Authors: Susan Sontag
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To my friends in Sarajevo
The story of
is inspired by the emigration to America in 1876 of Helena Modrzejewska, Poland's most celebrated actress, accompanied by her husband Count Karol ChÅapowski, her fifteen-year-old son Rudolf, the young journalist and future author of
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 of Helena Modjeska.
Inspired byÂ â¦ no less and no more. Most of the characters in the novel are invented, and those who are not depart in radical ways from their real-life models.
I am, however, indebted to books and articles by and on Modjeska and Sienkiewicz for material and anecdotes used (and altered), as well asâfor help in getting it rightâto Paolo Dilonardo, Karla Eoff, Kasia GÃ³rska, Peter Perrone, Robert Walsh, and especially to Benedict Yeoman. Thanks also to Minda Rae Amiran, JarosÅaw Anders, Steven Barclay, Anne Hollander, James Leverett, John Maxtone-Graham, Larry McMurty, and Miranda Spieler. I am very grateful for a month at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio in 1997.
“America will be!”
, no, shivering, I'd crashed a party in the private dining room of a hotel. It felt wintry indoors, too, but none of the women in gowns and men in frock coats churning about the long dark-hued room seemed to mind the chill, so I had the tile stove in a corner all to myself. I hugged the fat, ceiling-high contraptionâI would have preferred a hearthful of roaring fire, but I was here, where rooms are heated by stovesâthen set to kneading some warmth back into my cheeks and palms. When I'd got warmer, or calmer, I ventured across my end of the room. From a window, through the thick scrim of soundlessly dropping snowflakes backlit by a ring of moonlight, I looked down on the row of sledges and horsecabs, on the coachmen swathed in coarse blankets dozing in their seats, on the rigid snow-dappled animals with bowed heads. I heard the bells of a nearby church strike ten. Some guests had bunched near the huge oak sideboard by the window. Half turning, I tuned in to their conversation, which was mostly in a language I don't know (I was in a country I'd visited only once, thirteen years ago), but somehow, I didn't question how, their words reached me as sense. It was something vehement about a woman and a man, a scrap of information I promptly upgraded by assuming that the two were, why not, married. Then with equal vehemence the talk concerned a woman and two men, so, never doubting that the woman was the same, I supposed that if the first man was her husband, the second must be her lover, chiding myself for imagining so conventionally. But whether a woman and a man or the woman and two men, I still hadn't understood why they were being discussed. If the story were familiar to everyone, there would of course be no need to recount it. But maybe the guests were deliberately speaking so as not to be understood too well, because, say, the woman and the man, or both men, if there were two, were also here at the party. This made me think of looking one by one at the women in the room, all buoyantly coiffed and, as far as I am any judge of the clothes of that time, stylishly dressed, to see if one stood out from the others. As soon as I looked, looked with this thought in mind, I saw her, and wondered why I hadn't noticed her before. No longer in her first youth, as people then said of an attractive woman past thirty, of medium height, straight-spined, with a pile of ash-blond hair into which she nervously tucked a few escaping strands, she was not exceptionally beautiful. But she became more compelling the longer I watched her. She could be, she must be, the woman they were discussing. When she moved about the room, she was always surrounded; when she spoke, she was always listened to. It seemed to me I'd caught her name, it was either Helena or Marynaâand supposing it would help me to decipher the story if I could identify the couple or the trio, what better start than to give them names, I decided to think of her as Maryna. Then I looked for the two men. First, I trawled for one who could be thought of as a husband. If he were a doting husband, as I imagined this Helena, I mean Maryna, would have, then I'd find him close to her, never distracted for long by anyone else. And, sure enough, keeping Maryna in my sightline, it seemed obvious now that she was the one giving the party or that it was being given in her honor, I saw her being trailed by an angular bearded man with fine blond hair, combed to the back, that left uncovered his high, powerfully arched and noble forehead, who was nodding affably at whatever she said. That must be the husband, I thought. Now I had to find the other man, who, if he was the loverâor, just as interestingly, turned out not to be the loverâwould probably be younger than the amiable-looking aristocrat. If the husband were in his mid-thirties, a year or two his wife's junior though of course he looked much older, this man would be, I guessed, in his mid-twenties, handsome enough, and with the insecurity of youth or, more likely, of inferior social position, a bit overdressed. He could be, let me see, a rising journalist or a lawyer. Of the several men at the party answering to such a description, the one I fancied most was a burly fellow with glasses who, at the moment I spied him, was being familiar with a maid laying out the hotel's hoard of best silver and crystal on the spacious table at the other end of the room. I saw him whispering in her ear, touching her shoulder, toying with her braid. It would be amusing, I thought, if this were the candidate lover of my ash-blond beauty: not an inhibited bachelor but a dedicated rake. It's he, it must be he, I decided with lighthearted certitude, while also deciding to keep another youth in reserve for the part, a slender fellow in a yellow waistcoat, a bit Wertherish, should I become convinced that a more chaste or at least more circumspect swain would better fit with the identities of the other two. Then I wheeled my attention to another band of guests, though after some minutes more of alert eavesdropping I could make nothing further of the story that they too were debating. You might think that by now I'd be hearing the names of the two men. Or at least the husband's. But no one who addressed the man standing not far from me now in the group tightly surrounding the woman, I was sure he was her husband, ever used his Christian name, and so, fortified by the unexpected gift of her nameâyes, I know it could have been Helena, but I'd decided that it would be, or must be, MarynaâI resolved to discover his name with or without auditory clues. What could he, I mean the husband, be called? Adam. Jan. Zygmunt. I tried to think of the name that would best suit him. For each person has such a name, usually the name that he or she has been given. Finally, I heard someone call himÂ â¦ Karol. I can't explain why this name didn't please me; perhaps, peeved by not being able to fathom the story, I was simply venting my frustration on this man with the long, pale, evenly shaped face whose parents had chosen for him so euphonious a name. So, although I had no doubt about what I'd heard, I couldn't claim to be unsure, as I'd been with his wife's name (Maryna or Helena), I ruled that he could not be a Karol, that I had misheard his name, and gave myself permission to rechristen him Bogdan. I know this isn't as attractive a name as Karol in the language in which I am writing, but I intend to get used to it, and hope it will wear well. Next, I turned in my mind to the other man, as I thought of him, who had dropped onto a leather sofa to write something in a notebook (it seemed too long to be an assignation note to the maid). Certain that I had not yet heard his name, for his name I'd been neither cued nor miscued, I would have to be arbitrary, I decided to plunge ahead and make of him a Richard, their Richard: Ryszard. His understudy in the yellow waistcoat, I was moving quickly now, I would call Tadeusz; though I was starting to think I'd have no use for him, at least in this role, it seemed easier to give him a name now, while I was in the naming vein. Then I went back to listening, trying to ratchet up my sense of the story that, ever more audibly, was troubling most of the people invited to the dinner. It wasn't, at least this much I divined, that the woman was about to leave her husband for the other man. Of that I was sure, even if the scribbler on the sofa was in fact the lover of the woman with the ash-blond hair. I knew there had to be a few romances and adulteries at this party, as in any room filled with lively and fetchingly decked-out people who are friends, colleagues, kin. But this, though the very thing one expects when primed for a story about a woman and a man, or a woman and two men, wasn't what was agitating these guests tonight. I heard,
But her duty lies here. It's irresponsible and without any
Â â¦ and,
But he's asked him to go ahead. It's right that he
Â â¦ and,
But every noble idea seems like folly. After all, she
Â â¦ and, firmly,
May God take them under His protection,
this last uttered by an elderly woman wearing a mauve velvet hat, who then crossed herself. Hardly the way people discuss a love affair. But, like some love affairs, it bore the stamp of recklessness; and it seemed to bring out censors and well-wishers in equal measure. And while at first the story seemed to concern only the woman and the man (Maryna, Bogdan), or the woman and the two men (Maryna, Bogdan, Ryszard), sometimes it seemed to include more than these two, or three, for I heard some of the guests standing about the room, holding their goblets of mulled wine in one hand and gesturing with the other, say
(and not only
), and I began hearing other names, Barbara and Aleksander and Julian and Wanda, who seemed not to be among the judging bystanders but part of the story, coconspirators even. Perhaps I was moving too fast now. But, conspiracy or no, the thought of conspiracy came naturally to mind, since these people for all their swank and comforts had not done better than to get themselves born in a country subjected for decades to the variously vindictive decrees of a triple foreign occupation, so that many an ordinary action, by which I mean what people in my country would consider an ordinary exercise of freedom, would have had there the character of a conspiracy. And even if what they'd done or were planning to do turned out to be legal, I had still managed to understand that others, more than a few, had roles in this story of the woman and the man or the woman and two men (you know their names), including some of those nearby continuing to dispute whether it was “right” or whether it was “wrong.” I don't know why I've put these words in quotes, it's not just because they are the words I heard spoken; it must be because in the time in which I live these words are used much less confidently, even with apology if you are not a complacent bigot or a lethal avenger, while much of the fascination of these people, of their time, is that they knew, or thought they knew, what “right” and “wrong” were. Indeed, they would have felt quite naked without their “right” and “wrong,” their “good” and “bad,” which continue to lead a plaintive, withered afterlife in my own time, as well as their, now thoroughly discredited, “civilized” and “barbaric,” “noble” and “vulgar,” their, now incomprehensible, “selfless” and “selfish”âforgive the quotation marks (I shall soon stop using them), 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 heard only ardor, sincerity, in their softly voiced
should we, they shouldn't, how can he, how can she, how can they, if I were they, she still doesn't have the right, but honor demands
Â â¦ 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 musicÂ â¦ until I heard a bald man with a little pointed beard observe, with more sharpness than I'd heard so far,
Of course they can, if she wants. He's rich.
That was a dose of reality. Whatever they were debating, it seemed to require money, a lot. Further, it seemed more than possible that nobody here was seriously rich, even if one of them had a title, the man I'd decided was the husband, and everybody sported signs of a conventional prosperity. More evidence of their status: that bits of their conversations regularly fell into the one foreign language I do speak well. For I knew that at this time, in their part of the world, the gentry as well as those with a liberal profession often chatted in the language of authoritative, far away France. And just as I was acknowledging that it was a relief to hear French now and then, I heard the woman with the ash-blond hair, my Maryna, exclaiming,
Oh, let's not speak French anymore!
A pity, because she had been speaking the most vibrant French of all. She had a deep-toned voice, which rested deliciously on the final vowels. And she moved as she spoke, in a different rhythm from the others: with a pause at the end of each fluent gesture, each agile turn of her no longer slim body, when she passed, as if to receive their homage, from one cluster of guests to another. But sometimes she appeared irritated. And sometimes, I saw it, I don't know if anyone else did, she seemed just tired. I wondered if she had been ill recently. She didn't smile often, except at the little boy, I haven't mentioned that there was a child in the room, with a ripe gaze and floury hair, whom I had to assume was Maryna's son. He looked so much like her, there was nothing in him of the man I'd chosen for her husband, the one I've called Bogdan, which made me wonder whether I had picked the right man. But it often happens that someone resembles one parent while a child, then as an adult resembles the other parent just as exclusively, instead of displaying a unique, ingenious blend of the features of both. The little boy was trying to get Maryna's attention. Where was his nanny? Wasn't it late for a child his age, he was around seven, still to be up? These questions reminded me how veiled was my picture of their lives outside this large, chilly room. Observing them at a party, on something like good behavior, in a state of appealing alertness, I couldn't know, for example, whether the evening would end for husbands and wives in one ample bed, two beds pushed together, or two beds separated by a carpeted canyon or a closed door. My guess, if I had to guess, was that Maryna did not share a bedroom with Bogdan, following the custom in his family, not hers. And I was still unable to name the deed or project whose rightness or wrongness the guests were debating, or so I thoughtâeven as I was receiving a flurry of new clues, now
were going too fast, which I'll put in quotation marks too, but only to remember them: words like “abandon her public” and “national symbol” and “crisis of nerves” and “something irrevocable” and “noble savage” and “Nipu.” Yes, Nipu. As it happens I'd once read (in a French translation) the book entitled
The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom,
which describes Wisdom's sojourn in an ideal, consummately isolated community, in fact it is an island, called Nipu. But I wouldn't have expected anyone here to evoke this classic of their national literature, written exactly a century before the time when the guests were gathered in the private dining room of the hotel and I was thinking about them. Its account of life in a perfect society, artlessly influenced by both Voltaire and Rousseau, reflected all the quaint illusions of a bygone age. Surely these people would feel remote from such enlightened views, enlightened with a capital E. The history of their implacably dismembered country would, I thought, have kept them immune to any faith in human perfectibility or an ideal society. (And cured, forever, of that other mighty illusion with a capital E: as their greatest poet once declared, bitter experience had taught his country that “the European word had no political value. This nation, attacked by a formidable enemy, had on its side all the books, all the newspapers, all the eloquent tongues of Europe; and from this entire army of words came not a single action.”) Yet here they were in this sumptuous room with beamed ceiling and Persian carpets in the heart of this magnificent old city, evoking Nipu, that stern blueprint for a stripped-down life of perfect, rustic comity. I began to wonder if I'd stumbled on a coven of tardy romantics (the romantic age being long over), and I feared for them, for the illusions they might still cherish. But probably they were simply patriots of an unusually grandiloquent stripe. Perhaps I should mention that I had heard, several times,