Sontag tells a joke: An excerpt from Sempre Susan

The following excerpt is lifted gently out of Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, New York, Atlas, 2011, pp. 82-3. Here is how the book fell into my hands.

I found the receipt tucked between the final page and the dust jacket. It says that the book was purchased from McNally Jackson on April 19, 2011, at 7:35 p.m. Checking my calendar, I discover that April 19 fell on a Tuesday, making it likely that she’d bought the book after she’d left work for the day.

Was it warm that night? Possibly, but the Almanac from 2011 says that the mean temperature was around 50 and we would expect it to be cooler still after nightfall. That morning I’d been thinking about my late Grandpa Dunkel. I hadn’t known him very well before he died, two decades ago, of emphysema or cancer or both. Looking through some of the mid-April notes that I’d made for an essay on philosophical autobiography that I’d never come to finish, I came upon this memory:

My grandpa liked to take my hand in his large, bony hand and roll my knuckles together and say, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” He sat in an old recliner next to a silver canister as he watched The Price is Right and sucked unevenly through a green mask. He had yellow teeth and a few sprigs of white hair seeded down the middle.

Perhaps it was a cold night on April 19 and, knowing her to be something of a wayfarer, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had decided to walk partway home through Soho, only to come upon McNally’s as if by chance. I know her eye would have been drawn to the glowing glass and the green paint and to a book on Susan Sontag. (Published only weeks before, would the book have been placed in the front case before the spotlights?) Would she have picked it up, sat with it for a while, thumbed through it, essayed the prose? Or would she have been in a hurry to get home, to be alone or see to her children? (I suppose I could ask her, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Or I could ask her to look at her diary: even less fun.)

After reading one of my tweets which included a link to a personal essay I’d just read that was obliquely about Sigrid and Susan, she’d brought the book over to my place and placed it on the orange chest next to my copies of Seneca’s letters and Craig’s book on God. That night, we’d shared a bottle of wine from Piedmont, on the far wall we’d hung the photos that she’d taken years ago of a brooding spring lake in Switzerland, and we’d spoken enchantingly of I forget. Of Susan? No.

The Nunez is below the hash marks. Enjoy.

She laughed easily–and she was not a snob about humor, either; she appreciated even feeble attempts. She laughed when someone told her what was supposedly Freud’s favorite joke: “Have you taken a bath?” “No, why? Is one missing?” She laughed at the awful pun someone else made on a name well known in translating–“Hong if you like Kierkegaard”–and at my imitation of Woody Woodpecker [I was thinking that Ingrid would write Allen, since he probably wasn’t living too far from Susan at the time]. In keeping with her passion for sharing whatever pleased her, she was eager to repeat any amusing thing she might have heard. But she bemoaned the fact that she was no good at telling jokes, or stories for that matter. If she knew a funny story that [her son] David also knew, she’d insist he be the one to tell it because “he tells it funnier than I do.” About his undeniably superb comic flair, she said, “He didn’t get that from me.”

“I know only one joke,” she said. “And I tell it very badly. It’s a Jewish joke, of course.” And she tried to tell it with a Yiddish accent. A mother. A neurotic child. “Doctor, Doctor, vot should I do? Every time my little boy sees kreplach, he starts to scream.” The punch line required that Susan, as the mother, clutch her head between her hands and, with an expression of stark fear, scream, “Aaahh! Kreplaaaaaach!” This remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Another memory. She walks into the kitchen, sits down at the kitchen counter with me, and says, “I just got a very interesting phone call. It was some guy who said he was doing a survey for the Maidenform company, and would I take a minute to answer a couple of questions. So I said sure. And then he started asking things like, was I wearing a bra right now, what kind of bra was it, and what size was it–”

“You mean an obscene phone call.”

She looks puzzled, then sheepish. “That would explain it.”

Final note: after her hair, the feature of hers that struck people most was her big, beautiful smile.

One thought on “Sontag tells a joke: An excerpt from Sempre Susan

Comments are closed.