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For You O Democracy

I

Susan Sontag’s new novel is a brilliant and profound investigation into the fate of thought and culture in America. Like her last novel, “The Volcano Lover,” “In America” masquerades as historical fiction, flaunting the stuff of drama and romance. It is something restless, hybrid, disturbing, original.

At its center is a true story. As Sontag tells us in a prefatory statement, she was inspired by “the emigration to America in 1876 of Helena Modrzejewska, Poland’s most celebrated actress, accompanied by her husband Count Karol Chiapowski, her fifteen-year-old son Rudolf, the young journalist and future author of ‘Quo Vadis’ Henryk Sienkiewicz, and a few friends; their brief sojourn in Anaheim, California; and Modrzejewska’s subsequent triumphant career on the American stage under the name of Helena Modjeska.” Sontag goes on to explain that most of the characters in the novl “are invented, and those who are not depart in radical ways from their real-life models.”

“In America” is a picaresque fable, a historical tragicomedy. The story revolves around a Polish actress, Maryna Zalezowska. More than an actress, she is a national symbol for the triply besieged and conquered Poland, a symbol of patriotism, of seriousness, of achievement on a grand scale in the arts. She is dissatisfied, restless; her brother has died; rival actresses are producing travesties of her work. She decides to surrender, to give up the stage and move to California where she will toil with her comrades on a commune in Anaheim founded on the utopian principles of Charles Fourier. There they discover they have neither the radical ideals nor the practical abilities to maintain a communal farm. They go into debt and disperse. Maryna Zalezowska returns to the stage renamed Marina Zaleska. She tours America, performing in English, and in the process of winning national and even international recognition, she betrays her loves and her artistic beliefs. The book is a melancholic comedy about the defeat of every kind of integrity. In America, Maryna goes from being what Sontag calls “an orphaned talent” to being what Maryna herself calls “a monster.” She becomes a cultured freak, an emotionally overwrought publicity whore: a very American type.

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But here are the book’s genius and originality. We see Maryna through carefully selected lenses: her own moody self-adoring monologues and arias, the diaries of Bogdan, her patient husband (who, like the husbands of other divas, uses his marriage as a blind for his mostly resisted attraction to boys) and the letters and effusions of Ryszard, her young and besotted would-be lover. Add to these a Polish citizenry mourning the loss of its revered national symbol and a claque of young actors and older impresarios whose well-being depends on keeping brilliant Maryna’s self-absorption well-flattered and under control. No one in this book has the freedom to tell Maryna who she is, what she is becoming or what is actually happening to her.

To put it more precisely: Only two characters can break through Maryna’s lacquered self-deception. One is Susan Sontag, who has an opening monologue and narrates sections of the book. She is “outside” the tale and cannot speak directly to Maryna. The other is Edwin Booth, the great tragedian, brother of John Wilkes Booth, who makes his appearance in the final monologue. He confronts Maryna with terrifying directness, and she asks him to stop--and the novel ends.

In their monologues, Sontag and Booth are pitiless, anti-sentimental, truth-telling. They stand at a remove from the deceit and vulgarity growing at the heart of the novel, embodied by Maryna’s passion for lying and display, her willingness to flatter, conciliate and compromise. Willing to sacrifice everything, even her art, for success, Maryna thinks that she is learning how to live in America, that she is learning the lessons of the dawning of America’s celebrity culture.

Sontag’s monologue, “Chapter Zero,” which begins with a description of a dream in which she enters, like Alice into the Looking Glass, the world of this novel, stands outside the novel, presenting in small compass the themes, the dislocations, the recreations of the novel in full. Read it carefully, for this chapter, a single 25-page paragraph, shows what prose can achieve in our time. It is a model of the modern split sensibility achieving what integration it can with the past. Not the broken fragments of a modernist text but rather the unfailing and beautiful glide of a long take, it is a prose style that sees consciousness as continuous with what it observes. Sontag has achieved this style over time, from such short fictions as “Description (of a Description)” and “The Letter Scene,” an exploration of the effect, but not the content, of the classical operatic letter aria. Inspired by a passage from one of Kafka’s blue octavo diary notebooks and by Michael Silverblatt is the host of Bookworm, a weekly radio feature of KCRW-FM (89.9) that is syndicated nationally.

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the eerie first-person obsessional novels of Thomas Bernhard, Sontag has arrived in her new novel at a supple, dream-waltz prose that can look at the world and look at itself looking. Here is a sentence in the form of a cascade; there, one, that opens like a fan. The result is elegant and vertiginous.

The image for best apprehending the book is one Sontag herself has suggested (in a recent interview in Bookforum): “a Scheherazade Rubik’s cube.” It is only after you have reconfigured the surfaces, bringing the various facets of the novel together onto the correct planes, that you see that the major characters suffer four distinct American fates.

Ryszard, who rejects America, begins his life again and again, marrying and remarrying, waiting for a jump-start. Bogdan disappears into America, into a peculiar American anonymity: He is freed to follow his sexual yearnings but rejects his freedom, choosing to remain the stage husband, Maryna’s consoler and keeper. Booth, the novel’s darkest figure, flickers memorably in its final chapter--morose, alcoholic, broken but uncompromised, an American tragedy. Maryna, poor Maryna, deserts her art and her loves and remains untouchable, martyred by her bottomless will and talent for self-reinvention. Maryna succeeds, but she becomes inured to a life without satisfaction. She ends up lonely, humbled, ludicrous.

Along the way, we encounter a regular circus bill of attractions and thrilling sideshows: the theater world of besieged Poland; transatlantic voyages; child prostitutes on shipboard and a chance encounter with a writer in a Manhattan bordello; romance in the California desert moonlight; homosexual yearnings; transcontinental train rides; the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia; a love triangle; an attempted suicide; silver mines; opening nights; productions of “Camille,” “As You Like It,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Doll’s House”; the saloon of Minnie, the girl of the Golden West; the hard-bitten story of an itinerant lady photographer’s romance with light; a cameo appearance by Henry James; tale telling and debates about narrative. In other words, 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.

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But though Sontag masters the amusing clockwork trains and trick miniature effects of historical travelogue, she is after something more than showmanship: Showmanship, P.T. Barnum-style, is in fact what American culture uses to conceal what occurs backstage, the vast arena where classically trained actresses are turned into divas, where plays become spectacles and where ideas become entertainment.

It is here that Sontag lets us see Maryna without the filters and lenses of adoring friends, lovers and countrymen. Sontag pours everything she knows about being an artist, an actress, an activist, a diva into this character. Maryna is a flood of uncertainties, resolutions, anguishes resolved by will, manipulations, intensities. She intrigues; she flirts. She accepts the protection of the wife of an occupying Russian official when her production of “Hamlet” is endangered, hardly the action of a Polish patriot. She is indomitable but easy to flatter. She is often inflexibly wrong but passionately convincing. She ages before our eyes and loses her beauty, but she will still play Juliet. She will go on shopping sprees, and she will tour week after week, spending only a day in an American nowhere before moving on to the next engagement. Sontag gives us a convincing portrait of an artist who is losing her way, and it would be a pity if all the structural brilliance that surrounds her were to distract readers from her imperious, self-dramatizing and fallible character.

II

What do the Poles learn in America? They learn the usefulness of a happy ending. Here’s how:

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Anaheim is visited by the traveling Stappenbeck Circus from Los Angeles. And the commune is visited by an obese Polish kleptomaniac from San Francisco. Each visit brings a transgression: A lynch mob forms after the circus; the fatso steals Maryna’s jewels (and much more). One cannot trust visitors; even one’s own countrymen are treacherous.

This truth is too painful and impolite; it necessitates that most American of alterations: the happy ending, kissing cousin of the American success story. Writing about the circus, Ryszard, the young Polish novelist, decides to alter reality. He lets the escaped lovers elude the lynch mob and sends them to hidden bliss in a romantic cave. And Maryna refuses to mourn her stolen jewels: There must be a lesson and a moral. “One should be ready to part with anything,” she says. Loss and violence give rise to the instinct for transcendence, the American happy ending.

And if success requires a happy ending, then beginnings must be altered as well; the means must justify the end. Everything must be renamed: the names of plays, of people, of towns. Why? To fool the censor, to entice the public, to make things more exotic--and less foreign--to facilitate the myth of the “new beginning.” Immigrant children like Piotr, Maryna’s son, want to become Peter to be more like other American children.

Even the strongman of the Stappenbeck Circus, the child of a Cahuilla squaw, changes his name. “His real name U-wa-ka died with his mother; in the village and the foothills he was known as Big Neck.” In the circus he gets a circus name, Zambo, the American Hercules. How different is this from the fate of Maryna Zalezowska, who becomes Marina Zalenska, “Countess Zalenska of the Russian Imperial Theater, Warsaw”? She, too, has been given “a circus name.” Unfortunate inconveniences, which she is willing to overlook: that the Russians were the Poles’ oppressors, that Marina is the Russian spelling of Maryna and that Maryna is not, and has never been, a countess (the title belongs to her husband).

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It is not long before this search for “the enhancing falsehood"--the happy ending--affects the artistic impulses as well. On tour, after abandoning Anaheim in debt, Marina Zalenska will ultimately take on something ambitious, a production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” But as vultures devour a corpse, American concerns descend en masse. The title must be changed: What if people should think it is a play for children? The character’s name must be changed: Nora might be an American name and no American woman would behave so perfidiously as to abandon husband and children. Why not call her Thora? It sounds more Scandinavian and, just to be safe, give it a happy ending: “Nora--no, Thora!--will think of leaving. But won’t. Will forgive her husband. Should it go well here, we can restore the real ending when we bring it to New York.” Ibsen’s “Thora,” with Marina Zalenska in the title role, has its only performance in Louisville, Ky. “Reviewers irate, even with the happy ending. Just as I feared. Offense to Christian morals and the American family.”

Marina retitles “Romeo and Juliet”; she tours in something called “Juliet”; after all, isn’t she the main attraction? She thereafter becomes a specialist in tear-jerking dramas like “East Lynne” and “Frou-Frou”; her job is to provoke tears and command attention. “In Poland, you were allowed some practice of the arts of self-indulgence, but you were expected to be sincere and also to have high ideals--people respected you for that. In America, you were expected to exhibit the confusions of inner vehemence, to express opinions no one need take seriously, and have eccentric foibles and extravagant needs, which exhibited the force of your will, your appetitiveness, the spread of your self-regard--all excellent things.”

III

Why, at this hour of the world, a historical novel built out of letters, diaries, compacted facts? Is this a conservative, traditional novel? If one defines modernism as the set of energies inscribed in the work of Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, Pound, Eliot--a belief that the world can be seen only in fragments and that these fragments cannot be reassembled, that the world is in ruins--then Sontag owes much more to Proust, to the belief that the past can be recaptured and that this recaptured past includes eruptions, dissolution and breakage.

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In this way, Sontag’s earlier historical novel, “The Volcano Lover,” and her new one, “In America,” attempt to reroute the novel away from further fragmentation. Sontag’s stance is one of abject mourning for the tragedies of the past and for what these tragedies have done to our culture and our ideas about art. By means of this acceptance, she has found a way to connect the modern novel to the great monuments of the past, the works of Stendhal, Tolstoy, George Eliot. She embarks upon a journey of construction--the novel is composed as a succession of microstructures--and arrives at a new use of tradition, one that seemed unavailable to the postmodernist sensibility. She is giving us, in fiction, the history of the loss that led to irony and fragmentation, the death of so much that could formerly be called culture, and she bravely attempts a journey beyond that loss.

Sontag has managed to structure a paradox--call it hopeful inconsolability or optimistic pessimism--a belief that the destruction of our ideals and our long-lost innocence can still be narrated, that there is still a story to be told about us and about how we came to be the way we are or to see, as the title of one of her past stories has it (borrowing from Anthony Trollope), the seeds of the past in “The Way We Live Now.”


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