Sigrid Nunez: Sempre Susan


Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was one of the most powerful female intellectuals of her time. More respected than her contemporary Germaine Greer, and denying all knowledge of the existence of a slightly later rival Camille Paglia, she courted controversy and had a strong sense of her central importance to American life.

She was best known for her essays, although she wrote several novels that were never as popular. In the essays, she often made outrageous statements that deeply offended mainstream American sensibilities. She visited North Vietnam during the Vietnam war in the 1960’s where she described the Vietnamese people as ‘whole’ and the Americans as ‘split’. She referred to the terrorist strikes of 9/11 as a ‘ monstrous dose of reality.’

She was famous for turning up to give talks hours late, surrounded by an entourage of supporters, unprepared and speaking as the mood took her, rather than on the advertised topic. She was a force of nature. Friend of Joseph Brodsky, admirer of Jean Paul Sartre, lover of Fran Lebowicz, the voice of American liberalism, in every sense a bright star in American intellectual life.

We were therefore interested in a little book titled Sempre Susan written by a current interest of ours, Sigrid Nunez. The cover wears a stunning photograph of Susan Sontag, with her dark eyes and strong features, and I soon discovered that Nunez as a graduate student had been the girlfriend of David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s son, and had indeed lived with him in their family apartment. The cover comments refer to the book as ‘charming’, ‘affectionate,’ ‘sad,’ ‘compassionate’ and so on. Draw your own conclusions….

to have been such a person, someone who struck others as too strong and tough, too alive to die, says something wonderful about Susan. And it makes her own extreme behavior – as described by David after her death, her insistence on her exceptionalism, her refusal to admit that her case was hopeless, that death was not only inevitable, but here – seem …perhaps a little more comprehensible. 21

 Over and over we heard it: ‘My mother never cared what happened to me. My mother was never there for me’. It might as well have been yesterday. A wound that never healed. 26 

 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…’ Mine was the typical female way, hers the way of most men. 43

 Another thing she often depended on while writing was a pal, someone to sit and work with her during the many long hours it took to polish a draft. Sometimes that person would move into the apartment for days at a time, and the two of them would work together in Susan’s room, discussing every idea, going over every line, every comma. .63

 She simply could not bear to be alone. Among the many things she always wanted to do, there was none that she would have chosen to do by herself. There was no experience, as far as she was concerned, that could enhanced by being undertaken solo. 96

 But, to be honest, I often played dumb with Susan, and if there was one thing that could drive her insane, it was that. 131

 Just a fleeting glimpse of Susan Sontag. If you are interested in further reading:

Susan Sontag:Essays of the 1960s &70s

Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Lisa Paddock

The Scandal of Susan Sontag by Barbara Ching

Or seeing the famous Sontag interview style

Or hearing Camille Paglia’s views on her

4 thoughts on “Sigrid Nunez: Sempre Susan

  1. I think you either loved Susan Sontag or couldn’t bear her. This little book quite ingenuously shows many aspects of her personality. You might like Nunez’ latest novel The Friend, where a woman is obliged to care for a dead friend’s dog after his death. She won the National Book Award 2018 for it.

  2. I listened to the interviews and find a commonality between the two women. Both are very confident in their opinions and self possessed. I think Germaine Greer maybe a little more likeable.

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