Going West

In America

by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 387 pp., $26.00

Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag; drawing by David Levine

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…

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