Sigrid Nunez, Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan SontagSempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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, when I was 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 company of great and aphoristic essayists—with Hazlitt, Emerson, Thoreau, Wilde, Chesterton, Woolf, Orwell, Baldwin, Didion, Hitchens, Vidal, Paglia, Bloom—who, whether you agree with them or not, come up with unimprovable and unforgettable formulations.

I remember welcoming her contributions when she was alive—and quarreling with them, as when she advocated “liberal imperialism” in her 2003 C-Span2 interview. I even remember quite vividly where I was when I read that she had died (admittedly, I was in a strange place—to me—in those pre-constant-connectivity days: a cybercafe on a cold December morning somewhere on the eastern edge of Rome).

I’m sorry for all this autobiography—but then Sempre Susan is a memoir. It recounts the period in the late 1970s when its author dated David Rieff, Sontag’s son, and lived with the two in Sontag’s apartment. (There’s sitcom potential in this scenario.) The title refers to the fact that Sontag was so eminent in the New York literary world that everyone always called her by her first name, including her own son.

Like many intimate portraits of Sontag, this one is ultimately unflattering—a picture of a person more selfish and less exceptional than she understood. Sontag came from nowhere and created herself as a central figure in international culture, and the intimate portraits tend, unavoidably, to show the seams in that self-construction: she couldn’t be alone! she insulted people! she endlessly resented her mother! she couldn’t cook! she was an overbearing parent!

While Nunez writes about Sontag in this skeptical and somewhat gossipy manner, she does so with “even-handed good humor and more than a little compassion,” as Lydia Davis observes on the back cover. Nunez’s tone is warm and bemused (“Oh, that Susan,” you imagine her sighing with tender exasperation) rather than condemnatory, even as she admits that Sontag’s sensibility was alien to her own. In fact, my one complaint about this memoir is that Nunez tells us almost nothing about herself or her own background, which led me to wonder from what perspective exactly she judged Sontag.

Anyway, I am interested in Sontagian gossip less because I want to judge her (for instance, as a coldly aloof but insanely needy friend/mother/lover, as she seems to have been) and more because I have always (always!) wanted to be her. I find her life of endless reading, obsessive writing, and cosmopolitan urbanity attractive, and I like to live it vicariously through books.

Some of Sontag’s qualities that puzzle Nunez I share—her conviction that her childhood was a waste of time, for instance, or her Wildean contempt for nature (she did not know what a dragonfly was when she read about one in a story by Nunez; but so what? I was in my 20s when I had to be told that there was no such thing as a male cow). And Sontag’s private failings seem rather trivial to me; I have personally known people who behaved far worse without having managed to contribute anything to the world as brilliant as “Fascinating Fascism” or Regarding the Pain of Others.

I love this moment of witting or unwitting high camp (would I know it was camp without Sontag?) that Nunez records:

(Once, when she was struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren’t being supportive enough, she said, “If you won’t do it for me, at least you could do it for Western culture.”)

I am not fond of attacking great writers or artists for how they conducted their personal lives, whether it’s sexist men doing it to women or feminist women doing it in turn to men or whatever. Could the critics pass this test? Whose personal life would escape censure? And what, really, does it matter to literary history if you were a good mother or not?

The only revelation in this book that shocked me was intellectual rather than personal: Sontag, who wrote so authoritatively about German-language literature and culture, did not read German. (Then again, neither do I.) Nunez also shares a very strange anecdote toward the end of the book about Edward Said, but it is Said who comes off poorly there, not Sontag.

Writers’ politics are a more important question than their personal lives, but this book doesn’t deal with that vexed Sontagian question. If I were going to criticize Sontag, it would be for her political activities, from the overwrought radicalism of the 1960s (“The white race is the cancer of human history”) to her self-aggrandizing and bellicose “liberal imperialist” interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which Toni Morrison and Fran Lebowitz mocked in Stockholm, as John Leonard reproachfully reports:

[I didn’t know] about the scam she pulled with Lebowitz on an English reporter. They knew this reporter would ask what she intended to do with her $825,000 in prize money. By prearrangement, Toni said she would go to Somalia and mount, in Mogadishu, a stage production of The Emperor Jones.

I’m generally not in favor of Susan Sontag jokes by people who’ve stayed home from Bosnia. […] And when this English reporter checked his story with Lebowitz, she confirmed it except for The Emperor Jones; the play instead would be, Fran said, A Raisin in the Sun.

Sontag’s much-resented comments after 9/11, though, seemed reasonable to me at the time and seem reasonable to me now; I am also not bothered by her notorious remarks (“fascism with a human face”) at the 1982 Solidarity rally. (Sontag’s Wikipedia page has a useful summary of all these controversies, with quotations.) Like so many activist writers of the 20th century, she probably should have just stayed at her desk—not that she was even close to being the worst of the lot.

Back to Nunez’s memoir. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this exemplary (a Sontagian word) twentieth-century life. Some highlights follow.

Sontag on feminism:

She was a feminist, but she was often critical of her feminist sisters and of much of the rhetoric of feminism for being naïve, sentimental, and anti-intellectual. And she could be hostile to those who complained about being underrepresented in the arts or banned from the canon, ungently reminding them that the canon (or art, or genius, or talent, or literature) was not an equal opportunity employer.

She was a feminist who found most women wanting.

Sontag on teaching:

Teach as little as possible, she said. Best not to teach at all: “I saw the best writers of my generation destroyed by teaching.” She said the life of the writer and the life of the academic would always be at odds. She liked to refer to herself as a self-defrocked academic. She was even prouder to call herself self-created. […] Besides, Susan had never wanted to be anyone’s employee. The worst part of teaching was that it was, inescapably, a job, and for her to take any job was humiliating.

Sontag and class:

After I published a memorial essay in which I had written that Susan was not a snob, I head some outraged responses: everyone knew that she was a terrible snob! What I meant was that she did not believe a person must be lacking in any worthy quality simply because of his or her roots, no matter how primitive or deprived; she was not a class snob. She was the kind of person who noticed that the uneducated young woman who cleaned her house for a time had “beautifully, naturally aristocratic manners.” On the other hand, she never pretended that a person’s success did not depend—and to no small extent, either—on being connected…or that she didn’t know what Pascal meant when he said that being wellborn can save a man thirty years. […] She could not have cared less if a person came from a “good” or a “bad” family; she knew the distinction was specious. Wherever you were from, what really mattered to her was how smart you were—for, needless to say, she was an elitist.

Sontag on American vs. European literature:

Among living American writers, she admired, besides [Elizabeth] Hardwick, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Leonard Michaels, Joan Didion, Grace Paley. But she had no more use for most contemporary American fiction (which, as she lamented, usually fell into either of two superifical categories: passé suburban realism or “Bloomingdale’s nihilism”) than she did for most contemporary American film. In her view, the last first-rate American novel had been Light in August, by Faulkner (a writer she respected but did not love). Of course, Philip Roth and John Updike were good writers, but she could summon no enthusiasm for the things they wrote about. Later, she would not find the influence of Raymond Carver on American fiction something to cheer. It wasn’t at all that she was against minimalism, she said; she just couldn’t be thrilled about a writer “who writes the same way he talks.”

What thrilled her instead was the work of certain Europeans, for example Italo Calvino, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke, Stanislaw Lem. They, along with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, were creating far more daring and original work than her less ambitious fellow Americans. She liked to describe all highly inventive form- or genre-bending writing as science fiction, in contrast to banal contemporary American realism. It was this kind of literature that she thought a writer should aspire to, and that she aspired to, and that she believed would continue to matter.

On that note, and here I’ll end, Nunez, like many others, tells us that Sontag often lamented that she was not taken seriously as a novelist, no matter how acclaimed she was as a critic. I am as guilty of this as anyone else; I finished this book determined to give Sontag her due by trying one of her novels, most likely The Volcano Lover. But if I do not admire it, I will not hesitate to say so—for Western culture.

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