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.
restaurant for drinks after a preview performance. When the maître d’ said they could not have a table if all they were going to order was drinks, the young man told him, “No problem. Just bring us our drinks, and you can charge us for dinner.” (Meaning, of course, charge him.) In an airport once, struck by the beautiful skin of a man sitting near her, Susan made a bet with herself. And sure enough, she reported later, when it was time to board, the man turned out to be flying first class. This
whom David was just then becoming friends. At one point, this man turned to him and said, “Did you and Sigrid and Susan sleep together?” When David said, “What?” he simply repeated the question more slowly, as if to a foreigner or an idiot. And what about all the other talk about Susan? Was it true? Was she really a monster like everyone said? I was always amazed at how badly people spoke of Susan and never able to tell how aware of this she was herself. (If she had any idea how widespread—and
her exceptionalism, her refusal to admit that her case was hopeless, that death was not only inevitable, not only near, but here—seem, if no less delusional, perhaps a little more comprehensible. • • • I quickly read her four books, one after the other. I had an idea (prescient, as it turned out) that before long she was going to ask me which ones I’d read, and that the correct answer was all of them. And, like so many other readers of her work, I found the essays enthralling and the novels
impatient with other women for not being more like her. For not being able to leave the women’s room and go join the men. She always wore pants (usually jeans) and low-heeled shoes (usually sneakers), and she refused to carry a purse. The attachment of women to purses perplexed her. She made fun of me for taking mine everywhere. Where had women gotten the idea they’d be lost without one? Men didn’t carry purses, hadn’t I noticed? Why did women burden themselves? Why not instead always wear
you once madly adored, she declared that there was only one reason this woman continued to make her suffer each time Susan saw her. “If she went around wearing a paper bag over her head, I’d be just fine.” When others failed to see such fearsome beauty in this particular woman, Susan thought they must be blind. Susceptible is the word that comes to me. She was susceptible. “If I’m close to someone, even if it’s just a friend, I always feel some sexual attraction to that person.” She often ended