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In America [School & Library Binding]

Susan Sontag
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 2001 0613494377 978-0613494373
The story of "In America" is inspired by the emigration to America in 1876 of Helena Modrzejewska, Poland's most celebrated actress, accompanied by her husband, Count Karol Chlapowski, 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 Helena Modjeska.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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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 out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

As she did in The Volcano Lover, Sontag crafts a novel of ideas in which real figures from the past enact their lives against an assiduously researched, almost cinematically vivid background. Here again her signal achievement is to offer fresh and insightful commentary on the social and cultural currents of an age, with a distinctive understanding of how historical events forged character and destiny. If the story of renowned Polish actress Maryna Zalewska cannot compare in drama to that of Admiral Nelson and the Hamiltons (as a protagonist, Maryna remains somewhat shadowy and elusive), Sontag succeeds in conveying how the political and intellectual atmosphere of Poland and the U.S. in the late 19th century affected her heroine's life. Beautiful, famous and restless at 35, Maryna decides to leave her native land, suffering under Russian occupation. She convinces her husband, Count Bogdan Demboski, her would-be lover, journalist Ryszard Kierul, and various other members of the Warsaw intelligentsia to emigrate to America, where, influenced by Fourier's social philosophy, they will establish an experimental farm commune in southern California. Predictably, the community fails to prosper and falls into debt; idealism gives way to disillusionment; Maryna decides to resume her career, achieving immediate acclaim; and the romantic triangle moves to a new stage. Meanwhile, Sontag makes meaningful associations between a woman's need for freedom and independence, a nation's suffering under a conqueror's heel and the common human quest for "newness, emptiness, pastlessness... this dream of turning life into pure future" that colored many immigrants' views of America. She leads readers into the book via a long, breathless, one-paragraph prologue, narrated as if in a fever dream; indeed, it is not until many pages into the novel that the date and the geographical setting are established. Exemplary at imagining an actor's needs, impulses and sources of inspiration, Sontag also conveys the theatrical world of the time (East Lynne was the most popular play; Sarah Bernhardt reigned in Paris) almost palpably. There are few dramatic peaks and valleys in Maryna's story, but the historical backdrop--with pithy and evocative descriptions of American cities at the turn of the last century, cameo portraits of salty frontier types, and snippets of Western lore--supplies the vigor that the main plot often fails to engender. While this book does not exert the passionate energy of The Volcano Lover, it is a provocative study of a woman's life and the historical setting in which she moves. Author tour; U.K. rights to Jonathan Cape. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars It has some moments of local color, but... May 11 2002
In America intends to be an "important" act of "literature." It is not. It is not even a good read. In the whole story of Maryna Zalezowska, a Polish actress who emigrates to America with a horde of friends and admirers, fails to found a commune farm, and returns to success on the stage, the only remotely memorable moments are snapshots of local color that are almost digressions from the story itself.
The account of two of the characters' sea passage across the Atlantic, focusing on the contrast between their first-class accommodations and those in steerage, actually is touching. There are descriptions of 19th century New York, early Anaheim, and Comstock Lode silver mining towns that might make a die-hard jingoist shed a tear, not because they are flattering of America, but just because they portray her painted large in all the false glory of the gilded age. The last chapter, a long, rambling, almost humorous monologue by Edwin Booth as he half-heartedly tries to seduce the protagonist by telling her how pathetic a person he is, is worth reading (or maybe that was only my impression because it was the end of the book).
But these highlights are actually digressions from the story itself. The real story, revolves around Maryna, who is terribly uninteresting. She possesses a self-centeredness that enables her to do whatever she wants and entrain those around her in her wake, but when one looks closer to see what aspects of her character this self-centeredness might stem from, there is nothing. No innate charisma beyond being a beautiful woman, no grand ideas other than those lifted wholesale from 19th century French social theorists, no traits of human mobility, as if a present-day purveyor of postmodern literature could condescend to believe in such a thing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ruminating In America Feb. 18 2002
By Jen
Once the gassy raconteuse of Chapter Zero has been endured (this device may have been charming in brief, but does not remain engaging for more than a few pages), there is a brief, disorienting feeling of freedom as the unknown frontier of the novel is broached. Unfortunately, this exuberance dissipates immediately.
Not that there isn't a terrific novel hidden In America somewhere.

I can't help but wonder why Sontag chose to tell much of the novel from her female protagonist's perspective, since her male narrators are so consistently vividly imagined and effective, and her female characters are not. A scene in steerage and an excerpt from Maryna's husband's diary are much more provocative than Maryna's musing... since the actress-protagonist is a motivating force and an object of adoration, there really isn't much for her to do besides inspire and wonder. Interestingly enough, this imbalance, this failure of imagination when portraying male and female perspectives, is also evident in The Volcano Lover (a much more fully realized book).
Perhaps the questions Sontag asked herself in writing this book were never satisfactorily answered for (asked by?) the author... or perhaps the book means to evoke the aridity of both failed dreams and success, as well as the narcissism of the theater and the heavy blankness of the American gaze.
Regardless, this is not generally a diverting reading experience, nor is it particularly engaging as a novel of ideas.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a great essayist, but as a novelist.... April 22 2003
I have enjoyed the depth of Susan Sontag's lucid, witty essays in the New Yorker magazine, and recently we saw her on Cspan Book -TV. A caller asked what would be the best introduction to her writings, and she suggested her novel "In America."

This book was surprisingly disappointing to me. I kept waiting to get swept up into it, but came to the last page with only a sense of duty for finishing. The characters are drawn well enough ,the time frame (post-Civil War America) is interesting, but the book failed to engage me somehow. Sontag has an affinity for the movies and for actors;she has created as the lead character a Polish actress who finds stellar success on the American stage.
I will continue to enjoy Sontag's essays but doubt I will read another of her novels.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Narative July 29 2002
The best feature of Sontag's novel was the narative style which did not fail to change from Chapter to Chapter. Sometimes it was in an omniscient voice, and other times in the character's own first person narative, in writing and speech, which brought us into the minds and thoughts of the various fascinating Poles in the story. The plot of the story is ineresting in itself to a certain degree, but the idea of leaving Europe and forging a new life in America must have been re-done many times over esp. in the original immigrant literature. The irony of how the Europeans went to America to leave what they were used to behind, to escape the fetters, but seem to pursue the exact same fetters in America is present in Sontag's novel. It also brings out the other ironic element of wanting to do something different and unexpected, but falling into the mold in wanting to form an utopian community which was fashionable at the time. I enjoyed the flow of the storyline and the characterisation of Ryszard as the writer and Maryna as an actress, artists who without art will lose their self, and their use. The first Chapter of the book also leaves one wondering -- was that the author as a persona -- Sontag imagining her characters into play? As a writer would? To see their world, enter it, and develop it? Or was it a neutral observer preparing is for Maryna's plan to leave for America? Sontag's novel of immigration, America, Europe, art, religion and relationships is thought-provoking and a fascinating study. Highly enjoyable.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Awards Books!...Bah! Humbug!
This National Book Award Winner is the story of a famous Polish actress who emigrates to the United States in 1875, with her husband, child, and an entourage of friends and... Read more
Published on April 15 2002 by Joyann Sanz-agero
3.0 out of 5 stars A Listless Tale That Glides on a Sparkling Smooth Surface
The plot of "In America", Susan Sontag's National Book Award-winning novel, is adumbrated in her introductory note, where she describes the real historical life that inspired the... Read more
Published on April 13 2002 by "botatoe"
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex but beautifully written novel of ideas
Susan Sontag's National Book Award winning "In America" is a beautifully written but complex - if not difficult - novel of ideas. Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2002
1.0 out of 5 stars Could it be more ponderous?
I expected to like this novel; Sontag has a wonderful reputation and the storyline had potential. Instead, it became the ONLY book I have ever found so simply awful that I... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2001 by Bemused Observer
1.0 out of 5 stars Could it be more ponderous?
I expected to like this novel; Sontag has a wonderful reputation and the storyline had potential. Instead, it became the ONLY book I have ever found so simply awful that I... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2001 by Bemused Observer
1.0 out of 5 stars A waste of good paper!!
The designation of "National Book Award Winner" has lost all credibility. What were the criteria for winning? Read more
Published on Nov. 15 2001 by G. HURSH
2.0 out of 5 stars Why, why, why?
Award winning literature should provoke thoughtful questions. Susan Sontag's "In America" prompted my bookclub to ask: 1) Where the heck was her editor? Read more
Published on Oct. 12 2001 by Angie of Second Tuesdays Bookclub
3.0 out of 5 stars Know who you're dealing with
Just be aware that Susan Sontag, in the current New Yorker, dated September 24 and with a black cover commemorating the WTC disaster, has published a piece in which she attacks... Read more
Published on Sept. 19 2001
3.0 out of 5 stars A hidden book
This odd novel is like a charming house surrounded by an imposing edifice. While I found the idea of the first chapter very appealing - we observe the author considering her... Read more
Published on Aug. 25 2001 by Larry Dilg
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