In today’s news section, you will find a brief blurb about Susan Sontag’s introduction to the forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “Under the Glacier”. I wrote the blurb. What I didn’t point out was that I thought Sontag’s essay was a sanctimonious piece of garbage. It pained me to have to write about it.
Sontag writing about Laxness in the New York Times is big news, and it makes Icelanders proud. If you have followed local politics, you know that a political organization, the National Movement of Iceland, purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times to explain their objection to the Iraq War.
Icelanders have also made it into the New York Times recently for their night-life, for their ability to fight depression and for serving Bill Clinton hot dogs. (I wrote the hot dog piece through the AP, though the New York Times didn’t give me a damned by-line.)
Alex Ross of The New Yorker has also recently mentioned the Icelandic Symphony and months ago wrote a piece on the Icelandic music scene.
This is all good news for Iceland, and, more importantly, it is news in Iceland: as in, it will be mentioned on TV that the venerable American publications are talking about the country.
The problem, as demonstrated with Sontag’s article, is that most of these articles, save my exquisite hot dog piece and Alex Ross’s extremely professional music piece, are incomplete or failures.
Susan Sontag is an amazing writer, and I realize I’m criticizing a superior. As an English teacher, I frequently taught “The Way We Live Now”, one of my favourite short stories, an astonishing work about AIDS in New York. (The feeling of this work is hinted at in Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours.”)
To be fair, Sontag’s essay on Laxness was a) published posthumously, and b) meant to be an introduction, and therefore probably not meant to be read. But the essay is a drag. Sontag plays the expert, as this book hasn’t been translated before, and she bluffs her way through an explanation as to why “Under the Glacier” is great, drawing comparisons to, of all people unLaxness, Gertrude Stein. The essay goes on to explain how Laxness’s book can fit into categories of lame fiction: “Dream Novel”, antifiction fiction, etc., including the more prosaic quotes from the novel followed by questions like “What is this, if not a theory of spirituality and a theory of literature?”
The most unbearable sentence in the essay is the one that states “Under the Glacier” is “a book of ideas, like no other Laxness ever wrote.”
I don’t fault Sontag for messing up an intro to Laxness. Not entirely. In fact, the essay just seems like an odd note to some larger thesis she may have been working on.
But printed on its own, it’s bad writing. And bad writing is bad writing. And it seems a shame that someone published this essay, and that so many people have to read it (so many more than will read Laxness.) And is so much more of a shame that people have to be grateful for poorly written essays in New York papers. That people so appreciate these poorly written notes about exotic places like Iceland that they’ll throw thousands of dollars at the newspaper to print an ad to give them legitimacy.
The Sontag review is not the most irksome essay by a popular literary American about a better foreign writer that has made a major New York paper recently. I recently had the displeasure to check out the New Yorker and see John Updike’s review of the new Haruki Murakami novel. In it, Updike bored me and angered me as he has for a while, all while pontificating on what he seemed to think was a phenomenon, a Japanese writer whose energy and lyricism trumps anything Updike has released in decades.
Of course, Updike too has been a great writer, I just believe he treated Murakami far too lightly as his subject was too far from New York to be considered real. Now we get to the attitude that Updike pointed out so well. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I believe Updike said it like this “There is a hidden belief shared by many New Yorkers that anybody living anywhere else is, deep down, only joking.” BC [email protected]