"The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag's bestselling 1992 novel, retold the love story of Lady Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson with consummate power. In her enthralling new novel-once again based on a real story-Sontag shows us our own country on the cusp of modernity. In 1876 a group of Poles led by Maryna Zalewska, Poland's greatest actress, travel to California to found a "utopian" commune. Maryna, who has renounced her career, is accompanied by her small son and husband; in her entourage is a rising young writer who is in love with her. The novel portrays a West that is still largely empty, where white settlers confront native Californians and Asian coolies. The image of America, and of California-as fantasy, as escape, as radical simplification-constantly meets a more complex reality. The commune fails and most of the emigres go home, but Maryna stays and triumphs on the American stage. In America is a big, juicy, surprising book-about a woman's search for self-transformation, about the fate of idealism, about the world of the theater-that will captivate its readers from the first page. It is Sontag's most delicious, most brilliant achievement."--Publisher's description
Funny that I should mention Sontag’s detachment, because though dispassion is the general rule throughout the novel, the prologue is an engrossing exception. In it, a spectral version of late twentieth century Susan Sontag crashes a society party in Poland in 1875. She dreamily describes the surroundings, the clothes, and most of all the people, whose language she does not understand, yet whom she gradually comes to name, and whose secrets she tentatively divines. Sontag as first person narrator, invisible to the company yet shivering in the cold, compares and contrasts her own time and place with that of the guests, shedding light on her fascination with the past and motivations for her foray into the historical fiction genre. This prologue is in part a dramatization of her creative process, an artful and poetic evocation of the conjuring act that precedes the composition of any work of fiction. It’s also a way of reflexively engaging the act of storytelling, of delicately investigating why and how we consistently find ourselves engrossed in fictions.
From there, the action of the novel begins: the important details are that a renowned Polish actress (in fact, Poland’s reigning diva) has set her sights on America, where she will travel with her husband and sundry friends to start a farming commune in California. The journey that follows and the sometimes surprising directions the characters’ lives take form a backdrop against which Sontag plays out her themes, including historical modernity and its relationship to the United States, Polish identity, the complex process of Americanization experienced by immigrants to this country, the dynamics of leaders and followers, and life in theatre and the theatrical nature of life (this last one an old and tired theme, but one that Sontag treats as if it were new, and so manages to illuminate). She even, to my surprise, introduced some queer elements, including diva worship and a character struggling in vain to suppress his homosexual desires. (Though her first person narration doesn’t return, Sontag can be glimpsed in several of the characters: she is the one who spent years unsuccessfully quelling her lesbianism; she is the young writer obsessed with notions of truth and intelligence; and she is, of course, the diva, the powerful, inscrutable, commanding woman of action.) Her narrative is punctuated by stylistic innovations that keep the novel moving at a brisk pace, and in typical Sontagian fashion (whether she’s writing an essay or a novel), she unassumingly drops stray sentences pregnant with meaning and penetrating in their insights, though if you blink, you might miss them.
Glancing at my short list of themes, it strikes me how many I’ve left out, and the novel’s ambitions become clearer. At the time Sontag wrote “In America,” she must have known there was no one left to impress, and she may have been more comfortable than before working in more traditional forms like the historical novel. And in many ways, her book did strike me as traditional, curiously so. But it is also clearly the product of a vastly curious, agile, and disciplined mind, a mind willing to grant readers concessions (like readability) – but unwilling to stop its relentless invention and investigation.
On the first page of the novel the motif of the stage is hinted at by how snow flakes seen through a window are described as a "scrim" for the moonlight in the background. The unnamed narrator looks out on the wintry landscape from her vantage point in a warm corner of a large room filled with people. Slowly the narrator, who is Sontag herself embedded in this prelude to the novel, gradually introduces the main characters who are gathered at a private party. These characters include an actress, Maryna the greatest leading lady in Poland; her husband, Bogdan; and a budding writer, Ryszard, who will eventually become her lover.
Language is an important aspect of the novel as the narrator meditates on all the words in the air swirling around her at this party. Her meditation leads he to comment that "I mean here only to give these words their proper, poignant emphasis. And it occurred to me that this might explain, partly, my presence in this room. For I was moved by the way they possessed these words and regarded themselves bound by them to actions. . . . I was enjoying the repetition. Dare I say I felt at one with them? Almost. Those dreaded words, dreaded by others (not by me), seemed like caresses. Pleasantly numbed, I felt myself borne along by their music . . ." (p 8) While musing on the Polish diva who holds the company spellbound, Sontag notes: "I remember when I first read Middlemarch: I had just turned 18, and a third of the way through the book burst into tears because I realised not only that I was Dorothea but that a few months earlier, I had married Mr Casaubon... It took me nine years to decide that I had the right, the moral right, to divorce Mr Casaubon." (p 24) She indulges herself and suggests that this will be the story of a Dorothea who does not, like George Eliot's heroine, bury herself in the obscurity of "private" good works. She will shine in the public blaze of celebrity.
The party is in Poland, but some converse in French as well. This is their home where they are known and comfortable--yet there is more--ideas are in the air. The narrator hears bits of conversation that hint at plans Maryna has to leave Poland. These words suggest the possibility of a project to create a "perfect" society, one influenced by both Voltaire and Rousseau. After further ruminations on these people surrounding her at the party the narrator decides to write their story: "I decided to follow them out into the world." (p 27)
After this unusual introduction the actual story, an historical one, continues for nine more chapters chronicling the journey of Maryna, her close friends, family, and entourage, to America. They fairly quickly settle in a dusty southern California village established originally by Germans, namely Anaheim. Just as earlier communities like Brook Farm in New England and others have failed theirs does as well. The experiment is unsuccessful due to unexpected difficulties as they find the empty and dry expanse of California is not conducive to their plans. While many of them return to Poland it is at this moment that Maryna, longing for a return to the stage, decides to move to San Francisco and mount an American career where she can once again become a leading lady, perhaps a legend. This is, after all, an historical novel and the main characters are based on real people. Maryna is based on Helena Modrzejewska, who at 35 years old was Poland's greatest actress and who emigrated to America. The story abounds with moments when Maryna is in the theater playing Camille or Juliet for adoring audiences. Gradually her stage character takes hold of the reader much as it must have for those audiences. Following her came her husband and her lover, based on the writer Henryk Sinkiewicz (later famous as the author of Quo Vadis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). However, not all the real names are changed and , not unlike some other historical novels, famous names drop in from time to time including Edwin Booth and Henry James (later in the story as Maryna has moved on to conquer the London stage; her success there was limited but better by far than that of James whose plays bombed).
This is a novel that, according to the author, was inspired by her own family background as all four of her grandparents came from Poland. She herself, in the three years of the novel's conception, frequently visited "besieged Sarajevo" (the novel is dedicated to her friends in that unhappy city). The main character has luminescent moments, but I found the story as a whole uneven. Ryszard and Bogdan both have moments "on stage" but the rest of the characters fade into the background. They all were on stage as followers of Maryna to America and it is a book worth reading to share the experiences of her dramatic and eventful life.