Posts Tagged ‘Sontag Papers’

“Sempre Susan” by Sigrid Nunez

Sunday, March 20th, 2011



In her short novel, “Mitz” (1998), Sigrid Nunez imagines the experiences of a pet marmoset who became an affectionate companion to writer and editor Leonard Woolf, husband of novelist Virginia Woolf. During the course of the story, little Mitz becomes an eye-witness to the ups and downs of the couple’s Bloomsbury household during the period when Virginia descended into depression. Based on actual events (Leonard really did own a marmoset in the mid- to late-1930s), the book is enlivened by the author’s imaginative scene-setting, and her exploration of a three-pointed relationship, sadly destined to last but a few years.

I read “Mitz” a year ago and reviewed it positively, here. I still remember the pleasure of its warm tone and modest charms. Within a slim frame, “Mitz” accomplishes many things. It is a playful writer’s holiday; a recreation of a time and place in history; and a deft exercise in stagecraft requiring the author to direct the movements of significant personages, among them T.S. Eliot, John Maynard Keynes, and Vita Sackville-West, as they intersect with the quintessential literary power couple — known affectionately among friends, and referred to none too kindly by enemies, as “the Woolves.” In Nunez’ hands, “Mitz” becomes a window into a storied household and the quotidian pleasures — reading, writing, eating, talking — sheltered therein. Nunez’ touch is light as air as she anatomizes domesticity via the device of a domesticated (well, mostly domesticated) pet. The book charts the breathing in and breathing out of a successful marriage. It offers lessons in patience and protectiveness and love.


Now Nunez has written another story of a three-way relationship. The just-released “Sempre Susan: a Memoir of Susan Sontag” and “Mitz” both weigh in at about 130 pages. This time, however, the author has a long-simmering personal agenda to get through — and a volatile mix of objectives to achieve. That Nunez somehow pulls this off, and in such short order, is a testament to her talents as a writer.

In “Sempre Susan” Nunez reminisces about her  experience at the start of her writing career when, for a brief period starting in 1976, she lived and worked in the household shared by the older and notorious writer Susan Sontag and her son, Philip Rieff. The relationship that developed took the form of an unstable trio, a love/hate triangle as it were. Inside Sontag’s apartment, Nunez shared a bedroom with David, who quickly became Nunez’ boyfriend soon after Nunez first came to the apartment to assist Sontag in managing her correspondence. Nunez reveals that Sontag usually thought of David more like a brother or best friend, and it was not long before a tense current encircled the three. The travails of this arrangement, Nunez writes in “Sempre Susan”, were aggravated by Sontag’s mental instability.

The first hundred pages of “Sempre Susan” are filled with observations about Sontag’s strong character. Her quirks were legion. She was alive in the city and had no appreciation for nature. She had never heard of a dragonfly. She wore a men’s cologne, Dior Homme. At the cinema she always sat in the first row. Her favorite words were: servile, boring, exemplary, serious, grotesque. Her credo: “Security over freedom is a deplorable choice.” She had, Nunez says with what I take to be approval, “the habits and the aura of a student all her life.”

The reader is never far from another anecdote involving New York literary life, as luminaries pass within Sontag’s orbit (Joseph Brodsky, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Genet). Her love life gets full attention. Nunez reports her resigned sigh: “Mean, smart men and silly women seem to be my fate.”  Nunez pays attention to how Sontag approached the challenge of a being woman writer, a female intellectual, in 20th century America.


The thrust of Nunez’s initial cuts may be unkind (she observes at one point how Sontag dressed like a “prison matron”) but they are not vicious. Yes, Sontag had a high-maintenance personality, but what of it? If, after pages of anecdotes, you may perceive a growing tension between mentor and protégé, Nunez still conveys her respect for her teacher. For example, Nunez writes:

“She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control, and she was always after me to take that control. ‘Stop letting people bully you,’ she would bully you.” (p. 72.)

Though irony may mask hurt, Nunez’ temper is jocular. And even as you pass the halfway mark the author remains appreciative for what Sontag gave to her young charge, even down to the transfer of mundane habits:

“Because of her, I began writing my name in each new book I acquired. I began clipping articles from newspapers and magazines and filing them in various books. Like her, I always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), for underlining.” (p. 85.)

Then things change abruptly. In the book’s final third, magnanimity departs. Long-harbored resentments are let lose. You can almost hear the snap! of a breakthrough epiphany, as in therapy, when Nunez recalls 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 who happened also to share Susan’s contempt for American superficiality and American ‘culture.’” (p. 96.)

And so, for the remainder of the book, the text is overtaken by Nunez’ blunt, relentless portrayal of a sick woman, a person oblivious to the feelings of others, a monster. Nunez reports that, as a mother to Philip, Sontag was an idiot from the get-go: “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.’” (p. 103.) Nunez’s rough judgments are swift and stark: Sontag was depressed (p. 114), paranoid (p. 115), narcissistic (p. 116). She was, in the final analysis, “a masochist and a sadist” (p. 118.)


You may be coming to this book after having read an excerpt published in the New York Times’ “Style Magazine” (February 25, 2011). That article was titled, “Suddenly Susan” and carried the tag line: “When the author shacked up with Susan Sontag’s son and his brainy mom, in 1976, three was not company.” If that was your initial experience with the book, please know this: What you read was misleading. The article may have struck you as mildly critical of Sontag, mildly bitchy in tone, mildly voyeuristic. Some readers who posted comments online have said as much. And here’s how the magazine’s editor, Sally Singer, described its appeal:

“I want a good, sexy, neurotic story about New York literary life in the Seventies. I want the New York Review of Book parties. I want a little Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. You have that literary dream of New York. It’s got it all.”

But what Singer edited, for placement in the New York Times, was not representative of the content and tone of the actual book released to the public this month. True to its code (the “Gray Lady” shallprint only what’s “fit”) the NY Times altered Nunez’ text for its readership. Whether this was accomplished with Nunez’s input and approval is not clear. It is significant, however, that the material published in the Times Style Magazine is described not as an “excerpt” but instead as a new product “adapted from” the book.

To give an example of the alterations, consider how Nunez herself treats the salacious rumor of incest between Susan Sontag and Philip Rieff:

“That there was feverish, prurient interest swirling around 340 [Riverside Drive -- the Sontag apartment] was something I already knew. Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked: Is it true? Have they had sex together? Sometimes, rather than being asked, I was told: They must have had sex together.” (p. 100)

Here, as throughout the book, Nunez uses her skills as a novelist to lead the reader toward a tentative — if still uncertain — conclusion. In the pages leading up to that point she has built the platform from which to launch her heaviest character assaults. She has offered vignettes of Sontag’s disdain for convention (“What did it matter what other people said?”), her outlaw instincts, her transgressive behaviors. Then, as the reader absorbs the implications of her flat presentation of the incest rumor, Nunez simply moves on to other aspects of Sontag’s foul reputation. Nunez neither confirms nor denies the rumor, leaving the reader exactly . . . where?

Compare how the New York Times handles the text:

“Before I ever met Susan or David, I’d heard the talk. Now people came straight out and asked the absurd: Is it true? Have they had sex together?”

With the clarifying addition of two words — the thing some ugly people were wallowing in was the absurd — the editor steers the reader away from the rumor. Pay it no heed, consign it to the category of lies. A valid question for the author: Which of the two presentations is preferred?


Then there is the question of the reliability of Nunez’ memories. Rare is the page of “Sempre Susan” that lacks one or more quotations from the mouth of the loquacious Sontag. Presented as transcribed conversations, Sontag’s words add punch to the proceedings. But consider: most of these are words Sontag uttered 35 years ago, and they are not commonplaces, not throwaway lines, but language with exactness, with pungency, with meaning. In short, character-defining utterances. This material Nunez then leverages to construct her brief against Sontag. Yet, as Nunez confesses early in the book, she kept no contemporaneous notes: “I didn’t keep a journal then — or if I did, it has long since vanished.” (p. 24). How, then, can the reader have confidence in the accuracy of her reconstructed conversations? Is Nunez’ memory of conversations supported by contemporaneous letters, notes, journals kept by Sontag herself, or by David Rieff? Did Nunez review that related material as part of her research and fact-checking?  Does “Sempre Susan” conform to professional and ethical standards of journalism, biography, history writing? Should we expect it to? Does the book’s presentation as a “memoir” shield it from those norms?

Some will argue a “memoir,” especially one from the imaginative mind of an author whose métier is the novel (Nunez has published six novels; this is her first published book of non-fiction), ought to be evaluated through a different lens. But even if that were the case, shouldn’t the author at least provide us with an Introduction, an Afterward, an Acknowledgments page, or a section of Notes explaining and supporting the book’s content? Nothing of the sort accompanies “Sempre Susan.” Regrettably, at its close, the book simply peters out with the author’s wistful sigh of disappointment. There is self-pity and nothing more.

The reader is apt to remember how, earlier in tho book, Sontag admonished her future profiler: Stop letting people bully you! And a reader inclined to armchair psychologizing may very well recognize the defensive posture Nunez adopts: the passive-aggressive mode. Consider, for example, this admission:

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

I was reminded how the three-member household that Nunez lovingly recreated in “Mitz” (Leonard, Virginia and the marmoset) was so alive, so charmed, so pleasurable, that I — and I suspect the author as well — longed to trade places, if only for a moment, with the privileged position of guest resident. The reader will find that in “Sempre Susan” Nunez often pauses to compare Sontag to Virginia Woolf, each time to Sontag’s detriment. With undisguised bitterness Nunez remembers Sontag referring to the trio — David, Susan and herself — as “the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive.” (p. 105.) Nunez knew the duckling part wasn’t good. She felt cheated.


It  is disappointing to realize how little of lasting importance the “Sempre Susan” accomplishes. The missed opportunities are many.

Nunez, a serious and accomplished writer in her own right, offers few insights into Sontag’s writing (although she makes very clear her disdain for Sontag’s attempts at fiction). She offers no serious critical analysis of Sontag’s thought or ideas, mentioning but glossing over the actual content of her ground-breaking essays. There is nothing about the genesis or evolution of Sontag’s political views during their years of intimacy. The reader searches in vain for Nunez opinion on the question uppermost in most minds: Was Sontag a thinker of importance? You are left with the impression Nunez is simply not interested in the play of ideas that was the essence of Sontag’s breathing in and breathing out.

During the time Nunez lived with life, Sontag was assembling the essays that would become “On Photography” (1977). Although present “at the creation” of that seminal work, she offers us nothing at all about its formation: only a single short paragraph mentions the book, and it is unenlightening. For many readers, surely, this is frustrating. Nunez must have seen or overheard something of interest. If you are a reader who likes to the hear about the “Eureka” moments that seize a creator, or who wants the vicarious thrill of being a fly on the wall of the ugly/beautiful creative process, “Sempre Susan” will leave you starved.  So too will be readers expecting to experience at least something of Sontag the intellectual, some glimpse into her mind at work. This is a service those persons who were her assistants, and those who shared even greater intimacies, can and ought to tell us now: What was the source of  her vaunted brilliance? What signs did you see? Yet, in response to the curious reader’s desire there comes, from Nunez, silence.


I understand why Nunez wanted to — needed to — write this book. The exercise was therapeutic, for sure. Nunez’ reminiscences — however flawed — also have potential value to history, if time grants Sontag status as a durable contributor to American literary and intellectual history. At their most basic, Nunez’s pages are evidence, are material to be sifted through critically by future biographers. Nunez’ memries join the remembrances of Sontag colleagues, friends, editors, and other intimates. I was please to discover a former personal assistant to Sontag, Karla Eoff, has written a piece for the Winter 2011 edition of the online literary magazine,, here. In a very brief space, Eoff describes the creative process that produced Sontag’s celebrated novel, “The Volcano Lover.” It is valuable evidence. Another reminiscence by a former aide-de-camp, this one painfully open, especially on the subject of Sontag’s sexuality, is provided by Terry Castle, here.

If the writing and preservation of Nunez’ has value, a separate question attaches to the publication of the text at this time. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Nunez would have been better advised to have kept the completed manuscript of “Sempre Susan” under her lock and key. Or, she should have donated it to a suitable library for preservation and use by scholars (a good choice would have been UCLA Library which houses Sontag’s papers).

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UPDATE: An adaptation of this review appears on Amazon, here.