"I have never been much interested in what other people have had to say about her," writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag, with whom she lived briefly in the mid-1970s, when she was dating Sontag's son, David Rieff, who hadn't yet moved out of Mom's house. In her 140-page reminiscence of her experiences in the Sontag household, Nunez takes a big risk: After all the corpse-picking volumes and essays that have appeared since Sontag's death in 2004, is there anything left to say?
Yes. Nunez, a novelist best known for 2006's The Last of Her Kind, tempers intimate observations with critical distance, avoiding traps that commonly beset Sontag chroniclers—like exploitation (see Annie Liebobitz's deathbed photographs) and petulant envy (the irrepressible tone of Phillip Lopate's 2009 Notes on Sontag). A former editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, Nunez was a 25-year-old aspiring writer when she met Sontag—who was 43 and recuperating from a radical mastectomy—at the latter's apartment at 340 Riverside Drive in the spring of 1976; NYRB editors had suggested that Sontag call Nunez to help her with the unanswered correspondence that had piled up during her illness. After a few working sessions with Sontag, Nunez met Rieff. She moved into 340 a few months later.
"She was naturally didactic and moralistic; she wanted to be an influence, a model, exemplary," Nunez says of the "natural mentor," who introduced her to sushi, E.M. Cioran, Ozu, and the New York Film Festival: "I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read." As one of the few to ever live under the same roof as Sontag, Nunez offers piquant details about her domestic habits. Though Sontag "ate the world," as Wayne Koestenbaum once said of her enormous intellectual appetite, her cooking skills were limited to heating up Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup with milk, the lunch she prepared Nunez during their first encounter. Nicole Stéphane, the French actress and producer who was Sontag's longtime girlfriend and self-appointed caretaker, would sometimes "take a black magic marker and write 'Susan Only!' on various items in the fridge."
But beyond these privileged glimpses into Sontag's quotidian existence, Nunez is blunt about her subject's maddening qualities, both when they lived together and in the decades afterward. Sontag's "outsized needs" for both "manic activity" and, especially, "constant company" meant that Nunez and Rieff could rarely spend time alone. When Nunez and Sontag would meet after her son finally got a place of his own, "she complained of being lonely, of feeling rejected, abandoned." Yet Sontag's "sadness was full of darkest rage." She would lash out at strangers, especially wait staff; a SoHo coffee shop Sontag favored ultimately told her not to come back.
Nunez's candor about Sontag's more monstrous traits, though, shouldn't be mistaken for mean-spirited payback. No matter how unflattering a light she shines on the literary titan, Nunez is always empathic: "Never enough: what a cruel ethic to live by." As enraging as Sontag could be, Nunez never stopped admiring her; the tone of Sempre Susan reflects the title of Sontag's posthumous collection of essays: At the Same Time.
Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to The Village Voice.