I KNEW Sally Belfrage as a writer: from her first book, A Room in Moscow, which we published at Andre Deutsch in 1959, when she was 21, to her soon-to-be-published autobiography which the same firm sent me for an opinion, and which, to my delight but absolutely not to my surprise, I was able wholeheartedly to recommend, writes Diana Athill.
Looking back through old catalogues I see that what I said about A Room in Moscow sums up Sally's enduring qualities as a writer.
Gay, intelligent, 'unliterary' and free from prejudice, she absorbs impressions with every nerve and pours them out again with a spontaneity that is far from naive. She lives with some disturbing things, but she knew them as the attitudes of friends with whom she ate and danced and sang and talked far into the night, and the attitudes were not the whole of it. Avoiding generalisations, she described what she saw, heard, felt and thought, and in so doing gives the best picture of everyday life in Moscow that has been written for years.
Sally brought this same perceptive generosity, this blend of engagement and shrewdness, to civil- rights work in the deep south of the US during the Sixties (Freedom Summer); to life in the Ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Flowers of Emptiness); and to Northern Ireland in the Eighties (The Crack: a Belfast year, 1987). These qualities will also be found in her autobiography, but to me this wonderfully attractive and intelligent woman was most intensely and movingly herself when she set out to explore some situation outside herself. She was a reporter in a class of her own.
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