Susan Sontag's 'In America': artfulness and scholarship

On Books

March 05, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Susan Sontag is one of the most interesting minds in America. I first became aware of her by reading her still often-anthologized essay, "Notes on Camp," published in 1964 in Partisan Review. It created a stir among my chattier friends, who recommended it. It brilliantly made clear the concept of the then-burgeoning mockery of seriousness. (Think pink flamingos.)

The analytic discipline and the precision of expression in that piece launched the term "camp" into the common vocabulary. It began to convince me that Sontag was one of those rare talents who combine the creative insight of the artist and the comprehensive perspective of the scholar at their best.

That was more than 30 years ago. I was relatively inexperienced, but I was not easily impressed. Nothing I have read of hers since has dissuaded me.

She has done many other essays. Often, I have not agreed with her, have been unpersuaded by her reasoning. But that reasoning, so far as I can remember, has always been clean, clear, accessible.

She wrote a lot on Vietnam -- an early protester, she went to Hanoi when that was very bad manners -- on pornography, fascism, photography. She has opened many windows into America and the world through popular culture.

She was struck with cancer in 1977 and wrote a powerful and important book, "Illness As Metaphor," and then, in 1991, a sort of sequel, with political dynamics, "AIDS and Its Metaphors." She has done four novels.

She has travelled the world, especially to observe war, which she does not like. She has written and directed four full-length films, and has directed plays.

Her last book was "The Volcano Lover," a title that refers to Sir William Hamilton, who adored volcanoes and whose wife, Emma, was the lover of Admiral Horatio Nelson. The book draws on and redraws history in Napoleon's world.

Now comes "In America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 387 pages, $26). It also could be characterized as a historical novel -- though it has nothing in common with the vast majority of the contrivances that carry that genre designation.

At the heart of the novel is an intense, brilliant actress who is troubled and a paradise-seeker. The character and events are drawn also from history -- the life of Helena Modzejewska, Poland's top actress in the late 1800s; but the bulk of the action is fiction.

Sontag's fictional substitute is Maryna Zalezowska She is developed slowly and very artfully -- with conversations, in letters to herself, through the eyes of others. She is married to an adoring husband, surrounded by men who are almost universally in love with her, financially comfortable and widely admired by a huge public.

In May of 1876, she is 35 and "at the pinnacle of her glory." But, after intense reflection, she yearns for a more profound meaning. She cancels the rest of the season in Poland. It is a time of high hope in modernity, the onset of acceptance of Darwin. Maryna follows the rambling teachings of Charles Fourier, a utopian sage.

She decides to emigrate to America, drawing her husband, her son, her aspiring lover and others with her. They establish a utopian model farm in California. Through a playing out of incompetence, failure of zeal and wrong-headedness, the project fails.

By the end of the story, she has adopted the name of Marina Zalenska and has become, in words attributed to Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, "the greatest actress in the English-speaking world ... A Pole with an accent" -- but an accent that is a key to her charm.

She has also become completely self-indulgent, a mockery of virtually everything that is meant by integrity.

The final chapter is a monologue by Edwin Booth seductively addressed to Marina/Maryna, a sort of bitterly ironic preening prattle about the promises and miseries of the world -- much of it through the familiar images of Shakespearian characters.

It is a tour de force of theatrical passion, concision, rancor -- and the failed hope of joy and of genuineness. On finishing that 18-page exhortation, and thus the book, I felt almost compelled to cancel the next two or three days' duties and to go back to page one and slowly reread the book straight through.

What's the book about? What's any serious novel about? Truth, of course, about what motivates or enables men and women to navigate through life. About the ironies that abound in the confict between life's simplicity and its complexity.

In choosing a European prism through which to explore what could be seen as the essence of America, Sontag took great risk. The over-honored cliche (most often thrown at Henry James's gravestone) is that European culture is old and thus exhausted, all-enduring and thus corrupt; and that American culture is young and unthinking, brash and finally rather stupid -- but innocent and decent.

Sontag takes that cliche and puts it through an unrelenting series of inversions. America is celebrated. The severe limits of European societies are laid bare as unpromising, while America runs over with promise. Yet, in America, Maryna, the supremely innocent immigrant, becomes Marina, a creature bereft of personal integrity. Is this America at work on an innocent European or the weaknesses of Europe emerging in American light?

Reading this book convinces me, once again, that Sontag is one of the most interesting minds in the generation we more or less share -- analytic, daring, inventive and profoundly moral.

She is wiser than she was 36 years ago, surer of her craft. "In America" is a magical accomplishment by an alchemist of ideas and words, images and truth. Read it.

Pub Date: 03/05/00

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