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on March 21, 2011
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.
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on December 21, 2014
There are few books that literally I couldn't put down. This was one.

A warts and all portrait of one of the most brilliant, polarizing personalities in the second half of the 20th Century, it gives you a remarkable sense of what she was like to be around, if little sense of her accomplishments. This book reminded me of Boswell's Life of Johnson, with a "you are there" immediacy, without having to worry if you are accomplished enough to be in the presence of this Great Woman. Nunez's ambivalent memories of Sontag are beautifully presented: she damns with faint praise and praises with faint damns alternatively.

I recall seeing Sontag introduce a reading by WG Sebald at Barnes and Nobles on Union Square, and seeing her at a screening of a film when the Public Theater still showed them and wondering what it would have been like to converse with her. This book gives one of the fullest and seemingly truthful pictures of what that experience would have been like.

The most vituperative reviews of this book have come from mostly male reviewers who clearly continue to have an issue with Sontag and what they see as her unearned fame, while they, blighted souls, are relegated to the dustbin of history. (Check out the Washington Post review for one). However, if you want to know why reading Sontag is worth your time, check out the Library of America's recent volume of her best work (neglecting, unfortunately, REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS). Then you will understand why this fascinating portrait is so riveting.
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on May 10, 2013
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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on May 22, 2016
As a long time fan of Susan Sontag, I was eager to read this memoir by novelist Sigrid Nunez. Beautifully written, the memoir evokes a complicated woman, not always likable but at all times fascinating. Nunez dated Sontag's son and lived with the two of them. Not only is Sontag the writer and the woman wonderfully portrayed, the depiction of New York City is also outstanding and very realistic.

I loved this book even though it was somewhat disillusioning for me. However, the work stands on its own merits and the woman is not easily dismissed.
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on August 2, 2013
To be honest, I picked up this book, SEMPRE SUSAN, not because I'm a fan of Sontag, but because I'd read a Sigrid Nunez book which had very much impressed me, a novel called For Rouenna: A Novel. When I found this slim volume, purportedly about Sontag, I hoped to learn more about Nunez. And I did, because this IS a memoir after all. It gives you a pretty good look at what Nunez was like, fresh out of college, at the beginning of her career as a writer, working glorified 'go-fer' jobs at The New York Review of Books, where, quite coincidentally, Sontag had some important connections. So in this way, she first met Susan Sontag, taking a temporary job with her, answering her mail and typing. The two became quite close, despite an 18 year age difference, and Nunez even moved in with Sontag, and had an extended affair with the writer's son, David Rieff. In between the parts about Sontag and family, I learned of some of Nunez's other important influences and teachers, people like Elizabeth Hardwick, and a little about her own ups and downs in relationships. There are also a number of important names from the world of books, publishing, theater and the arts sprinkled throughout - all Sontag contacts.

But mostly, the book really is about Sontag, whose work, I must confess, I know very little about (but neither did Nunez when they first met; she quickly rectified this). Sontag herself was obviously a very complicated, and of course immensely talented, person. For many years she was recognized as an expert and authority on modern culture, a hard-won recognition, it seems. She was also bisexual, abnormally attached to her son, and - at least from the descriptions found herein - probably mentally ill: bipolar, schizo, clinically depressed? It's hard to say. But she doesn't sound normal. She could be, by turns, both extremely controlling and arrogant, and wracked with doubts and insecurities. Despite her many famous and wealthy friends and the high society circles she moved in, she was often hard-pressed to pay her bills, and for much of her life was resentful of this fact.

What comes across very clearly here, however, is in what high regard Nunez always held Sontag - loved her, in fact, as an important influence and a mostly generous mentor, despite bouts of bullying and rudeness she at times endured at her hands.

I think I would have enjoyed knowing Sontag, despite my own lack of polish. Here's a quote Nunez gives us from Sontag: "Pay no attention to these writers who claim you can't be a serious writer and voracious reader at the same time." This is encouraging to a hopelessly out-of-control reader and booklover like me who also has dreams of writing. Sontag herself had an enormous personal library of books that numbered in the thousands.

Here's another passage I liked -

"The little ritual - copied, like so much else she did, by many of us - of spending the last few minutes before leaving on a trip searching the shelves for a book she hadn't yet read, to take along."

Been there too, of course.

Like I said, I didn't know much about Sontag. Now I know enough that I think I'll have to read at least a couple of her books. And I know a little more about Sigrid Nunez as a person and as a writer. And I like what I've learned, namely that she was a good friend once, many years ago, to Susan Sontag, and in writing this book she has not betrayed that friendship. I like that. You don't have to be a Sontag fan to like this book. It's a fascinating look at two people, both important writers: Susan Sontag and Sigrid Nunez. Highly recommended. (Four and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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on March 1, 2014
This book written by the girlfriend of Susan Sontag's son, Sigrid Nuñez, was an eye-opener to me. Nuñez and Sontag's only child, David Rieff, lived with Sontag for awhile; her observations as someone on-the-scene 24/7 provide an invaluable look into Sontag's life as a writer and mother. Sontag is revealed to be very complicated and a needy mother and friend. Sontag's relationship with her son as modern as it appears causes problems for the couple. Her depressive tendencies and brilliance seem to go hand-in-hand as it often does amongst those so gifted. I loved it and plan to keep it as part of my permanent Sontag library.
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on September 23, 2012
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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on October 6, 2015
A page turner. In no way a biography of Susan Sontag and does not pretend to be. Just interesting to hear about her from an observant writer who lived in sontag's house for a time with Susan and her son.
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on March 28, 2011
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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on August 4, 2015
Stylistically, this is a very nicely written memoir that much of the time allows Sontag to speak for herself through remembered (accurately, one hopes) conversations and observations Sontag made. What struck me the most while reading it, is that very little of Sontag's intelligence comes through and if I only knew her from reading this book (literary and academic accomplishments aside), I would have found her of unremarkable intelligence. She appears to have had little insight into her own behavior, her observations of other people often seem defensive, small-minded (!), and not particularly interesting, and her attraction to cultural landmarks large and small comes across as shallow here, which presumably was usually not the case. By the end, I felt about Sontag (and this and David Rieff's memoir are the only biographical accounts I've read of her), the way she herself felt after meeting many of those she admired: disappointed. I'm not sure how much of that is due to Nunez's telling, versus the reality. It's hard to imagine that someone who so dazzled in the classroom and in her writing could be so consistently undazzling in her daily life.
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