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A Different Susan

Yet in that magic time when rents and ticket prices were still low, they were also able to go out constantly:

“You’ve never seen The Marriage of Figaro?” “You’ve never eaten sushi?” “You’ve never been to the New York Film Festival?” Each time I said no, Susan would say, “Ah, you have a treat coming.” And it was always so.

Nunez considered meeting Sontag “one of the luckiest strokes of my life.” Sontag introduced her to the works of Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil. She never made Nunez feel ashamed of what she didn’t know. Sontag took her to Studio 54. They went to the New Yorker Theater and watched movies “all the time. Ozu, Kurosawa, Godard, Bresson, Resnais—each of these names is linked in my mind with her own.” Because of Sontag,

I began writing my name in each new book I acquired. I began clipping articles from newspapers and magazines and filing them in various books. Like her, I always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), for underlining.

But in a manner reminiscent of adherents to a religious cult, she also began to cut herself off from her friends and family:

It was a time of great discomfort and confusion and constraint for me…. Though I had little privacy or solitude, I felt isolated in a way I never had before. I learned to be wary of those who hoped to use me to get closer to Susan.

Sontag referred to the three of them as the duke, the duchess, and the duckling of Riverside Drive. “I knew that wasn’t good,” reports the ever-understated Nunez. Sontag suggested Nunez and Rieff “do sixty-nine,” thereby not having to worry about birth control. Though if they did have a child, Sontag said, she would be happy to support all of them at 340 Riverside Drive. Oy.

Sontag seemed to find Nunez a helpful buffer, a third person to defuse the fiery, sometimes confrontational, absolutely necessary relationship she had with her son. The duke, duchess, and duckling, indeed. Tennis lessons, motorcycle lessons, a drive along the Pacific Ocean in California—these were not activities for Nunez and her boyfriend. They were activities for the three of them.

Eventually, when Nunez announced her intention of moving out of the apartment, friends were relieved (one wrote an anonymous note saying, “Congratulations”). Sontag was angry: What if David didn’t forgive her for Nunez’s moving out?

Nunez makes the point that Susan Sontag could have lived on the moon, and still she and Rieff would eventually have broken up. But Sontag did not live on the moon, she lived in the same apartment, and this is the story of that exhilarating and ultimately painful time. It is a small, intentionally modest book. Nunez places herself at an angle, in the background, as she undoubtedly was. There are no certainties here, either, despite Sontag’s many maxims. The book is made stronger by its emotional confusion. The pain is the pain of loss, not humiliation.

The real hurt comes not, as in other tales of Sontag, from being dropped, excoriated, or humiliated by the famous Susan Sontag. Nunez’s anger, baffled and resentful, rises not from some rarefied literary grudge, from envy, or from some social snub; it is the far more common stuff of mothers-in-law, of duchesses and their dukes and ducklings. After all, you do not have to be Sigrid Nunez, future novelist, living with your boyfriend, David Rieff, future writer, living with his fascinating, devoted, interfering mother, Susan Sontag, to want to pull your hair out over such a triangle. You don’t have to be Sigrid Nunez, David Rieff, and Susan Sontag, this wistful, melancholy book reminds us: but you can be.

Sempre Susan—the title comes from a mention in the book that Rieff never called Sontag anything but Susan, and never, even as a boy, had. No “mom” or “mommy” or, even, “mother.” In another, understandably petulant meaning, the title suggests that Sontag was inescapable in Rieff’s life and so, at that time, in Nunez’s life, too. But no one is forever. Sontag is gone, her own work and the work of her many admirers and detractors left to tell her story. Nunez looks back at her mentor, but she is also looking back at herself. Her genuine curiosity about her own experience—her memories of love and love lost, youth and youth lost—is the quality that gives this book an elegant, almost compulsive readability. That and the gossip.

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