Sigrid Nunez Remembers Susan Sontag

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Here’s some weekend reading: Sigrid Nunez has written a beautiful memoir of Susan Sontag in the latest issue of Tin House. (The text is not available online, but I highly recommend you pick up this issue of Tin House: it’s a really good one.) Nunez was involved with Sontag’s son David, and all three lived together for many years, and much of the memoir is about that time, but Nunez and Sontag remained friends for years after their household split up. I’ve quoted it at length after the jump.

On the mentoring that Sontag gave her:

Over the years, I have met or learned about a surprising number of people who said it was reading Susan Sontag when they were young that had made them want to be writers. Although this was not true of me, her influence on how I think and write has been profound. By the time I got to know her I was already out of school, but I’d been a mostly indifferent, highly distracted student, and the gaps in my knowledge were huge. Though she hadn’t grown up in New York, she was far more of a New Yorker than I, who’d always lived there, and to the city’s cultural life you could have no better guide. Small wonder I considered meeting her one of the luckiest strokes of my life. It’s quite possible that, in time, I’d have discovered on my own writers like John Berger and Walter Benjamin and E.M. Cioran and Simone Weil. But the fact remains, I learned about them first from her. Though I’m sure she was often dismayed to hear what I hadn’t read, how much I didn’t know, she did not make me feel ashamed. Among other things, she understood what it was like to come from a background where there were few books and no intellectual spirit or guidance; she had come from such a background herself. She said, “You and I didn’t have what David’s been able to take for granted from birth.

She was a natural mentor. You could not live with her and avoid being mentored, was the delightful truth of it. Even someone who met her only once was likely to go away with a reading list.

On teaching and being a student:

She was a natural mentor … who hated teaching. Teach as little as possible, she said. Best not to teach at all. She said, “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. [...] Like many other writers, she equated teaching with failure. [...] I found it strange that there was this one part of her life — the teaching she did, either before or after I met her — that she never talked about. About being a student, she talked a lot. In fact, I’d never known anyone to speak with such reverence about his or her own student days. It gave her a special glow to talk about that time, making me think it must have been the happiest of her life. She said the University of Chicago had made her the mind she was; it was there that she’d learned, if not how to write, how to read closely and how to think critically. She still cherished her course notebooks from those days. Now it occurs to me that at least some of her resistance to teaching might have had to do with her passion for being a student. She had the habits and the aura of a student all her life.

And on the conflict between teaching and writing specifically:

She was amazed at those who made a much better living from writing than she did yet were still tempted by tenure. She was outraged to hear other writers complain, as many often did, about how their teaching made them miserable because it interfered with their writing. In general, she had contempt for people who didn’t do what they truly wanted to do. She believed that most people, unless they are very poor, make their own lives, and, to her, security over freedom was a deplorable choice. It was servile. She believed that, in our culture, at least, people were much freer than they thought they were and had more options than they seemed willing to acknowledge.

On the vocation of writing:

When, recently, I see that Javier Marías has said that the worst thing a writer can do is to take himself or his work too seriously, I think I understand. I think I even agree with him. I think if I had thought this way myself when I was young, my life could have been happier. I might even have turned out to be a better writer. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation. (“And you must think of it as a vocation. Never as a career.”)

And after a disappointing visit to the three by Edward Said, during which he made small talk, resisted discussion, fiddled with his umbrella and ultimately left:

The entire visit, though it did not last long, was excruciating, and it was a great relief when he was gone.

And after he was gone, Susan came to find me. “Are you all right?” I shrugged. “Look,” she said. “I have no idea what that was all about, but I do know how you feel and I’m sorry.” What was she talking about?” “I know what it’s like when you admire someone and then you see them in an unflattering light. I know it can be very painful.”

We sat together for a while, smoking and talking. How many hours we used to spend like that, smoking and talking. To me it was unfathomable: the busiest, most productive person I knew, who somehow always had time for a long conversation.

“But that’s what happens,” she said. “You have to be prepared for that.” It had happened to her a lot, she said. Once she started meeting writers and artists, it happened over and over.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →