The picture we get of Susan Sontag from Sigrid Nunez’s terrifically readable Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag is of a writer who wouldn’t be pleased to be reviewed by Women’s Voices for Change. Sontag fiercely resisted being pigeonholed as a “woman writer,” and refused to acknowledge there could be such a thing as a “woman’s point of view.” “She was a feminist who found most women wanting.” Nunez observes.
In one telling anecdote, Nunez describes Sontag’s response, at a dinner party, when she learned that the house custom was for guests to separate after dinner, the men repairing to one room, the women to another.
“Without a word to the hostess,” reports Nunez, “Sontag stalked off to join the men.”
Sontag had no interest in following rules if they didn’t suit her. “It’s always good to start off anything by breaking a rule,” she once advised Nunez. The two women’s paths first crossed in 1976, when Nunez, 25, began work as an assistant to Sontag, then 43. Nunez began going out with Sontag’s son, David, who lived with his mother, and soon moved in with Sontag and son. But Nunez and David eventually parted company. Sontag’s emotional stranglehold on her son didn’t help. “She made no attempt to hide how devastating it would be for her if David were to move out.”
Sempre Susan contains Nunez’s memories of that time. It isn’t a balanced or scholarly book. Instead, it’s a fun, gossipy read, full of entertaining stories. You won’t learn what made Sontag tick, but you’ll get a good idea of what being around her was like. Nunez seems to have found her both inspiring and annoying. But not unsympathetic. “Being brainy, talented and very successful doesn’t necessarily make you secure,” Nunez observes. Even though Sontag believed herself to be an important writer, Nunez quotes her as saying that “usually my first feeling about everything I write is that it’s shit.”
Nunez knew it was a lucky break for a young writer to live under the same roof as Susan Sontag. She describes Sontag as a “natural mentor,” taking Nunez’s work seriously, talking with her for hours, and generously introducing her to the many gifted and accomplished artists and writers in her circle. She pushed the reclusive Nunez to get out in the world, to be more sociable, and to take in as many cultural events as possible. Sontag believed that writing was a heroic undertaking. “There could be no nobler pursuit, no greater adventure, no more rewarding quest” than being a writer.” She was a terrific role model, expanding the younger writer’s world and setting her an example of success.
She was also the mother-in-law from hell. Of course, Nunez and David weren’t actually married. But they were serious. Sontag, however, felt that David’s primary relationship was and always should be with his mother. She insisted that all three live together, barging into the couples’ bedroom at odd hours for companionship and company and failing to observe anything in the way of appropriate boundaries. During one lunch conversation, she remarked, unprompted, (and in front of a guest!) that David and Nunez ought to limit themselves to oral sex. “Then you won’t have to worry about birth control.”
They didn’t tell her that their sex life was none of her business – her needs, however unreasonable, ruled their little household. And Sontag, as Nunez tells it, was needy indeed. (She couldn’t bear to be alone, Nunez says, even for a minute.) She was also angry and hypercritical. Nunez describes her at one point as a “touchy chronic ranter who thought she was surrounded by idiots.” She was banned from a neighborhood coffee shop for harassing and berating the staff. She regularly criticized her close friends. “She seemed to think,” writes Nunez, “that it was her right to tell people off, and that quickness to anger was not a besetting weakness but one of her strengths.”
Nunez’s romance with Sontag’s son was doomed from the start. Sontag was impossible to live with, and her son couldn’t bring himself to move out. You might consider this telling little book to be Nunez’s revenge. Plenty of dirty laundry does get aired and Sontag often comes across as a monster. But her good qualities are also on display. She sounds like excellent company. She could be a good friend. She was a great teacher and mentor. The book doesn’t punish her as much as it humanizes her. Nunez gives us the flawed human being behind the literary icon.
Susan Sontag is a fascinating character, although perhaps more fun to read about then she was to live with. This engaging little book goes by fast and will leave you wanting to read more of both Sontag and Nunez.