At the heart of Susan Sontag's new novel a romance is the 'volcano lover,' Sir William



Susan Sontag.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

415 pages. $22. It will doubtless come as a surprise to her readers that Susan Sontag, intellectual par excellence, whose fiction and essays are modernist and theoretical, has subtitled her first novel in 20 years "a romance." The designation is ironic, for the novel, a retelling of the famous love triangle between Sir William Hamilton; his wife, Emma (Lady Hamilton), and her lover, Horatio (Lord Nelson), is in fact more of an anti-romance than a romance.

The "volcano lover" of the title is Sir William, the British ambassador to the Neapolitan court of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Sir William, or the Cavaliere (courtier or knight) as Sontag refers to him in the novel, is an avid connoisseur and

collector. The time is the late 18th century, and Pompeii and Herculaneum are being excavated. Not only art and antiquities but geological specimens and literature relating to volcanology are represented in the Cavaliere's extensive collections.

The novel begins with a self-referential prologue in which Ms. Sontag appears at a contemporary Manhattan flea market and then describes an 18th century London painting auction and a visit to Vesuvius' crater. This is followed by four sections, the first of which depicts the Cavaliere and his first wife -- the frail, devoted Catherine -- and ends with Catherine's death. The second and major section, consisting of more than 200 pages and covering about 30 years, tells the story of the Cavaliere's marriage to Emma and her subsequent love affair with the naval hero Lord Nelson.

Emma Hart was the youthful, beautiful mistress of the Cavaliere's nephew and the favorite model of the artist George Romney (one of his loveliest portraits of her hangs in New York's Frick Collection) when the aging ambassador became infatuated with her. Paying off his nephew's debts, the Cavaliere "acquired" Emma and eventually married her. Raised from lower-class origins, Emma became a real-life Eliza Doolittle -- an accomplished lady, and the confidante and best friend of the Neapolitan queen.

After over a decade of marriage, Emma is growing heavy and nolonger a ravishing beauty. She nurses the wounded Nelson, who sacrificed an arm and an eye in the Battle of the Nile, his recent victory over Napoleon. The Cavaliere's wife and the hero -- as Ms. Sontag refers to them -- become lovers. This is the story popularized in Alexander Korda's 1941 film, "That Hamilton Woman," starring Laurence Olivier as Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Emma. Made during the dark days of World War II, the film was patriotic and romantic, emphasizing Nelson's role as England's savior against Bonaparte. Ms. Sontag's novel criticizes this traditional conception.

As one might expect of Ms. Sontag, the writing is stylized, digressive, earnest and learned. The author's imposition of her own persona in the prologue and first two sections, which at first may irritate readers, is in fact one of the novel's strengths, for Ms. Sontag's speculations are often illuminating and always interesting. In contrast to the movie, which showcased the two lovers, Sir William is at the heart of this novel. One can imagine Ms. Sontag speaking for herself when she writes, "Wherever he was, the Cavaliere was prone to cast himself in the role of the guide or mentor . . . What a deft antidote to anxiety or grief one's own erudition can be."

Her Sir William is more complicated than the embittered, cuckolded husband of Korda's film. Beset by losses -- his wife, his collections, his position -- he is urbane, accommodating, forgiving -- and defeated. His susceptibilities and weaknesses arouse our sympathies. He inspires Ms. Sontag's most brilliant commentaries, concerning the role and character of the collector:

"But what could have been more apt for this great collector of valuable objects than to have also been collecting the very principle of destruction, a volcano. Collectors have a divided consciousness. No one is more naturally allied with the forces in a society that preserve and conserve. But every collector is also an accomplice of the ideal of destruction. For the very excessiveness of the collecting passion makes a collector also a self-despiser."

Ms. Sontag makes the most of volcanic eruption as a metaphor for the tumultuous, destructive politics that involve her characters. Her description of their vision of themselves as patriots "saving England, and Europe, from French conquest and from republicanism" is undercut by irony, and she takes a grim view of their alliance with the Neapolitan royal family and of their condoning the cruel and brutal treatment of suspected pro-republicans after the British Navy put the Bourbons back on the throne in 1799. The book's most painful and terrifying episodes describe the torture of republican sympathizers by the royalist mob or the secret police. She reserves her greatest censure for Nelson, who actively supported the crackdown.

The second section ends with the death of the Cavaliere, now back in England, divested of his collections and discredited. The final two sections present a sequence of five posthumous monologues in which Ms. Sontag speaks through the voices of the Cavaliere; his first wife, Catherine; Emma's mother; Emma herself, and the aristocrat Eleanora Fonseca di Pimental, who was executed for her pro-republican writings. These monologues function as a coda and, except for the last one, they lack the incisiveness that distinguishes the rest of the novel.

It is Eleanora, the martyred republican, who has the final word and with it condemns the leading characters. Nelson is "the champion of British imperial power," William Hamilton "an upper-class dilettante," and his wife an "overwrought . . . enthusiast . . . [with] no genuine convictions."

By closing her book on Eleanora's fierce "Damn them all," the author encourages her readers to re-evaluate her intentions. The principal characters, subjected to this implacable judgment, are found wanting in humanity, and their hold on our sympathies is loosened.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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