Susan Sontag

"In America"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 24, 2001)

 

"Don't be afraid to turn upstage," she admonished. "The face may say too much, but the audience can read just what it needs, no more, from your back."

In America by Susan Sontag

In 1876, while at the peak of her career, Polish actress Maryna Zalezowksa turns her back on her homeland and devoted audience to seek a new life in America. This actress was so polished in her art, she was considered one of Poland's national treasures. Whereas at one point in her life she thought she could not live without comfort and luxury, and later without friends, of late she feels she can do without everything. Or so she says. Through her natural influence, Maryna convinces a small group of "intellectual" friends to go to America to join her, her aristocratic husband and young son for communal living off the land. She's not sure if she can explain why she feels so strongly about this. We can guess that she fears growing old, that she'll end up as playing Juliet's maid; that at the top of her form, she lacks challenge; or perhaps it's simply the actor's trick of leaving the audience wanting more. Maybe she is truly tired, she suffers such migraines. In America one is renewed.

Through this operatic work of fiction, Sontag touches on what it must have been like to be European, in the late 19th century with a desire to go to America. It had been nearly fifty years since Tocqueville published his famous account and others were publishing books on their own American experiences. For the Poles, this desire might have been even stronger since at that time Poland was under rule by three different oppressors; their homeland was not their own. In America, there would be promises of new beginnings and the erasure of the past. As her husband, Bogdan, writes in his diary, "Flashes of hope, like flashes of desire. Beginning again. How much must one give up for the privilege of beginning again? For more than fifty years Europeans have been saying, If it doesn't work, we can always go to America." Even today, who doesn't occasionally toy with the idea of "giving it all up." Is this an American trait, the desire to renew one's self by losing one's past?

It is after the utopian experiment ends that the real American tale begins. To raise money, Maryna decides it's time to try her hand at the American stage. (But hadn't she planned this all along?She did bring her costumes to America..) Maryna becomes Marina Zalenska. She hires a tutor and learns English. When she is finally ready she auditions at the San Francisco Repertory Theater and absolutely rivets the manager's attention. Immediately she secures work. In short order, she becomes nearly as famous as Sarah Bernhardt, playing lead to Edwin Booth.

Sontag captures this interesting woman's story, holding our attention as if we were watching the diva herself perform on stage. She leads us through life in Krakow, vacations in Zakopane, and on to America. We experience the transatlantic crossing, 19th century New York City, the Philadelphia Exposition and the ways of the "wild west". She moves us to and from center stage to capture the different character perspectives, sometimes its her leading man, Bogdan, and other times it is Ryszard, the writer hopelessly in love with Maryna. We live the communal life with all the different personalities of the group, we sit for a memorable photo session and share the story telling. We even gracefully accept the end of the communal experiment. Always we are learning what it is to be a famous actress, what it is to act, what works and does not work ("Never acknowledge a mishap."), just how stage behavior applies to real life.

Once known, it's easy to see that the novel is based on the life of actress Helena Modrzejewska, however, Sontag uses an interesting technique to not have to worry about the story being one hundred percent accurate. She begins her book at Chapter Zero, by introducing a modern day unnamed narrator to start the story. The narrator has just "dropped in" on a party being held in honor of a guest called "Helena or Maryna" and she's trying to figure the gossip and the names and relations of all the other friends. Before we know it, we are fully engrossed in the lives of these Europeans.

It's one thing to tell a story about a woman's desire for transformation. It's quite another to succeed at portraying the adoration and protection that her friends, family and fans hold for her, and at the same time show the actress's anguish of this same love. All the while, Sontag reinforces the notion of writing and acting as storytelling or "misrepresentation". If I were to write a study paper on this book, I might just concentrate on that one thread alone and I'd focus right in on Bogdan, the one assumed to be the only one not capable of storytelling. It seems appropriate that a novel about America would be about the art of fabrication and misrepresentation, no matter what century. And on the subject of storytellers, Sontag seems to be one of the best. (Reviewed 03-19-00)

"There are so many stories to tell, it's hard to say why it's one rather than another, it must be because with this story you feel you can tell many stories, that there will be necessity in it..." In America, pg. 27.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 42 reviews

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 in The New York Times

Read an excerpt from Chapter 7 at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Susan SontagSusan Sontag was a highly respected American essayist and novelist, known for her brilliant and original thinking and her analyses of contemporary culture. She was born in New York City in 1933, and was raised in Los Angeles, California and Tucson, Arizona. Sontag studied at University of California, Berkeley, but transferred to The University of Chicago receiving a BA in philosophy in 1951 at the age of eighteen. She continued postgraduate work at Harvard where she received two MAs- one in English and the other in Philosophy, St. Anne's College, Oxford and the Sorbonne. She has said her desire is to be an écrivain, what the French call someone whose profession is a writer without specialization.

On Photography received the National Book Critic's Award for Criticism in 1977. She has also won the George Polk Memorial Award, National Institutes and American Academy Award for Literature and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award. Susan Sontag's In America was the National Book Award finalist for 2000. She lived in New York City until she died in December 2004 at the age of 71.

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