That’s a nice avant-garde girl like Susan Sontag doing in a place like 18th-century Naples? Having fun, for one thing. The Volcano Lover: A Romance, a robust and ruminative historical novel, communicates the pure pleasure Sontag has taken in her subject — one of the most celebrated love triangles in the annals of adultery.
In 1798 Adm. Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero, began his notorious affair with Emma Hamilton, the legendary beauty and former prostitute who had become first the mistress, then the wife of a man old enough to be her grandfather, Sir William Hamilton. Astute and esteemed ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, avid collector of antiquities, ardent student of Vesuvius and other volcanoes, and unruffled cuckold, Hamilton dominates the first half of the book. Consider that the affair took place in teeming, sensual, superstitious Naples, ruled by its fat and uncouth Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV, who in turn was ruled by his Austrian queen, the sister of Marie Antoinette, and you have the perfect subject for a writer with a taste for baroque passion and grotesque obsolescence.
But Susan Sontag? She made her reputation in the ’60s as the black-clad high priestess of What’s Happening Now in essays like ”Notes on Camp” and ”On Style” (collected in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will). These and her earlier fiction (The Benefactor, Death Kit) are full of shrewd observations, but they also strike poses — the poses of an amiable and earnest American woman trying hard to be an oblique and thorny European modernist. Her later nonfiction (e.g., Illness as Metaphor) strikes a more cautionary note, warning against the portentousness that she had sometimes indulged in. She seems to have realized that she is less interested in history as grist for a theoretical mill than as a commotion of individuals. In any case, The Volcano Lover is a dazzling eruption of pent-up storytelling, and 18th-century Naples, the ”kingdom of the immoderate, of excess, of overflow,” turns out to be the material Sontag’s fictional instincts had been waiting for.
In fact, indolent, ornate, riotous Naples tends to upstage the romance. So do Sontag’s enticing tangents — on the obsessive psychology of collectors, on irony and melancholy, on the privations and resilience of women. The romantic triangle, like the one-armed, one-eyed Admiral Nelson, is a bit lopsided, since Sontag has more sympathy for William and Emma than for the man she refers to, with ironic acerbity, as ”the hero.” But then Nelson had a major role in the carnage that serves as the book’s chamber of horrors — the cutthroat reprisals the Bourbons carried out against the liberal aristocrats and intellectuals who briefly established a republic in Naples. The other principal characters explain themselves in monologues at the end of the book; ”the hero” is left out, which seems, in a novel distinguished by the complexity of its perspective and sympathy, a mistake. There are some other flaws — mannered passages, some lapses in 18th-century diction. But like the greatest novel about Italy ever written by a foreigner, Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Sontag’s book brings together politics, passion, and psychological observation, and it’s written with an exuberant curiosity that is thoroughly contagious.