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SUSAN SONTAG LIGHTENS UP : The 'Dark Lady' of American Intellectuals Ventures from Her Lofty Terrain into the Steamy Times of an Adultress and Her Besotted Lover

August 16, 1992|ELLEN HOPKINS | Ellen Hopkins is a free-lance writer based in New York City and is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone

Herbert Mitgang once called her a "literary pinup." Customarily acerbic John Simon lauded her in a story titled, "The Light That Never Failed." She has been taken to task in the New Criterion for supposedly promoting a doctrine that would "release high culture from its obligations to be entirely serious." Carlos Fuentes believes her essays to be "great interpretations and even fulfillments of what is really going on." Kevin Costner's character in "Bull Durham" dismissed her novels as "self-indulgent, overrated crap." And Time magazine canonized her as someone who "has come to symbolize the writer and thinker in many variations: as analyst, rhapsodist and roving eye, as public scold and portable conscience."

That, in a somewhat bloated nutshell, is the myth of Susan Sontag--the sphinx-like "dark lady" of American intellectuals, a myth that without aid of a single publicist's release has somehow grown and thrived for nearly 30 years.

The reality of Susan Sontag is a big-boned, beautiful 59-year-old with a great guffaw for a laugh and a sweetly lopsided grin. An Amazon in ratty sweats with a penchant for plopping feet on tables, giving bearhugs to any friend who walks through the door, and inviting perfect strangers to "Tell me about yourself," Sontag in the flesh is, in every way, endearing. She's a doting mother who likes to go on at length about "my son, the writer."Her speech is sprinkled with sort-ofs, kind-ofs and you-knows ("I'm a product of bad American public school education," she says, ruefully). She likes to talk to taxi drivers.

And it is this Susan Sontag--warm, exuberant and direct, rather than her cold, obscurantic legend--that leaps off the page to greet the reader of her about-to-be-released novel, "The Volcano Lover," her first major book in three years and her first whirl at historical romance. Historical romance?

"When I started to write it," Sontag admits, "I thought, this is the weirdest thing I've ever written." Long limbs akimbo, Sontag is standing at ease in the blinkingly sunny Manhattan kitchen that nourishes the mind at the belly's expense (stacks of papers and books, file cabinets and fax and copying machines occupy the counters and cabinets), seemingly oblivious both to the glare and the fact that it's the most humid day of the summer. She takes a swig of hot coffee, sprawls into a chair and continues. "I thought, this book about these 18th-Century characters will have the smallest audience ever, but I'm in love and I have to do it."

Over time, Sontag reassessed her appraisal of the book's likely mass-market appeal. "About halfway through, I realized," she says with a deep chuckle, "no, no, a lot of people are going to like this." Her publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, apparently agrees. A first run of 50,000 hardcover copies is planned, $75,000 has been allocated for the advertising campaign and, most uncharacteristic (for this normally reticent publisher, that is), jacket copy breathlessly describes the book as being "about sex and revolution . . . (having) all the excitement of a major historical romance--and more." Publisher Roger Straus says that his first reading of the novel stunned him so "I almost fell out of bed. My God, I thought, what have we here?" The Book-of-the-Month Club has given its own populist endorsement by making the novel its featured alternate selection for September.

Set in Naples in the late 18th Century, "The Volcano Lover" is based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his notorious wife, Emma (most popularly immortalized in the movie "That Hamilton Woman"), and Emma's celebrated lover, Lord Nelson. Not incidentally, the book also happens to be the repository of much of Sontag's 59 years' worth of stored-up wisdom on the business of living. She writes knowingly of what it's like to be famous, to be an obsessive collector, to be under a sentence of death. In the voices of four different women, she examines the many kinds of love (in one of the novel's most moving passages, she takes on the voice of Emma's devoted, lower-class mum: "How she was the LIGHT OF MY LIFE, if I can speak like they do in plays"). And at the conclusion, her most formidable female character wryly observes: "Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book."

Despite its long-ago setting, the novel has a thoroughly modern subtext, beginning with the narrator entering a flea market in sneakers and jeans in the spring of 1992. And it is recognizably Sontag. In one rather typical aside, the author speculates what would happen if suicide were made easy: "How about . . . a hole, a really deep hole, which you put in a public place, for general use. Say at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. . . . A sign beside the hole reads: 4 pm-8 Mon Wed & Fri/Suicide Permitted."

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