The Volcano Lover: Susan Sontag

★★★★

The man known as the Cavaliere is the British Ambassador in Naples. Refined and courtly, he is a connoisseur of the beautiful, the antique and the imposing. He collects whatever he can – paintings, statues, vases, antiquities acquired legally and illegally from the newly-discovered sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum – and he interests himself in all that is methodical, scientific and educational. But nothing fascinates him as much as the volcano, Vesuvius, which towers over the colourful city which has become his home.

He wants to understand the volcano in all its moods and seasons; he climbs it at different stages of its frequent eruptions; and he tries to understand the chemical makeup of the salts produced in the soil by the lava. For him, it represents something of instinctive power which he can never truly come to understand and, as something which cannot be conquered, it is more intriguing than anything else. The Cavaliere’s life is one of simple pleasures and scientific absorption: in all things he is moderate and correct, even in his relationship with his well-born, reserved wife. He has won the favour of the city’s puerile king, established himself as the host and guide to all distinguished English visitors on the Grand Tour, and won himself further renown as a benefactor of the British Museum. He has been a success.

And then the Cavaliere’s wife dies, leaving him unexpectedly bereft. His nephew and heir, Charles, sees this as an opportunity to help distract his uncle, while solving one of his own problems. Charles suggests that his mistress, a girl of dazzling beauty, should come to stay with the Cavaliere in Naples – thereby freeing Charles up to chase after a more suitable girl to become his wife. What no one can predict is that this dry, elderly connoisseur will fall in love with this most unsuitable of women and, intoxicated with her quick wits, her generosity and her glamour, make her his second wife. Despite their differences, their marriage is another success: they complement each other, each striving to make the other happy. And then a third element enters the equation: a British naval officer, garlanded with laurels and fresh from his triumph at the Battle of the Nile, who comes to Naples to recover from his wounds. The resulting play of relationships, subtle, discreet and exquisitely mapped out, becomes one of the most famous love triangles in history.

This is the first Sontag that I’ve read; I’ve always been scared off before by the notion that she is ‘intellectual’, but I was thoroughly glad to discover that she is nevertheless capable of writing a very good story. Although the essentials – Nelson, Lady Hamilton, Sir William Hamilton – were familiar to me, I had no real knowledge of the details, and Sontag’s wonderful style of storytelling caught me up in its spell. She barely mentions the names of her protagonists until the end of the novel, so they acquire archetypal, almost totemic names: ‘the Cavaliere’, ‘the hero’, ‘the Cavaliere’s wife’. Her language has an eighteenth-century precision and correctness, perfectly evoking the feel of the era, and her measured pace means that the story slowly blossoms into life.

Along the way she thinks about everything: what it means to be a collector; the need for a collector to share his or her collection with others; the fact that when something is not desired by others it loses some of its savour for the owner. She thinks about different forms of loyalty and love, and pointedly asks us to observe that neither of the two star-crossed lovers in her story are young or beautiful. This is a story about real people: the middle-aged, the wounded, the scarred, the overweight. And her characters really do feel incredibly real. It would have been immensely easy for this story to be turned into a generic bodice ripper (with a close-up of some woman’s heaving bosom on the cover, Vesuvius glimpsed through a window). But Sontag turns it into a thoughtful meander through questions about love, life and obsession. The volcano, of course, is a metaphor for all these things. Her style is conversational and coolly elegant:

The lover’s involvement with objects is the opposite of the collector’s, whose strategy is one of passionate self-effacement. Don’t look at me, says the collector. I’m nothing. Look at what I have. Isn’t it, aren’t they, beautiful. The collector’s world bespeaks the crushingly large existence of other worlds, energies, realms, eras than the one he lives in. The collection annihilates the collector’s little slice of historic existence. The lover’s relation to objects annihilates all but the world of the lovers. This world. My world. My beauty, my glory, my fame.

Although this is a very bright, intelligent book – midway between treatise and novel – it isn’t unfeeling or distant or dry: Sontag has immense empathy for her characters and their age. Thanks to her little details dropped in here and there, I’m now itching to read more about the Grand Tour, the early days of the British Museum and William Beckford. She teases every nuance out of situations, considering them from every angle, and as she tells the classic story of a love triangle she manages to make each of her three protagonists equally fallible, equally understandable, equally blessed and humane and flawed. I don’t think I’ve read any other book where the members of a ménage à trois have been so preoccupied with being decent to one another. In a way, she manages to drag the story back from the scandal which it became afterwards, encouraging us to see each of the participants as individuals and victims.

This is a book to read slowly and savour; it makes you think, but it does so very elegantly. Having become immensely familiar with the features of Emma Hamilton over the years, thanks to the number of Romney paintings scattered through England’s country houses, I was pleased to finally learn a bit more about her. Funnily enough, of the three members of the love triangle, she’s the one I didn’t really feel that I understood; and I think that was deliberate on Sontag’s part. Whether it’s historically accurate or not, I don’t know, but her Emma is an empty vessel who is filled with the enthusiasms, passions and concerns of those around her. Charming and eternally desperate to please, she ends up not having any great foundation for her own happiness.

Sontag contrasts her to the Neapolitan poet Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, who provides a passionate counterpoint to the self-indulgence of the three lovers. Inspired with revolutionary fervour, Eleonora is one of the leaders of Naples’s short-lived Republic, which is eventually crushed by Nelson and Cardinal Ruffo. Sontag offers her as a mirror of Emma – Emma, who is feminine, appealing, flattering and defined by the fact she is a woman; Emma, who is excellent at everything she tries her hand at, but who is sometimes careful not to be too excellent, lest she become threatening; Emma, who, without her lovers and her beauty, has no respect for herself. Eleonora offers a cry for a different form of womanhood, and it seems obvious to me that she represents Sontag’s own opinion. It’s an interesting conclusion to a book which isn’t obviously feminist, and a rather appropriate foil for the famous Lady Hamilton:

I was independent. I had not sacrificed my mind to some trivial idea of my sex. Indeed I did not think of myself as a woman first of all. I thought of our just cause. I was glad to forget I was only a woman… I wanted to be pure flame.

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