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Book Review

An insider’s view of Susan Sontag, the public and private personas

SUSAN SONTAG SUSAN SONTAG
By Alice Gregory
April 2, 2011

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The literature that discloses the private lives of public intellectuals is a category of erotica in itself. For a certain sort of person, nothing is more titillating. Deciphering a persona, anecdote-by-anecdote, to reveal the person behind it is can be a vexed enterprise, since risking their dignity is almost always an occupational hazard. But Sigrid Nunez performs the task elegantly in “Sempre Susan,’’ in which she chronicles the years she spent living with Susan Sontag, who was both her mentor and her boyfriend’s mother.

When they first meet, it’s under the auspices of business. Nunez is just out of college and working as an assistant at The New York Review of Books; Sontag is convalescing from the cancer that would inspire “Illness as Metaphor’’ and living with her son, David Rieff, who is still in college. She hires Nunez on as a typist, and soon enough, they’re all roommates.

Nunez quietly gets out of the way in this thin volume. Her own writing style is mostly invisible, which is as it should be. We want Sontag’s eccentricities neat — not shaken or stirred by those who witnessed them.

Nunez doesn’t moon; her appraisal is fair. Sontag comes off as Great, but flawed. Through Nunez, we get a first-hand account of Sontag’s mercurial affection, delusions of precocity, constant need for company, and fetish for the obscenely wealthy. “And there were times,’’ writes Nunez, “when her obsessive curiosity, which she herself considered her biggest virtue, seemed closer to voyeurism: not a virtue.’’ Like those perpetual visitors always shocked to see such a celebrated writer living “like a grad student,’’ Nunez herself was often surprised at Sontag’s insecurity, recalling that “in spite of her undeniable achievements, all the hard-won honors and well-deserved acclaim, a sense of failure clung to her like widow’s weeds.’’

A paragon of brainy glamour, Sontag’s sartorial sense — jeans, loose-fitting shirts, Dior Homme cologne — is made out to be an expression of mental life, and so much more stylish because of it. Sontag’s strict rules for living are some of the most entertaining parts of the book to read. “Susan hated childish language of any kind,’’ Nunez remembers, “and always boasted that she had never spoken baby talk with her son when he was little.’’ She was “suspicious of women with menstrual complaints’’ and had a strong distaste for cliched language. “Describing an evening as sultry, she told me, was as bad as describing someone as having distinguished grey hair.’’

Nunez is fastidious about labeling Sontag an elitist but not a snob and spends many pages delineating the difference. Interspersed within the book is an index of Sontag’s famously derisive diction. “ ‘Don’t be so servile,’ ’’ she would tell Nunez, urging her to be fashionably late to events. “ ‘It’s always good to start off anything by breaking a rule.’ ’’

“Exemplary’’ was also “one of her words,’’ as were “grotesque,’’ “boring,’’ and “besotted.’’

A premature introduction to Susan Sontag is a dangerous thing. How many 18-year-olds have read “Against Interpretation’’ and taken from it permission to write ruthless polemics that they aren’t quite ready to defend? Sontag is often the gateway drug to intellectual life, lionized by students hell-bent on muscling out a critical worldview. And for good reason. Her essays on art and politics are some of the fiercest and most influential of 20th century letters. “Sempre Susan’’ summons those sophomoric yearnings while also giving us a fair and openhearted portrait.

Nunez has constructed a eulogy that mythologizes and humanizes one of the most intimidating figures of contemporary culture.

Alice Gregory is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in New York, The Poetry Foundation, NPR.org, and The New York Observer, among other publications. She can be reached ataliceagregory@gmail.com.

SEMPRE SUSAN: A Memoir of Susan Sontag By Sigrid Nunez

Atlas. 140 pages $20