Sunday, August 19, 2007

Susan Sontag

The abiding quality of Susan Sontag's critical work is her interest in virtually everything. That she was so well read is obvious from her constant references to writers and other literary genres. However, what make Sontag's essays readable is her lucidity. In other words, the essays are approachable and not intimidating, and what is more interesting is that Sontag does not become vehement or shrill in her opinions. She voices concerns but does not preach.

I have very recently finished reading Against Interpretation , followed by Where the stress falls. I think I liked the latter more than the former. Also perhaps, the former belongs to a time and interests that I find too dull, inspite of hip-hop, drugs, Presley and The Beatles. In Against Interpretation, Sontag sounds too sure, too clever. In her own thoughts on Against Interpretation, she acknowledges a certain naivete, a certain lack of guile. Writes she in Thirty Years Later...'I was a pugnacious aesthete and a barely closeted pedagogical interest got in the way of my prose' However, Sontag writes crisply and some sentences are eminently quotable.

In Where the stress falls, we read her reviewing Barthes, Walser, Pedro Paramo, Sebald amongst others, followed by a sweeping review of Berlin Alexanderplatz that I found very helpful, an essay on cinema, on dance and dancing, photography and amongst other essays her Sarajevo essays called Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo and 'There' and 'Here'. Included also is A letter to Borges.

The great stories are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past, writes Sontag. We see in these essays her yearning for reading and creating from the past, a tender prose and a melancholic vein. However, while I admire her prose which is simple and cautiously erudite, Sontag's prose never rises into the poetic, the breathless, the sublime. In her essay, A poet's Prose, Sontag differentiates between a prose writer and a poet. She calls a poet as a titre de noblesse. The prose of poets is typically elegiac, retrospective. It belongs by definition to the vanished past. Since she differentiates it so well, Sontag however eludes the definition herself. After reading these two collections, I admire her prose but find very little poetry. However, that is unimportant.

Sontag has an admiration for Europe, witnessed in her self-declared Europhilia, especially in her earlier writings. In the Sarajevo essays, she laments and points a finger at the French and British covert support for Serb aggression in Bosnia and declares the UN forces there as pro-Serb. She tries to answer the reluctance of writers and other intellectuals to take sides in Bosnia and cites reasons for those, pointing out the easily known fact that Bosniaks, being Muslim, were subject to prejudice. She declares that Europe has yet to be born: a Europe that takes responsibility for its defenseless minorities..........Europe will be multicultural, or it won't be at all.

Sontag writes great essays, whether you like her assertion that Naipaul's The enigma of arrival could even be compared to Sebald's style. By her own admission, she declares herself as being Jewish for two millenia and yet, she appears interested in writing and pointing out the carnage's that the Bosnian Muslims suffered. However, I am yet to come across any essays that she might have written in defense of the Palestinians, who have and are suffering the same holocausts that she writes against.

I do not know if I will read her fiction, but I won't mind reading her eminently readable essays.


* said...

it's strange really for years and years i collect her books and have probably almost all fo them, yet i never really have read her apart from some few little things (and for instance started her Vulcano-prose book, but did not finish it), but those intrigiued me so much to collect her books yet also somehow it was never enough to get me to read them. I think I will now, after what you have written. I thought one day when I have lots of time and books patiently wait in their shelf.

Kubla Khan said...

Some books wait in the shelves and we never pick them up. perhaps they too don't seek us.
There is not time enough to read everything. even reading is a sultry, greedy affair. i have got scores of unsettled battles on my shelves.
and yet, i keep on buying more books.

yes, reading sontag is a great experience.

Anonymous said...

the comfort is there are always enough books. If it is not this one it is another one reads. I also keep buying more books, all the time.
But I think I will be reading the Sebald essay.

Kubla Khan said...

The Sebald essay, called A mind in mourning is an excellent one. It does not refer to Austerlitz though.