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In America: A Novel

In America: A Novel

3.2 5
by Susan Sontag

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A glorious, sweeping new novel from the bestselling author of The Volcano Lover.

The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag's bestselling 1992 novel, retold the love story of Emma Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson with consummate power. In her enthralling new novel--once again based on a real story--Sontag shows us our own country on the cusp of modernity.

In 1876 a


A glorious, sweeping new novel from the bestselling author of The Volcano Lover.

The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag's bestselling 1992 novel, retold the love story of Emma Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson with consummate power. In her enthralling new novel--once again based on a real story--Sontag shows us our own country on the cusp of modernity.

In 1876 a group of Poles led by Maryna Zalewska, Poland's greatest actress, travel to California to found a "utopian" commune. Maryna, who has renounced her career, is accompanied by her small son and husband; in her entourage is a rising young writer who is in love with her. The novel portrays a West that is still largely empty, where white settlers confront native Californians and Asian coolies. The image of America, and of California--as fantasy, as escape, as radical simplification--constantly meets a more complex reality. The commune fails and most of the émigrés go home, but Maryna stays and triumphs on the American stage.

In America is a big, juicy, surprising book--about a woman's search for self-transformation, about the fate of idealism, about the world of the theater--that will captivate its readers from the first page. It is Sontag's most delicious, most brilliant achievement.

In America is the winner of the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A passionate and often radical novel of ideas that affords all the old-fashioned pleasures of a traditional historical novel. -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times on The Volcano Lover

The Barnes & Noble Review
April 2000

The Nobility of Failure

Based in part on the life of the renowned Polish actress Maryna Zalewska, Susan Sontag's long-awaited new novel, In America, is the story of one woman's search for self-transformation, the fate of idealism, and the old and new worlds on the cusp of modernity. A talent rivaling France's Sarah Bernhardt and America's Edwin Booth, Zalewska leaves the Polish stage at the height of her career to found a commune in the arid vineyards of southern California in 1876. Funded by her aristocratic husband and joined by a cast of admirers, including her young son and a promising young writer who is hopelessly in love with her, Maryna looks to the new world for a different and, she hopes, final role. As a self-sufficient woman of what her fellow immigrants call "Hamerica," Maryna hopes to shed her former self and immerse herself in toil and the harsh beauty of an alien land. Or so she tries to believe in page after page of letters home, diary entries, and interior monologues that place the reader firmly in Sontag country. Just as Sontag's previous historical tour de force, The Volcano Lover, threaded its illicit romance through high-minded ruminations on revolution and art collecting, In America takes issues of representation, or as Maryna labels acting, "misrepresentation," as its central concern.

In America, after all, immigrants are free to represent themselves however they like. They may abandon for good "their dark Polish woes." Theymayeven choose to not represent themselves at all. That is the real drive behind Maryna's exile: a desire to live without affectation. Among her fellow commune companions, the fusty, miserable Julian fantasizes about an immersion in America so complete none may ever find him again. The journalist and aspiring fiction writer, Ryszard, believes that America will provide the stories he was born to write. Having promised Maryna never to write about her, he turns his eye to the commune's setting near the town of Anaheim. Inspiration first strikes when a traveling circus's strongman apparently murders the stage manager and absconds with the flying trapeze lady. In Ryszard's version, the two are young lovers, and escape brings them safety. In California's version, however, the two are pursued vigilante-style, and the strongman strung on a tree and hanged.

The difference in these two endings is emblematic of Sontag's theme. The America of the novel offers immigrants a chance for happy endings and a release from class hierarchy. Like other recent utopian experiments, a German cooperative and the nearby religious sect known as "Edenica," Maryna and her band are left alone. Yet isolation and freedom are not tantamount in this layered look at the United States on the cusp of modernity. Socially, America marks people as surely as it brands cattle. For everyone from Mexicans and Native Americans to Asian coolies and even many Eastern Europeans, history dictates endings. As Maryna's dutiful husband, Bogdan, records, "Last week, near Temescal, an Indian laborer entered the privy while it was being used by the rancher's wife and, she claimed, tried to assault her.... The poor fellow was tied up and castrated by the irate husband on the spot.... It seems vile to think, We didn't have to hear this horrifying story." In the repetition of similar tales and in Ryszard's accounts of his vagabond journeys with horse and rifle, Sontag seems to say there's no place far enough away even in the outback of America, Huckleberry Finn's "territories."

Personally, too, America cannot liberate everyone's soul. Some habits persist; some character traits tattoo the soul. And so it is that the commune fails, Maryna returns to the stage, and most of the émigrés return to Poland, bodies, if not dreams, intact. During the commune's inauguration, Maryna compares signing the property deed to a bride on her wedding day marrying the wrong man; it's less the fact of the community's collapse than its slow unraveling that propels the novel forward.

Not everyone throws in the towel. For a few, America unleashes that purer self Maryna constantly contemplates. Bogdan, a gentle and devoted caretaker, plays Leonard Woolf to Maryna's Virginia. He comes to America with no expectations of his own, observing, "The relentless success of these Californians gets on my nerves. I am bred to a distinctively Polish appreciation of the nobility of failure." From moneyed count to subsistence farmer, Bogdan embodies "forbidden desire, straining to be freed by foreignness." Bogdan's conflicting need to be true to Maryna while pining after the young men in the area soon becomes his sole obsession. In the end Bogdan — his name butchered first to "Bobdan" and then to "Bobby" by the local boys he so admires — discovers freedom in a contraption rife with symbolism: the aeroplane a renegade scientist is surreptitiously testing on the California beaches.

In details like Bogdan's love affair with flight, in moments of gritty detail like Ryszard's description of his ferry passage from Europe to New York, and in the set pieces highlighting the late 19th century's changing cultural watermarks, the novel is at its best. When a self-employed photographer arrives in Anaheim, the picture-taking scene at the commune's hodgepodge of buildings stands out in its rich evocation of the time period. The reader imagines the resulting photograph existing somewhere still, perhaps atop Sontag's writing table.

Ultimately, however, In America is really Maryna's tale. She is the novel's triumph and, occasionally, its weak spot. There's something of Anna Karenina in Maryna: weary of her own marvels, crazy for her son but willing to remain apart from him in the name of a stronger hunger, self-aware without always knowing herself. Her musings on how to master favorite plays of the day, from "As You Like It" and "the Scottish play" to the sentimental weepie "East Lynne," together with her critiques of the nature of acting itself, overshadow, both for her and the reader, her commune experience. As a result of this self-absorption, she forms a weak link to other characters. Even her voluminous letters home, significantly, go unanswered. Communication is not a lifeline to a place outside herself but one Maryna throws inward. Sontag is much more interested in plumbing her mind than in putting her to work engaging other characters. She's a fine and complicated companion; she's Sontag whispering, shouting, showing us the grand dramatic production of our shared American heritage.

—Elizabeth Haas

Elizabeth Haas is a writer and critic living in Annapolis, Maryland.

Walter Kirn
In America has an invigorating spaciousness...packed with characters, incidents, and color, and combining mass appeal with high intelligence.
— ( New York magazine)
Joan Acocella
What is wonderful about the book is...the counterpoint of novelist and essayist, of innocence and knowingness. From the knowingness comes another excellence of In America, its cat's cradle of meanings.
— (The New Yorker)
Michael Silverblatt
Enough incident, psychology, local color and fascinating detail to stock a flotilla of popular novels, a couple of 'Ragtimes' and a brace of theatrical memoirs.
— (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
Michael Pakenham
A tour de force...a magical accomplishment by an alchemist of ideas and words, images and truth.
— (The Baltimore Sun)
Richard Lourie
Often brave and beautiful, occasionally arch and irritating, Susan Sontag's sixth novel is an epic riff of imagination on little-known historical events. .....The books form and theme are elegantly joined.
The Washington Post
Paul Evans
Susan Santog makes of her novel, In America a brilliant meditation on the Old and New Worlds, the American Dream of the invention of self, and the tension between art and nature. Intellectually satisfying, In America is deftly written!
Book Magazine, March/April 2000
Vividly inquisitive...An exhilarating journey into the past, freighted with dazzling detail, the product of an endlessly inquisitive, historical imagination.
Paul Gray
In America displays Sontag in a relaxed, pleasure-seeing mode, guiding her characters through a long travelogue in time, specifically the beginnings of the gilded age in the brave new world. Here are sumptuous theaters in Manhattan and hotels in San Francisco; a journey 1,900 feet down into a silver mine in Virginia City, Nev.; cameo appearances by such luminaries as Henry James and the renowned Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth.
Christopher Hitchens
Inspired...In America [is] a counter-romance, alternately hilarious and tragic.
Michael Pakenham
A tour de force...a magical accomplishment by an alchemist of ideas and words, images and truth.
Vividly inquisitive...An exhilarating journey into the past, freighted with dazzling detail, the product of an endlessly inquisitive, historical imagination.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As she did in The Volcano Lover, Sontag crafts a novel of ideas in which real figures from the past enact their lives against an assiduously researched, almost cinematically vivid background. Here again her signal achievement is to offer fresh and insightful commentary on the social and cultural currents of an age, with a distinctive understanding of how historical events forged character and destiny. If the story of renowned Polish actress Maryna Zalewska cannot compare in drama to that of Admiral Nelson and the Hamiltons (as a protagonist, Maryna remains somewhat shadowy and elusive), Sontag succeeds in conveying how the political and intellectual atmosphere of Poland and the U.S. in the late 19th century affected her heroine's life. Beautiful, famous and restless at 35, Maryna decides to leave her native land, suffering under Russian occupation. She convinces her husband, Count Bogdan Demboski, her would-be lover, journalist Ryszard Kierul, and various other members of the Warsaw intelligentsia to emigrate to America, where, influenced by Fourier's social philosophy, they will establish an experimental farm commune in southern California. Predictably, the community fails to prosper and falls into debt; idealism gives way to disillusionment; Maryna decides to resume her career, achieving immediate acclaim; and the romantic triangle moves to a new stage. Meanwhile, Sontag makes meaningful associations between a woman's need for freedom and independence, a nation's suffering under a conqueror's heel and the common human quest for "newness, emptiness, pastlessness... this dream of turning life into pure future" that colored many immigrants' views of America. She leads readers into the book via a long, breathless, one-paragraph prologue, narrated as if in a fever dream; indeed, it is not until many pages into the novel that the date and the geographical setting are established. Exemplary at imagining an actor's needs, impulses and sources of inspiration, Sontag also conveys the theatrical world of the time (East Lynne was the most popular play; Sarah Bernhardt reigned in Paris) almost palpably. There are few dramatic peaks and valleys in Maryna's story, but the historical backdrop--with pithy and evocative descriptions of American cities at the turn of the last century, cameo portraits of salty frontier types, and snippets of Western lore--supplies the vigor that the main plot often fails to engender. While this book does not exert the passionate energy of The Volcano Lover, it is a provocative study of a woman's life and the historical setting in which she moves. Author tour; U.K. rights to Jonathan Cape. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In 1876, 35-year-old Maryna Zalewska, Poland's brilliant, revered actress, packs up her 14-person entourage, including husband, child, maid, and assorted relatives and admirers, and emigrates to Anaheim, CA, determined to shed her glittering life and disappear into the unglamorous anonymity borne of the radical, hard-scrabble work of her commune. After a couple of years, with the failure of the farm looming, Maryna returns to the stage in a dazzling U.S. comeback that rockets her to renewed fame, fortune, and smashing success across the nation and overseas. Basing her new novel on the life of Helena Modrzejewska (stage name Helena Modjeska), Sontag uses dense, elegant language, inventive dialog, impassioned monolog, and diary entries to lure the reader more deeply into the fascinating historical journey of a powerful actress charging her high-energy way through the lives of her inner circle, leaving in her wake broken hearts, inspiration, and a sad inner core that may be forever masked by her inability to separate her actress side from her human one. Sontag triumphs once again with her gift for turning history into riveting fiction (Volcano Lover). Encourage readers to get beyond the annoyingly contrived first chapter with its invisible observer. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/99.]--Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
[A] rich novel...carefully researched, lavishly detailed, and expertly plotted...Sontag is so comfortable spinning [big] ideas through the details of her novel that they never seem heavy or intrusive...Sontag is a brilliant writer...
The Christian Science Monitor

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Chapter One

           PERHAPS IT WAS the slap she received from Gabriela Ebert a few minutes past five o'clock in the afternoon (I'd not witnessed that) which made something, no, everything (I couldn't have known this either) a little clearer. Arriving at the theatre, inflexibly punctual, two hours before curtain, Maryna had gone directly to her star's lair, been stripped to her chemise and corset and helped into a fur-lined robe and slippers by her dresser, Zofia, whom she dispatched to iron her costume in an adjoining room, had pushed the candles nearer both sides of the mirror, had leaned forward over the jumbled palette of already uncapped jars and vials of makeup for a closer scrutiny of that all too familiar mask, her real face, the actress's under-face, when behind her the door seemed to break open and in front of her, sharing the mirror, hurtling toward her, she saw her august rival's reddened, baleful face shouting the absurd insult, threw herself back in her chair, turned, glimpsed the arm descending just before an involuntary grimace of her own brought down her eyelids at the same instant it bared her upper teeth and shortened her nose, and felt the shove and sting of a large beringed hand against her face.

    It all happened so rapidly and noisily—her eyes stayed closed, the door banged shut—and the shadow-flecked room with its hissing gas jets had gone so silent now, it might have been a bad dream: she'd been having bad dreams. Maryna clapped her palm to her offended face.

    "Zofia? Zofia!"

    Sound ofthe door being opened softly. And some anxious babble from Bogdan. "What the devil did she want? If I hadn't been down the corridor with Jan, I would have stopped her, how dare she burst in on you like that!"

    "It's nothing," Maryna said, opening her eyes, dropping her hand. "Nothing." Meaning: the buzz of pain in her cheek. And the migraine now looming on the other side of her head, which she intended to keep at bay by a much-practiced exercise of will until the end of the evening. She bent forward to tie her hair in a towel, then stood and moved to the washstand, where she vigorously soaped and scrubbed her face and neck, and patted the skin dry with a soft cloth.

    "I knew all along she wouldn't—"

    "It's all right," said Maryna. Not to him. To Zofia, hesitating at the half-open door, holding the costume aloft in her outstretched arms.

    Waving her in, Bogdan shut the door a bit harder than he intended. Maryna stepped out of her robe and into the burgundy gown with gold braiding ("No, no, leave the back unbuttoned!"), rotated slowly once, twice, before the cheval glass, nodded to herself, sent Zofia away to repair the loose buckle on her shoe and heat the curling iron, then sat at the dressing table again.

    "What did Gabriela want?"



    She took a tuft of down and spread a thick layer of Pearl Powder on her face and throat.

    "She came by to wish me the best for tonight."


    "Quite generous of her, wouldn't you agree, since she'd thought the role was to be hers."

    "Very generous," he said. And, he thought, very unlike Gabriela.

    He watched as three times she redid the powder, applied the rouge with a hare's foot well up on her cheekbones and under her eyes and on her chin, and blackened her eyelids, and three times took it all off with a sponge.


    "Sometimes I think there's no point to any of this," she said tonelessly, starting again on her eyelids with the charcoal stick.


    She dipped a fine camel's-hair brush into the dish of burnt umber and traced a line under her lower eyelashes.

    It seemed to Bogdan she was using too much kohl, which made her beautiful eyes look sorrowful, or merely old. "Maryna, look at me!"

    "Dear Bogdan, I'm not going to look at you." She was dabbing more kohl on her brows. "And you're not going to listen to me. You should be inured by now to my attacks of nerves. Actor's nerves. A little worse than usual, but this is a first night. Don't pay any attention to me."

    As if that were possible! He bent over and touched his lips to the nape of her neck. "Maryna ..."


    "You remember that I've taken the room at the Saski for a few of us afterward to celebrate—"

    "Call Zofia for me, will you?" She had started to mix the henna.

    "Forgive me for bringing up a dinner while you're preparing for a performance. But it should be called off if you're feeling too ...

    "Don't," she murmured. She was blending a little Dutch pink and powdered antimony with the Prepared Whiting to powder her hands and arms. "Bogdan?"

    He didn't answer.

    "I'm looking forward to the party," she said and reached behind for a gloved hand to lay on her shoulder.

    "You're upset about something."

    "I'm upset about everything," she said dryly. "And you'll be so kind as to let me wallow in it. The old stager has need of a little stimulation to go on doing her best!"

       MARYNA DID NOT RELISH lying to Bogdan, the only person among all those who loved her, or claimed to love her, whom she did in fact trust. But 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.

    Sometimes one needs a real slap in the face to make what one is feeling real.

    When life cuffs you about, you say, That's life.

    You feel strong. You want to feel strong. The important thing is to go forward.

    As she had, single-mindedly, or almost: there had been much to ignore. But 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.

    Now you have an unexpected pain, around which the muffled feelings can crystallize.

    You have to float your ideals a little off the ground, to keep them from being profaned. And cut loose the misfortunes and insults, too, lest they take root and strangle your soul.

    Take the slap for what it was, a jealous rival's frantic comment on her impregnable success—that would have been something to share with Bogdan, and soon put out of mind. Take it as an emblem, a summons to respond to the whispery needs she'd been harboring for months—this would be worth keeping to herself, even cherishing. Yes, she would cherish poor Gabriela's slap. If that slap were a baby's smile, she would smile at the recollection of it, if it were a picture, she would have it framed and kept on her dressing table, if it were hair, she would order a wig made from it ... Oh I see, she thought, I'm going mad. Could it be as simple as that? She'd laughed to herself then, but saw with distaste that the hand applying henna to her lips was trembling. Misery is wrong, she said to herself, mine no less than Gabriela's, and she only wants what I have. Misery is always wrong.

    Crisis in the life of an actress. Acting was emulating other actors and then, to one's surprise (actually, not at all to one's surprise), finding oneself better than any of them were—including the pathetic bestower of that slap. Wasn't that enough? No. Not anymore.

    She had loved being an actress because the theatre seemed to her nothing less than the truth. A higher truth. Acting in a play, one of the great plays, you became better than you really were. You said only words that were sculpted, necessary, exalting. You always looked as beautiful as you could be, artifice assisting, at your age. Each of your movements had a large, generous meaning. You could feel yourself being improved by what was given to you, on the stage, to express. Now it would happen that, mid-course in a noble tirade by her beloved Shakespeare or Schiller or Slowacki, pivoting in her unwieldy costume, gesturing, declaiming, sensing the audience bend to her art, she felt no more than herself. The old self-transfiguring thrill was gone. Even stage fright—that jolt necessary to the true professional—had deserted her. Gabriela's slap woke her up. An hour later Maryna put on her wig and papier-mâché crown, gave one last look in the mirror, and went out to give a performance that even she could have admitted was, by her real standards for herself, not too bad.

    BOGDAN WAS so captivated by Maryna's majesty as she went to be executed that at the start of the ovation he was still rooted in the plush-covered chair at the front of his box, hands clenching the rail. Galvanized now, he slipped between his sister, the impresario from Vienna, Ryszard, and the other guests, and by the second curtain call had made his way backstage.

    "Mag-ni-fi-cent," he mouthed as she came off from the third curtain call to wait beside him in the wings for the volume of sound to warrant another return to the flower-strewn stage.

    "If you think so, I'm glad."

    "Listen to them!"

    "Them! What do they know if they've never seen anything better than me?"

    After she'd conceded four more curtain calls, Bogdan escorted her to the dressing-room door. She supposed she was starting to allow herself to feel pleased with her performance. But once inside, she let out a wordless wail and burst into tears.

    "Oh, Madame!" Zofia seemed about to weep, too.

    Stricken by the anguish on the girl's face and intending to comfort her, Maryna flung herself into Zofia's arms.

    "There, there," she murmured as Zofia held her tightly, then let go with one arm and delicately patted Maryna's crimped, stiffened mass of hair.

    Maryna released herself reluctantly from the girl's unwavering grip and met her stare fondly. "You have a good heart, Zofia."

    "I can't stand to see you sad, Madame."

    "I'm not sad, I'm ... Don't be sad for me."

    "Madame, I was in the wings almost the whole last act, and when you went to die, I never saw you die as good as that, you were so wonderful I just couldn't stop crying."

    "Then that's enough crying for both of us, isn't it?" Maryna started to laugh. "To work, you silly girl, to work. Why are we both dawdling?"

    Relieved of her regal costume and reclothed in the fur-lined robe. Maryna sponged off Mary Stuart's face and swiftly laid on the discreet mask suitable to the wife of Bogdan Dembowski. Zofia, sniffling a little ("Zofia, enough!"), stood behind her chair embracing the sage-green gown Maryna had chosen that afternoon to wear to the dinner Bogdan was giving at the Hotel Saski. She put the gown on slowly in front of the cheval glass, returned to the dressing table and undid the curls and brushed and rebrushed her hair, then piled it loosely on her head, looked closer into the mirror, added a little melted wax to her eyelashes, stood again, inspected herself once more, listening to the ascending din in the corridor, took several loud, rhythmical breaths, and opened the door to an enveloping wave of shouts and applause.

    Among the admirers well connected enough to be admitted backstage were some acquaintances but, except for Ryszard, clasping a bouquet of silk flowers to his broad chest, she saw no close friends: those invited to the party had been asked to go on ahead to the hotel. And more than a hundred people were waiting outside the stage door, despite the foul weather. Bogdan offered the shelter of his sword-umbrella with the ivory handle so she could linger for fifteen minutes under the falling snow, and she would have lingered another fifteen had he not waved away the more timid fans, their programs still unsigned, and shepherded Maryna through the crowd toward the waiting sleigh. Ryszard, finally pressing his bouquet into her hands, said the Saski was only seven streets away and that he preferred to walk.

    How strange, in her native city to be receiving friends in a hotel, but for the last five years—her talents having led her inexorably to the summit, an engagement for life at the Imperial Theatre in Warsaw—she no longer had an apartment in Kraków.

    "Strange," she said. To Bogdan, to no-one, to herself. Bogdan frowned.

    A thunderbolt, like the crack of gunfire, as they arrived at the hotel. A scream, no, only a shout: an angry coachman.

    They walked up the carpeted marble staircase.

    "You're all right?"

    "Of course I'm all right. It's only another entrance."

    "And I have the privilege of opening the door for you."

    Now it was Maryna's turn to frown.

    And how could there not be applause and beaming faces, customary welcome at a first-night party—but she really had given a splendid performance—as Bogdan opened the door (in answer to her "Bogdan, are you all right?" he had sighed and taken her hand) and she made her entrance. Piotr ran to her arms. She embraced Bogdan's sister and gave her Ryszard's silk flowers; she let herself be embraced by Krystyna, whose eyes had filled with tears. After the guests, gathering closely around her, had each paid tribute to her performance, she looked from face to face, and then sang out gleefully:

May you a better feast never behold,
You knot of mouth friends!

Upon which words everyone laughed, which means, I suppose (I had not arrived yet), that she said Timon's lines in Polish, not English, but also means that nobody except Maryna had read Timon of Athens, for the feast in the play is not a happy one, above all for its giver. Then the guests spread about the large room and began talking among themselves about her performance and, after that, about the larger question afoot (which is more or less when I arrived, chilled and eager to enter the story), while Maryna had forced herself toward humbler, less sardonic thoughts. No jealous rivals here. These were her friends, those who wished her well. Where was her gratitude? She hated her discontents. If I can have a new life, she was thinking, I shall never complain again.


    No answer.

    "Maryna, what's wrong?"

    "What could be wrong ... doctor?"

    He shook his head. "Oh, I see."


    "That's better."

    "I'm disturbing you."

    "Yes"—he smiled—"you disturb me, Maryna. But only in my dreams, never in my consulting room." Then, before she could rebuke him for flirting with her: "The splendors of your performance last night," he explained.

    He saw her still hesitating. "Come in"—he held out his hand—"Sit"—he waved at a tapestry-covered settee—"Talk to me." Two steps into the room, she leaned against a bookcase. "You're not going to sit?"

    "You sit. And I'll continue my walk ... here."

    "You came here on foot in this weather? Was that wise?"

    "Henryk, please!"

    He sat on the corner of his desk.

    She began to pace. "I thought I was coming here to besiege you with questions about Stefan, if he really—"

    "But I've told you," Henryk interrupted, "that the lungs already show a remarkable improvement. Against such a mighty enemy, the struggle waged by doctor and patient is bound to be long. But I think we're winning, your brother and I."

    "You talk rubbish, Henryk. Has anyone ever told you that?"

    "Maryna, what's the matter?"

    "Everyone talks rubbish "

    "Maryna ..."

    "Including me."

    "So"—he sighed—"it isn't Stefan you wanted to consult me about."

    She shook her head.

    "Then let me guess," he said, venturing a smile.

    "You're making fun of me, my old friend," Maryna said somberly. "Women's nerves, you're thinking. Or worse."

    "I?"—he slapped the desk—"I, your old friend, as you acknowledge, and I thank you for that, I not take my Maryna seriously?" He looked at her sharply. "What is it? Your headaches?"

    "No, it's not about"---she sat down abruptly—"me. I mean, my headaches."

    "I'm going to take your pulse," he said, standing over her. "You're flushed. I wouldn't be surprised if you had a touch of fever." After a moment of silence, while he held her wrist then gave it back to her, he looked again at her face. "No fever. You are in excellent health."

    "I told you there was nothing wrong."

    "Ah, that means you want to complain to me. Well, you shall find me the most patient of listeners. Complain, dear Maryna," he cried gaily. He didn't see the tears in her eyes. "Complain!"

    "Perhaps it is my brother, after all."

    "But I told you—"

    "Excuse me"---she'd stood—"I'm making a fool of myself."

    "Never! Please don't go." He rose to bar her way to the door. "You do have a fever."

    "You said I didn't."

    "The mind can get overheated, just like the body."

    "What do you think of the will, Henryk? The power of the will."

    "What sort of question is that?"

    "I mean, do you think one can do whatever one wants?"

    "You can do whatever you want, my dear. We are all your servants and abettors." He took her hand and inclined his head to kiss it.

    "Oh"—she pulled away her hand—"you disgusting man, don't flatter me!"

    He stared for a moment with a gentle, surprised expression. "Maryna, dear," he said soothingly. "Hasn't your experience taught you anything about how others respond to you?"

    "Experience is a passive teacher, Henryk."

    "But it—"

    "In paradise"—she bore down on him, her grey eyes glittering—"there will be no experiences. Only bliss. There we will be able to speak the truth to each other. Or not need to speak at all."

    "Since when have you believed in paradise? I envy you."

    "Always. Since I was a child. And the older I get, the more I believe in it, because paradise is something necessary."

    "You don't find it ... difficult to believe in paradise?"

    "Oh," she groaned, "the problem is not paradise. The problem is myself, my wretched self."

    "Spoken like the artist you are. Someone with your temperament will always—"

    "I knew you would say that!" She stamped her foot. "I order you. I implore you, don't speak of my temperament!"

    (Yes she had been ill. Her nerves. Yes she was still ill, all her friends except her doctor said among themselves.)

    "So you believe in paradise," he murmured placatingly.

    "Yes, and at the gates of paradise, I would say, Is this your paradise? These ethereal figures robed in white, drifting among the white clouds? Where can I sit? Where is the water?"

    "Maryna ..." Taking her by the hand, he led her back to the settee. "I'm going to pour you a dram of cognac. It will be good for both of us."

    "You drink too much, Henryk."

    "Here." He handed her one of the glasses and pulled a chair opposite her. "Isn't that better?"

    She sipped the cognac, then leaned back and gazed at him mutely.

    "What is it?"

    "I think I will die very soon, if I don't do something reckless ... grand. I thought I was dying last year, you know."

    "But you didn't."

    "Must one die to prove one's sincerity!"

    FROM A LETTER to nobody, that is, to herself:

    It's not because my brother, my beloved brother, is dying and I will have no one to revere ... it's not because my mother, our beloved mother, grates on my nerves, oh, how I wish I could stop her mouth ... it's not because I too am not a good mother (how could I be? I am an actress) ... it's not because my husband, who is not the father of my son, is so kind and will do whatever I want ... it's not because everyone applauds me, because they cannot imagine that I could be more vivid or different than I already am ... it's not because I am thirty-five now and because I live in an old country, and I don't want to be old (I do not intend to become my mother) ... it's not because some of the critics condescend, now I am being compared with younger actresses, while the ovations after each performance are no less thunderous (so what then is the meaning of applause?) ... it's not because I have been ill (my nerves) and had to stop performing for three months, only three months (I don't feel well when I am not working) ... it's not because I believe in paradise ... oh, and it's not because the police are still spying and making reports on me, though all those reckless statements and hopes are long past (my God, it's thirteen years since the Uprising) ... it's not for any of these reasons that I've decided to do something that nobody wants me to do, that everyone regards as folly, and that I want some of them to do with me, though they don't want to; even Bogdan, who always wants what I want (as he promised, when we married), doesn't really want to. But he must.

       "PERHAPS IT IS a curse to come from anywhere. The world, you see," she said, "is very large. I mean," she said, "the world comes in many parts. The world, like our poor Poland, can always be divided. And subdivided. You find yourself occupying a smaller and smaller space. Though you're at home in that space—"

    "On that stage," said the friend helpfully.

    "If you will," she said coolly. "That stage." Then she frowned. "Surely you're not reminding me that all the world's a stage?"

    "BUT HOW CAN you leave your place, which is here?"

    "My place, my place," she cried. "I have none!"

    "And you can't abandon your—"

    "Friends?" she hooted.

    "Actually, Irena and I were thinking of your public."

    "Who says I am abandoning my public? Will they forget me if I choose to absent myself? No. Will they welcome me back should I choose to return? Yes. As for my friends ..."


    "You can be sure I have no intention of abandoning my friends."

       "MY FRIENDS," she repeated, "are much more dangerous than my enemies. I'm thinking of their approval. Their expectations. They want me to be as I am, and I cannot disabuse them entirely. They might cease to love me.

    "I've explained it to them. But I could have announced it to them, like a whim. Recently, I thought I was ready to do it. At dinner in a hotel, the party after a first-night performance. I was going to raise my glass. I am leaving. Soon. Forever. Someone would have exclaimed, Oh Madame, how can you? And I'd have replied, I can, I can. But I didn't have the courage. Instead, I offered a toast to our poor dismembered country."


Meet the Author

Susan Sontag is the internationally acclaimed author of three novels, a volume of stories, and six collections of essays. In 1990 she received a five-year fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. She lives in New York City.

Susan Sontag was the author of four novels, including In America, which won the 2000 National Book Award for Fiction; a collection of stories; several plays; and seven works of nonfiction. She died in New York City on December 28, 2004.

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In America 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In America by Susan Sontag is a novel that at times can read more like a diary. The diary part comes after the first few pages of introduction. This area I found hard to read. There were no paragraphs, just one continuous entry. At certain times, it felt like I was getting no where with the novel. This area was also confusing in the fact that Sontag had her character making names for other characters. You would find her character saying, "Maryna or Helene" trying to figure out the names. This led to a bit of confusion when it came to the rest of the novel for me. Despite the introduction being a little dry, it is important that you pay attention to it. This introduction led to many discoveries towards the other characters through out the book. Susan Sontag is a writer that says, "Everything is about interpretation." In America is a great example of what she means. At many times, Sontag will connect life to her book. You have a depressed actress that isn't quite sure what she wants any more. Sontag leaves it up to you to figure out what she wants. Through out her novel, she uses dialogue which makes the scene to be interesting and yet have it move at a good pace. The dialogue also makes the book to seem as though you are part of it. Being in Maryna's conversation allows you to be close to each character. Despite the dry beginning, In America by Susan Sontag, allows for an imaginative exploration. The dialogue and diary type writing makes the details to come more naturally, and allow you to fondle them. In America is an easy read that has your mind soaring for answers.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1876, a group of Polish immigrants flee the Russian authorities that control their native land and establish a commune in Southern California. The person behind the journey is Poland¿s leading actress, Maryna Zalewska who has given up the stage to be with her husband and son IN AMERICA. She persuades several individuals and families to join her on her quest for freedom.

However, political and social freedom does not necessarily mean economic freedom. The commune fails, leaving its bankrupt members wary and disillusioned with their taste of freedom. Maryna, not one to sit around and mope, returns to the stage where she becomes the ¿American¿ rival to Sara Bernhardt. She wonders about her future IN AMERICA and the dreams that died with the collapse of the commune.

With novels like THE VOLCANO LOVER and IN AMERICA, Susan Sontag has become the novelist of choice for historiographers and anyone who enjoys a well-researched period piece. The story line is filled with the abject lessons of American history that is not covered in American classroom settings. Maryna is an intriguing character and her ability to adapt to circumstances is admirable. She fails to gain reader empathy because nothing really disturbs her except her own ennui. Fans who enjoy a well-written historical novel will find Ms. Sontag¿s tale enchanting and entertaining.

Harriet Klausner

Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading this book is like having someone snatch a particularly juicy feast out from under your nose before you've had the chance to enjoy it properly. 'In America' is a rich tale to savor, but slices of it are underdone and it comes to such an abrupt end that the reader is left wondering what happened to the final course. Starting the novel with an awkward Zero chapter--meant, I think, to better explain the characters--Susan Sontag tells of Maryna Zalezowska, the leading Polish actress of the 1870s, who comes to California to open a utopian commune near Anaheim. The commune quickly fails, and Zalezowska begins the task of reinventing herself as an American actress. She does this brilliantly, and begins a new career traveling across the United States in a private train car performing everything from Shakespeare to the 19th century's favorite sob-fest, 'East Lynne.' The sections on how an actress of that age learned and prepared roles, and the insight into nuts-and-bolts workings of 19th century American theater are marvelous, as are the stunning monologue chapters expressing the three main characters' internal and external struggles (the book ends with a devastating monologue by Edwin Booth that is one terrific piece of writing). On the other hand some of the characters are barely sketched and 'In America' simply ends. There's no resolution, no sense that the last page of the book should be the last page¿in fact, you'll probably turn that page expecting a concluding chapter. And you'll feel cheated. There's something mean about allowing readers such access to characters' minds and emotions and then chopping the narrative when there is obviously so much to come. Is it that Sontag can't sustain the narrative? The novel reads that way. It is hard to know how many stars to give 'In America.' I found much of it fascinating, but felt slighted by the lack of resolution. Yes, even though I know that the real-life model for Maryna, Helena Modjeska, had a long and successful career before retiring to the remote Southern California canyon that still bears her name, I feel robbed of the chance to follow her there, guided by Sontag's masterly hand.