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A Different Susan

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Dominique Nabokov
Susan Sontag, New York City, 1980

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 and charisma; her photographs; her sometimes unreadable novels; her hair; her genius; her sharp tongue; her Paris; her Sarajevo; her gallant, frightened death.

The peculiar intimacy cast by Sontag’s celebrity has only intensified since her death in 2004 at the age of seventy-one. Obituaries, then memoirs, shared the salacious details, recited the list of cultural accomplishments, celebrated the icon of American intellectualism with her restless intelligence and streak of white hair. When the first volume of Sontag’s journal, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, was published in 2008, her legend was so firmly established that it was not very surprising to discover that Sontag was already Sontag when she was fourteen years old.

One memoir that notably escaped the celebrity shadow cast by the Sontag myth was Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, the remarkable work of devastated love by her son, David Rieff. Now, Rieff’s former girlfriend, the novelist Sigrid Nunez, has also published a memoir about Sontag. Sempre Susan was conceived as part of a collection of stories about writers and their mentors. By all logic, then, this memoir should be lurking in the deepest recesses of Sontag’s mythological shade. The familiar Sontag landmarks are there, certainly, but this fresh and touching book turns out not to be about Susan Sontag, Myth, at all. Nunez’s book covers the years 1976 to 1978, when she lived at 340 Riverside Drive with her boyfriend and his powerful mother. This is the story of Susan Sontag, Mother-in-Law.

It is this aspect of Nunez’s experience—the boyfriend’s-powerful-mother aspect (so human, so common, so belittling and overwhelming) rather than the emphasis on Sontag’s literary stardom—that makes this memoir come alive. That and the gossip.

The gossip about Sontag and her son was so potent that it made its way on winged feet even to someone like me, a clueless medieval history major at Bar- nard just at the time this memoir covers. I barely knew who Susan Sontag was, yet I had heard rumors that she and her son had an incestuous relationship. Even then, it sounded like an urban myth, like the bouffant hairdo that housed a swarm of bees or the microwaved poodle. One friend, Nunez writes, “laughed and said, ‘Everyone imagines the most outrageous scenarios when in fact what you’ve got is your classic possessive, controlling mother and guilt-ridden son.’” But picture living with a boy who lived with a mother who could become the subject of such stories. And picture a young writer just starting out, unsure of herself and her work, living with Susan Sontag. Nunez says, and we can well believe, that

it was hard, in the midst of all that literary celebrity, both at home and at work—it was hard, trying to find one’s own way. And it could be mortifying, trying to stand up for one’s own unpublished, amateur pages, kicking up a fuss about the importance of one’s time.

Sontag was forty-three when Nunez went to work for her as an assistant, helping her with correspondence that had built up while she was recuperating from a mastectomy. Nunez, a twenty-five-year-old who had recently finished her MFA at Columbia, lived on 106th Street, just around the corner from Sontag’s Riverside Drive apartment. The apartment’s previous tenant had been Jasper Johns. The phone rang incessantly. Sontag, trying to quit smoking, heated up a can of Campbell’s soup, then she and Nunez ate some stray cobs of corn from the refrigerator. Very little work got done. Nunez was surprised by how “laid-back and open” Sontag was.

In the visits that followed, Sontag talked to Nunez “in her open, confiding way” about her childhood and her family. A mother who was cold and emotionally absent, who announced her father’s death to five-year-old Susan with a matter-of-factness that bordered on brutality, who gave her glasses of blood to drink for her anemia; a stepfather and younger sister with whom she had nothing in common; a childhood of excruciating boredom. Sontag considered her childhood “a total waste,” and “she had wanted David’s childhood to be over as quickly as possible, too…. It was as if somehow she didn’t really believe—or, perhaps, better to say, she saw no value—in childhood.”

On one of these visits to 340 Riverside Drive, Nunez met David Rieff, who later asked his mother if Nunez had a boyfriend. When Sontag discovered that Nunez and her boyfriend were just breaking up, she encouraged David to call. “He was shy,” Nunez writes. “She was not.” Sontag, who hated to be alone in the best of circumstances, who liked to think of her son as her brother or her best friend, was still undergoing chemotherapy for stage IV breast cancer, and though she rejected the word “needy,” it was understood that she did, indeed, need her son with her, that David was not moving anywhere. Within a few weeks, Nunez had moved in with David, into his bedroom next to his mother’s. And so, “I started dating David. Susan started dating Joseph Brodsky.”

Nunez’s descriptions of Sontag’s relationship with Brodsky are some of the most tender moments in the book. This was the beginning of a relationship, after all—for all of them—and Nunez writes of an expansive sense of fun, of warmth, of love:

In those early days she was smitten with him…. Susan was at his feet. She saw flashes of genius in every passing remark, in the puns he was forever trying out….
“Now that I’ve gotten through this,” said Susan, meaning her breast cancer (though at the time she was still undergoing treatment), “I want two things: I want to work and I want to have fun.”

The vision of Sontag falling in love with a “tenderhearted” man who “loved cats, and sometimes for a greeting…would meow,” somehow softens the heart more, even, than her physical suffering does. She seems so emotionally vulnerable, so uncharacteristically fragile. She seems so happy. Of course, as Nunez points out, this wasn’t any cat lover she’d fallen for:

Susan was one of those literary Americans for whom European writers would always be superior to native ones and for whom there was something particularly exalted and seductive about a Russian writer, above all a Russian poet.

The warmth Nunez shows in these passages is directed primarily at Brodsky. When, with a touch of nostalgia, she describes “the four of us driving around Manhattan, four cigarettes going, the car filled with smoke and Joseph’s deep, rumbling voice and funny, high-pitched laugh,” it is Brodsky whose boyish presence shines from the page. When he is not on the scene, any lightness of spirit disappears with him, for Susan Sontag may have been many things, but no one, I think, would have described her as light. Certainly Nunez does not.

About Sontag’s “well-known obsession with seriousness,” she says:

You must never take yourself too seriously, no matter who you are; there is something comic and even unseemly about those who do—this was a commonplace with which Susan would have nothing to do. She was going to take herself very seriously indeed, whoever might have a problem with that be damned, and the problem she had was that others did not always take her seriously enough.

Without coming right out and saying that Sontag and her seriousness could be unconsciously “comic” or “unseemly,” just by putting the idea beside Sontag’s unrelenting seriousness, Nunez manages to make her point. And we pretty quickly see that Nunez has begun to wither in the fervid solemnity of 340 Riverside Drive, to stoop uncomfortably beneath the accumulation of weighty Sontagian judgments.

Nunez is grateful “to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.” But even as a novice, Nunez doubted some of the master’s wisdom. When Sontag tells her that you write not for yourself or for readers, but that “you did it for literature,” and that “the question you have to ask yourself is whether what you’re writing is necessary,” most writers, old or young, would pale and feel a sickening shiver of mortality. Nunez, in her laconic calm, says only, “I didn’t know about that. Necessary? That way, I thought, lies writer’s block.”

As the story and the relationships progress, Sontag is increasingly seen through her own words or ideas, and those words and ideas are often preceded by “Susan hated” or words to that effect. The dos and don’ts of one’s mentor can be overwhelming. The dos and don’ts of your de facto mother-in-law can be enraging. It is not surprising, then, that Nunez, in her quiet way, twig by saddened twig, censorious anecdote set gently atop censorious anecdote, spells out just how very overwhelmed and enraged she became.

Here are a few of the things Sontag did not approve of: writers’ colonies, the countryside (when Nunez showed her a story she’d written in which a dragonfly appeared, Sontag said, “What’s that? Something you made up?”), Hawaii, carrying a purse, squeamishness, baby talk, women with menstrual complaints, feminists who complained about being underrepresented in the arts, wives, couples, other people’s depression, other people’s parenting, tears, American education, and American culture in general.

Two of her favorite words for describing those who did not meet her standards were “boring” and “servile.” Once, Nunez says, “before leaving the house, she saw me slip some tampons into my purse, and this irked her.” She hated teaching, for it was a job, and she thought taking any job humiliating. “But then, she also found the idea of borrowing a book from the library instead of buying her own copy humiliating. Taking public transportation instead of a cab was deeply humiliating.”

The pattern—of damning juxtaposition, of letting Sontag’s own words, her own ideas, her own behavior pile up into unflattering mounds as if they’d been blown by gentle, random zephyrs—gains momentum as the book proceeds. Perhaps Nunez is exploiting a clever strategy to malign Sontag indirectly. It does not feel that way, though. Instead, we get the impression of sincere, intense, and jumbled feelings, of youthful enthusiasm and hurt feelings remembered by a rueful older self.

Sempre Susan could have been written only from the point of view of someone young. The view of Sontag is from below, in years, in experience, in knowledge, power, and status. Just how young Nunez was is evident not only in her awe and insecurity, but in her descriptions of New York City in the 1970s. She brings back the time so vividly, a time when youthfulness reigned supreme, when Tribeca had just received its name. No buses or subways for the Sontag-Rieff-Nunez household, but they lived, nevertheless, Nunez says, like graduate students. The bare Upper West Side apartment. The cockroaches. Junk food, canned soup, take-out, a meal of bacon.

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