Most readers recognize that Susan Sontag’s best-selling novel The Volcano Lover (1992) was a turning point in her career, a breakthrough where she found a voice and vision for her fiction significantly different from that of her experimental novels and films of the 1960’s yet recognizably hers. In America fulfills The Volcano Lover’s promise and confirms that she has, in fact, made the transition from critical theorist to creative writer.
Like The Volcano Lover, In America mixes realistic narrative, anecdotes, autobiographical asides, diary entries, letters, monologues, philosophical speculations, mini-biographies, historical notes, travelogues, and plot summaries of other works of popular and high art into an amalgam that is particularly suited to Sontag’s interests and talent. Like The Volcano Lover, it is a novel in which she imagines the past from the perspective of the present by blending fact and fiction, real and invented characters, actual and imagined events. Again, the story involves a love triangle among a beautiful and famous woman, her husband, and her lover, all of whom are based on (Sontag says “inspired by”) real people. Again, the lives of these characters are revealed to the reader in a novel that recaptures another time and place; and again those characters’ lives touch those of both invented characters and other historical personages who are cast as bit players in their story—in this case, the writers Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Nordhoff, and the actors Edwin Booth and Sarah Bernhardt. Sontag again pays particular attention to the circumstances of women’s lives. She again begins and ends her book with bravura set pieces.
In retrospect, Sontag’s works seem to be not just a part of an ongoing effort to examine a series of key ideas, but an expression of her own evolving sensibility. Certainly this is true of In America. It seems to have grown out of three projects that she worked on in the 1980’s but eventually abandoned. The first was a novel, The Western Half, about Polish and Russian émigrés in the United States that was inspired by her friendships with the poets Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. The second was a novel about divas of the 1920’s. The third was a long essay about intellectuals and politics. However, a reading of Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon(2000), which appeared several months after In America, suggests that the novel’s sources are even broader and deeper.
For example, Sontag’s fascination with acting and the theater—one of the novel’s major subjects—dates back at least as far as her college days, when she worked on undergraduate productions with Mike Nichols at the University of Chicago. It has continued to be evident over the years: in her experiments writing and directing films from Duet for Cannibals (1969) to Unguided Tour (1983); in her directing theater productions of Luigi Pirandello’s Come tu mi vuoi, (pr., pb. 1930; As You Desire Me, 1931) in Italy in 1980, Milan Kundera’s Jacques et son maître: Hommage à Denis Diderot, (pr. 1970; Jacques and His Master, 1985) in Cambridge in 1985, and Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot, (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) in Sarajevo in 1993; in her appearing as herself in Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) and as the voice of Sarah Bernhardt in Edgar Cozarinsky’s documentary Sarah (1988); and in her writing the play Alice in Bed: A Play in Eight Scenes (1993).
Sontag’s interest in Poland is lifelong. Her maternal grandparents were Polish Jews, and as a child she avidly read biographies of Marie Curie, who became one of her first intellectual idols and inspirations. Throughout her career, Sontag found herself drawn to the works and lives of émigré writers from Eastern and Central Europe such as Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Miłosz, and Danilo Kiš. In the spring of 1980, shortly before the strikes that led to the creation of solidarity began, Sontag visited Poland for the first time on a State Department-sponsored cultural tour and saw that the ruling system was morally, socially, and economically bankrupt. This visit, combined with her reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978), and her friendships with Miłosz and Brodsky, led her to reassess the lifelong sympathy for socialism that had led her and...
(The entire section is 1916 words.)