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A Longreads Member Exclusive: 
Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez


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Introduction

For this week's Longreads Member pick, we're excited to share an excerpt from Sigrid Nunez's memoir Sempre Susan, which comes recommended by Emily Gould, the proprietor of Emily Books, who writes:

"This memorable passage from Sigrid Nunez's gemlike memoir of the year she spent under the influence of Susan Sontag begins with a description of a trip to New Orleans with Sontag, who was then at the height of her literary powers and intellectual fame. Nunez goes on to detail some of the explicit lessons Sontag taught her—about treating writing as a vocation rather than a career, about giving yourself permission to devote yourself to reading and writing even when that devotion is difficult to justify. With great subtlety, Nunez uses her intimate experience of the particulars of Sontag's work habits and lifestyle to illuminate some of the tensions that all writers experience—tensions between the need to write without fetters and the need to make money, and between the confidence that's necessary to accomplish anything and the insecurity that can act as a goad, or a filter.

"If you're lucky, you might have had a great boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a receptive moment and shaped the direction your life would take from that moment on. If you're unlucky, you might have had a boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a vulnerable moment and warped the direction your life would take from that moment on.  There's a fine line between these two varieties of experience—or maybe there is no line. Maybe to shape is always to deform.  Here, Nunez treats readers to a succinct cost-benefit analysis of the pleasures and perils of acquiring a charismatic mentor.  The unlucky—or is it lucky?—among us will relate."

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Sempre Susan (Excerpt)Sigrid Nunez | Sempre Susan, Atlas | 2011 | 14 minutes (3,513 words)
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad"You know what would be really fun? Let's all go away somewhere, just for a few days."
 
She had always loved to travel, a passion David shared, and separately or together, they had already been to many places, both in the States and abroad. Travel was, among other things, an excellent antidote to depression.
 
It was late autumn, just weeks after her surgery, and Susan, who hated the cold, wanted to go somewhere warm. Fun and warm, and not too far. "You've never been to New Orleans, have you?" No. (This had become a familiar exchange: "You've never seen The Marriage of Figaro?" "You've never eaten sushi?" "You've never been to the New York Film Festival?" Each time I said no, Susan would say, "Ah, you have a treat coming." And it was always so.) She and David had been to New Orleans; they knew people there; it was, they agreed, the perfect destination for a short trip.
 
We stayed in the French Quarter, though one day some friends took us on a long tour of the bayou. I remember we ate wonderfully ("You've never tasted crawfish?"), and every stranger we met had a story to tell about Mardi Gras. I remember a dinner party where a beautiful young man recited from memory Tennessee Williams's "Mornings on Bourbon Street" and gave me a copy of In the Winter of Cities, the book in which that poem appears.
 
Friends of the beautiful young man invited us to another party, a big fancy party that took place (at a hotel, I believe) the night before we had to fly home. I don't remember where the party was or what it was for, but many of the guests were so extravagantly dressed that it might have been a costume party. At the last minute, we'd gone shopping for something for me to wear. In a vintage clothing store we found a very lovely, very fragile black lace gown. One shoulder strap was broken. But, as my mother used to say, "When you are young, you can get away with anything."
 
Soon after we arrived at the party, someone introduced us to a large red-faced man dressed in a three-piece white suit, white shirt, white tie, white hat, and white gloves.
 
"Miz Sontag!" he gasped. "This is a true honor. Why, you look just the same as you do up there on the screen! I've seen every one of your movies. Every single one. Oh, little New Orleans is privileged to have such a great big star in her midst tonight!"
 
As he kissed my hand, I blushed and started to explain. But Susan, on whom the man had turned his back, had doubled up with laughter and was frantically signaling to me to play along. She had no desire to set the pleasant drunken fellow straight. She was having too much fun.
 
I have been back to New Orleans just once. It was autumn again, and I stayed in the French Quarter, just as we three had done twenty-eight autumns before. What brought me there the second time was a literary conference. I was on a panel: the topic was "Writers and Masters," and I spoke about Susan as one of my mentors. The next month, she died. It was 2004. How the devastation of the city she loved, just eight months later, would have pierced her.
 
I never wore that dress again, but I kept it for years—long after I would have been able to get away with wearing it. The book, of course, I still have.
 
He thought of his friends.
 
He thought of his lost companion,
….….….….….….….….….….….
He wept for remembrance.
….….….….….….….….….….….
Love. Love. Love.


From Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez. Published by arrangement with Sigrid Nunez and The Joy Harris Literary Agency.

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