Plays: 423

A special project for the Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Dubravka Ugrešić writes about Susan Sontag discussing her novel The Volcano Lover with Robert Walsh. It was recorded at 92Y on April 16, 1992.

Posted on Oct 18, 2013

Maybe it was the evening’s title—“The Project of Literature”—that got me. As I listened to this recording of Susan Sontag, I remembered meeting her for the first time (a quick handshake) at a conference organized by Rutgers University. It was an incomparable event, shining with stars of American and East European letters, and I can’t recall ever having seen a more impressive group of writers in the same room—Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky, Doris Lessing, György Konrád, Susan Sontag. Uncannily, this recording dates from the same month and year as the conference—April 1992.

In Karel Čapek’s children’s story, “The Mailman’s Tail,” dwarves gather at the post office at night, reading letters without opening them. Aware that opening other people’s mail is improper, they press the letters to their foreheads, magically revealing their contents. Listening to Susan Sontag’s voice, it occurs to me that, unless “addressed” to us, we shouldn’t try to open people either.

Later I met Sontag again, this time in New York City. She had invited me to join her on stage at an event at Columbia. We met at her apartment to discuss how we wanted the evening to proceed. I remember being unusually shaken by her vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why I felt a little reticent, as if there was the danger that my every movement, my every word, might crush an invisible nest of newly hatched chicks. Her fingers tugged nervously at the ends of her closely cropped hair, as if fixing a wig too tight and too short. The air around her was filled with what felt like irritation. Yes, she said, she’d been ill and recently finished a course of chemotherapy. Then, like a bolt from the blue, she asked

“Have you read my novel, The Volcano Lover?”

“I haven’t,” I replied, a pupil who hadn’t done her homework.

She said it was her best book, and as she spoke it was as if she was addressing not me but her invisible literary milieu, as if the question she’d asked of me was in fact the continuation of a conversation with others. At the time, her unfiltered, childlike reaction was something I understood all too well. There’s another coincidence here, too: on the recording Sontag is talking about The Volcano Lover, which had just been published. As we left her apartment, she asked

“Do you think short hair suits me?”

Like Čapek’s dwarves pressing sealed envelopes to their foreheads, I listen to Sontag’s voice and attempt the same, trying to get at the true contents of her message. Her voice is warm and affable, the rhythm of her narration undulating. It suddenly quickens like a flash of water jumping a stone, then calms and quiets, until the next surge rolls in. In our raucous, “anti-intellectual,” “narcissistic,” and “cynical” time, Sontag’s voice sounds as one from the distant past.

She is a passionate reader and reading junkie; only reading establishes for her the criteria of value and beauty. It frequently occurs to her that to be the humblest, lowest part of literature is the most glorious thing one can do. Sontag signals the importance of the literary apprenticeship, stressing that today is not a time for naivety. A writer must be aware that she or he is doing something that has already been done. A writer must have a modernist self-consciousness. In plain translation, she means a literary education.

Asked what a writer is, Sontag pauses for a second and cautiously responds that  “there are all kinds of writers” and that “every definition of a writer is true,” before clearly articulating her own definition: “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” “A writer is a professional observer,” she adds. And onwards, like a flash flood, as if to assert her manifesto in a single breath, Sontag speaks of the loneliness that is a prerequisite to writing (“writing does require solitude”); about political activism (how writers “should allow themselves to be drafted”); of how the contemporary writer is “a handworker in the era of mass production”; of how one becomes a writer simply because one “couldn’t help not to be a writer”; of writing as obsession and “auto-slavery”; of both American anti-intellectualism and the trap of elitism, not infrequently a mask for anti-intellectualism. “A writer is someone who creates or tries to create literature,” says Sontag, yet “literature is a tiny percent of what is produced in book form.” There is not a single book worth reading if it can’t be read at least five times. To literature belong books that endure and remain, books that have the power to take us over, to become “part of our blood stream.”

Susan Sontag spoke so movingly in praise of literature and the literary endeavor that night. Now, some twenty years later, as I listen to her voice, it occurs to me that, her whole life through, she really was a high priestess in the temple of literature, tirelessly promoting cherished writers, even erecting statues to some. And what did they offer her? Perhaps this, in part, explains her earlier question.

“Have you read my novel?”

A pride as capricious and fragile as the rose from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

Yes, I notice that the literary references I connect with her are from literature written  for children. Who knows why? Maybe because of the vulnerability in her voice as she spoke words of such power. Maybe it’s simply my unfounded sense that she must have been terribly alone and lonely in an intellectual and literary world where, then and now, it’s gangs of intellectual and literary men who try to rule. Whatever the case, Susan Sontag was a great. And so she remains.

Dubravka Ugrešić’s new book is Europe in Sepia. This essay was translated from the Croatian by David Williams.