Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag
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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

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3.66 of 5 stars 3.66  ·  rating details  ·  284 ratings  ·  53 reviews
Sigrid Nunez was an aspiring writer when she first me Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Nunez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Nunez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Nunez, “Who says we have to live...more
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Published March 30th 2011 by Atlas
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Olivia
I adore this book. It made me want to do 3 things:

1. Read more of Sigrid Nunez.
2. Read more Susan Sontag.
3. Be Susan Sontag, or at least believe I could be Susan Sontag.

This book is perfect in many ways, from the length to its treatment of the topic. It is based on a pretty implausible premise (but a true one): she was Susan Sontag's assistant and was dating Sontag's son and then moved in with them. Sounds completely nuts. And something that led to a messed-up relationship with Sontag and the...more
Tina Tinde

What an intimate and riveting portrait of the "mad scientist" that Susan Sontag appears to have been. I read her novel The Volcano Lover when it came out, but believe Nunez when she points out that Sontag's strength was as an essayist. As is often the case, brilliant people are not able to master all aspects of their life with the same brilliance. I laughed several times at the wit of Sigrid Nunes, and was very moved by some tragic sides to Sontag's life that Nunes described very sharply. A woma...more
KOMET
I first became aware of Susan Sontag the public intellectual/essayist/activist roughly 20 years ago. She intrigued me because, given the incipient strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., I didn't think we Americans had any publicly acknowledged (and accepted) public intellectuals.

This book, in which the author details her relationship with Sontag, was both eye-opening and revelatory. Here was a woman who was fully aware of her wide-ranging literary and intellectual talents. Yet, she felt ch...more
christa
In mid-May Bob Dylan, then nearly to his 70th birthday, wrote something a little snarky on his website:
"Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them."

I couldn't stop thinking about this as I read one writer's memoir, using life with another writer as a trigg...more
Laurie Neighbors
In the midst of reading this book, I met my partner for dinner one evening, and we sat in the corner of the restaurant near our house, the one that we eat at all the time. The one with the porkchops. I ordered fish tacos and he ordered some fusilli with sausage and while we waited I told him about this book -- with more intensity than I had told him about any book in a while, since Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," and definitely with more words than I'd ever talked about a memoir (except for...more
Liz Una Kim
A sobering take on Sontag's much speculated life. The memoir felt akin to dancing in the dark with a handsome stranger, only to have a third party (Nunez) unexpectedly enter and switch on a fluorescent light... exposing the stranger, Sontag, but also her most unflattering characteristics and intimate moments, right in front of you. The way in which the memoir is structured was effective; it ultimately humanizes Sontag and disenchants the reader, creating both a muse and monster of Sontag. Overal...more
Lynne
A beautifully conceptualized and written, complex, kind, and smart memoir. A relationship that feels palpable, and Susan Sontag feels close. Brava to Sigrid Nunez, and thanks.
Kasey Jueds
This book is so many things--insightful, wise, gracefully-written, moving--but what affected me most about it is its sense of deep acceptance. Sigrid Nunez writes about Susan Sontag (who comes across as many things, as well, including brilliant, difficult, demanding, willful, and entirely herself) with such luminous clarity and even-handedness; Nunez doesn't sugar-coat anything, but she's clear and respectful and loving, even about Sontag's most difficult, unlovable traits. She makes Sontag huma...more
Leslie Reese
Because I enjoyed reading Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind, when I saw Sempre Susan on the “new non-fiction” shelf of the Chicago Public Library, I thought it would be worth reading. The subject of this memoir is the late, iconic intellectual, writer and activist Susan Sontag; and it centers specifically on when Nunez met Sontag in 1976---they were ages 25 and 43, respectively. It was fun to read that Sontag believed in reading one book a day and that her personal library consisted of l...more
cat
2011 Book 70/100

Ah, for the 1/2 stars..... This would be a 2.5 for me, because while there were portions that I liked very much, there was also an absolute underlying chaos to the way the book was written (purposefully?!) that made it very difficult for me to read, and a strange pitiful pull that I experienced when reading the not-very-nice stories that Nunez decided to tell about her supposed friend and mentor. The NYTimes book review may have the best quote about the lack of cohesive narrative...more
Yolanda
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. "S...more
Megan
I read this yesterday afternoon, stopping only to order some books (by Sontag, Nunez, and others) from my local library. It's delightfully chaotic and thoroughly enjoyable. Being a memoir, it is also highly personal and gives readers a glimpse into the memoirist's life as well.

I found myself liking Nunez very much and admiring Sontag but also recognizing that she can't have been an easy person to know. Many of Sontag's quirks and opinions seemed odd to me, and her ability to be unkind, even nas...more
Annie
you know, Susan was a little bit of a dick but then again, if you've read the diaries then it doesn't come as any surprise, and at book's end I didn't feel horror or disappointment at her deep flaws (in fact, I felt something of an affinity for them). A secret of mine is that I really dislike memoir as a genre and generally find it unbearable to read but this was a wonderful length and Nunez' treatment is critical and compassionate which is a difficult feat.

*I feel I should mention that I got t...more
Luann
Read this in one sitting. Ended up feeling more interested in Nunez than in Sontag - though not because the author was trying to draw attention to herself. Written with grace, generosity, obvious affection but also not sparing the difficult parts of Sontag's personality. It is a remembrance, not a biography, and therefore personal and subjective. I'm walking away thinking about things like forgiveness, acceptance, regret. Respect the intellect, not so much the person. 0

I think I responded to th...more
Sara Berger
I appreciate the honesty of this memoir, despite its small scale it began with a good balance of both the admirable and the harsh in Sontag. It contains many enlightening insights about the highs and lows of being brilliant. That is until the second half when a stream of unappetizing anecdotes demonstrate Nunez's bitterness as much as Sontag's. And that's fine, obviously their relationship was tough, and Sontag a tough cookie. What I found most unfair was how the author condemns her subject to a...more
H
You didn't do it for your own enjoyment (unlike reading), or for catharsis, or to express yourself, or to please some particular audience. You did it for literature, she said. And there was nothing wrong with never being satisfied with what you did. (Indeed, if you weren't regularly tormented by self-doubt, your work probably was shit.)
"The question you have to ask yourself is whether what you're writing is necessary." I didn't know about this. Necessary? That way, I thought, lies writer's block...more
Erika
I'm currently on a Susan Sontag/Annie Leibowitz kick, and this memoir, written by Nunez who lived with Sontag and her son David for a time was very interesting. Rumors around Sontag have always abounded, and while I am often deeply distrustful of memoirs, I very much liked this one. Nunez brings Susan Sontag alive in a generous and empathetic way, clarifying both the qualities that made her so admired, as well as those that have fueled the stories of her well documented narcissism. As a human be...more
Marianna Monaco
A thorny remembrance of a time spent by young Sigrid Nunez with Susan Sontag. Did not catch my interest. However, the book spurred me on to explore books written by both Susan Sontag and by Ingrid Nunez. I'll start with Sontag's short stories (since I like short stories) and perhaps an essay, and with a book by Nunez - Mitz: the Marmoset of Bloomsbury, because of my curiosity about marmosets.
Postscript - I, etcetera by Susan Sontag - her writing style is not my cup of tea - see my review
Postscri...more
Connie
I don't typically read memoirs because I most often get bored with the length and excessive detail included and seldom remember what I have read; however, this is not the case with this memoir. The author's unconventional style, coupled with the shortness of the piece, kept me intrigued. I walked away with a more vivid picture of Susan Sontag in these few pages than all the words on her I have read in the past. I have to wonder if the author was following her mentor's advice and intentionally ex...more
Annie
Susan Sontag fascinates me. Sometimes, reading things she's written, I feel a weird kinship with her--though I also feel confident that we would not have liked each other in person. I'm happy to meet her on the page, though. Her ideas, her energy, and the force of her personality are inspiring.

Nunez's memoir is respectful, affectionate, honest, and sometimes funny. I read it in the space of a day, but at 140 pages it probably wouldn't have taken much over an hour if I had read it it one sitting...more
Tobi

Sigrid Nunez is one of my favorite living novelists. It turns out she briefly dated Susan Sontag's son David when they were very young. Her memoir of that time is fascinating and lets you get to know Sontag more than reading Sontag's own diary does, which are stiff and do not feel true to life or intimate The glimpse into Sontag's life was memorable but this is mostly interesting to me in terms of Nunez's own journey whose accomplishment as a writer of fiction has come to overshadow this moment...more
Amanda
I picked up this book knowing next-to-nothing about Sigrid Nunez, but a total believer in Susan Sontag's brilliance as an essayist (I still can't get into her novels, try as I might, save for "In America"). I really enjoyed the nonlinear style: it's easy to get lost in Nunez's prose, and the book makes for an interesting way to pass an afternoon. You won't learn much of anything new about Susan Sontag, but if you're like me, you'll finish the book wanting to read more of Nunez's work.
Kris
Sempre Susan is more a reminiscence than a memoir, a lovely book that humanizes an icon and fills in the kinds of meaningful gaps often absent from standard biography. I read it in a single sitting, but did not rush through it. This is a book to savor, and it carries an emotional heft that belies its short length. As a reader, I am very enriched. And Nunez's writing, her evocation of the legendary Sontag, compels me to next seek out more books by both women.
Allyson
This was short and while the author had an intimate knowledge of Sontag, I felt she was alternately attracted and repulsed by her. It did not paint a wonderful portrait of Sontag and I was not compelled to learn more about this woman after reading Nunez's memoir. She may have been smart, but she sounded particularly unpleasant and a whole host of negative adjectives I can't be bothered to list here.
Complicated and uninteresting to me.

Robert B
Nunez was hired by Sontag to help her sort out her correspondence in the mid-1970s. The memoir reveals Sontag to be a complex individual, often brilliant but often needy and petulant. Nunez became romantically involved with Sontag's son, which makes their relationship more complicated. The memoir is brief, but as one reviewer noted, there is a lot going on, perhaps a reflection of the brief but intense period during which Nunez knew Sontag.
Portia
An interesting window into the woman who arguably was one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century by her daughter-in-law, Sigrid Nunez. Ms. Nunez relates stories about Sontag, about Sontag and her son (and Nunez's husband) David Reiff, and about Sontag and herself. By maintaining a narrative tone, MS. Nunez lets the reader decide how and why people submitted themselves to this brilliant by very difficult woman.
Sam
Mar 23, 2011 Sam marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I need to read this. I've been "stalking" this book AKA reading all of the reviews for it. Sontag is one of those people, whose writing and life are equally interesting. Like, who else is a leading cultural critic, ex-wife of major sociologist(Phillip Rieff) and then life-partner of major photographer(Leibowitz) all in one life. Jeez.

Also, this book being written by her son's ex-girlfriend is kind of an amazing angle.
Kristen
I picked up this little book, hoping for some entertaining gossip about Sontag. The book was much more touching and insightful than I had expected, frankly. But it's also rather slight and kind of random-feeling in its structure, or lack thereof. Interesting if you've read Sontag, an are just kind of attracted to 1970s New York City intellectual and bohemian life. And really, who isn't?
Sue Pelman
An eye-opener for me. Mohsen recommended it, as he loves Susan Sontag. I am not proud to admit that I knew nothing more than her name and the fact that she was highly regarded in the arts and literature prior to reading this small, but quite revealing and intriguing memoir. I want to learn more about her and her work, and I also want to learn more about Sigrid Nunez and her work.
Jennifer
I would have given it no stars but the beginning was quite good perhaps deserving three stars. Then it ends with a relentless en masse dumping that sounds like the author is self righteously trying to settle a personal grudge. It becomes as tedious as a nagging mother in law that has camped out in the guest room for way too long.
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(Photograph ©Marion Ettlinger, 2005)

Sigrid Nunez is the author of six novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and Salvation City. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. She has been a contributor to The New York Times, Harper's, O Magazine, The Believer, Tin House, and McSweeney's, among...more
More about Sigrid Nunez...
The Last of Her Kind Salvation City A Feather on the Breath of God: A Novel For Rouenna: A Novel Mitz The Marmoset of Bloomsbury

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