In America: A Novel
by Susan Sontag
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux
432 pages, 2000
Buy it online
In America is Susan Sontag's kaleidoscopic portrait of America on the cusp of modernity. As she did in her enormously popular novel The Volcano Lover (1992), which recast the legendary love affair of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson in a fresh light, Sontag once again starts from a story located in the past to create a fictional world full of contemporary resonance.
In 1876 a group of Poles led by Maryna Zalezowska, Poland's greatest actress, emigrate to the United States and travel to California to found a "utopian" commune outside the village of Anaheim. Maryna, who has renounced her career for this venture, is accompanied by her small son and her husband, an aristocrat in revolt against his family. In her entourage is a rising young writer who is in love with her. Sontag's narrative shows us an exotic, still largely empty, up-for-grabs southern California, with European newcomers lording it over native Californians and Native Americans. When the commune fails and most of the émigrés return to Poland, Maryna stays, learns English and -- as Marina Zalenska -- forges a new, even more triumphant career on the American stage. A diva on a par with Sarah Bernhardt, Maryna soon forms her own company and crisscrosses the country in her private railroad car, year after year, eventually playing opposite Edwin Booth, the greatest American actor of the age.
In America is about many things: a woman's search for self-transformation; the fate of idealism; a life in the theatre; the many varieties of love; and, not least of all, stories and storytelling itself. Operatic in the scope and intensity of the emotions it depicts and peopled with unforgettable characters, In America is Susan Sontag's largest, most astonishing achievement.
It felt like, an escapade; like leaving home; like telling lies -- and she would tell many lies. She was beginning again; she was rejoining her destiny, which conferred on her the rich sensation that she had never gone astray.
Maryna arrived in the city in late June. Her skin had forgotten San Francisco's brisk maritime climate, she had let slip from her mind the noble bay and ocean views, fog permitting, from the top of the steep streets in the heart of the insouciantly planned city, but she recalled every detail of the wide, pillared entrance to the building below Nob Hill on which all her desires were trained.
Bogdan had arranged for Maryna to stay with old Captain Znaniecki and his wife. A respectable woman temporarily severed from her family would hardly want to live on her own. The Znanieckis had been chosen because they were kindly and protective, and because the Captain had married an American, so Maryna would not be speaking Polish all the time. Further, Znaniecki, a senior surveyor and title searcher with the Land Office, apparently knew everybody from members of the Bohemian Club to the governor of the state - and it would take concerted lobbying to secure an audition with the formidable Angus Barton, the California Theatre's manager in charge of the stage. The morning after her arrival, Maryna had walked over to Bush Street and slipped into the theatre. Like a gladiator whom bravado and fear have lured to the last row of the empty stadium the day before the game, high above the arena's neatly raked, un-bloodied sand, Maryna entered one of the boxes for a view of the red velvet curtain and the width of the peacefully darkened stage. But the stage was not dark: a rehearsal was under way. A tall, stooped man dressed in black had bounded from his seat in the tenth row and was rushing down the aisle: she wondered if he could be Barton. "Don't tell me you'll be 'all right' this evening," he shouted at one of the actors. "If there's anything I hate, it's that. If you're ever going to be 'all right,' you can be 'all right' now." Yes, that must be Barton.
The problem, as she confided in a letter to Henryk, was that she was rarely alone. Word of her arrival had spread (but how could she go anywhere in the world there were Poles and remain, incognito?) and everyone in San Francisco's Polish community wanted to be invited to meet her. It was difficult to stoke the banked fires of ambition and the fear of failure while being, lapped by the effusive adoration of her uprooted compatriots. And then in the evening only Polish was spoken, though Captain Znaniecki, a refugee from the wave of slaughter and arson incited by Metternich (and, horrifyingly, carried out by Polish peasants) which had decimated the liberal, insurrection-minded gentry and intelligentsia of the Austrian part of Poland thirty years earlier, was as engrossed by the politics of his adopted country as by the catastrophes that punctually befell his homeland. He called himself a Socialist - while telling Maryna he suspected that Socialism had little future here in America, where the admiration of the poor for the rich seemed even more unassailable than the fealty enjoyed by monarchs and priests in Europe - and took it on himself to elucidate for her the difference between the two American parties, but in the end Maryna understood little more than that the Republicans wanted a strong central government and the Democrats a loose, federal union of the states. She supposed these party matters must have been easier to grasp in antebellum times, before the slavery issue was settled, when no right-thinking person could have failed to be a Republican; it was unclear to her what Americans were quarreling about now. One evening Znaniecki invited her to hear "the Great Agnostic," Ralph Ingersoll, who was drawing huge crowds in San Francisco with his atheistic sermons. Maryna was impressed by the responsiveness of the audience.
She had interrupted the accumulations of approval that embolden a performer, with what consequences to her art Maryna had now to determine. I adore recklessness, she wrote to Henryk, and wondered if she was telling the truth.
She left the Znanieckis, secluding herself from her fawning compatriots in furnished rooms half a neighborhood away. By pawning all her jewels, none of them worth much in dollars, she would have enough to live on, very frugally, for two months. She required solitude to reconstruct the instincts, the technique, the dissatisfactions, and the taste for effrontery which had made her the actress she was. The art of walking, the effortlessly upright carriage and certainty of step, needed no refurbishing. The art of thinking only of herself, essential to true creation - that she could only recover alone.
Now there were only herself and this city, herself and her ambition, herself and the English language, this cruel master she would subdue and bend to her will.
"Will," said Miss Collingridge. "Not weel."
She had found Miss Collingridge by crossing the sloping wooden floor of her parlor and looking out the bow window, a volume of Shakespeare pressed to her bosom. Gazing dreamily into the street while reciting to herself from Antony and Cleopatra, she became aware that a short plump woman with corn-colored hair topped by a large straw hat was staring up at her. Involuntarily, Maryna smiled. The woman clapped her hand to her mouth, then took it away slowly; smiled; hesitated a moment; flung herself into a cartwheel (her cape went swirling); and walked on.
They met again a few days later, when Maryna had let herself out in the afternoon for a stroll in the Chinese quarter -- the apartment was a few blocks from Dupont Street -- after eight hours of studying and declaiming. She had turned into a lantern-hung alley, drawn by the sinuous racket of music and voices shrilling over the gilded balconies of teahouses; through the open doors of the shops adorned with pennant flags beckoned a bright disorder of carved ivories, red lacquer trays, agate perfume bottles, teakwood tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, sandalwood boxes, umbrellas of waxed paper, and paintings of mountain peaks. Sauntering beside her among the faster-gaited coolies in blue cotton tunics were several gentlemen in lavender brocade coats and puffed silk trousers, their long queues braided with strands of cherry-red silk, and coming very slowly behind her -- Maryna stepped aside to admire them -- two women with beautiful sleek heads and jade bracelets falling over their hands, each leaning on an attendant maid; her gaze dropped casually below the hem of their sumptuous robes to the three-inch-long stumps shod in gold-embroidered silk, and before she could remind herself that she'd once read about the custom in prosperous Chinese families of breaking the bones of their small daughters' feet and keeping the toes tied back against the heels until the girls were fully grown, her stomach heaved and her mouth filled with acrid phlegm. The shock had gone straight to her innards.
"Are you ill? Shall I run for a doctor?" Someone was at her side as she held back a faint. It was the young woman whose eyes she had met from her window the other day.
"Oh, it's you again," said Maryna wanly. Struggling to contain another surge of nausea, she smiled to see the galvanizing effect this greeting had on her rescuer, who darted into a shop and emerged with a fan of white feathers, which she waved energetically at Maryna's face.
"I'm not ill," said Maryna. "It's that I just saw two Chinese ladies who- two women with-"
"Oh, the little-foot women. It gave my stomach a turn too, the first one I saw."
"How kind of you to-- very kind," said Maryna. "I'm quite recovered now."
By the time the young woman had walked her home, each had learned all she needed to know about the other to feel they were destined to be friends. Why should I have been looking out the window at that exact moment, she wrote Henryk. And why should I have smiled at her? There is something a little romantic about it. And I had not yet heard her silky contralto or her admirable enunciation! Well, there it is, dear friend. The first coup de foudre I have experienced after a whole year in America is for a bossy, hoydenish girl who wears silly hats and shapeless serge capes and tells me that she keeps, for a household pet, a full-grown young pig. But you already know how I can be seduced by a mellifluous voice.
Maryna's new friend had commended her mastery of English vocabulary and grammar, and ventured to say that this was a disinterested, professional judgment. Miss Collingridge - Mildred, she said shyly, Mildred Collingridge - was a speech teacher. She gave elocution lessons to the rich wives in the new mansions on Nob Hill.
Maryna had told her that she had given herself two months, no more, to prepare for the audition. She would show this Mr. Barton what she could do.
"Mister," said Miss Collingridge. "Not meester."
Diving into Maryna's employ for the pittance gratefully offered (Maryna could not afford a penny more), she came each morning at eight o'clock to Maryna's lodgings to work with her on the roles she was relearning in English. Seated side by side at a gate-leg table near the parlor window, they went at the lines a word at a time, and, when vowels had been hammered and consonants chiseled and an entire passage polished to the satisfaction of both, Maryna marked her play script for pauses, stresses, breathing marks, aids to pronunciation. Then she would rise and pace and declaim, with Miss Collingridge remaining at the table and reading (in the flattest of tones, as Maryna had instructed her) the other roles. It was never her tutor who ended their long days together: Maryna had found a partner in work as tireless as herself. But sometimes, at Maryna's insistence, they would break for a stroll. Maryna had not realized, while she was letting herself be pacified by rural austerities, how much she had missed the pulse and perfume of city life.
"City," said Miss Collingridge. "Not ci-ty."
Captain Znaniecki came often in the early evening to bring covered platters of the good Polish dishes he had taught his wife to cook and to see how Maryna was getting along, and when she told him about Miss Collingridge, he said: "Dear Madame Maryna, you don't need any professor. Pronounce the words just as they are written, as you would pronounce them in Polish -- that's more than good enough, and you'll only spoil the shape of your mouth or harden your voice trying to make impossible or harsh sounds. And above all, don't try to pronounce the t-h as they do, for you'll never manage it. Plain t or d are far more pleasant to the ear than their lisping th - and besides, I assure you, Americans are charmed by foreign accents. The worse they think your accent, the better they'll like you."
He had said she could never learn to pronounce English correctly. What if he was right? She would become a sort of freak, to be applauded because she was ridiculous rather than wonderful. How then could she ever represent something ideal as an artist? But she would not do what he advised.
Over and over she practiced the infernal th - impossible to place her tongue so as to form the sound without first halting the flow of a phrase. Perhaps one needs a pair of American dentures, she joked with Miss Collingridge. She had seen a large sign at the corner of Sutter and Stockton: DR. BLAKE'S INDESTRUCTIBLE TEETH.
"Teeth," said Miss Collingridge. "Not teece."
Each word was like a small, oddly shaped parcel in her mouth. Theatre, thespian, therefore, throughout, thorough, Thursday, think, thought, thorny, threadbare, thicket, throb, throng, throw, thrash, thrive ... That, that, that. This, this, this. There, there, there.
Besides Miss Collingridge the only person Maryna had seen gladly in the first weeks in San Francisco was Ryszard. But in the end she had to send him away.
Ryszard had left Anaheim before she went north. He had been waiting for her when she arrived. On the Fourth of July, they listened to vehement oratory and music and watched the parading and the fireworks and the firemen rushing by in their red wagons to put out the many fires. Another day they hired a four-wheeled stanhope for an afternoon's drive along the ocean shore. She felt drawn to him. They held hands. Their hands were damp. She felt happy, and surely that was part of being in love. She was no longer the head of a clan, temporarily neither a wife nor even a mother - not responsible for others; free to act solely for herself. (Had she ever done that?) But having for a time forgone both husband and child, did she want to assume the obligations of a lover?
All she wanted was to think about the roles she was preparing.
Ryszard suggested they go to the theatre. "Not yet," she said. "I don't want to be influenced by anything I see here and think, Oh, this is what an American actor does, or what an American audience applauds. To find what is deepest in my own talent I have to look for everything within myself."
Ryszard was enchanted to see her molting back into the imperious artist. "It has never occurred to me," he said humbly, admiringly, "to suppose I should do without the inspiration to be found in the books of other writers."
"Oh, dear Ryszard, don't apply what I say to yourself," she said grandly, tenderly. "I must be concentrated. It's the only way I know how to be."
"It is your genius," he said.
"Or my handicap." She smiled. "I'll admit that I miss going to the theatre."
The next evening Ryszard took a box at the China Theatre, on Jackson Street, a bluntly colored two-story building with a tiled roof upturned at the corners. After the first clang of gongs and cymbals from the shirtsleeved orchestra at the rear of the stage, as one, two, three, eventually some twenty brightly encumbered actors surged into view through a flap of cloth on the left and began shouting in falsetto voices at one another, Maryna tugged at Ryszard's jacket like a child. Then something transpired, some lurch of story, for suddenly six of the actors dashed away through the opening, similarly draped, on the right.
"Brilliant, isn't it?" said Ryszard. "No entrances and exits to decide - actors always come on at a trot from the left and go off at the same velocity on the right. No character to construct out of one's inner resources that one is a man of valor because he has painted a white mask on his face and that one a cruel man because he has painted his face red. No concealment of the mechanics of spectacle -- when a property is needed, someone brings it on the stage and hands it to the actor; when a costume needs adjusting, the actor stands a little apart from the others and the dresser arrives to fix the costume. No-" Why am I chattering like this, Ryszard admonished himself, when she can see everything I'm seeing, and more?
At the tumblers and the pasteboard lions and dragons Maryna clapped her hands gleefully. "I could sit here all night," she exclaimed, she exaggerated. "I want it to go on forever." Ah, said Ryszard to himself, it's still all right.
The next morning Miss Collingridge was taking her pig, stricken with a stomach ailment, to a veterinarian; she'd told Maryna she might not arrive for their work together until the late afternoon. Seizing on the time freed by this happy misfortune to propose, exceptionally, a daytime excursion, Ryszard came to fetch Maryna for a ferry ride around the Bay with a stop in Golden Gate Park. She was still thinking, she told him, about the glorious artifice of last night's entertainment.
"There is another Chinese theatre here I wish I could show you," said Ryszard. "But it has only a pit with benches and standing places, there are no boxes for ladies, and the night I went it was packed and the stuffiness and heat were unbearable, the audience numbering, besides Chinese men, quite a few louts and, as I can testify, pickpockets. The interest of the experience (no, I lost only two dollars and my handkerchief) is that they do neither opera nor circus. The stage is much smaller than where we were last night, so I was prepared to see a simpler pageant. You know, one of those plays in which the sun emerges, followed by a dragon, the dragon tries to swallow the sun, the sun resists, the dragon flees, and then the sun performs a dance of victory, which is rapturously acclaimed by the audience. Not at all Loin de cela! To my surprise, everything was quite compatible with reality."
"I should like to know what you mean, dear Ryszard, by reality."
"First of all," said Ryszard, "the plot of the drama I saw. Of course I didn't understand a word of what was said, but the story seemed clear. It concerned a writer who was hopelessly in love, well perhaps not altogether hopelessly, with a beautiful lady much wealthier than himself."
"And married, no doubt."
"Happily, not. No, the lady was quite free, except for the impediment of their difference of fortune, to return the writer's love."
"Ryszard"-Maryna laughed-"you are making this up."
"No, I swear I'm not."
"And did she give herself to the impecunious writer?"
"Ah, that's what made the drama I saw that evening so much like life. The actors walked back and forth, arguing with one another, some even jumped up and down, but in the end there was neither a marriage nor a funeral. Apparently, to the logical Chinese mind, it makes no sense for a story that unfolds over several months -- even years of its protagonists' lives to be represented in one evening. No, a play ought to last as many months or years as the story it tells. Whoever wishes to follow, let him come again."
"And how do you -- I'm asking the writer -- how do you think the play ends, when it does end?"
"I think that, since in China events occur which according to our conceptions are exceedingly improbable, the lady will bestow her love on the penniless writer."
"However," he continued, "the laws of dramatic suspense require that the courtship take a very long time."
"Are you sure? Perhaps you're being pessimistic."
"It's a month since I saw my episode. I presume that the enamored writer has not yet succeeded in winning the hand of the comely 'Flower of Tea'-"
"But he may have already won over several influential relatives who have promised to plead his suit." He smiled gravely. "You see how patient I am."
"Ryszard, I want you to go somewhere else while I prepare for the audition."
"You are sending me away," he groaned.
"For how long? Is it like the Chinese play? Weeks? Months?"
"Until I summon you. If I'm successful, I shall welcome you back."
"And then what happens?"
"Ah, you want to know the end," she cried. "You cannot be both a character in the play and its author. No, you must wait in suspense. As I do."
"What suspense? How can you fail?"
"I can fail," she said solemnly.
"If Barton turns you down, he's an idiot and doesn't deserve to live. I shall come back and kill him."
She repeated this to Miss Collingridge, expecting to make the young woman laugh.
"Idiot," said Miss Collingridge. "Not eediot And kill, not keel."
"Miss Collingridge predicts," she told Ryszard, "that it is my destiny to be loved by the fair sex." Ignoring Ryszard's grimace, Maryna went on: "And you should be happy about that. For so far, I must tell you, no Yankee has yet looked me over, none has paid me a compliment. But since, if one is to believe the saying here, a woman's will is God's will, I am content."
A few days later Ryszard left the city, choosing to stay away from Maryna in the company of a pair of elderly Polish émigrés, veterans of the 1830 Uprising against Russia, who lived in Sebastopol, a village about forty miles north of San Francisco. It is perfect here for writing, he told her in his first letter, for I have absolutely nothing else to do; the two old soldiers will not let me meddle with the household chores. I am writing many things, he told her in his next letter, among them a play for you, which, as you needn't remind me, I once promised, oh it seems long ago, I would never attempt. On some mornings, rereading it at my table, I think it quite splendid. Will you think so, too? Maryna, my Maryna, comely Flower of My Heart, I count on your covering the poverty of my play with your royal cloak.
She wrote him, asking his advice about what she should propose to Barton for her opening vehicle. She would much rather do Shakespeare (Juliet or Ophelia) but thought it wiser to start with a play whose original language was not English: her accent would grate less. Camille, perhaps. Better still, Adrienne Lecouvreur; playing an actress, at the worst she would appear to be ... an actress. The play was popular on American stages and a favorite with visiting European stars, starting with Rachel herself, who had opened her only American tour with it in New York twenty years ago.
Camille, wrote Ryszard. It is a much better play. If you'll permit me, I've always thought Adrienne Lecouvreur rather maudlin and shrill. You must know that, Maryna, no matter how much you relish the part. I will confess that the ending leaves me quite dry-eyed, except when you do it. And that's because, etc., etc.
She asked Bogdan's opinion, too. Adrienne Lecouvreur, replied Bogdan. Definitely Adrienne. His letters from Anaheim were always laconic. They contained reassuring news about Peter, discouraging news about efforts to sell the farm, but little of Bogdan's own state of mind. She was grateful that he never made her feel uneasy about leaving him with the child. She would send for Peter and Aniela soon -- as soon as she'd had the audition. She had to devote all her time to preparing. She needed to be entirely single-minded. She wanted to experience herself as completely alone. It occurred to her that she might never be alone again. | March 2000
Copyright © 2000 Susan Sontag
SUSAN SONTAG is the author of three other novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, and The Volcano Lover; I, etcetera, a collection of stories; several plays, including Alice in Bed;and five works of non-fiction, among them On Photography and Illness As Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors. She lives in New York City.