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In America (Penguin Modern Classics) by [Susan Sontag]
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In America (Penguin Modern Classics) Kindle Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 14 ratings

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As an essayist, Susan Sontag has tended to stick pretty rigorously to the modern age, whether she's anatomizing the wild world of camp or roasting Leni Riefenstahl over the coals. But in her fiction--particularly in such fin-de-siècle productions as The Volcano Lover--she's clearly felt the allure of the past. And In America, which chronicles the travails of a late-19th-century actress, shows Sontag in top time-traveling form. What's more, it illuminates her motives for glancing so persistently backward. "Almost everything good seems located in the past," she notes in a first-person prologue, "perhaps that's an illusion, but I feel nostalgic for every era before I was born; and one is freer of modern inhibitions, perhaps because one bears no responsibility for the past." There's nothing, it seems, like the age of innocence--a golden moment before we moderns had the curse of self-consciousness brought down on our heads.

It's ironic, then, that In America revolves around a regular paragon of self-consciousness: a brilliant Polish diva named Maryna Zalezowska. The year is 1876, and this Bernhardt-like figure has decided to abandon the stage and establish a utopian commune in (you guessed it) California. Not exactly a logical career move, is it? Yet this journey to America does involve a major feat of self-reinvention, for which Maryna may be uniquely qualified. Writing a letter home from the brave new world of Hoboken, New Jersey, she argues against the idea that "life cannot be restarted, that we are all prisoners of whatever we have become." And once she arrives in Anaheim with her husband, child, and fellow utopians in tow, she does seem to slough off the skin of her older, European self. She is now that exotic creature, an American, existing in an equally exotic landscape--which happens to elicit some of Sontag's most lyrical prose:

They had never felt as erect, as vertical, their skin brushed by the hot Santa Ana wind, their ears lulled by the oddly intrusive sound of their own footfalls.... 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.
Like every utopia in human history, Maryna's is a failure. Following its collapse, she is moved to return to the theater--but as an American, now, plugged securely into the middlebrow culture of her adopted land. The rest of the novel charts her brilliant career among the philistines, along with a number of heated erotic detours.

Given its subject matter, Sontag's novel is oddly anti-dramatic: she juggles a half-dozen narrative strategies but seldom allows us to sink our teeth into a prolonged scene. Yet she delivers a great many other riches by way of compensation. Her take on the perils and pleasures of expatriation is worthy of Henry James (who actually makes a cameo appearance, assuring Maryna that England and America will morph into "one big Anglo-Saxon total.") And she includes a superbly entertaining portrait of theatrical life, culminating in a virtuoso monologue from Edwin Booth that suggests a Gilded Age Samuel Beckett. As always, there is the pleasure of watching the author's formidable intelligence at work, immersing us in the details of a character or landscape and then surfacing for a deep draught of abstraction. Perhaps Sontag is too cerebral to ever produce a straightforward work of fiction. But this time around, anyway, she brings both brains and literary brawn to bear on what Henry James himself called "the complex fate" of being an American. --James Marcus --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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 of the 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, ther...

--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • Publisher : Penguin (2 May 2013)
  • Language : English
  • File size : 971 KB
  • Text-to-Speech : Enabled
  • Screen Reader : Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
  • X-Ray : Not Enabled
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print length : 398 pages
  • Page numbers source ISBN : 0312273207
  • Customer Reviews:
    3.9 out of 5 stars 14 ratings

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