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That Hamilton Woman : THE VOLCANO LOVER: A Romance, By Susan Sontag (Farrar Straus Giroux: $22; 440 pp.)

August 16, 1992|RICHARD EDER

Susan Sontag at play. That is not remarkable in itself. Double-domes make their stabs at levity: George Will writing about baseball; Chief Justice William Rehnquist capering solemnly--I saw him--in an amateur production of "Patience"; John Kenneth Galbraith trying his hand at an academic novel.

What sets "The Volcano Lover" apart from such heavy-footed exercises is not just that it is light-footed but also that, as play, it is both great fun and serious fun. Writing what I suppose could be called a historical novel about the celebrated and sloppy triangle of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Lady Emma Hamilton and her celery-stalk husband, Sir William Hamilton, Sontag condescends not at all.

The cross-country impetus of her thinking is as nervy as ever. But it is transmogrified. It is ideas as a game--real ideas and real game--as sentient and agile as a choreography of Michael Jordan's sneakers.

Sontag tells a story and tells it extremely well, with speculative digressions and comment that serve, as in "Tristram Shandy," to open the picaresque mental landscape through which the narrative marches. When the digressions are a trifle long-winded, it almost seems like human respect; a witty person may be long-winded but this can be an amiable trait, like corpulence; you don't just shut it off.

She also respects her story. It is a vehicle to say things about women and their mismanaged fires--the volcano of the title, which nicely arranges to be Mt. Vesuvius as well. It speaks about men and their vulnerable outrages, about the English character, about the frailty of revolutions and the deadly power of counterrevolutions, about the inhuman aspects of art and power, and the richly decomposing stew of history that is Naples, where the book is set.

But it is an invigorating story in its own right. Sir William Hamilton, distantly connected to the king, finds himself Minister to the Court of Naples at the time of the French Revolution. (He had hoped for Madrid, but his connection was too puny.) He is a chilly egotist whose ruling passion is collecting art, antiquities and scientific specimens; notably, fresh lava scooped up at personal risk from the perpetually rumbling Vesuvius.

A depth in Sir William responds to the volcano's own churning depths, but his ingrained response to being moved is to collect. Thus, when his seemingly complaisant wife dies, and his nephew sends over a discarded mistress to get her out of the way, Sir William is smitten to the point of making a scandalously unsuitable marriage.

Emma is a former artist's model who worked--just how, is left to the imagination--for a doctor specializing in the cure of impotence. She is vulgar, ravishing and a vital force; she ravishes Sir William. Imprisoned in his overbred nature, he can only treat her as an objet d'art.

Among Sontag's many bravura interjections is the argument that collecting is essentially a masculine activity. It stems from a man's innate and oddly isolating assurance that he has a place in the world and, conversely, that the world belongs to him. Women, paradoxically, are too close to the world and too responsive to it to command such gassy assurance. Similarly--the connection is arcane but inveigling--it is only men who can tell a joke properly.

Emma the volcano can be collected no more than Vesuvius can. When young Nelson sails in, to protect Naples from Napoleon and to prop up the dissolute Bourbon king and his ferocious Hapsburg wife, the grand passion ignites. It sustains itself through Nelson's triumphant comings and goings, and through a brief menage a trois residence in England. (Having lost ownership of his prize collectible, Sir William stays on as a kind of curator; there is a splendid image of him and Nelson fussing together over the household accounts.) After the husband's death and Nelson's own death at Trafalgar, Emma perishes in destitution despite the hero's dying plea to his countrymen--grateful, but only just--to look after her and their child.

Nelson is an imp of fame; willful, avid, innocent and cruel. He is not quite real. Reality is a burden that rather hampers history's great achievers, and Sontag's Nelson is all the more effective in his will- o'-the-wisp character of a sanguinary Peter Pan. I sense a wry suggestion in Sontag's sunny feminism, which manages to be both stirring and mocking, that male reality can also be a burden to the passions of a Real Woman.

Certainly Emma is a Real Woman. A ravishing milkmaid beauty when she comes out from England, she stops Neapolitan passers-by in their tracks. She brings her cheerfully Hogarthian mother with her, and the latter's dryly disenchanted account in one of the book's several epilogues is shrewd and terribly moving.

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