Modjeska & Sontag

My theater-programming colleague here at the PCI, Agata Grenda, has been working on a program about the fascinating nineteenth-century Polish celebrity Helena Modjeska (née Benda, aka Modrzejewska). Modjeska was a Shakespearean actress who rose from humble beginnings to become a star of the Warsaw stage, immigrated with her nobleman husband to California, where they founded a utopian community, then reinvented herself as an American actress to become a star in this country, too. The Polish Cultural Institute is co-sponsoring two events to commemorate Modjeska, who died a hundred years ago this year: a panel discussion on April 8th at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, with Duke University Professor Beth Holmgren and Polish Shakespeare scholar Andrzej Żurawski; and the official unveiling of a memorial plaque at St. Stanislaus Church in Manhattan’s East Village (where Modjeska’s final funeral ceremony in America took place before her remains were shipped to Poland for burial).

In my increasing curiosity about her, I turned of course to the interwebs and immediately stumbled on Susan Sontag’s 2001 novel IN AMERICA, a fictionalized account of Modjeska’s life (the publication and story of which were overshadowed first by allegations of plagiarism and then by mediated public outcry over Sontag’s critical statements following the destruction of the World Trade Center in mid-September 2001). I remember when the book came out, but forgot all about it until today.

The opening chapter, which I’ve just read now on Googlebooks, is interesting from a technical viewpoint since it fictionalizes the process of fictionalization itself. The “uninvited, unseen” narrator begins the narration while people-watching at a party, setting her sights on the charismatic figure of Modjeska, whom she names.

It seemed to me I’d caught her name, it was either Helena or Maryna—and 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.

This coyly mistaken nomenclature levers the surface of the text away from the biographical lathing behind it. It  allows Sontag to assert the fictive and the real qualities of the narrative simultaneously, to have her realism and eat it too. In any case, Sontag taps into her own—and everyone else’s it would seem—fascination for this historical person, Helena Modjeska, and uses it to propel the story:

I had no doubt that all the men and several of the women must be at least a little in love with Maryna. But it was more, or less, than love. They were enthralled by her. I wondered if I could be enthralled by her, were I one of them, not merely someone watching, trying to figure them out.

I’ve unfortunately only read Sontag’s essays, so I can’t speak for this book as a whole, but I understand, I think, at least a little of Sontag’s thrall; and this, and the fact that what I’ve read so far is stylistically quite remarkable, makes me want also to read this novel (not on Googlebooks tho’). The more one looks at Modjeska’s life, the more fascinating it becomes, even a century later; and Sontag seems to be exploring that capacity to enthrall—and the capacity to be in thrall—here, too.

hmodjeska_lg ssontag

Incidentally, Susan Sontag has done a great service to the cause of literature by establishing the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, which is awarded annually (the first award was given in 2008) to “a literary translator under the age of 30 for a translation project of his or her own design.” More information about the award can be found at the Susan Sontag Foundation website.

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