Posted by: roamingolivia | May 22, 2011

Book Review: Sempre Susan

I adore this book. It made me want to do 3 things:

1. Read more of Sigrid Nunez.
2. Read more Susan Sontag.
3. Be Susan Sontag, or at least believe I could be Susan Sontag.

This book seems perfect in many ways, from its length to its treatment of the topic. It is based on a pretty implausible premise (but a true one): she was Susan Sontag’s assistant and was dating Sontag’s son and then moved in with them. Sounds completely nuts. And something that led to a messed-up relationship with Sontag and the son and the literary world. But how amazing of an experience? And how fortunate we are that she is such a good writer as well, so she can share some memories of it with us. I’m sure Nunez could have written a much longer book about these experiences, and I think it is extremely good judgment that she has condensed them down into a literary work in its own right, not just because of the subject.

And I think the point of this book is not to make people want to be Susan Sontag (it is not a mean portrait or a slander by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hardly flattering in some points), but that’s what happened to me when I read this book. Perhaps I fancy that Sontag seems like a really extreme version of my college self, which is something I always secretly wish I could go back to. I could be sleepless, drugged up on caffeine, writing for days at a time, reading a lot, collecting books, thinking constantly, drinking little, judging other women for femininity, etc. I also think I use “boring” a lot. See? I’m almost there. Sadly, that’s not what my life is like, and I have a job (a huge sign of failure for Sontag), but there is always a dream of success.

(I’m being partially facetious; it’s up to you to figure out how much.)

(Note: this review was originally posted here on my Goodreads page.)


“Looking back, I only wish that I could feel more joy — or, at least, that I could find a way of remembering that is not so painful.” (35)

“After all, what mattered was the life of the mind, and for that life to be lived fully, reading was the necessity.” (84)

“She often struck me as someone who wanted to be feeling ten times what she actually felt. Ten times happier, or ten times sadder, or ten times more stimulated by whatever it was that had her attention. (Could this have been at least partly at the root of her hunger to watch so many movies and performances — to repeat every experience that gave her pleasure — such a staggering number of times? Never enough: what a cruel ethic to live by.” (133)


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