A time traveler draws us into an imaginary gathering on a winter’s night in nineteenth-century Poland. As Italo Calvino (or Anthony Trollope or George Eliot) might have done, the author reminds us that the characters we will meet are inventions of her own, that we are in a fiction arising from her own interests, her knowledge and ideas, her past. Moreover, certain details of the speaker’s own biography (“I grew up in southern Arizona and southern California,” “I’d spent a good part of three years in besieged Sarajevo,” “all four of my grandparents were born in [Poland]”) remind us of the author herself, Susan Sontag. She explains that she is simultaneously inventing and describing the scene—“What writing feels like is like following and leading, both, and at the same time.”
Then the author sets her characters in motion. It is 1876. Poland is divided, tired, decadent. The beautiful and successful Polish actress Maryna Zalezowska, her husband Count Bogdan Dembowski, her child, her would-be lover Ryszard, and others in their entourage accede to her romantic idea of reinventing themselves in America. The old world is stale to Maryna, and the new is full of promise. She always gets her way.
The details of Maryna’s history, based on the life of an actual Polish actress, are given with a relish for historical accuracy that could seem ponderous if it were not lightened by a witty parody of the historian’s solemnity:
In late June they traveled to Liverpool, home port of the famous ships flying the red swallow-tail burgee with the five-pointed white star, one of which left for New York every Thursday. The White Star Line’s six steamers dedicated to the North Atlantic crossing were advertised as the most opulent, the fastest, the safest; and the one on which they booked passage, the S.S. Germanic, was also the newest, having been built to replace the Atlantic, which, in 1873, after being chased by lethal gales all across the ocean, emerged into a patch of clear weather and smashed head-on into the granite coast of Nova Scotia, taking down with it five hundred and forty-six lives: the century’s worst transatlantic disaster, twelve times the number lost six months before on the North German Lloyd’s Deutschland, sailing from Bremerhaven.
Maryna and her entourage go to Anaheim, California, to found an idealistic colony in the manner of Fourier, but their attempt at a simple, wholesome life fails—it is the usual mixture of inexperience, impracticality, and human foibles, and perhaps even Polishness. In the last third of the book, Maryna is drawn back onto the stage. Despite the initial skepticism of managers and impresarios, worried by her age (she is now in her late thirties) and thick Polish accent, she triumphs. (She has elocution lessons from an eccentric character named Miss Collingridge, who teaches her to say Mister instead of Meester, and blows the whistle when Maryna says things like “Armong, I loaf you.”)
She plays in Frou-Frou and East Lynne, in Shakespeare: Viola, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth. In the pragmatic American fashion, theater managers encourage cutting classic titles down so Americans can spell them. Her repertoire eventually contains (Romeo and) Juliet, Camille, Adrienne (Lecouvreur). She even becomes, for a night, “Thora” in A Doll’s House, a slight rewrite giving the play what Bogdan believes to be a happy ending where Nora renamed as Thora (“giving the wife a Scandinavian name will help public understanding of the play”) stays to give the repentant Torvald one more chance.
Like a Saturday serial, Maryna’s adventures unfold, increasingly parodic but always diverting. The details of celebrity life in nineteenth-century America are very amusing and not very different from today. People copy Maryna’s hairstyles, her gloves. She is given pet alligators. We learn a lot about the techniques of acting and of how to manage acclaim. Hypocrisy must be learned. “A woman must always declare that her family matters more to her than her career.” “It became harder—does this always happen to great actors?—to remember the difference between what she said and what she thought.”
Her lover returns to Poland and marries—she is hurt, but her reactions always do her credit: “It never occurs to her he could marry without love.” Her husband goes with her on her tours, and they become closer than before (he is sometimes attracted to boys, but resists them out of love for her). They revisit Poland, she plays in England, but is impeded from success there, alas, by her decision to act in English, unlike her principal rival for greatness, Sarah Bernhardt, who acts in French.
Though Maryna and Bogdan embrace America, its flaws as well as its optimism, it is Europe that remains the culture of reference, and the contrast forms one thematic matrix of the book. Maryna comes to appreciate the Poland she left—not the religion-ridden conservative country of today, but a place more urbane and cultivated than today and than America, with its “talent for desecration.” In Europe
you were expected to be sincere and also to have high ideals—people respected you for that. In America, you were expected to exhibit the confusions of inner vehemence, to express opinions no one need take seriously, and have eccentric foibles and extravagant needs, which exhibited the force of your will, your appetitiveness, the spread of your self-regard—all excellent things.
If Maryna is a spoof of that American creation the Star, she is not modeled on the troubled Marilyn Monroe paradigm. Both Maryna and Emma Hamilton, the heroine of Sontag’s last book, the delightful and moving historical novel The Volcano Lover, are comfortable with their own stardom, though Emma is eventually punished, as history dictated, and, as one assumes history also dictated, in America Maryna is rewarded.
In the publicity accompanying the galleys, Sontag’s publisher compares In America to The Volcano Lover, which they call a “scrumptious potboiler,” and though “potboiler” seems harsh, there are certainly similarities between the two books, and “scrumptious” seems for the most part apt enough. Yet here Sontag has posed for herself certain new challenges, as has been her habit as a novelist and an essayist both. First, unlike the raffish (though like Maryna principled and self-satisfied) Emma Hamilton, Maryna is a more or less perfect person. Where the flawed Emma and one of history’s most conspicuous cuckolds, Lord Hamilton, are made sympathetic almost despite the author’s disapproval—for one felt Sontag did despise certain aspects of Emma’s fecklessness, and her husband’s frailties too—Maryna is brave (rather than feckless), intellectual (“We were talking about Fourier’s theory of the twelve radical passions…”), philosophical, spontaneous, gracious, and high-minded, to name but a few of the attributes she is credited with. When she was molested by the boarder at her mother’s house at age fourteen (in a nod, perhaps, to the current fashion in objective correlatives), she was above the litigious modern woman in not minding or feeling injured. All experience is grist to her mill. Nearly her sole defect is a slight lack of charity about certain people’s manner of sneezing:
Perhaps I am too fastidious. For instance, I can’t help thinking a person who sneezes in an absurd way is also lacking in self-respect. Why else consent to something so unattractive? It ought to be a matter of concentration and resolve to sneeze gracefully, candidly.
Unfortunately, goodness in a protagonist poses extra difficulties for the author. It is flaws that have always been the endearing focus of literary characterization, for it is flaws we identify with and forgive. And it is flaws that generally interest authors—Macbeth is the hero of his story. Harder to forgive the flawless, the diamond surface that repels our attempts at understanding. Moreover, literary convention conditions us to expect that goodness, like wickedness, will in some measure be punished. At least, we expect that the character who is aware, like Maryna, of being good will be punished. (The unselfconsciously good, like Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, or Beth in Little Women, are required to die.) But Maryna has dazzled her author even as we peer behind the greasepaint.
Maryna cannot but be aware of her own virtues, for people are constantly telling her how wonderful she is, and she is conscious of no inner reservations, has no low impulse to disclaim. People hasten to help her—“You? You wash your own clothes? When? When would you have the time? And where?” She does struggle a little against the moral dangers of perfection. When a jealous actress slaps her, she doesn’t tell her husband:
…She had no place for his indignation or his eagerness to console. She thought it might do her good to keep this astonishing incident to herself…. If you are of a stoical temperament, and have a talent for self-respect, and have worked hard with another talent God gave you, and have been rewarded exactly as you had dared to hope for your diligence and persistence, indeed, your success arrived more promptly than you expected (or perhaps, you secretly think, merited), you might then consider it petty to remember the slights and nurture the grievances. To be offended was to be weak—like worrying about whether one was happy or not.
The identification of the characters in the prologue as creatures of the author’s imagination encourages us to associate some of Maryna’s philosophical observations and emotions, and some of her personal excellence, with certain biographical details of the author’s life as widely published in recent magazines (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker). Indeed, Maryna reminds us of no one so much as of the Sontag character of the long profiles. Joan Acocella tells us in The New Yorker that Sontag is “a natural star, extroverted, glamorous, photogenic,” just like Maryna. Sontag undergoes chemotherapy, Maryna remembers “when her hair fell out during a bout of typhoid fever,” and we are given a vivid description of a bald scalp. Especially congruent are Sontag’s fight with cancer and Maryna’s preoccupations with fame, life, work, and death. “Happiness comes in many forms, to have lived for art is a privilege, a blessing….” Maryna too, Sontag tells us, has mastered “the art of thinking only of herself, essential to true creation.” However much we may deplore in principle the readerly tendency to confuse an author’s life with her work, and because fiction writing resembles acting in certain ways, we are left with the impression that Maryna is somehow more vigorous and present as a self-portrait than as a fictional character.
Other difficulties Sontag sets for herself are that it is hard to make actors and acting interesting. A profession that is already an imitation of life, or, more accurately, a parody of life, is rarely improved by the second remove of print. Furthermore, historical novels tend to have the defects of their virtues, in general having the problem, for those that it bothers, of not being able clearly to distinguish what is factual from what is made up. Their virtue derives from their claim on the sanctity of truth. The puritan legacy of finding novel-reading a slightly guilty pastime did not extend to reading improving factual material. The real Emma Hamilton did die poor and forgotten, like a tragic heroine, and we can derive a moral lesson from her tale.
At the same time, the presence of made-up things is likely to animate the reader’s concern to know what in the web of invention and fact did or didn’t “really happen,” and what the author is inventing—and why. One would almost like the true and the invented to appear in different-color print. We infer that all the events accessible to a good researcher are true—a Polish actress came over on that very steamship, the streets and names of newspapers were what we are told. The details of what people say and what happens in bed must be made up. For Maryna’s funny and prescient observations, and Bogdan’s thoughtful diaries, and the tour de force monologue by Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes), we know we have Sontag to thank. But we may also think that it is almost too bad to constrain an imagination like Sontag’s with facts of a rather duller sort than those that enlivened Naples during the Napoleonic Wars.
No doubt that was the challenge when it came to writing In America. The writer E.L. Doctorow was recently quoted as saying, “Any time you set a novel in the past you are really writing about the present.” What is history but a cautionary tale? To look at Sontag’s In America as being about the present is in a way to expand, if not to double, its already rich range of subjects—the theater and its related preoccupations with illusion and emotion; the strange sensibility of actors then and now; utopianism and its discontents; America as a metaphor for human aspiration; the immigrant experience, Poland, California, personal charisma, destiny. But it may not succeed in reviving the picaresque tale.