In America Paperback – 31 Jan 2001
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Susan Sontag's In America, which chronicles the travails of a late-19th-century actress, shows Sontag in top time-travelling form and illuminates her motives for glancing so persistently backward. "Almost everything good seems located in the past", she notes in a first-person prologue, "perhaps that's an illusion, but I feel nostalgic for every era before I was born; and one is freer of modern inhibitions, perhaps because one bears no responsibility for the past". There's nothing, it seems, like the age of innocence--a golden moment before we moderns had the curse of self-consciousness brought down on our heads.
It's ironic, then, that In America revolves around a regular paragon of self-consciousness: a brilliant Polish diva named Maryna Zalezowska. The year is 1876, and this Bernhardt-like figure has decided to abandon the stage and establish a utopian commune in California. Not exactly a logical career move, is it? Yet this journey to America does involve a major feat of self-reinvention, for which Maryna may be uniquely qualified. Writing a letter home from the brave new world of Hoboken, New Jersey, she argues against the idea that "life cannot be restarted, that we are all prisoners of whatever we have become". And once she arrives in Anaheim with her husband, child and fellow utopians in tow, she does seem to slough off the skin of her older, European self. She is now that exotic creature, an American, existing in an equally exotic landscape--which happens to elicit some of Sontag's most lyrical prose:
They had never felt as erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls. Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling--and nothing had to do with anything else.Given its subject matter, Sontag's novel is oddly anti-dramatic: she juggles a half-dozen narrative strategies but seldom allows us to sink our teeth into a prolonged scene. Yet she delivers a great many other riches by way of compensation. Her take on the perils and pleasures of expatriation is worthy of Henry James (who actually makes a cameo appearance, assuring Maryna that England and America will morph into "one big Anglo-Saxon total"). She includes a superbly entertaining portrait of theatrical life, culminating in a virtuoso monologue from Edwin Booth that suggests a Gilded Age Samuel Beckett. As always, there is the pleasure of watching the author's formidable intelligence at work, immersing us in the details of a character or landscape and then surfacing for a deep draught of abstraction. Perhaps Sontag is too cerebral to ever produce a straightforward work of fiction. But this time around, anyway, she brings both brains and literary brawn to bear on what Henry James himself called "the complex fate" of being an American. --James Marcus, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
'A tour de force...A magical accomplishment by an alchemist of ideas and words, images and truth.' - Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun '[In America] has an invigorating spaciousness...packed with characters, incidents, and colour, and combining mass appeal with high intelligence.' - Walter Kirn, New York magazine --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
From the beginning we are assured that this is no generic historical novel: we have Sontag crashing a party in the private dining room of an hotel where she inspects and simultaneously creates her characters, naming them, delineating their features, filling out their characters and deciding their stations. She captures them all with precision, so much so that even the minor characters become memorable.
The short section of the novel on the commune in California is a little flat and unearthly, revealing a way of life that is unsatisfactory and totally unsuited to Maryna. Soon she returns to the stage and is touring America. Maryna Zalewska, despite her incorrigible accent, is an instant success. She is someone whom Sontag could admire: the artist who has created herself, who is forever changing, a risk-taking strong woman with a vital urge for life. Having read the two published volumes of Sontag's Journals, I couldn't help noticing numerous autobiographical elements in the portrayal of Zalewska, not all of them favourable.
All of the characters are intelligent: Maryna's repressed husband Bogdan, the young writer Ryzard and the Chekhovian Doctor Henryk to whom Maryna writes her wonderfully revealing letters. So the reader is given much to think about as we sojourn with them, cross the Atlantic with them and navigate their inner and outer lives.Read more ›
That said, after the prologue, Sontag settles down to a more conventional story-telling and the novel comes alive. We follow celebrated actress Maryna from Polish stardom to a new life in the American west in the late 19th century, from where she launches a new quest for stardom on the American stage.
The novel is fascinating and enjoyable on several levels. As an historical piece it's full of interesting details about the foundation of modern America: the novelty of the phone, presumed as an invention that would bring theatre to your house; the ugliness of American cities compared to the Europe Maryna leaves behind; the various communities that travel to America in search of different freedoms; the mining towns and the expectation that performers of the day would travel constantly. As a character piece it is also a strong read. Maryna is a portrait of egotism, who lives every step as if on the stage, self-consciously entertaining and commanding her family and supporters. This alongside the repeated portrayal of American values, favouring the big over the interesting, the new over the old, the curious over the cultured, the self over the many makes for a real analysis of what made America and what continues to make it such a lure for those in search of new beginnings.Read more ›
The final chapter of Sontag's novel continues this theme by having the character of Edwin Booth speak his lines as if he is in a play. Sontag deftly includes script directions which state what the characters should do when on stage.
But this novel is more than just a space where Sontag uses wonderful techniques to show that a novel is an act of creation - it is also a fascinating insight into the migrant experience of America in the mid nineteenth century, a really enjoyable account of the beginnings of the American theatre, as well as a wonderful critique into how the cult of celebrity started in America.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
From the back cover blurb, this looks an excellent read. Maryna Zalezowska (closely based on the real-life actress Helena Modjeska), is one of the greatest actresses in... Read morePublished 11 months ago by Kate Hopkins
You can't ignore the self-consciousness of the author in this book, but in away she deals with this and does away with it in the prologue. Read morePublished on 14 Nov. 2002 by Eric Anderson