Sigrid Nunez, a New York–based writer, has published six novels. Here, she talks about her latest book, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, in which she looks back on her years living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, in the 1970s. On April 14, Nunez will discuss the book with Phillip Lopate at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, and on April 28, a reading will be held at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. Sempre Susan is published by Atlas & Co.
THIS BOOK ISN’T A BIOGRAPHY or a critical study. It’s a memoir about a person who had a great influence on me at a particular time in my life under rather unusual circumstances. I first met Susan in 1976, soon after her first bout with cancer. She had a huge pile of unanswered letters to get through, and she wanted someone to sit at her desk and type while she dictated. I happened to live near her apartment at 106th Street and Riverside Drive, and I’d also worked at the New York Review of Books, whose editors in fact recommended me to her. The job lasted just a few days, but by then I’d met Susan’s son, David, who was living with her at the time. We started dating, and I ended up moving in with them.
People were always fascinated by Susan. The essays that made her a rising star in the 1960s were totally original and stylish and daring. And she had such a wide range of interests: literature, film, dance, opera, politics. She had a wonderful look, tall and darkly beautiful, and a lovely, alluring voice. If she enjoyed being famous, I think it was mostly because it enabled her to be part of so many different worlds, and her dream had always been “to do everything.”
But I know there were times when it got to be too much for her. She told me how, at the height of her first wave of celebrity, after “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” went, as we’d say today, viral, she taped a sign to the telephone saying NO, to get herself to stop accepting every single invitation. Also, although many people saw her as glamorous, she didn’t really try to cultivate that image. For the most part, she didn’t care about how she looked. She didn’t wear makeup, and she usually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
She was a feminist––you could say that, by example, she was a super-feminist. But she was also very critical of women, who she thought would never be liberated until they behaved more like men. She didn’t understand, for example, why women insisted on carrying purses. Why did women burden themselves? Men didn’t do that! And at her first dinner party at her publisher’s house, where the custom was for male and female guests to repair to separate rooms after dessert, Susan went with the men. Why hadn’t the other women thought of that? But when feminists complained about women being so underrepresented in the arts, she was unsympathetic. As she put it, “Art is not an equal-opportunity employer.”
Maybe partly because we were both women, I spent more time talking with Susan than I did with David. Sharing the same household turned out to be a terrible idea, but long after I’d moved out, Susan continued to be a major influence. She was a natural mentor. She was forever giving me reading lists. She took me to see The Marriage of Figaro for the first time, and to the New York Film Festival, which I don’t think I knew anything about back then. That’s an important part of this book: looking back to a time when I was young and ignorant and lucky enough to be learning from this brilliant, magnetic woman who seemed to know everything.
Of course, I couldn’t have written this book while Susan was alive. It’s a memoir about people and times that are gone. It’s all about loss, and about how things have changed. Just think about a book like Against Interpretation now: How would such a book survive in our literary marketplace? Is it even conceivable that those essays could make their author a rock star?