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Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  583 ratings  ·  103 reviews
Sigrid Núñez was an aspiring writer when she first met Susan Sontag, already a legendary figure known for her polemical essays, blinding intelligence, and edgy personal style. Sontag introduced Núñez to her son, the writer David Rieff, and the two began dating. Soon Núñez moved into the apartment that Rieff and Sontag shared. As Sontag told Núñez, “Who says we have to live ...more
Paperback, 128 pages
Published October 7th 2014 by Riverhead Books (first published March 30th 2011)
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3.81  · 
Rating details
 ·  583 ratings  ·  103 reviews

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Julie Ehlers
Jan 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
In general, [Susan] had contempt for people who didn't do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they were very poor, made their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile.

She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they were willing to acknowledge. She also believed that how other people treated you was, if not wholly, mostly within your control,
May 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economist
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
Leslie Reese
May 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
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
Nov 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderfully readable and utterly lacking in vindictiveness despite the difficulties Sigrid Nunez faced at times in dealing with Susan Sontag, not least when Nunez was in a relationship with Sontag's son David. That she remains puzzled by some aspects of the great essayist's behaviour makes the book all the better. No cheap and easy analyzing, just a kind of sadness that someone who could so clearly and deeply feel the weakness or greatness of films and novels evinced so little awareness of how s ...more
John Pistelli
I'll admit to a prurient interest in Sontagiana. I've always liked Sontag—well, always is a Sontag-like exaggeration, but I do believe I bought a '60s paperback of Against Interpretation, with her face in close-up on the cover, at the age of 16 or so from the now-defunct Eljay's Books on Pittsburgh's South Side. Since then, many of her famous essays from "Against Interpretation" itself to Regarding the Pain of Others have in whole or part burned their way into my brain. She is of that select com ...more
Feb 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: high-caliber
Life may be disappointing, but this funny, nostalgic book is anything but. It strikes just the right tone, and captures the conflicting feelings we can have about those who influence us in obvious and indirect ways.
Gretchen Rubin
Aug 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This very short, impressionistic memoir whetted my appetite to learn more about Susan Sontag and her work.
Steve Turtell
This is the last thing by or about Susan Sontag I ever intend to read, and confirms me in my opinion of her. Yes she was sometimes brilliant, but she was never in the first rank of writers that she aspired to and demanded to be placed within. Her fiction is unreadable, even the one for which she got the National Book Award as a consolation prize for--the year she won she beat out Charles Baxter, Alan Lightman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Francine Prose--all much more talented writers than Sontag ever ...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
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
Tina Tinde
Jun 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Susan Sontag was an important cultural figure for four decades and an inspiration for many women of the time. Sigrid Nunez, whose lovely novel, The Friend, deals with grief and writing, gives us a respectful and very restrained memoir about her experiences living with Sontag and her son, David Rieff, while Nunez and Rieff were romantically involved and Nunez was a not-yet-published writer. There's no voyeurism here, but as Nunez makes clear, Sontag was a piece of work--complex and conflicted, na ...more
Aug 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
read this in one day, so elegant and beautiful
Cody Sexton
Jul 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Real writing, will tear your guts out.
At the age of 25, Nunez, a recent Columbia graduate, came to work alongside Sontag as her secretary. Within weeks she had started dating Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and within months she had joined the two in their apartment on the Upper West Side.
It was a very unconventional arrangement, as many people, they’re friends included, commented, but as Sontag quipped, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?”
With simple and yet devastating clarity, Nunez lays
Jakub Szestowicki
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
<3 Susan
helpful weaving of the emotional proximity of living a writerly/readerly life, anxious to be alive
Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag is an absorbing memoir of Susan Sontag the brilliant essayist (although she would have preferred to be known for her novels, which were generally not well-received, except for the hugely popular The Volcano Lover: A Romance), I revere Sontag's writing and remember vividly reading Against Interpretation and Other Essays as well as Illness as Metaphor and On Photography. She is one of those authors I have read more than once and look forward to reading again. ...more
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
Anthem Book Review

My good friend and fellow writer and I decided to start a small book club and we chose, Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez as our first read. It is a short book at only 118 pages, but the powerful truth it reveals on Susan Sontag speaks volumes. Sigrid Nunez was an inspiring writer when she met and began working with Sontag. The two women formed an instant bond and Sontag becomes a mentor to Nunez and her influence is profound. Eventually Susan Sontag introduces Nunez to her son, fellow writer, David
Francesca Marciano
This was an interesting read. Nunez lived for more than a year in Sontag's apartment, with her boyfriend (Sontag's son), and hers is a unique point of view, given they shared a roof, domesticity and love for the same person . However I felt, maybe wrongly, that the book gives a slightly unflattering portrait of Sontag who certainly was a difficult person. Something annoyed me. Maybe because Nunez insists too much in pointing out how Sontag's fiction was never as good as her essays, how she suffe ...more
Feb 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Near the end of the book (don't worry there is not such a thing as spoiler in this book!), there is a scene when young handsome Prof. Edward Said come to pay a visit to Susan. Nothing in specific happens apart from some chitchat about who is at Colombia University and so on. After that, Susan turns to Sigrid, apologizing for destroying the sacred picture of him in Sigrid's mind. You see they can be quite boring and ordinary. This is the kind of feeling that you might get by reading "Sempre Susan ...more
Liz Una Kim
Nov 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Mar 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Virginia Woolf vivía como si la literatura fuese una religión y ella una de sus sacerdotisas. Susan me hacía pensar en la anticuada hipérbole de Thomas Carlyle: el escritor como héroe. No podía haber una ocupación más noble, ni una aventura mayor, ni una búsqueda más gratificante. Y ella compartía la adoración de Woolf por los libros, su idea de paraíso como lectura eterna. Decía: “No prestes atención a esos escritores que sostienen que no se puede ser un escritor serio y un lector voraz al mism ...more
Sep 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have to confess my utter ignorance of Susan Sontag's work despite knowing about her for quite some time. Nunez's memoir of Sontag is brilliantly written, easy to read and presenting Sontag as she was, Sempre Susan, larger than life, energetic, ambitiously driven, a life-long student. A woman who sought through the means of writing to become a tool for readers to get in touch with a reality they so often do not want to know about. I love the way Nunez tells us the intimate details, her favourit ...more
Jun 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It would be easy to dismiss Sempre Susan as just another addition to the corpus of Sontag hagiography. From her own published journals, to the interviews with her, to the numerous published reflections, it seems like there would be little left to shade in in the public’s imagination of Sontag. Nunez’s remembrance should not be so dismissed.

Nunez knew Sontag personally. She dated Sontag’s son, lived with him and Sontag and was also, for a time, Sontag’s mentee. Her portrait is an intimate one th
This book makes you want to become a better thinker and writer, to get our into the world and have a conversation, watch a film in a cinema (!) and read a book that makes you think. It is a real, warm and respectful memoir. A reminder that to be great one first needs to be human, and all the complexity of what that is. I would have loved to have received a reading list from Susan Sontag, to meet with her in her cramped kitchen, watched her smoke and drink coffee and chat about whatever she wante ...more
Dashveenjit Kaur
So much of Susan Sontag’s life has become both mythical and familiar. Her early years, fueled by quotes from André Gide and a fervent desire to escape childhood; her miserable marriage to Philip Rieff; her brilliant son who grew up sleeping on coats at New York happenings; her love affairs with women; her vaulting ambition and arrogance; her loyal circle of devotees and the detritus of bitter former devotees; her resounding critical gifts; her pretensions; her cancer; her strength; her beauty an ...more
Cassie Ferguson
Oct 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An honest and touching reminiscent of a close friend of their time together. From the sounds of the book after reading it, it is apparent that Nunez and Sontag had a complicated friendship but, that she still has respect and admiration for Sontag. She paints her in a light that is unbiased when it should be anything but. This is her ex's mother after all. It was interesting and essential to see Sontag in this light as someone who admires her work immensely. I consider her an idol. Nunez paints h ...more
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Sigrid Nunez has published seven novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City, and, most recently, The Friend. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Among the journals to which she has contributed are The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Th ...more
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