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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag Hardcover – 30 Mar 2011


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Sigrid Nunez was an aspiring writer when she first me 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. For Sontag, she writes, there could be no nobler pursuit, no greater adventure, no more rewarding quest. Nunez 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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Amazon.com: 14 reviews
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
"She had the habits and the aura of a student all her life." 22 Mar. 2011
By Michael J. Ettner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
There is a hell of a lot going on in novelist Sigrid Nunez' slim memoir of her brief but intense association with the writer and public intellectual, Susan Sontag. Nunez has a long-simmering agenda to get through -- and a volatile mix of objectives to achieve. That she somehow pulls this off, and in such short order, is a testament to her talents as a writer.

Consider that Nunez has chosen a risky, non-linear presentation of her material. She depends on the power of "the telling detail" to maintain focus, drive momentum, and recreate a strong character. However scattershot this approach may seem to you at first, the fact is Nunez' cache of details is so huge that the reader's interest is unlikely to flag.

We learn that Sontag always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), as she was an inveterate underliner and annotator. Around food she did not hide her voracious appetite. She wore men's cologne (Dior Homme). A city lover, she had zero appreciation for nature (she had never heard of a dragonfly). At the cinema she habitually sat in the first row. Among her favorite words: servile, boring, exemplary, serious, grotesque. Her credo: "Security over freedom is a deplorable choice." Nunez notes with approval that Sontag possessed "the habits and the aura of a student." The book is chock-full of anecdotes of New York literary life, of luminaries who settle into Sontag's orbit: Joseph Brodsky, Donald Barthelme, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Genet. Sontag's love life gets full exposure. Nunez recalls her lament: "Mean, smart men and silly women seem to be my fate."

Consider, too, how Nunez pulls a switcheroo in the final third of the book. Up to that point Nunez has posed as a wallflower in awe of her high-maintenance mentor. But suddenly Nunez ditches magnanimity. Long-harbored resentments are let loose; it's time to settle some scores. What triggers the shift is Nunez remembering how Sontag "reminded me to a remarkable degree of my German mother -- another touchy, chronic ranter who thought she was surrounded by idiots, who practically lived in a state of indignation." And so the memoir is re-purposed as therapy. Nunez is free to relay how, in her role as a mother, Sontag herself was an idiot: "From the time she knew she was pregnant until the day she went into labor, she never saw a doctor. `I didn't know you were supposed to.'" Nunez proceeds to render diagnostic judgments in quick succession: she tags Sontag as "depressed," "paranoid," "narcissistic" and, in the final analysis, "a masochist and a sadist."

One thing that may disappoint readers is discovering that Nunez' objectives do NOT include her offering any critical analysis of Susan Sontag the intellectual. There are no insights into Sontag's evolving political activism. Although Nunez lived in the Sontag household during the formation of "On Photography," that seminal work is mentioned in only one unenlightening paragraph. If you're the kind of reader who picks up literary biographies hoping to experience vicariously the "Eureka" moments that elevate the creative life, this book will leave you starved. Be aware that "Sempre Susan" offers up more dish than dissertation.

Note 1: If you come to "Sempre Susan" after reading the excerpt that appeared in the New York Times Style Magazine (February 25, 2011), please know that while that article was accompanied by photos of the household trio (Sontag, Nunez, and Sontag's son, David Rieff), the book itself is devoid of photographs other than dust jacket shots of Sontag and Nunez.

Note 2: Readers interested in Sontag's work habits may enjoying reading a recent article by Karla Eoff, who served as the writer's personal assistant a decade after Nunez' relationship with Sontag soured. Eoff's entitles her piece, "The Intellectual's Assistant," and in it she describes Sontag's creative process during the composition of her celebrated novel, "The Volcano Lover." The article appears in the Winter 2011 edition of the online literary magazine, blipmagazine. For a link to it, Google the two names: Sontag, Eoff.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Susan Laughs 10 May 2013
By J. McFarland - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The very name of Susan Sontag carries a lot of baggage for a lot of people, but Sigrid Nunez, who knew Sontag up close and personal, is remarkably balanced (no vicious pay-backs) in relating what she saw, heard and took away as lessons and memory. The portrait that Nunez paints is vivid, funny, startling and refreshing. I, like so many who may come to this book, had opinions about the careerist Sontag, her writing and her self-aggrandizing tactics, but I was disarmed and charmed by the personal Susan (who was always striving, always passionate, often extremely irritating). I never expected, for example, to see Susan laughing and to discover her favorite jokes (hilarious). And to find out that she and I revere Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino and Julio Cortazar for the same reasons. She's not so bad, after all, is she? Nunez's writing is perfect here.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Side by Side with Sontag 28 Mar. 2011
By michaelg - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In Sigrid Nunez's latest, "Sempre Susan" (a departure from her usual fiction genre), we are treated to a wonderful and intelligent first hand view of life among the New York literary elite of the mid to late 1970's.

As an avid fan of Nunez's fiction, I must say I was initially struck by the ease with which she moves from novel to memoir; from master architect of a tale to keen observer of a time and place. In this depiction of her time living with Sontag and her son David, Nunez's normally compact writing style becomes more complex, but not in a cumbersome way. The words flow with style and grace. The reader is informed as well as moved.

"Sempre Susan" easily passes this reader's acid test for memoir writing: At the end I did not feel as though Sontag had been merely described to me; I felt as if I had known her.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"ALL ABOUT EVE" FOR THE LITERATI 24 Sept. 2012
By Cybergirl - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I'm a little more than half-way through this book.
I really enjoy Sigrid Nunez' writing. She has a thoughtful,
cultivated--one might say, intellectual--approach to writing.
She rarely chooses the obvious word. I like that. Last night--
although I spent a summer trying to learn beginner-level German,
years ago--I had to look up "ungemutlich." It's a German word
for messy or nasty. So I learned something new
(though I doubt I'll EVER use this word).

Moreover, no one should be put off by the title.
"Sempre" just means always (in Italian). That said,
the book is a memoir of Nunez' non-romantic relationship
with author/writer Susan Sontag. Nunez was Sontag's
assistant, even as she dated/lived with Sontag's son, David.

An artfully crafted and bittersweet tale, SEMPRE SUSAN is a sort of
"All About Eve"-for-the-literati or literary set.

--Yolanda A. Reid

Author of PORRIDGE & CUCU: MY CHILDHOOD

PORRIDGE & CUCU: MY CHILDHOOD
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I have read everything by and about Susan Sontag and... 18 April 2011
By readernyc - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Ms. Nunez book is both the latest read and for now, my favorite. Nunez keeps her tone neutral and though there are many hair-raising things told, none is mean-spirited but in fact the opposite.

I adore how Nunez,' who knew Sontag so well, has the opposite temperment to Susan,d also how that sweet and kind temperament doesn't dig dirt. Rather this is the rare author who is kind to Sontag without whitewashing her as one difficult mom, friend and mentor.

But she is never ugly and takes offence when others diss Sontag, which so many do. She never does even when showing Sontag as mighty difficult. This is lovely because Nunez, David Reiff's girlfriend for a few years, is both a good, very good, writer, and because she is not angry about many things most of us would indeed write about as maddening. I loved her maturity, how she says that even if Sontag was not such an intrusive mom she and Rieff would absolutely have lasted longer as a couple, and absolutely broken up eventually. What a mature take when it could be so easy to blame Sontag who was in a way using her son as if he was the father. (See his book too: "Drowning in a Sea of Death".)

This is a short book but I, who knew Sontag and her son slightly, met her about five times, could never be neutral about. So I appreciate that this author went about this as a testimonial to her mentor. I couldn't believe so much is written in this short book that I never knew even though I have been a bit obsessed with Sontag for various reasons. This book is most of all: FAIR. 5 huge stars!!
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