Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag


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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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

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 Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 8.07 (h) x 0.35 (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

Sempre Susan

By Sigrid Nunez


Copyright © 2011 Sigrid Nunez
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-935633-22-8

Chapter One

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.


Excerpted from Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez Copyright © 2011 by Sigrid Nunez. Excerpted by permission of ATLAS & CO.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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