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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag Hardcover – March 30, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The iconoclasm of the fearless intellectual Susan Sontag, who died in 2004 of leukemia, began to be revealed with her son David Rieff's memoir, Swimming in a Sea of Death, and continues with novelist Nunez's (Salvation City) thorny remembrance of the woman who was her literary mentor as well as her boyfriend's mother. Sontag was 43, Nunez 25, when the young editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books was hired by the famous writer to help her sort her correspondence at her Riverside Drive apartment in 1976. As a fledgling writer, between college and grad school, Nunez was in awe of Sontag's reputation, her mighty pronouncements, unconventional flair for life, and her critical reading and movie lists; the young writer promptly read her books (knowing Sontag would ask her if she had: "She didn't have a beautiful style," Nunez concludes). Soon Nunez was introduced to Sontag's son, David Rieff, who was a year younger and a student; they began a romance, sanctioned by Sontag, and Nunez moved into the apartment with them, in an increasingly problematic arrangement. What emerges from this conflicted portrait is a vulnerable woman recovering from illness who could not be alone; Sontag was supercilious, insecure, yet vulnerable to beauty and love, fiercely uncompromising, and surely, as Nunez intimates by the end, the finest teacher a young writer could ever have had. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

When Susan Sontag, 43, needed help catching up with correspondence in the wake of a radical mastectomy in 1976, friends suggested Nunez, then a 25-year-old writer wannabe, now an acclaimed novelist. Sontag was avid about sharing her knowledge, enthusiasms, and even her adored son, David Rieff, with Nunez, who ended up moving in. Now, six years after Sontag�s death, Nunez chronicles those heady and unnerving times in a boldly intimate, stingingly frank, and genuinely fascinating memoir. She portrays ever-controversial Sontag as an insatiable reader and moviegoer susceptible to love, a restless yet didactic intellectual who loathed solitude and who had to force herself to write in Dexedrine-fueled marathon sessions, and a clingy single mother. In short, an overwhelming presence for private and restrained Nunez. Sontag averred that getting to know famous writers can be disappointing, but there is nothing diminishing about this up-close-and-personal account of one interlude in Sontag�s remarkable life of blazing literary accomplishment, activism, and valor. And Nunez herself is intriguing. Readers of this thorny remembrance will hope that Nunez tells her own story next time. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 140 pages
  • Publisher: Atlas; 1St Edition edition (March 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1935633228
  • ISBN-13: 978-1935633228
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #602,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sigrid Nunez was born in New York City, the daughter of a German mother and a Chinese-Panamanian father, whose lives she drew on for part of her first novel, A FEATHER ON THE BREATH OF GOD (1995). She went on to write five more novels, including THE LAST OF HER KIND (2006) and, most recently, SALVATION CITY (2010). She is also the author of SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG (2011). Her honors include a Whiting Writers' Award, a Rome Prize, a Berlin Prize, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Learn more at

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Ettner on March 21, 2011
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. McFarland on May 10, 2013
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.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By michaelg on March 28, 2011
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Cybergirl on September 23, 2012
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


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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By readernyc on April 18, 2011
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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