Novel of the week

In America

Susan Sontag <em>Cape, 387pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 022404091X

Susan Sontag's new novel opens seductively with an introduction called "Zero", in which an unnamed woman narrator eavesdrops on a conversation at a party in the private dining-room of a Polish hotel, and speculates on the trio involved: two men and a handsome, dramatic woman. Planning to make the scene the nucleus of a historical novel, the narrator experiments with various names for the characters and plots for their lives; she also declares her fascination with the themes of theatricality, utopianism and women's destiny. Her heroine, she decides, must be a diva; for only an actress could command public acclaim in 19th-century Europe.

"Zero" also contains some tantalising flashes of autobiography. We learn that the narrator, like Sontag, had admired Madame Curie and planned to become a chemist; that she grew up in Tucson and Los Angeles; and that she impulsively married a professor after a ten-day courtship when she was only 18. She read Middlemarch and burst into tears, realising not only that she was Dorothea, but that her husband was Mr Casaubon. Moreover, it took her nine years to decide that she had the "moral right" to divorce him. She disarmingly confesses that she has gone through her life unsure of her own abilities, but believing that "steadfastness and caring more than others about what was important" would take her wherever she wanted to go. But, alas, after this engaging beginning, much like the opening of A Room of One's Own in tone, and reminiscent of Sontag's personal voice in interviews and in her brief memoir Pilgrimage, the omniscient narrator appears. From then on, we are back in the world of the earnest, strenuous and important that has prevented Sontag's novels from having the impact of her essays and memoirs.

In America, based on the real life of the 19th-century Polish actress Helena Modjeska, tells the story of the Polish actress Maryna Zalewska, who emigrates with her husband, lover and young son to Anaheim, California (now the site of Disneyland), in 1876, to found a utopian commune like Brook Farm. The commune fails, but the actress stays on to reinvent herself as "Marina Zalenska", tragedy queen of the American stage. At first idealistic about her art, Maryna reconciles herself to the opportunities and commercial self-fashioning of America, choosing her career over love and finally blurring the boundaries between the subversive and the sentimental.

Along the way, Sontag offers some striking descriptions of California as a fantasy land of freedom, powerful observations on acting and some brilliant recreations of historical figures including Henry James and Edwin Booth. But overall, In America is an oddly plotless and inert chronicle of ideas and events in Maryna's career. The most emotional passages are the critical comments on various literary works and dramatic characters: Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Shakespeare's heroines, Phedre, Camille: "I like heroic women and I wait for a dramatist who will depict the heroism of women in modern life, women who are not beautiful, who are not well born, but who struggle to be independent."

As in The Volcano Lover (1992), the story of Lady Emma Hamilton's affair with Lord Nelson, Sontag has turned to the past to find a heroic woman upon whom to project some ideas of modern-day feminine genius. But while it is less strenuously erudite and eccentric than her earlier novel, In America is also less impassioned and playful.

Maryna's letters and diaries seem more like occasions for exposition and debate than revelation of character or feeling. She often discourses on matters of political and intellectual importance; but in the realm of the novel, seriousness and steadfastness are not enough. I hope that, someday, Sontag will come out from behind the curtain and write directly about her own life - that could be a book to change women's lives.

Elaine Showalter is a professor of English at Princeton University

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness