Sontag’s High-Toned Tale: Her Brains Center Stage

In America , by Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 387 pages, $26.

No way to sweeten the pill: Susan Sontag is a powerful thinker, as smart as she’s supposed to be, and a better writer, sentence for sentence, than anyone who now wears the tag “intellectual”–but she can’t seem to write a great novel. Her early forays into fiction, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), are unbearable, repellent brainy experiments; The Volcano Lover (1992), though a huge and welcome improvement, bounced uncomfortably between narrative and exposition–she called it a “romance” and stuffed it with a few seminars’ worth of lumpy, hardened cogitation.

Her latest, In America , bears a strong family resemblance to The Volcano Lover –and again sadly falls short. What’s missing? Why can’t she (like, say, George Eliot) convert brainpower and word mastery into a knock-your-socks-off novel? Is it her reader’s fault if the tale she’s telling always seems less compelling than the ghostly presence of the teller, the scary shade of Ms. Sontag solemnly passing out her ideas? Does it seem so because when we read her we’re on the lookout for evidence of her excellent intellect in action? What would happen if she vanished, if she erased the artful authorial intrusions and restrained the urge to share her pensées , if she let the story do its work? It’s what she wants (sometimes)–I can tell.

In America is about a celebrated Polish actress who in 1876 gives up the stage and leads a group of friends to California (to Anaheim) to establish a “utopian household.” When this noble experiment fails, the actress goes back to acting–this time in America–and triumphs on both coasts and in between. The story is “inspired–no less and no more” (those are Ms. Sontag’s words) by the extraordinary two-act career of Helena Modrzejewska, whose American stage name was Helena Modjeska, and who ranked with Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse as one of the great actresses of the last decades of the 19th century. (She left behind an autobiography, Memories and Impressions (1910), which provided Ms. Sontag with choice lines as well as inspiration.)

History’s Helena Modjeska is Ms. Sontag’s Maryna Zalenska: Names have been changed to protect the free play of imagination. Or perhaps because an author likes to exercise her will. In America begins with the novelist projecting herself back in time to 1875: “Irresolute, no, shivering, I’d crashed a party in the private dining room of a hotel.” It’s opening night in Krakow, and the dinner, post-performance, is in Maryna’s honor. The author hovers, invisible, listens in, tries to piece together the plot and identify her characters. Along the way she introduces herself as someone whose grandparents all came from Poland (though they were Jews); who married young and divorced after long hesitation; who “spent a good part of three years in besieged Sarajevo”; who thinks deep thoughts about historical fiction (“The past is the biggest country of all … I did not belong [in a private dining room of a hotel in 1875], I was an alien presence … I would not understand everything, but even what I misunderstood would be a kind of truth, if only about the time in which I live”) and who sometimes slips into a flashy, allusive prose style (“I wish I could say that I was just feeling thinky, and so had closed my eyes to mount the next rung in the dark”).

“Thinky” is an apt description for this first chapter (Flannery O’Connor would have called it a long front porch). I enjoyed it for the reasons mentioned up top (great mind, fine sentences), but also because I expected that soon enough the story would be launched and I’d be sucked into the world of Maryna Zalenska, this “woman with the ash-blonde hair and the candid, intense blue-gray eyes,” this commanding 19th-century Polish actress, 35 years old and “at the pinnacle of her glory.” But Ms. Sontag stalls. Over the next two chapters (about 60 pages), Maryna mulls over her decision to quit the stage, leave Poland and transport herself (along with her devoted husband, Count Bogdan Dembowski, and a half-dozen spellbound friends) to America. Instead of scenes, we get soliloquy, free-floating dialogue (mostly unmoored from the specifics of time and place), snippets from letters sent and unsent, and catch-up information on Maryna’s youth and early career. This second part of the novel is less thinky than talky, and just as static as the beginning.

Things pick up when two of Maryna’s friends cross the Atlantic by steamer (one of them, Ryszard, is based on Henryk Sienkiewicz, who wrote Quo Vadis and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905). They stop in New York (Ms. Sontag does an excellent job with post-Civil War Manhattan), then board a train for a weeklong transcontinental trip. They’re heading for Anaheim, to scout out a location for the commune dreamed up by Maryna.

The account of Maryna’s own Atlantic crossing is comparatively dull, spooled out in a long letter to a friend who stayed behind. Once she’s in place, it’s soon clear that the project will fail (“after six months … the colony counted $15,000 spent and almost nothing returned”). If Ms. Sontag’s idea was to evoke the anomie and alienation of the expatriate by letting the narrative wander, listless and flat, she succeeded.

Things pick up again when Maryna, to recoup some of her husband’s financial losses, returns to the stage. She goes to San Francisco, hires a language tutor in an attempt to erase her “ver-ree, verr-rree noticeable” Polish accent, and auditions. The description of her triumph at Angus Barton’s California Theater is the first wholly compelling moment in the novel. Actually, there are two things happening at once here: Maryna acting and Maryna loving. After her first performance, she at last allows the love-struck Ryszard to consummate his adulterous passion. The sex is great, and portrayed with just the right degree of erotic heat (except for one horrendous line: “She bent over and began to kiss his groin”–not the moment for an ugly euphemism).

In America will be prized for its brains, not its sex appeal (Maryna, hesitating on the brink of adultery, talks of “the emperor, mind”). Just as The Volcano Lover doubled as a treatise on collecting, the new novel teems with opinion on two great topics: America and acting. On the way to California (“The Laborer’s Paradise”), Ryszard remarks, “Doesn’t it seem very American … that America has its America, its better destination where everyone dreams of going?” “Authority on the stage is tantamount,” we learn, “to the ability to project continuously, fluently, piercingly, a character’s essence.” Henry James makes a cameo appearance and tells Maryna, with “circuitous bluntness,” that he’s fascinated by “the actress as a contemporary type “–”the most brilliant embodiment of feminine success .”

Maryna is a success in theaters everywhere–and on page after page of In America . She’s headstrong, self-indulgent, ruthless with herself and others, and yet always appealing, her appeal shading from bright, simple charm to a darker charisma. Ms. Sontag has enough confidence in her leading lady to remove her almost entirely from the bravura last chapter, which consists of an extended monologue delivered by a drunken Edwin Booth.

We’re in New York for yet another opening night (Booth plays Shylock opposite Maryna’s Portia), and Booth has convinced Maryna to join him for a drink in his private apartment at the Players Club (which he founded). He rambles brilliantly, pathetically, explicating Shakespeare, explicating acting, explicating America (“a society in which everything is for sale and every worthy occasion is Barnumized has to end by making cynics out of everybody”); he mourns his brother, Lincoln’s assassin, reminisces about his loopy father, and does his inebriated best to seduce his guest. The reader’s attention is divided (and this is a marvelous pleasure) between an immediate response to Booth and anticipation of Maryna’s response–by now we know her well enough to judge.

“A work of art,” wrote Ms. Sontag in 1965, “is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness.” In this Ms. Sontag has succeeded, most notably where she herself intrudes least.