books, Reading, Women Writers

“In America” by Susan Sontag

“In Poland, you were allowed some practice of the arts of self-indulgence, but you were expected to be sincere and also to have high ideals – people respected you for that. In America, you were expected to exhibit the confusions of inner vehemence, to express opinions no one need take seriously, and have eccentric foibles and extravagant needs, which exhibited the force of your will, your appetitiveness, the spread of your self-regard – all excellent things.”

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In Susan Sontag’s National Book Award winning novel, “In America”, we find another story of immigration, of nineteenth century America, and, most pervasively, a story of female strength and character in a staunchly chauvinistic time and place.

Polish celebrity-couple Maryna Zalezowska and Bogdan Dembowski have decided to emigrate to America. This is not, however, the ‘typical’ poor immigrant, boot-strap story. Maryna Zalezowska is one of Poland’s best-loved actresses and her husband Bogdan is Polish aristocracy. Maryna and Bogdan come to America with financial resources, a veritable village of supporters, and a confidence in their inevitable success. They are determined to make America their own and, though she initially intends to step away from acting and the public eye, Maryna soon can no longer ignore her need for the stage and the limelight.

“In America” takes a deep and developing look at what it means to be one’s self, to discover who we truly are. As a lifelong actress, Maryna is constantly balancing and striving to discriminate among her public persona, the many roles she embodies, and her ‘true’ self.

“If I knew how to hate, perhaps hatred would bring me relief. I ought to have a steel brow and a heart of stone – but what true artist possesses such armor? Only one who feels can produce feeling, only one who loves can inspire love. And would I suffer less if I appeared cold and haughty? No, no, I should just be acting! Yes, a public life is not suited to a woman. Home is the proper place for her. There she reigns – inaccessible, inviolable! But a woman who has dared to raise her head above the others, who has extended her eager hand for laurels, who has not hesitated to expose to the crowds all that her soul contains of enthusiasm and despair – that woman has given everyone the right to rummage in the most secret recesses of her life.”

It is nearly impossible, given the past weeks’ political catastrophe, to ignore the parallels between Maryna, a nineteenth century Polish actor, and the public mishegas surrounding a female candidate for president of the United States in the twenty-first century. Maryna notes to one of her ardent admirers:

“‘It is harder for a woman to want a life different from the one decreed for her. You men have it much easier. You are commended for recklessness, for boldness, for striking out, for being adventurous. A woman has so many inner voices telling her to behave prudently, amiably, timorously. And there is much to be afraid of, I know that. Don’t assume, dear friend, that I have lost all sense of reality. Each time I am brave, I am acting. But that is all that’s needed to be brave, don’t you agree? The appearance of bravery. The performance of it. Since I know I am not brave, not at all this spurs me on to act as if I were.'”

Sigh.

Susan Sontag is a strong, outspoken, much-admired, and often-maligned American woman. Her writing is, as the Washington Post once said, “brave and beautiful”. Though “In America” is set more than 150 years ago, Sontag has made her story relevant and resonant for today. She has also, not incidentally, created a delightful escape. “Losing oneself in a book is a great consolation”, thinks one of the book’s characters, and Sontag’s book was a consolation desperately  needed by me these  days.

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