PRINT November 1992


Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover: A Romance

The Volcano Lover: A Romance, by Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992.

SUSAN SONTAG’S NOVEL The Volcano Lover: A Romance is the story of Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for forty-odd years; his low-born but high-spirited (some would say bumptious) wife, Emma; and her famous boyfriend, Admiral Lord Nelson. It is also the story of Naples, one of the great cities of the 18th century, and latterly a tale of the Neapolitan Revolution. Sontag is obviously fond of this period, and she does a pretty good job of weaving the historical particulars into an engaging fictional narrative. Also, in spite of her reputation as a pointy-headed modernist savant, she doesn’t skimp on the stuff that aficionados of historical fiction crave—palace intrigue, specific points about decor and haberdashery, and set pieces both opulent and violent. A remake of That Hamilton Woman after the manner of The Volcano Lover could be an improvement.

So it’s a historical novel, although one that the author of Waverley might find difficult to recognize as such. Probably half of it is given over to essayistic digressions on a wide range of topics—everything from the Portland Vase (which Hamilton briefly owned) to telling jokes (this by the way represents Sontag at her wry and knowing worst). The latter 18th century does afford Sontag a lot of good material, and there are times when The Volcano Lover seems like an elegantly belletristic gloss to some massive evolutionary cultural history. At other moments she plays self-consciously with the literature of the past: “It was the beginning of the age of revolutions, it was the beginning of the age of exaggeration.” Behind the upper-class shenanigans that provide the skeleton plot, Sontag—as freewheeling historian of ideas—always plays critic. Indeed, the novel’s real main character is the writer herself, as the United States’ foremost free-floating signifier for highbrow culture. Her hairstyle itself has almost iconic status—that shock of white coursing through passionately raven locks like a cataract of intellectual integrity.

After a recent reading where Sontag presented a chapter from The Volcano Lover, instead of taking questions from the audience she was interviewed on stage. Short questions, long answers. What about your distinctive style, queried the interviewer. Sontag replied that she preferred to speak of “voice” rather than “style.” (The sound of your own, I thought to myself.)

Sontag’s voice, the voice we expect from the author of “Against Interpretation” and Illness as Metaphor, is a sententious, occasionally pompous one. Sontag’s writing, on the other hand, is stylish; she’s always had a flair for elegantly epigrammatic sentences well worth their weight in future quotation. Unfortunately, she can’t resist editorializing. Here she wants her readers to know that there’s more to the picture than classy palazzo hijinx: that really most people were wretchedly poor; that Emma and Nelson weren’t quite as flawlessly noble as Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s portrayals of them; and that crummy things happen to good people, like Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, an aristocratic revolutionary who preaches the need for reform of the theater and opera and is rewarded for her troubles by being sent to the gallows (she informs us in one of the novel’s final soliloquies from-beyond-the-grave that in this instance she had wanted to lean on one of the privileges usually accorded her class—beheading). What makes these details really annoying is the fact that they are plainly embedded in the narrative. Sontag does such a good job describing the terror Nelson visited on the vanquished Neapolitan revolutionaries that it made me want to scream when she had to render fatuous judgment on him: “Shame on the Hero!”

Still, Sontag is having fun in The Volcano Lover; probably most readers will, too. It certainly is vastly better than her previous pickled-in-formaldehyde novels, The Benefactor and Death Kit. And her slightly ridiculous status as talk-show-circuit intellectual mouthpiece actually makes me like her more. After all, consider the alternative: Camille Paglia.

David Rimanelli is a writer living in New York.