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"She had the habits and the aura of a student all her life."
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.