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The New Republic Online
Thursday, July 26th, 2001


In America

by Susan Sontag

The Palpable Past-Intimate

A review by James Woods

Is it still possible to write the historical novel? There would seem to be powerful arguments, and powerful modern instances, against it. First, it is the least innocent of forms in an all-too-knowing age; one might say, paradoxically, that at this late stage it represents the novel at its most complacently alienated from itself. This has primarily to do with the pace of historical change in the last century. It is true that War and Peace is an historical novel, but rather as "The Prelude" is an historical poem. Tolstoy felt confident about reaching back sixty or so years from his age to the Napoleonic wars, because he was so sure that nothing essential had changed that he could proceed to write what was, in effect, a contemporary novel.

But there is now a large gulf between, say, the beginning of this century and the beginning of the last, and into this breach may run our quivering self-consciousness. For nowadays we know how acute our historical separateness is, and it is this knowledge that is so dangerous to the unthinking freedom of fiction. It is this knowledge that lends a certain desperate quality to the detail that writers of historical fiction choose to mention. Of course, they do not really choose their detail; it chooses them. If a writer is painting London or New York in 1900, we must be told about coachmen and dandies with canes, or 1900 will not have been evoked. And the characters in historical fiction – especially the minor characters – are not free either, for they are continually being forced to say things like, "Have you seen The Tramp yet?", just so that we know that it is 1915. Such characters can end up sounding like the paradoxical mathematician described by Plato, who, when counting numbers that he must already know, "sets out to learn from himself anew something he must already be familiar with."

This is one reason why the historical novel may nowadays be merely science-fiction facing backwards, with the same crudities of detail. Without the ability to move freely, detail is converted from the accidental into the determined, and the book may become stagy, and essentially unliterary. It may also become essentially unhistorical, for if a great deal of time is being wasted on the confirmation of the past, then history is being confirmed in its crudest particulars, rather than challenged or even explored. All these large alienations drive the historical novel away from what Henry James, in the letter to Sarah Orne Jewett in which he condemned the historical novel, called "the palpable present-intimate."

Alessandro Manzoni, who wrote the historical novel The Betrothed in 1827, argued against the historical novel, surprisingly enough, in his essay "On The Historical Novel." Always a great believer in the science of historical inquiry, Manzoni felt that the historical novel could not succeed because it mixed the literary (what he called "the verisimilar") with actual, historical fact (what he called "positive truth"). He argued that this blending of history and invention mangled both modes of writing, and robbed the historical novel of any purity of purpose: "the historical novel is a work in which the necessary turns out to be impossible...it does not have a logical purpose of its own."

And yet Manzoni wrote a great historical novel. He reconciled what he saw as the lumpy disjunction of the historical and the invented by combining standard novelistic (or invented) narration with historically aware essayism – by refusing to leave alone his own fictional detail, but often pointing readers towards its actual historical status. In other words, he was self-conscious about his selfconsciousness. This was a liberty for Manzoni, but it may be the only possible way to write historical fiction now. It is the method that Susan Sontag adopts in her historical novel In America, and alongside other techniques and contexts, it more than saves her novel from the confident awkwardness of the genre.

Sontag's novel tells the story of a group of educated and adventurous Poles, led by a great actress already famous in her homeland, who leave Poland for America in the 1870s, and settle briefly in a rural commune in Anaheim, California. It is loosely based on the true story of the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who emigrated to America in 1876, along with her husband and son, and with the young writer Henryk Sienkiewicz. In America, after a short time in California, Helena reinvented herself as an American actress, with the name Helena Modjeska.

Immediately Sontag inserts herself into the foreground of the novel, as she did in her last historical fiction, The Volcano Lover. The book's first chapter, which is fanciful but oddly moving, gathers the characters in a hotel dining-room in a town in Poland, and Sontag – so the conceit goes – wanders unnoticed around the room, deciding what her characters will do and what names they should have, and generally, as she finely puts it, "scattering seeds of prediction." The chapter is an introductory confession; indeed, it is startlingly confessional. Referring to her early marriage to a well-known scholar, Sontag writes that at the age of seventeen she read Middlemarch and cried, because she realized that she was Dorothea Brooke and that she had married Casaubon. She tells us that she has perhaps been drawn to write about Poland because all four of her grandparents came from that country; and before we can resist the sentimentality of this thought, she undermines it herself by admitting that she had tried to describe a hotel room in Sarajevo at the same historical moment, and failed.

So we are reading an historical fiction, and we are to be reminded periodically of this throughout the book. This kind of self-reflexiveness can come to seem in weaker books like a repetitive and doomed attempt at self-cleansing – like someone washing her hands again and again – but after the first chapter it is only delicately pressed on. (We hear no more from Sontag, as such.) Yet it is intellectually important, for it suspends the characters in a fluid of modernity (or post-modernity), and releases them from the category of historical idiocy. We know that they know they are being watched by a contemporary writer; but inside this careful panopticon they live and breathe fully as free fictional characters.

In fact, the heroine of the novel, the actress Maryna Zalezowska, is used to being watched, and used to watching herself. Histrionic, imperious, willful, and demanding, she spends her life in a crowd of mirrors; her loving entourage, which includes her loyal husband Bogdan and her ardent admirer and subsequent lover Ryszard (he is based on Sienkiewicz), reflect her glory back to her. Maryna is a powerful creation, alive, not exactly likeable but fizzy with her own essence. She has more than a hint in her of Irina Arkadin, Chekhov's impossible actress in The Seagull.

Sontag shrewdly uses the stageyness of the world, this actress's world – we travel with Maryna on her triumphant American tour – further to complicate the certainties of the historical novel. For the book is suffused with a certain plush, melodramatic stageyness of its own, half-parody and half-innocence; it is always proposing performance. Its world is being watched, but it is also watching itself, and watching us, too. And this is done in a manner that seems both self-conscious and genuinely unconscious on Sontag's part. One is reminded of her unfashionable belief in the theater, which is similarly innocent and now necessarily also a self-consciousness. The result is that the inevitable artificiality of historical detail is coated in a certain buoyant irony, which breaks into true creative gaiety.

In general, it is striking how little historical detail seems to clog the surface of this novel; it has been smoothed into underground discretion. The book is not a disquisition on the America of the 1870s. That is not to say that Sontag does not occasionally bully her data into historical confession. There is a somewhat crude moment, for instance, when Ryszard is buttonholed by a man who seems to want to talk about someone he calls "Tockveel," and "Tockveel's" visit to America fifty years before. It is one of those encounters that happens only in novels. And later in the book the reader becomes restless when Sontag writes that the Poles were nostalgic for Polish music: "they had longed for the sound of Polish composers, a song by Kurpi*nski, a waltz by Ogi*nski..." The Poles, being Polish, would not have had to name these familiar composers to themselves (shades of Plato's mathematician); and since the names mean little to us non-Poles, it is simply a matter of homework being presented for reward by the author.

At such moments, the joists of the enterprise of the historical novel are exposed. This leads to a further suspicion of the form as currently practiced, which is that historical fiction may get a borrowed gravity from its subject, a gravity for which fiction set in its own time must more dirtily labor. Hasn't Sontag avoided some of the messy chanciness of fiction by choosing to write about educated Poles in the 1870s? A certain language and grammar of manners – a set of conventions that are themselves derived from nineteenth-century fiction – is already in place, not to mention the furniture and the couture of the period (lorgnettes, hats, silks, and so on). These things come already solemnized by literature, whereas the novelist who wants to write about modern Brooklyn or modern Knightsbridge must strive for his or her own solemnity.

To be fair, Sontag uses the story of this emigration precisely to throw a nineteenth-century (or "European") gravity into the unclaimed space of an America that does not recognize these conventions. And Sontag is very subtle in the way she approaches historical detail, properly treating it as fictive detail. The description of the Atlantic crossing made by Ryszard and a friend is extremely good. It includes a painful scene in which Ryszard, seeking journalistic information, wanders below decks into steerage, where he encounters an Irishman who is pimping for his six captive "nieces." Ryszard is cajoled into having lukewarm sex with one of the girls, who is barely fifteen, but he cannot do it, and only pretends to go through the motions behind a dirty curtain, so that the "uncle" will not beat his "niece" afterwards for rejecting the gentleman visitor.

Once in America, Maryna takes her little son Piotr to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There she marvels at the new American inventions, and writes to an old friend in Poland of what she has seen. But Sontag does not overplay her hand here. Maryna is especially taken with a typewriter, which she describes as "a porcupine-like machine for stamping inked letters on blank paper." And she is enthusiastic about the telephone, which she imagines will one day be in every household. But since she cannot imagine the television, she thinks that the telephone will be a kind of television, and expresses educated caution: "And what a boon to humanity that will be, when, by means of this device, anyone can have an Italian opera, a play of Shakespeare, a debate in the Congress, a sermon by their favorite preacher laid on like gas in one's own house...Still, I worry about the consequences of this invention, human laziness being what it is, for nothing can replace the experience of entering a temple of dramatic art..." This is just the right pressure of self-conscious irony; we enjoy the fatalism of our televisual retrospect, and subtly correct Maryna's fatalism in our minds. Delicacy is all, here; for anything heavier would fail.

Eventually, after several weeks on the east coast, the group find their separate ways to California, and it is California that prompts some of Sontag's finest writing. Sontag grew up in California, and this novel may be seen as almost invisibly watermarked by her own nostalgia for that early landscape. "Even now...it thrills me to write CALIFORNIA," writes Maryna to her old friend, and one feels this to be Sontag's sentiment, also. A kind of ecstasy takes over her prose when she writes of the California desert, and she is both lyrical and precise:

Hardly anything is near anything here: those slouching braided sentinels, the yucca trees, and bouquets of drooping spears, the agaves, and the squat clusters of prickly pears, all so widely spaced, so unresembling – and nothing had to do with anything else...The purity of the vista, its uncompromising bleakness, seemed first like a menace, then an excitement, then a numbing, then a different arousal. Their real initiation into the seductive nihilism of the desert had begun. The soundless, odorless, monochrome landscape, so drastically untenanted, had the same effect on everyone: an intoxicating impression of aloneness...

At first, the quixotic European attempt at frontier farming seems to prosper. Maryna, though famous in Europe, is a mere immigrant in California, and involved, like the rest of her family and friends, with the graft of subsistence. She loves it, and loves America, if complicatedly, feeling that "the sudden drop in the volume of meanings in the new life worked on her like a thinning out of oxygen." But schism soon threatens, as if in a secular mimicry of religious fracture: two of their number are lured away to a rival commune, and another couple returns to Poland after the unhappy wife tries to kill herself. Those left are not especially good farmers; in a nice detail, Sontag writes that none of the women were very good at milking, for "they felt they were torturing the cows."

Meanwhile Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, who constitute the novel's controlling trio, are becoming restless. Bogdan, a faithful husband but a repressed homosexual, is attracted by novel American flesh, and confides secret desires to his tense diary. Ryszard, who is in love with Maryna, veers between elation and depression. On the one hand, "even if my life ended now, he said to himself, I would still think, My God, what a journey I have made." On the other hand, he feels that farming ill becomes his heroine, and that to extract the most from America one must stay on the move, as the hunter does.

Eventually Maryna decides to return to the stage – in America. Thus begins the last third of the book, an intensely imagined, superbly Dreiserian account of Maryna's lavish American victory. What may surprise some readers of Sontag's criticism is how easily she subjugates her intelligence, and yields to the fairy-tale textures of this episode. An initially skeptical theater manager, Angus Barton of the California Theatre in San Francisco, is won over, and soon Maryna – now retitled Marina Zalenska, because a Russian name sounds more impressive to the American public than a Polish one – is playing various melodramatic hits of the day, such as Adrienne Lecouvreur and East Lynne (which she disdainfully calls Beast Lynne).

As her fame grows, Maryna is given a private train to travel in, and crosses America. Some of Sontag's detail may have been taken from the historical record; but most of it must have been invented, and it has the high zest of invention on it like a sheen. In Jacksonville, a man presents her with two lime-green baby alligators, and her manager immediately converts the place of donation to New Orleans, because it sounds more glamorous. In Fort Wayne, an obese man wearing a yellow wig gives her a dog. He has already "pressed on her a bronze statuette of Hiawatha, the collected speeches of Ulysses S. Grant, and a music box, set on a nearby table and repeatedly wound up to unwind `Carnival in Venice.'" In a curiously affecting scene, one admirer writes her a poem after her performance; and the last couplet, "Keep Polish memories in your heart alone,/America now claims you for her own," makes her weep. Soaps and scents named after her are being sold. Her only rival is Sarah Bernhardt.

The novel ends where, in a sense, it began, with Maryna occupying the only home she knows, the only one she is unnostalgic about: the theater. The book shuttles between homelessnesses. Being Polish, these men and women were already nostalgic for their country even while living in it. Maryna suspects that they are now suffering not only from nostalgia, but also from "a new illness, the inability to become attached to anything." In a way, the novel combines old nostalgia and new homelessness; these are the epochs that it moves between, for one might say that these characters are nostalgic for what they cannot be attached to anyway. And this means that they are out of place in America, too, because the America that Sontag portrays is a country of brutal, adhesive immigration. Yet these educated, upper-class, artistic Poles are emigrants rather than immigrants, and thus somehow both lost and found in America. And so Ryszard and Maryna exist most fully in their respective arts, the novel and the theater, and America becomes both a novel and a theater – for them, and, designedly, for the reader of this book.

For Sontag's other area of intellectual exploration is that of theatrical illusion. Here she braves didacticism, even unoriginality. After all, there is not much new to say about masks and the diabolical flexibility of the actor. Yet Sontag novelistically grounds her discussion in the concrete, and in the arrogantly anxious bosom of her heroine. Maryna is an intensely nineteenth-century creation, after all. Though she has played Schiller and Shakespeare, her most popular roles are watery melodramas, in which the very air of the theater is dropleted with the audience's cheap tears, and at the end of which the adulterous heroine must make sacrificial expiration.

Maryna is expert at these dying falls, practically a mortician of the melodramatic. As such, she is a luridly expressive actress, accustomed to the raucous support of her adoring Polish audiences. She is torn between a cold professionalism, in which, in the classic theatrical way, she is simply a soul for hire, ready to inhabit any emotion; and a Romantic authenticity, in which she exhaustingly undergoes the same emotions that she plays on stage. She argues, early in the novel, that acting ought to be about "not feeling," and longs to be more restrained in her playing. Yet her heart vibrates with the language of Shakespeare, and it is clear that, in an equally classic theatrical manner, she has become her roles.

The novel wisely does not seek to adjudicate between these rival approaches, but lets them lie complicatedly in the same woman. Is the theater, then, an art of easy falsity, or is it a difficult, self-expressive form, worthy of taking its place with the other mimetic arts, such as writing and painting? I take Sontag to be nudging us to such a question, and perhaps finally to be suggesting that of course the theater is both falsity and authenticity, for mimesis is never innocent.

Certainly, Maryna does not attempt to reconcile these attitudes, and we are grateful for it. In a striking scene, Sontag dramatizes what might have been presented essayistically: the inevitable corruption of mimesis. Maryna, surrounded by her American actors, begins to speak, lyrically and expressively, some words of Polish. They are perhaps a hymn or a recitation, perhaps a poem. She finishes, and her colleagues express their delight. Then Maryna tells them that she has simply been reciting the Polish alphabet. She has been acting meaningless letters, and has almost brought her audience to tears.

This, presumably, is what Horace meant when he asked, rhetorically, "do good poems come by nature, or by art?" The same question might be asked of good novels, such as this one. One suspects that Sontag wants us to ask such a question, wants us to use the dilemma of theater's mimesis as a way of reflecting on the dilemma of the historical novel's relation to reality. For her book is both Romantically expressive and artfully sly; it is unconscious and self-conscious in equal measure. If this is the only possible way to write historical fiction in a postmodern time, then Sontag has magnificently managed to make it look like freedom rather than determination. It is certainly an achievement; but surely fiction has more primary duties than the recovery (even the enraptured recovery) of the past, and I wish that Sontag would release herself into the wide and even more unsettled straits of the palpable present-intimate.

This review was first published in The New Republic March 27, 2000

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