Nicholas's Reviews > The Volcano Lover: A Romance

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
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** spoiler alert ** Historical fiction seems like a terribly difficult genre to write in. Make one mistake and you've written a history. Lean too far in the other direction and you end up with a Mills & Boon. Maintain anything less than a tight focus and you end up with something that is alternately disinterested history, feminist critique, and, yes, romance, but which fails to come together satisfyingly.

Not that The Volcano Lover isn't an interesting book. Sontag manages to turn a set of fairly unlikeable characters and a story that plays out on the sidelines of a great historical event (rather than being one itself) into something compelling and, occasionally, thought-provoking.

The novel describes the life of Sir William Hamilton ("The Cavaliere"), Emma Hamilton, and Lord Nelson ("The Hero"), when Sir William was stationed in Naples as the English ambassador. It follows their lives through the romance between Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, their flight from Naples, and Emma's ultimate abandonment and death.

The novel is divided into two sections. The first part, occupying a good hundred pages or so, introduces us to the Cavaliere and his passions: volcanology and collecting. This part contains some stunning historical writing, but lacks the sarcastic authorial intrusions that undermine, and then rescue, the book as a whole. The Cavaliere is, simply, a bland person. Although Sontag is at pains to describe his "passions", she cannot do much with the material she has to work with, and the Cavaliere is not a passionate man. He is described as a dilettante twice, first by Goethe ("What a simple-minded epicurean this Englishman was. [...:] A mere dilettante, he would have called him, had dilettante not then been a term of praise.") and then at the end of the novel by Eleonora Pimentel ("Who was the esteemed Sir William Hamilton but an upper-class dilettante enjoying the many opportunities afforded in a poor and corupt and interesting country to pilfer the art and make a living out of it and to get himself known as a connoisseur.") With these statements Sontag seems to self-consciously acknowledge the difficulty of weaving a story around a character who begins passively and becomes only more passive as his life progresses.

The second part of the novel describes the story involving the Cavaliere, his new wife Emma Hamilton, and the Hero (Lord Nelson) -- the famous love triangle, and their joint involvement in the retaliation against key figures in the French revolution. This portion should have been a more interesting study. Emma Hamilton is undoubtedly an interesting character, far more full of life than the Cavaliere, and with an actual story arc. Unfortunately the novel doesn't really do her justice. Her transition from romantic idealist to broken mercenary is jumpy, and mostly told through indifferent eyes. When she finally dies ignominiously, in dire poverty, it is hard to empathise with her, or, in fact, to feel anything at all.

A major theme in this novel is the role of women. This is quite understandable given the author, but it comes up unexpectedly in the story. For women in this novel, for example, sex is only positive as far as it benefits them--and sex can only benefit women by pleasing the men whose approval they seek. For the Queen of Naples it is a way to keep the eternally-childish king content so that she may run the court without interference. For Emma Hamilton's mother it is the way through which Emma will ensure their livelihood in Naples. Sontag can't resist some direct authorial commentary on this issue, and it is always jarring. For example, the blame for much of the scandalous behaviour of the trio after the Revolution is attributed to Emma Hamilton: "Letting the woman, or women, in the story take the rap is a resourceful way of occluding the full coherence as politics of what was decreed from the hero's flagship. (This is often part of misogyny's usefulness.)" The is a powerful sentence, and would be fantastic if the story were, say, an essay on attitudes towards women in the 18th century, but instead it's delivered as an addendum, not more than a couple of pages long, following a graphic description of the hangings of various nobles--a graphic description which does not include Emma Hamilton in any way at all--not even in a positive light. If you're going to make a point about sexism in the 18th century, why not tie it into the story?

The best parts of the story, though, are Sontag's acerbic, narrative-breaking interjections. These are delicious and historically well-informed. On the role of women in the new French republic: "The new model of rule, which revoked whatever legitimate claim women had to governance, was the assembly--composed only of men, since it derived its legitimacy from a hypothetical contract among equals. Women, defined as neither fully rational nor free, could not be a party to this contract". On Galatea and golems: "Rarely does a female statue come to life in order to take revenge. But when the statue is a man, his purpose is almost always to do or to avenge a wrong. " On irony: "Irony is the staple response of the English gentleman expatriate to the weirdness, the uncouthness of the locals among whom he finds himself obliged (even if it be by his own choice) to live. Being ironical is a way of showing one's superiority without actually being so ill-bred as to be indignant."

Back in Naples, Sontag remains slavishly historically accurate, and this dedication affects the story in curious ways. Aware that she has no macroscopic control over her character's actions, she doesn't seem to attempt to understand them properly in order to explain what they do. As a result, the characters sometimes feel like puppets, doing things without any real justification. The characters in the book aren't named, but are instead referred to as The Cavaliere, The Cavaliere's Wife, The Hero -- Sontag seems to take her own self-consciousness at working with stereotypes, rather than fully-fledged human beings, and manages to make the reader feel self-conscious, too.

Susan Sontag once declared that "the white race is the cancer of human history". Only much later did she offer a partial apology -- to cancer victims. This is not the book I expected from someone capable of making such a statement, especially in a novel about forbidden romance, revolution, and volcanoes. I expected less caution, and more fire.
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Reading Progress

July 10, 2009 – Shelved
Started Reading
July 12, 2009 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Liedra (new)

Liedra A thoughtful and interesting review! Can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic about reading this book now though :(
Thanks, Nicholas!

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