SEMPRE SUSAN: A MEMOIR OF SUSAN SONTAG
By Sigrid Nunez
Atlas & Co., $20, 144 pages
We all know the damage that a former disciple or acolyte can do with a hatchet job on what was once his or her icon, but, as this memoir of Susan Sontag demonstrates, a fond, still appreciative retrospective portrait can be even more devastating. For the total absence of malice in this insider’s portrait of Sontag makes what it reveals infinitely more powerful than if all this had been delivered wrapped in outrage, bitterness and disillusion, a mere sorry tale of victimization. But make no mistake, no one could read “Sempre Susan” and come away with a favorable view of its subject. The funny thing is that its author, who hasn’t really quite seen through her in her nostalgia-tinged lenses, still does.
Sigrid Nunez was a writer in her mid-20s, struggling to make her way in New York, when a job helping Susan Sontag with her correspondence in 1976 transported her into the maelstrom surrounding a woman already famous, in the self-referential cocoon of insular literary life centered in Manhattan, for being famous. All at once, this outsider was swept into the inner sanctum, caught up in webs and networks as complicated as anything in an Iris Murdoch novel. No sooner had she become part of the magic circle than Ms. Nunez found herself Sontag’s son’s girlfriend.
The reader is in no doubt as to how this happened: “He was shy. She was not,” we are told. And so ensued a strange menage with a mother who knew no boundaries, even dispensing advice on which sexual practices were best. “Don’t be so conventional. Who says we have to live like everyone else?” was her mantra. Ms. Nunez remembers feelings of astonishment, bemusement, bewilderment even irritation, but what is most remarkable as she looks back is how she still bathes in the glow of how marvelous it felt for her to be drawn into an enchanted world full of new experiences.
But despite all Sontag’s condescension, this was a young woman already blessed with a formidable independence of taste and thinking. Despite the combination of arrogant condescension and overpraise showered upon her, she kept her head:
“But because I didn’t like her fiction - because I saw so little to admire in her use of language, her style - I did not trust what she had to say about writing.”
And of course there were consequences: Because Ms. Nunez wouldn’t slavishly follow the law Sontag laid down, she was punished. What she was writing was labeled crap or still more pregnant in the awful implications of its judgment, read and ignored.
Ms. Nunez gives an inside look at how Sontag achieved so much reputation with an output so paltry in both quantity and quality, the way she lavished extravagant praise on those who could help her and squashed those who she felt could or would not. Her way of roping people in as sounding boards and more as she fussed over every ponderous word, each one invested with overweening importance, as she labored forth to extrude it.
Ms. Nunez also provides a glimpse of how insecure Sontag was, quoting her brutal and dedicatedly scatological judgment on what she thought of her own work on first looking at it. This, I think, is one of the most important revelations in “Sempre Susan,” providing the key to Sontag’s famous hostility so frequently displayed in public events. It is not so much, as she pretended, her contempt for the inferiority of American culture in particular and of the individual daring to question her, but rather a deep-seated sense of inferiority, a terror deep down that her own scathing early verdict was in fact the truth.
Even after all she recounts in these pages and with the benefit of more than three decades of hindsight, Ms. Nunez still doesn’t realize that the drama of which she was both bystander and participant was yet another of those demonstrations that the emperor in fact has no new clothes. This is of course in some ways a strength of her narrative, yet one cannot help regretting that, for her own sake, she could bring herself to realize it.
What is sad is that a writer as genuine and original as Sigrid Nunez (as anyone who has read her fiction will know) should have felt herself so humble before mentors like Sontag and her other goddess, Elizabeth Hardwick, a figure who comes across as so sour and discouraging in these pages as to make Sontag indeed seem like a veritable ray of sunshine. Ms. Nunez generously credits these women for showing her the way to artistic accomplishment and still more to living and engaging totally as a writer. But to me, the fact that she could achieve anything - still less what she has, after being in such a cauldron - is a kind of miracle and even more a testament to her innate qualities.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.