In 1978, when People wanted to interview Susan Sontag, the writer wondered aloud how Samuel Beckett might respond given the same opportunity. It was not unusual for her to invoke Beckett in this way. “When she worried she was making too many compromises,” Sigrid Nunez recalls in Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas, 140 pages, $30), “she would say, ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it,’” There could be little doubt that Beckett (“Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”) would have skipped the interview with People. But in 1978, Sontag went ahead and did it anyway. The mantra of her resolve to rise above it all–Beckett wouldn’t do it–could equally express a sinking feeling of self-dissatisfaction. Beckett wouldn’t do it, but Sontag had.
With the exceptions of T.S. Eliot and Henry James, no American writer has been more famed for her Europeanness than Susan Sontag, and very few indeed could have led lives as persevering in their contradictions. “She was like Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay,” as Ms. Nunez sums it up, “stuck at Q, dreaming of Z.” A dedicated writer, Sontag “simply could not bear to be alone.” An avowed feminist, “she found most women wanting.” Sontag had disliked her childhood with a bizarre, bad-tempered intensity, and yet “people close to her often compared her to a child.” “She was a natural mentor … who hated teaching,” Ms. Nunez writes, but by this point the pattern is so familiar readers can reproduce it on their own. Had Sontag been born with an innate genius for the drums, she would have become the hardest-working second violinist of all time.
“In general,” writes Ms. Nunez, “she had contempt for people who didn’t do what they truly wanted to do.” Sontag truly wanted to write novels, but she is mostly remembered, with reason, as an essayist. In one of the most celebrated of her essays, it seems now, she may have unknowingly glimpsed herself: “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” As she discussed the Bee Gees with People, she thought only of Beckett. There was something undeniably a little camp about Susan Sontag.
Ms. Nunez writes beautifully, but if her memoir offers the most revealing portrait of Sontag yet, it may partly be because she has sketched it from an odd angle. Or rather, several odd angles. For Ms. Nunez, Sontag was a boss, a mentor and a friend; also an antagonist, a roommate and a prospective in-law. They first met when Sontag hired Ms. Nunez as an assistant in 1976. Only 43 years old, Sontag had been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer the year before. It had nearly killed her, and the rigors of survival had maimed her body and disarrayed her life, leaving her with an accumulation of unanswered letters that she did not have the stamina, as she recovered, to cope with on her own. Ms. Nunez, a young writer, was brought in to help her cope. She had already worked at The New York Review of Books, and its editors, sensible of Sontag’s needs, had suggested the arrangement. Of its draws, not least was the proximity of Ms. Nunez’s apartment to Sontag’s penthouse on Riverside Drive, where “the work” was done–and where Sontag’s son, David Rieff, then a student at Princeton, still lived. “It was exactly the kind of odd job I was looking for then,” Ms. Nunez recalls, “the kind unlikely to interfere with my writing.”
About this Ms. Nunez was wrong. The mail seems largely to have been ignored as the two writers gossiped their way to a fast friendship. Ms. Nunez was shy at 25, and Sontag’s charismatic frank attention must have been intoxicating. “I remember thinking as I walked home how laid-back and open she’d been–much more like someone my own age than someone of my mother’s generation.” Within weeks, and with no small meddling on Sontag’s part, Ms. Nunez was dating Mr. Rieff, whereupon the three, in a decision whose precise rationale the reader would be fascinated to learn but doesn’t, moved in together. “She referred to us as the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside drive. I knew that wasn’t a good sign.” Proximity was a draw, but a coupledom of three would have its drawbacks. Soon Ms. Nunez had quit working for Sontag and returned to the NYRB. But she continued to see Mr. Rieff, and would not move out until 1977.
Sempre Susan recounts the saga of this ménage and of its author’s friendship with Sontag, which would hang on, with waning intensity, until Sontag’s death, in 2004. It is also a requiem for Ms. Nunez’s love affair with Mr. Rieff, which ended much earlier, in the winter of 1978, when they had “one last fight.” Ms. Nunez graciously claims that “Susan could have lived on the moon and David and I would not have worked out,” but to read the book is to awaken to the pain of uncertainty this sentence stoically denies. The romance Sontag had bearishly encouraged she would frustrate like an ogre. She was restless, she was lonely, she was insecure, and her tactlessness could be staggering. At lunch one afternoon with Mr. Rieff, Ms. Nunez and a fourth, Sontag advised the couple freely: “Why don’t you two just sixty-nine? Then you won’t have to worry about birth control.”
But Ms. Nunez is alive to much more in Sontag’s character than the flaws. She honors with new evidence traits we have long ascribed to Sontag, like her vivacity and gift for friendship, as well as a few traits we are accustomed to denying her, like a sense of humor. Indeed, Ms. Nunez is so careful of her subject that she has not divided her story into sections or chapters–the fear being, perhaps, that Sontag cuts too protean a figure to be rendered by conventional means. The unconventional result is that her prose is left to follow the eddying currents of the author’s memory.
In different hands, this could conceivably be the recipe for chaotic failure, but here the effect is economy, a brisk freedom to note what matters and nothing more. Also, urgency. The flitting from fragment to fragment has a whiff of desperation about it, as if the author were laboring under pressures she could not quite withstand, but this is only fitting. Among the pressures, after all, is death. As well as a memoir, Ms. Nunez’s book is an elegy for a great woman and the company she kept, the vanished salon where she was the center. “Most of the people in this memoir,” Ms. Nunez notes, “are dead.”
Among the dead is Joseph Brodsky. Sontag briefly dated Brodsky during the first months of Ms. Nunez’s relationship with Mr. Rieff, and the poet features in many of the book’s most diverting sequences. A ribald, talkative presence, prone to off-color punning (Puerto Rico was “Muerto Rico,” and the “young women of Mount Holyoke, where [Brodsky] taught, were ‘Mounties’”), Brodsky could outdo Sontag both in heedless self-absorption and European-style imperturbability–though of course Brodsky, a Russian, was hardly more European than his paramour. Late in the book, Ms. Nunez reflects on something he had said over dinner: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.” “Now, that’s European,” Ms. Nunez concludes.
Sontag adored Brodsky and all that he embodied. Still, not everyone can accept so phlegmatically that their lives are as ripples on the water. Ms. Nunez recalls what Sontag used to say when, deep in her writing, she felt Mr. Rieff and Ms. Nunez had been neglecting her: “If you won’t do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.”