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Sigrid Nunez

What does it mean to narrate the humiliations of ageing, loneliness, and death in the first person when your background is working class? For such a writer, saying ‘I’ is political too, said Annie Ernaux in her Nobel Prize lecture, because it involves claiming an authority rarely granted in other parts of life. Ernaux uses her incendiary, affectless ‘I’ not just to recount one individual experience, but to transcend it. For ‘I’ to speak to the reader it must become, she says, ‘transpersonal’.

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In 1976, Sigrid Nunez moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive in New York with her then boyfriend, David Reiff, and his mother, Susan Sontag. Nunez is a person who cherishes solitude. In Sempre Susan, her tribute to Sontag, she describes the strain of living with extroverts when her dream, from her teenage years, had been: ‘A single room. A chair, a table, a bed. Windows on a garden. Music. Books. A cat to teach me how to be alone with dignity.’ Sontag never wanted to be alone. Nunez was drawn into constant dinners, movies, and mountainous correspondence interrupted by telephone calls and visits, often from Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet, who sometimes meowed like a cat instead of saying hello. (Although Nunez liked him, Brodsky was clearly not the cat of her dreams.) Sontag, objecting to a routine interview, grumbled that ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it’, which became a private refrain for Nunez, oppressed by the relentless activity of the household and the pressure for her to join in.

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Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez & Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff

September 2011, no. 334

In her short memoir of Susan Sontag, novelist Sigrid Nunez claims that she did not read the obituaries and commentaries after her death in 2004, and that she was never much interested in what other people said about Sontag. If it’s true, she is indeed a rara avis. Susan Sontag, in death as in life, generates enormous interest and a growing literature, one that promises to burgeon and diversify biographically in the next decade. How long before we hear from the concierge, the oncologist, the tamer of the famous mane?

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