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Sontag's new flair for fiction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- It was Crash Davis, the hard-nosed minor league catcher with a literary bent and esoteric air, who gave in the movie "Bull Durham" one of the great declarations of personal philosophy: "I believe in the hangin' curveball, the high-fiver, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that there should be a constitutional amendment banning artificial turf and the designated hitter."

As platforms go, it might not be enough to get elected, but it was enough to get Crash, as played by Kevin Costner, a place in the heart -- and bed -- of the college professor baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon). But now there's bad news for Crash Davis. Ms. Sontag has taken another swing at novel-writing, and this time she might just make it a career.

Certainly, the mostly laudatory reviews rolling in for "The Volcano Lover," her just-published third novel, have been a major boost for Ms. Sontag, who had written two novels in the 1960s but subsequently turned to essays, short stories and plays.

But she says there's more: That, at the advanced age of 59, after more than 30 years of writing and a career as social and literary critic, she has found the literary form she was destined to use.

"I guess I was scared of writing fiction -- I was scared that it would isolate me from my audience, but at the same time it was what I most wanted to do," says Ms. Sontag in the sitting room of her splendid Chelsea penthouse apartment overlooking the Hudson River.

"But then I began to have more confidence. I began to change. I think I'm a late bloomer. Contrary to what it looked like -- because I was a precocious child -- in fact, I'm very slow."

Now, she shows almost girlish enthusiasm as she talks about the development of "The Volcano Lover" -- her first novel since 1967's "Death Kit" -- and how she came to choose a novel based on the celebrated love triangle of Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and Emma's lover, the famous British admiral Lord Nelson.

"Before, I would go back to essays after writing a novel," says Ms. Sontag, still striking-looking with her tall, slender form and coal-black hair with its famous streak of white in the front. "I didn't have the confidence to do another book. But secondly, and primarily, the kind of pleasure -- and more than pleasure, a euphoria -- that I felt while writing it confirmed that I could write fiction. So now I don't want to do anything else."

That includes doing the kind of culture-defining essays that helped make her reputation in the '60s and '70s as an avant-garde intellectual. Restlessly, she moved from subject to subject, turning her inquisitive eye on varied topics such as pop culture ("Notes on Camp"), photography ("On Photography") and how societies view the sick ("Illness as Metaphor"). A writer deeply steeped in the tradition of European intellectualism, Ms. Sontag earned a reputation both as a brilliant, original thinker and, as Crash noted, the very symbol of a self-absorbed, out-of-touch, leftist artiste.

But now, there is little doubt that essay-writing is low on her list. "My tendencies in writing those essays was to write about things that had been neglected, or to attempt a counterweight to more acceptable ideas," she says. "Some of them did get a lot of attention. Some of them I am proud of and I think are really good, and after all the essay is a literary form, too."

Ms. Sontag is not an interview subject who needs much prompting; she will pause momentarily, then move on and explore each nuance until, like in her essays, she feels the matter has been fully explained. So now she leans back in her chair, wraps her arms around her shins like a college sophomore at a dorm bull session, and continues:

"I don't know if you saw any past interviews with me, but I was always saying, sort of like I would stop smoking, that I would

stop writing essays. I was saying that for years, but it was really hard to stop. It was hard to stop not because I liked writing essays -- actually, I find them much harder to write than fiction -- but because they got such a response. It's very gratifying to realize that what you write matters to people."

But in the 1980s she found out that writing fiction also could reach her audience in other ways. "Some things happened before I began 'The Volcano Lover,' " she continues. "A story memoir that appeared in the New Yorker called 'Pilgrimage,' and what I call the illness story and other people call the AIDS story ['The Way We Live Now'] -- they both got the most extraordinary response. I got hundreds and hundreds of letters from people in a couple of weeks, and it went on and on. Writing those pieces gave me a lot more confidence. I realized that I had gotten out of that box that I had gotten myself in in terms of tone and emotional range and subject matter."

In 1989, she began working on "The Volcano Lover" -- the title refers to Hamilton, a noted art collector who had commissioned several prints of Mount Vesuvius, which fascinated him. As a collector herself -- she has in her penthouse apartment about 15,000 books, in addition to innumerable prints and pieces of sculpture -- Ms. Sontag found Hamilton fascinating.

"I'm not a specialist," she says. "I didn't know anything more about the late 18th century, and certainly not Italian history or Neapolitan history, than I do about anything else, which is to say not very much.

"But I love the period in literature. I love the books of the late 18th century. I love the freedom and the irony." With praise for "The Volcano Lover" coming from such critics as A. S. Byatt ("a slippery, intelligent, provocative and gripping book," she wrote in the Washington Post), Ms. Sontag is already plotting out her next novel, which will be set in California in the late 1800s. It's a homecoming of sorts. She grew up in Southern California before going off to the University of Chicago, and then in the 1960s to New York.

"This book will surprise people, because everybody thinks I'm such a Europhile -- which I am -- but I'm still very excited about it," she says. After a close brush with death in the mid-1970s -- she had breast cancer, which she wrote about in "Illness as Metaphor" -- and with her newfound love for novel-writing, Ms. Sontag seems deliciously at peace as she concludes her sixth decade (a $340,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 1990 probably doesn't hurt, either). She talks easily and with good humor about her reputation and image with the public.

Told about conservative writer R. Emmett Tyrrell's recent dismissal of Ms. Sontag as "a perpetual graduate student," she claps her hands delightedly. "That's not a bad thing at all," she says. "I think it's a very good description and I feel quite comfortable with it. The only thing I might quarrel with is the word 'graduate.' I think I am a student. I love to learn things."

Then there's Mr. Crash Davis to consider. It was deliciously ironic that Ms. Sontag, a lover of film, would troop to see "Bull Durham" unsuspectingly to receive his well-placed zinger.

"Oh, I thought it was ridiculous," she says with a laugh. "Everybody remembers this, but I have to keep reminding myself that this is just some screenwriter working in a motel trying to be funny. And there's this particular moment when Kevin Costner has to show Susan Sarandon that he's really smart, and he's not just this lunk who never read a book. And so to attack me was a scriptwriter's device. But of course it makes me cringe."

Anyway, she says a few minutes later, tossing her hair back in mock defiance, "I thought Susan Sarandon should have defended me."

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