Writings of the general word's body

Monday, March 19, 2007

Habila & Sontag

In Saturday's Review section of the UK Guardian, novelist Helon Habila presented his rereading of Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, which centres on the experiences West Indian immigrants in 50s Britain.

Habila's second novel, Measuring Time, is published is published by WW Norton.

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Still on the Review, the late Susan Sontag, in an essay written before she died, discusses the novelist's task.

Hear her - "I'm often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: "Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world." To that she added, "Be serious".

Fittingly, Sontag's son, David Rieff pays tribute to his late mother, discussing "her almost devotional insistence on never missing a concert, an exhibition, an opera or a ballet was for her an act of loyalty to seriousness, not an indulgence, and a part of her project as a writer, not a taste, let alone an addiction."

Sontag was torn between her yearning to work on her own fiction, and a sense of duty to write about other writers. "And yet when I asked her once why she had devoted so much time to making essayistic cases for writers ranging from Nathalie Sarraute at the beginning of her career to Leonid Tsypkin, Halldór Laxness and Anna Banti in the year she got ill , what she once called "the evangelical incentive" she spoke of as a duty, whereas fiction writing alone had brought her pleasure as a writer. But she was never able to think of herself as a writer alone, and in the essay on Banti she speaks of "militant reading." It was that militant reader, or, as she put it elsewhere, the would-be "world-improver ", I believe, who wrote most of the essays, while the fiction languished."

Some months ago, I blogged about
Annie Leibovitz's own 'tribute' to Sontag - a project of unrestrained bad taste masquerading as love, in which the famed photographer published intimate pictures of Sontag, including some showing her in varying stages of nudity. Thank heavens for Rieff's touching son's tribute and Sontag's own words which will continue to find their way to us. This is how one would wish for Sontag to be remembered.


Patrick said...

The lonely Londers remain one of my top five books of all time. I read Helon Habila's review in the Guardian and was struck by the choice of culled passages from the book because i find in them a summary of a Black immigrant experience in Britain that has transcended over the years and still remains proportionately the same or worse in certain situations.

As rightly observed, Samuel Selvon may well have been writing about Britain today because the issue of race and how she regards her Black immigrants should surely leave any discerning immigrant questioning why it should be so.

As for the illusions that trailed the characters in Selvon's book, could this not be rooted in the West's perpetuation of a hideous prejudice with roots from slavery and colonialism?

Wordsbody said...


Thanks for your considered response to the post & Habila's piece. I agree with your (and Habila's) assessment of 'The Lonely Londoners'. It does capture the immigrant's predicament in London/UK - especially the loneliness.