Sunday, March 02, 2014

Leading Lady visits America

In AmericaIn America 
by Susan Sontag

"Each of us carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished and peopled, and if you listen closely, you may need to silence everything in your own room, you can hear the sounds of that other room inside your head.”  ― Susan Sontag, In America

In America is an historical novel, yet it is more. It is a novel about identity, about names and words and people who leave their homeland for a new unknown and undiscovered land called America. The novel is one where the stage and all that it represents mirrors life -- a story set near the end of the nineteenth century.
On the first page of the novel the motif of the stage is hinted at by how snow flakes seen through a window are described as a "scrim" for the moonlight in the background. The unnamed narrator looks out on the wintry landscape from her vantage point in a warm corner of a large room filled with people. Slowly the narrator, who is Sontag herself embedded in this prelude to the novel, gradually introduces the main characters who are gathered at a private party. These characters include an actress, Maryna the greatest leading lady in Poland; her husband, Bogdan; and a budding writer, Ryszard, who will eventually become her lover.

Language is an important aspect of the novel as the narrator meditates on all the words in the air swirling around her at this party. Her meditation leads he to comment that "I mean here only to give these words their proper, poignant emphasis. And it occurred to me that this might explain, partly, my presence in this room. For I was moved by the way they possessed these words and regarded themselves bound by them to actions. . . . I was enjoying the repetition. Dare I say I felt at one with them? Almost. Those dreaded words, dreaded by others (not by me), seemed like caresses. Pleasantly numbed, I felt myself borne along by their music . . ." (p 8) While musing on the Polish diva who holds the company spellbound, Sontag notes: "I remember when I first read Middlemarch: I had just turned 18, and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realised not only that I was Dorothea but that a few months earlier, I had married Mr Casaubon... It took me nine years to decide that I had the right, the moral right, to divorce Mr Casaubon." (p 24) She indulges herself and suggests that this will be the story of a Dorothea who does not, like George Eliot's heroine, bury herself in the obscurity of "private" good works. She will shine in the public blaze of celebrity.
The party is in Poland, but some converse in French as well. This is their home where they are known and comfortable--yet there is more--ideas are in the air. The narrator hears bits of conversation that hint at plans Maryna has to leave Poland. These words suggest the possibility of a project to create a "perfect" society, one influenced by both Voltaire and Rousseau. After further ruminations on these people surrounding her at the party the narrator decides to write their story: "I decided to follow them out into the world." (p 27)
After this unusual introduction the actual story, an historical one, continues for nine more chapters chronicling the journey of Maryna, her close friends, family, and entourage, to America. They fairly quickly settle in a dusty southern California village established originally by Germans, namely Anaheim. Just as earlier communities like Brook Farm in New England and others have failed theirs does as well. The experiment is unsuccessful due to unexpected difficulties as they find the empty and dry expanse of California is not conducive to their plans. While many of them return to Poland it is at this moment that Maryna, longing for a return to the stage, decides to move to San Francisco and mount an American career where she can once again become a leading lady, perhaps a legend. This is, after all, an historical novel and the main characters are based on real people. Maryna is based on Helena Modrzejewska, who at 35 years old was Poland's greatest actress and who emigrated to America. The story abounds with moments when Maryna is in the theater playing Camille or Juliet for adoring audiences. Gradually her stage character takes hold of the reader much as it must have for those audiences. Following her came her husband and her lover, based on the writer Henryk Sinkiewicz (later famous as the author of Quo Vadis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). However, not all the real names are changed and , not unlike some other historical novels, famous names drop in from time to time including Edwin Booth and Henry James (later in the story as Maryna has moved on to conquer the London stage; her success there was limited but better by far than that of James whose plays bombed).

This is a novel that, according to the author, was inspired by her own family background as all four of her grandparents came from Poland. She herself, in the three years of the novel's conception, frequently visited "besieged Sarajevo" (the novel is dedicated to her friends in that unhappy city). The main character has luminescent moments, but I found the story as a whole uneven. Ryszard and Bogdan both have moments "on stage" but the rest of the characters fade into the background. They all were on stage as followers of Maryna to America and it is a book worth reading to share the experiences of her dramatic and eventful life.

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Brian Joseph said...

Too bad this was a bit disappointing. The plot and the characters sound like there is a lot of potential.

One element that I find intriguing is that while utopian communities are not uncommon when one looks into history, a highly success actress in Europe moving to one in America sounds very odd.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. The utopian aspect was difficult to understand. What was easier to understand and more enjoyable was Maryna's return to the stage and her success throughout America.
A friend of mine has a DVD of a documentary about Helena Modrzejewska, the real character on which Sontag based Maryna.
If you want to read a more exciting historical novel, try Quo Vadis? by Sinkiewicz.