The Bookforum question.
Amitava Kumar*: I've read Sontag with attention and taught her books, but frankly I've never thought of her as a resource for the discovery of writers from the Third World. My discipline, postcolonial studies, is meant to perform that task--and it has, if unevenly, by including writers from elsewhere in our syllabi and also, of course, by reading canonical works from the viewpoint of the colonized. But there are more sophisticated ways to go about it. My friend Rob Nixon, who was born in South Africa and teaches at the University of Wisconsin, offers a course called "Petrofiction," which looks at resource conflicts--oil and water--through the prism of literature. On the reading list are books like Ken Saro-Wiwa's Month and a Day, Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt, and Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco. There are also postcolonial scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translating and popularizing the fiction of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi; Edward Said championing the work of Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury; and Manthia Diawara writing eloquently about the photographs taken by Seydou Keita and rescued from a darkroom in Mali. Having said that, what remains to be acknowledged is that the practitioners of postcolonial studies, academics all, for the most part lack what Sontag had in abundance: a broad reach, a sense of aesthetics to match the avowed politics, a distrust of received opinion, the precision of language, and the ability, or need, to cultivate inwardness.
Michael Henry Heim ([dagger]): Susan Sontag turned the book-jacket testimonial into a genre all her own and in so doing broadened the literary horizons of an important segment of the Anglo-American reading public. Her succinct praise on the back of a novel, occasionally fleshed out in a preface, gave the reader confidence in the intellectual and artistic viability of many a foreign author until then unknown in English. Moreover, the mere presence of her evaluation gave the authors' publishers confidence in their marketability.
Who can replace her? Sontag's ability to sniff out literary talent, especially from abroad, derived from a combination of innate literary acumen and a solid knowledge of French: Since the French have traditionally translated more contemporary literature than we do, she was one giant step ahead of her monolingual colleagues. We have a certain number of public intellectuals with literary acumen, but precious few with the language abilities to match. One way around the language problem would be to encourage publishers to send translations of yet-to-be-recognized authors to potentially compatible writers and solicit the kind of generous endorsements Sontag proffered to such great effect.
Marjorie Perloff ([double dagger]): As an activist and cultural disseminator, Susan Sontag was incomparable. Her tireless championship of European novelists and critics--from Roland Barthes and Alain Robbe-Grillet to E. M. Cioran and Elias Canetti, to Danilo Kis and W. G. Sebald--certainly enriched our own literary scene. Even more remarkable was her production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the war-torn Sarajevo of 1993. But activist dissemination is one thing, literary criticism another. It was Ezra Pound who distinguished between the Inventors and the Diluters--a distinction that applies nicely to Sontag's writing. On Photography seems very striking until one compares it to Barthes's Camera Lucida; Illness as Metaphor pales a good bit when read against Foucault's Birth of the Clinic or Discipline and Punish. I once taught Against Interpretation in a theory course at Stanford, and the students were quick to say that such formulations as "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art" were merely watered-down versions of French poststructuralist doctrine.
Ironically, two great American critics also recently died whose work has, to my mind, much greater resonance than Sontag's--Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport. True, both men focused on the Anglo-American world and on poetry rather than on fiction or film, but I submit that the "general reader" will still be consulting Kenner's Pound Era and his two books on Beckett, as well as Davenport's Geography of the Imagination (for example, "Ernst Machs Max Ernst," "Wittgenstein," or "Agassiz"), long after Against Interpretation, Illness as Metaphor, and even the Sarajevo Godot have become history. But that's the very essence of promotion and dissemination: These are forms of action rather than reflection, and surely we do need more "public intellectuals" like Sontag who will promote "foreign" writing to the increasingly monolingual readership of the United States.
Curtis White[section]: Chad Post, associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, was recently trying to sell a translation of a novel from Eastern Europe to a major wholesaler when he was informed that literature from Eastern Europe didn't sell well in the United States. So the wholesaler bought about 125 copies, enough to furnish each American bookstore with about thirty pages of the book. You could call this order a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or you could call it good business sense. I call it the same old shit. You'll notice that the issue of whether these books were any good never even entered the equation.
Dalkey Archive Press--quite on its own, quite without the promise of corporate support, quite without ever imagining that anyone anywhere would care, least of all the megabookstores--has become the leading discoverer, translator, and publisher of some of the most interesting and disturbing literature in the world.
Recently it has cast a particularly sharp eye on Eastern European writers. Croatian Dubravka Ugresic's Thank You for Not Reading is a tour de force of biting social commentary. Serbian Svetislav Basara's Chinese Letter is a mad and brilliant rewriting of The Trial. And Croatian Vedrana Rudan's Night is the kind of "women's novel" that no Western woman would write. It is angry and destructive, an ill but cauterizing wind that never forgets the novel's first command: Invent. After reading it, you will never think of writers like Margaret Atwood as anything but tepid, never-mind, PC cant.
So don't believe me, I'm writing in hopeless conflict of interest anyway. Dalkey publishes my fiction too. See for yourself its wealth of foreign novels. My personal pick: Jean-Philippe Toussaint's masterful and utterly revealing comic novel Television.
Life is perhaps redeemable after all.
Ammiel Alcalay ([parallel]): After more than twenty years of activity as a translator, I am both encouraged and discouraged by the present scene. One can only be encouraged by the anonymous donation to PEN for a translation endowment, by public initiatives that have characterized our lack of translated texts as a national crisis, and by the activities of small presses to bring texts from elsewhere into circulation. On the other hand, we remain wedded to the great American con game--that you can get something for nothing. Translations arrive without context--no collections of letters, no biographies, no social, political, or literary histories: no gossip, no controversy. In the free-trade zones of our NAFTA delirium, where all the labor is occluded by the finished product, it is a most difficult task to insulate the lone and privileged text against the slings and arrows of fashion and the marketplace. Sad to say. I've even become convinced that sometimes such translations do more harm than good, reinforcing the illusion that we have added a significant element to our vocabulary when in fact we may not be even remotely prepared to comprehend what it is we're getting. It comes down to a question of power, and one of the ways to relinquish some of the power we're witting or unwitting heirs to is to take the time to learn other languages and immerse ourselves in other cultures. As important as it is to uphold the need for translations and access to other literatures, there is no replacement for personal initiative, because its transformative effects are real and profound--and that much harder to package and throw away.
Lucas Klein (#): Most of the literature I have read was not written first in English, so I rely heavily on translators. Some people try to read everything by a single author; I might want to read everything by a single translator. Following one translator, such as Gregory Rabassa, can lead from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Julio Cortazar to Osman Lins. Howard Goldblatt will give you Mo Yan, Ch'u T'ien-wen, and Alai. Suzanne Jill Levine gave me Gabriel Cabrera Infante the novelist, who gave me Gabriel Cabrera Infante the critic. Ron Padgett will give you Blaise Cendrars plus Ron Padgett. Read Clayton Eshleman and you read Clayton Eshleman, Aime Cesaire, and Cesar Vallejo. You also read about Eshleman, Cesaire, and Vallejo.
Since most magazines, presumably for marketing reasons, don't print articles on international literature, I turn to books of essays by translators. For years I have been reading, rereading, and quoting the criticism of Eliot Weinberger. If you've read Octavio Paz's or Bei Dao's poetry or Borges's prose in English, you've probably read Weinberger's translations. In his own writing, he has learned from their precise vision, writing about literature and politics in every continent. When I look to literary criticism, I will continue to look forward to Weinberger even as I look back on Sontag.
Ilan Stavans**: Sontag's championing of "undiscovered" authors was an important aspect of her career, but her much-hyped essays were not always enlightening. Like those of George Steiner and Cynthia Ozick, they tended to be pretentious and obtuse, often calling more attention to themselves than to the authors. The age of mandarin intellectuals like her, Steiner, Edmund Wilson, even Irving Howe, is in a state of erosion, not because a new generation hasn't set in--it surely has--but because readers today are less attentive to literature in general and to criticism in particular. The medium for book discussion is shifting from the literary supplement to the Internet, TV, and small discussion groups. White European literature is no longer the center of gravity, and critics fluent only in that field and in American literature have become dinosaurs. Admirable intelligent voices nowadays are forced to become global voices, using less pseudo-erudite language, seeking to reinvigorate their message by breaking away from the old, ghettoized forms of discussion, and not embracing the printed word as their sole medium.
Susan Barba ([dagger][dagger]): Susan Sontag was a tireless champion of non-English-language writers. Though not a specialist in all of the many cultures whose writers she brought attention to, she was alert and curious enough to cast her net over the literatures of various minor and major languages and salvage the names and works of those writers whose every word counts. We are now living in a changed literary landscape, thanks in great part to Sontag, but also to globalization and advancements in technology. In my opinion, what is needed now is not so much insightful literary criticism that will persuade us to look toward other countries, but more translation. Through her pointed essays. Sontag laid the groundwork for a broadening of the English-speaking world's horizons. We should look to presses that focus on translations, like Dalkey Archive and Ardis, or print journals like Absinthe: New European Writing and The Little Magazine (publishing South Asian works out of New Delhi), as well as the many online journals like Words Without Borders (www.wordswithoutborders.org) and TransFusion (www.transfusionjournal.org). Sontag is survived by other insightful literary critics, but she is no less survived by her legacy, which has taught us to be open to non-American writing.
David Draper Clark ([double dagger][double dagger]): A subjective and select list of outstanding literary reviews includes (in random order) Zoetropes: All-Story, founded by film producer Francis Ford Coppola in 1997; Granta, with offices in England and the United States: Autodafe, the official publication of the International Parliament of Writers: The Believer, issued monthly by McSweeney's in San Francisco; Utne Magazine, which reprints the best from some two thousand alternative media sources: Tin House, offering an antidote to "stuffy, staid literary magazines that go down like cough medicine"; Brick Magazine, edited out of Toronto by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spaulding; Casa de las Americas (Havana), currently under the direction of poet, essayist, and social critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar; Wasafiri, Britain's international triannual, edited by Susheila Nasta, for black British, African, Asian, and Caribbean literatures (e.g., Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nadine Gordimer, Abdulrazak Gurnah); La Quinzaine Litteraire (Paris): the Times Literary Supplement (London); and Inostrannaya Literatura (Moscow). Also of note are the American Poetry Review, the Bloomsbury Review, the Hungry Mind Review, World Press Review, and Nimrod International Journal. Finally, those of us at World Literature Today, now in its seventy-eighth year of continuous publication, also aspire to provide international literary coverage by publishing essays, book reviews, and genre pieces from more than seventy languages worldwide.
*Professor of English at Penn State University, author of Bombay-London-New York (Routledge) and, most recently, Husband of a Fanatic (New Press); ([dagger]) translator of contemporary and classical fiction and drama from the Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Russian, and Serbian/Croatian; ([double dagger]) author, most recently, of The Vienna Paradox (New Directions), Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (University of Alabama Press), and a new edition of The Futurist Moment (University of Chicago Press): ([section]) author, most recently, of America's Magic Mountain (Dalkey Archive Press); ([parallel]) author of After Jews and Arabs (University of Minnesota Press) and From the Warring Factions (Beyond Baroque); (#) editor of the online journal of creative translation www.Cipher-Journal.com; **Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, author of The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (Random House) and Dictionary Days (Graywolf); ([dagger][dagger]) poet and translator of Armenian literature; ([double dagger][double dagger]) editor in chief of World Literature Today.
Compiled by Michael Calderone
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|Title Annotation:||Susan Sontag|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2005|
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