributed to The New York Times, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s, among many others. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

IT WAS MY first time ever going to a writers’ colony, and, for some reason I no longer recall, I had to postpone the date on which I was supposed to arrive. I was concerned that arriving late would be frowned on. But Susan insisted this was not a bad thing. “It’s always good to start off anything by breaking a rule.” For her, arriving late was the rule. “The only time I worry about being late is for a plane or for the opera.” When people complained about always having to wait for her, she was unapologetic. “I figure, if people aren’t smart enough to bring along something to read . . .” (But when certain people wised up and she ended up having to wait for them, she was not pleased.)

My own fastidious punctuality could get on her nerves. Out to lunch with her one day, realizing I was going to be late getting back to work, I jumped up from the table, and she scoffed, “Sit down! You don’t have to be there on the dot. Don’t be so servile.” Servile was one of her favorite words.

•   •   •

Exceptionalism. Was it really a good idea for the three of us—Susan, her son, myself—to share the same household? Shouldn’t David and I get a place of our own? She said she saw no reason why we couldn’t all go on living together, even if David and I were to have a child. She’d gladly support us all if she had to, she said. And when I expressed doubts: “Don’t be so conventional. Who says we have to live like everyone else?”

(Once, on St. Mark’s Place, she pointed out two eccentric-looking women, one middle-aged, the other elderly, both dressed like gypsies and with long, flowing gray hair. “Old bohemians,” she said. And she added, jokingly, “Us in thirty years.”

More than thirty years have passed, and she is dead, and there is no bohemia anymore.)

•   •   •

She was forty-three when we met, but she seemed very old to me. This was partly because I was twenty-five, and at that age anyone over forty seemed old to me. But it was also because she was recuperating from a radical mastectomy. (Break a rule: when hospital staff scolded her for refusing to do the recommended rehabilitation exercises, a sympathetic nurse whispered in her ear, “Happy Rockefeller wouldn’t do them, either.”) Her skin was sallow, and her hair—it would always bewilder me that so many people thought she bleached the white streak in her hair when it should have been obvious the streak was the only part that was its true color. (A hairdresser suggested that leaving one section undyed would look less artificial.) Chemotherapy had thinned much but not all of her extraordinarily thick, black hair, but the hair that grew back was mostly white or gray.

So, an odd thing: when we first met, she looked older than she would as I got to know her. As her health returned, she looked younger and younger, and when she decided to color her hair she looked younger still.

It was spring, 1976, almost a year after I’d finished my MFA at Columbia, and I was living on West 106th Street. Susan, who lived at the corner of 106th Street and Riverside Drive, had a pile of unanswered correspondence she had let accumulate during her illness and which she now wanted to get through. She asked some friends, the editors of The New York Review of Books, to recommend someone who might help her. I had worked as an editorial assistant at the Review between college and grad school. The editors knew that I could type and that I lived nearby, so they suggested that she call me. It was exactly the kind of odd job I was looking for then: the kind unlikely to interfere with my writing.

The first day I went to 340 Riverside Drive, it was sunny, and the apartment—a penthouse with many large windows—was blindingly bright. We worked in Susan’s bedroom, I at her desk, typing on her massive IBM Selectric while she dictated, either pacing the room or lying on her bed. The room, like the rest of the apartment, was austerely furnished; the walls were white and bare. As she later explained, because this was where she worked, she wanted as much white space around her as possible, and she tried to keep the room as free as possible of books. I don’t remember any pictures of family or friends (in fact, I can recall no such pictures on display anywhere in that apartment); instead, there were a few black-and-white photos (like the kind that came in publishers’ publicity packets) of some of her literary heroes: Proust, Wilde, Artaud (a volume of whose selected writings she had just finished editing), Walter Benjamin. Elsewhere in the apartment there were a number of photographs of old movie stars, and stills from famous old black-and-white films. (These, as I recall, had previously decorated the lobby of the New Yorker Theater, the revival house at 88th Street and Broadway.)

She was wearing a loose turtleneck shirt, jeans, and Ho Chi Minh tire flip-flops, which I believe she had brought back from one of her trips to North Vietnam. Because of the cancer, she was trying to quit smoking (she would try and fail and try again, time after time). She went through a whole jar of corn nuts, washing them down with swigs from a plastic gallon jug of water.

The pile of letters was daunting; it would take many hours to get through, but what made our progress absurdly slow was that the phone kept ringing, and each time it rang she would pick up and chat (in some cases for quite some time) while I sat there, waiting, and, of course, listening, sometimes petting her son’s large, attention-seeking malamute dog. Most of the callers were people whose names I knew. I gathered she was appalled at the way many people were responding to the news of her cancer. (Though I didn’t know it yet, she was already working out ideas for what would become her essay “Illness as Metaphor.”) I remember her describing cancer to one of her callers as “the imperial disease.” I heard her say to several people that the recent deaths of Lionel Trilling and Hannah Arendt had left her feeling “orphaned.” Fierce indignation as she reported someone saying of Trilling that it was no wonder he’d gotten cancer since he probably hadn’t fucked his wife in years. (“And this was an academic speaking.”) She hated to admit it, but she bravely did: one of her own first thoughts when she’d been told she had cancer was “Did I not have enough sex?”

Once, it was her son who called. A year younger than I, David, who’d dropped out of Amherst, had recently returned to school and was now a sophomore at Princeton. He had a place to stay in Princeton, but most of the week he lived with his mother. His (soon to be our) bedroom was right next to hers.

The work bored her. After we’d taken care of only a few letters, she suggested we break for lunch. I followed her to the other end of the apartment, passing through halls lined with books, and a dining area, where I admired a long, elegant wood table with matching wood benches (an old French farmhouse table, she informed me), and a framed vintage Olivetti poster (“la rapidissima”) hanging on the wall behind it. The dining table was usually covered with books and papers, and most meals were eaten in the kitchen, at a wood counter someone had painted dark blue.

I sat on a stool at the counter feeling very self-conscious while she heated up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Add a can of milk and there was enough for two. It surprised me that she was so conversational. I was used to the hierarchical world of The New York Review, whose editors never made conversation with the staff. That day, I learned that the apartment’s previous tenant had been her friend Jasper Johns; several years earlier, when Johns had decided to move elsewhere, Susan had taken over the lease. Sadly, though, she didn’t think she was going to be allowed to stay; the building’s owner wanted that apartment for himself. It was obvious why Susan wanted to keep it: a large, two-bedroom penthouse apartment in a handsome prewar building—a terrific bargain at, as I recall, around 475 dollars a month. The enormous living room felt even bigger because there was so little in it (it even echoed slightly). But what she’d miss most, she said, was the view: the river, the sunsets. (That great view might have been even better from outdoors, but the terrace was a mess: it was where the dog did its business.) At the other end of the apartment from the two bedrooms was a much smaller room, once a maid’s room, with half a bath. At the time, a friend of David’s was sleeping there. After I moved in, it would be my study. (“You’re the only one in this house with two rooms,” Susan would say, hurt, accusing, when I told her that I was leaving “340.”)

Over lunch, she asked me a lot of questions about what it was like to work for editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein at The New York Review, and what it was like to study with Elizabeth Hardwick, who’d been one of my professors at Barnard and who was also on the editorial board of the Review. It was clear that these three people aroused Susan’s keenest interest—fascination, even—and I would learn that their friendship and approval meant everything to her. All three had been among the Review’s founders, in 1963. Susan thought the Review was far superior to any other journal in the country—a “heroic” effort to elevate American intellectual life to the highest possible standards—and she was proud to have been writing for it from its very first issue. Her essays were edited by Silvers: “By far the best editor I’ve ever had.” The best editor any writer could have, she would say. Like other contributors to the Review, she was awed by the grave respect he had for writers, by his perfectionism, and by the intense labor he put into revising articles for publication. He was one of the most intelligent and gifted persons she had ever met, she said—and probably the hardest-working, almost always to be found at his desk, seven days a week, including holidays, all day long and usually well into the night. His was precisely the kind of discipline and intellectual passion and scrupulosity that Susan admired most in other people, and he inspired in her the same reverence usually inspired in her only by the most serious writers and artists.

Her pride in writing for The New York Review was matched by her pride in having Farrar, Straus and Giroux as her book publisher. In fact, her longest and most intimate phone conversation that day was with Roger Straus, who, as head of FSG, had published Susan’s first book thirteen years before, and who would go on to publish all her other books. It was not unusual for the two of them to talk at least once a day. At that time, Susan had no literary agent, and besides publishing her books, Straus took care of certain kinds of business that a publisher would not normally deal with, such as trying to place her short stories and articles with magazines. But theirs was not just a business relationship; they were old, good friends, they were each other’s confidants, and Straus was involved in many aspects of Susan’s nonwriting life, including the crisis of her illness and, when the time came, her search for a new apartment. Although David was already ten years old when Susan and Straus first met, Straus often referred to him as “probably my illegitimate son.” Soon he would take David into the company, making him the editor of, among other authors, Susan herself.

The soup was not enough. She searched the fridge, which was mostly bare, but though it was not the season for corn there was a plastic-wrapped package of cobs. After we’d eaten the corn, she said, “Of course, I didn’t want any of that. All I really wanted was a cigarette.” I had just recently quit smoking myself, but once I moved in I would start up again. All three of us smoked, as did pretty much everyone who ever came to that apartment.

By the time I left that day, the sun was low over the Hudson but we’d accomplished very little. Susan asked me to come back in a few days. I remember thinking as I walked home how laid-back and open she’d been—much more like someone my own age than someone of my mother’s generation. But she was always this way with young people, and there wasn’t the usual generational distance between her and her son, either; her son, whom she’d started treating like an adult before he even reached high school, without ever appearing to doubt that this was how things should be. When I think of this now, I can’t help thinking also of something Susan said often: how she remembered childhood as a time of complete boredom, and how she could not wait for it to be over. I have always had trouble understanding this (how could anyone’s childhood—even a less than happy one—be described as “a total waste”?), but she had wanted David’s childhood to be over as quickly as possible, too. (And as it turned out, he too would look back on his childhood as a miserable time, using the very phrase Susan often used in describing her own: a prison sentence.) It was as if somehow she didn’t really believe—or, perhaps, better to say, she saw no value—in childhood.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2013

    A tender but cleareyed portrait

    A wonderful memoir of growing up.

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