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For his part, he declared, he would happily swap any of second-rate sonnets for one of Claude Levi-Strauss's "Tristes Tropiques," and whole shelves full of indifferent novels for a single chapter of Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams. That point, however, loses some of its acuity when one recalls that Mr. Steiner has committed fiction of his own -- three books of it, in fact. Would he exchange his first volume of tales, "Anno Domini," for a of his "Language and Silence"?
Perhaps he would; yet it seems that even the profoundest critics are not content merely to criticize fiction, but itch also to produce the stuff. A historical novel by Susan Sontag? And a historical novel that declares itself shamelessly, one almost wants to say to be a romance, at that?
Who would have thought it? Although she has written fiction in the past, Ms. Sontag is best known as a critic who for the last 30 years has been one of the leaders of the avant-garde in the United States, the American champion and interpreter of such quintessentially European figures as Roland Barthes and E. Surely the author of that seminal essay "Against Interpretation" would look with nothing but scorn upon a modern-day attempt to produce something worthwhile in such a tired old genre as the historical novel?
Well, not a bit of it. Sir Walter Scott would surely have approved of it; in fact, he would probably have enjoyed it immensely. THE "volcano lover" of the title is Sir William Hamilton, the British diplomat and antiquary who is best remembered as the complaisant husband of Emma Hamilton, notorious mistress of Admiral Nelson.
The book is set for the most part in Naples, where, from until his recall under a cloud inSir William was the British envoy to the court of the egregious Bourbon monarch Ferdinand IV, later to become Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies, and his formidable Austrian wife, Maria Carolina, sister of Marie Antoinette. The novel is a kind of triptych, divided among Hamilton, his wife and Lord Nelson.
Sontag presents her characters in a way that is at once stylized and intimate; they might be figures from an old ballad, or even from the tarot pack. Thus Sir William is referred to throughout by his Italian sobriquet of "Cavaliere," Emma is "the Cavaliere's wife" and Nelson, of course, is "the hero.
The novel opens with a prologue that invites us to accompany the author on Sontag MS wife swapping visit to the flea market of history: "Why enter? What do you expect to see? I'm seeing. I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left. Sontag, however, has set her aim on a broad audience, and very rapidly -- indeed, at the turn of a -- we find ourselves set down squarely in a solid and recognizable world: "It is the end of a picture auction.
London, autumn of He has tried and failed to sell a thing he loves dearly, a "Venus Disarming Cupid" by Correggio. The Cavaliere is a cold fish, but he has two grand passions. The first is his collection of art and artifacts, the second is volcanoes, and in particular Mount Vesuvius, which, thanks to his posting to Naples, he has ample opportunity to study. It is a measure of Ms. Sontag's skill and artistic tact that she does not labor the contrasts between the calmness and frailty of man-made treasures and the unpredictability and chaotic forcefulness of nature, while yet managing to keep this theme firmly in view throughout.
In the love that erupts between Emma and Lord Nelson, the Cavaliere encounters another of those natural phenomena that he can only observe, never experience. The first hundred s or so constitute a portrait of the Cavaliere and his world, and although in her central character it might seem the author is working with poor material, this is, I think, the richest and most convincingly detailed section of the book.
When Emma, and then Nelson, come on the scene, the perspective broadens, with a consequent loss of depth. Particularly good is the portrayal of the Cavaliere's first wife, Catherine, a Welsh heiress, refined, delicate, unhappy and hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with her husband.
After Catherine, who has always been frail, dies from what the doctor diagnoses as "a paralysis," the Cavaliere's nephew, Charles Greville, sends his mistress to Naples. She presents herself as a widow, Mrs. Hart, but she is really the impossibly beautiful daughter of a village blacksmith "who had come to London at 14 as an underhousemaid, was seduced by the son of the house" and "soon found more dubious employment.
Sontag does her proud. She catches Emma's gaiety, her cheerful vulgarity, her selfishness, her love of life, her cruelty. Nelson, too, is portrayed with vividness and subtle skill. The author brings a skeptical sensibility to bear on their grand passion, yet shows us too how lovers delude and sustain themselves with fictions that are not only necessary but also plausible. Emma was a rose, though somewhat overblown by the time Nelson met her.
And he was a hero, though also a martinet, a muddler and a merciless tyrant, as Ms. Sontag shows when Ferdinand and his vengeful consort send the British admiral to deal with the rebellious nobility of Naples after the fall of its short-lived republic in The novel closes with the posthumous testament of Eleonora Pimentel, one of the leaders of the republican movement, an enlightened thinker and minor poet who was one of the many important figures of Neapolitan society whom Nelson summarily executed for their part in the rebellion.
On a visit to Naples, Goethe referred to, of course, as "the poet" tells Emma: "The great end of art is to strike the imagination. And, in pursuing the true grandeur of de, it may sometimes be necessary for the artist to deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth. Sontag herself. And yet, another of the perils of this kind of fiction is the tendency of the author to become hypnotized by facts, to let them weigh down the narrative. In places, "The Volcano Lover" does become somewhat dropsical, swollen with the accumulation of historical evidence no sources are cited, howeverbut for the most part it proceeds with an admirable lightness of step.
There is an operatic quality to the tale Baron Scarpia makes frequent, villainous appearancesand a grand, at times majestic, sweep to the telling. The style is confident, vigorous, witty. If they did not exist, nobody would have ever invented them. Some of the set pieces are worthy of a Marguerite Yourcenar or a Simon Schama, and there are wonderful touches of grotesque comedy. When, for example, the ship carrying the Cavaliere's precious collection of antique vases begins to sink, the sailors save what they believe is one of his treasure chests, which turns out to contain the corpse of a British naval officer -- an admiral, as playful fate would have it -- pickled in alcohol, being brought home for burial.
I find "The Volcano Lover" impressive, at times enchanting, always interesting, always entertaining; yet it also seems to me curiously hollow. I wish I could like it less and admire it more.
What is missing is the obsessiveness of art, that leporine, glazed gaze that confronts us from out of the s of many a less densely textured but altogether more concentrated work. Will it seem cantankerous in the extreme if I say that Ms. Sontag cares too much? Art is amoral, whether we accept this or not; it does not take sides.
The finest fictions are cold at the heart. For all the author's evenhandedness, we sense clearly behind her studied fiction a passionate moral intelligence hard at work; this is to Ms. Sontag's great personal credit, of course, but peculiarly damaging to her art. But then perhaps she did not set out to write a work of pure fictional art.
In its almost encyclopedic discursiveness, "The Volcano Lover" displays -- intentionally, I am sure -- the influence of the 18th-century French philosophein particular Denis Diderot.
It operates in that broad but nebulous area between fiction and essay, in which Hermann Broch's "Death of Virgil" is the supreme exemplar, and which in our time is occupied by writers such as Milan Kundera and V. However, what will stay with me from "The Volcano Lover" are those moments when the author forgets about the broad facts of history and homes in on this or that detail of her grand ant, letting her imagination have full and formidable play.
When the doings of heroine, hero, king and poet have faded from my memory, I shall still have a clear and precise picture of the Cavaliere's pet monkey, Jack: "The monkey put his paw on the Cavaliere's wig and uttered a small cry. He patted the wig, then inspected his black palm, tensing and unfurling it. He lives in a place that for sheer volume of curiosities -- historical, natural, social -- could hardly be surpassed. It was bigger than Rome, it was the wealthiest as well as the most populous city on the Italian peninsula and, after Paris, the second largest city on the European continent, it was the capital of natural disaster and it had the most indecorous, plebeian monarch, the best ices, the merriest loafers, the most vapid torpor, and, among the younger aristocrats, the largest of future Jacobins.
Its incomparable bay was home to freakish fish as well as the usual bounty. It had streets paved with blocks of lava and, some miles away, the gruesomely intact remains, recently rediscovered, of two dead cities. Its handsome, highly sexed aristocracy gathered in one another's mansions at nightly card parties, misleadingly called conversazioniwhich often did not break up until dawn. On the streets life piled up, extruded, overflowed. Certain court celebrations included the building in front of the royal palace of an artificial mountain festooned with meat, game, cakes and fruit, whose dismantling by the ravenous mob.
During the great famine of the spring ofpeople went off to the baker's with long knives inside their shirts for the killing and maiming needed to get a small ration of bread. The Cavaliere arrived to take up his post in November of that year.
The expiatory processions of women with crowns of thorns and crosses on their backs had passed and the pillaging mobs disbanded. The grandees and foreign diplomats had retrieved the silver that they had hidden in convents. The air intoxicated with smells of the sea and coffee and honeysuckle. Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle.Sontag MS wife swapping
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