A DIPLOMAT by vocation, a collector by avocation, the eponymous "volcano lover" of Susan Sontag's meditative, unconventional, historical romance is a typical man of the Enlightenment. As the British envoy from 1764 to 1800 to the court of Naples (capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), Sir William Hamilton - or, as Sontag dubs him, "the Cavaliere," - divides his time between attending upon the outrageously uncouth Bourbon king and attending to his own special passions: collecting antique vases and o ther objets d'art and exploring the famous, still-active volcano of Mt. Vesuvius.
The Cavaliere is urbane, aristocratic, and possessed of a keenly inquiring mind. He has cultivated an attitude of detached superiority that allows him to take pleasure in life's diversity and vicissitudes. Interested in everything, but disturbed by almost nothing, he is the quintessential expatriate:
"Where those stunned by the horror of the famine and the brutality and incompetence of the government's response saw unending inertia, lethargy, and a hardened lava of ignorance, the Cavaliere saw a flow. The expatriate's dancing city is often the local reformer's or revolutionary's immobilized one, ill-governed, committed to injustice. Different distance, different cities."
Volcanoes, too, look better from a safe distance. But the Cavaliere's boundless curiosity drives him to venture up the mountain again and again to peer into the smoldering crater. It is almost as if his familiarity with the volcano, combined with his aristocratic detachment, has left him feeling immune to its dangers.
"To love volcanoes," the narrator elsewhere observes, "was to put the revolution in its place." The Cavaliere's sense of disengagement, his ability to take the long view, helps him to view with equanimity the massive social upheaval that will shake Europe during his tenure as envoy.
The Cavaliere's wife, Catherine, a devoted, musically gifted woman, does not share his enthusiasm - either for volcanoes or for the vulgar, corrupt Neapolitan court. Yet her gentle and loving presence has been very important to him, so much so that when she dies, still in her early 40s, he loses his zest for life. But then, his life is changed again when a beautiful, vibrant, young woman - the former mistress of his nephew - arrives in Naples to stay with him. Although she is of humble background, a blac ksmith's daughter, she is bright, affectionate, quick to learn, and gifted with a rare ability to enter into other people's feelings. She becomes the Cavaliere's mistress and later - to his family's consternation - his wife. Her married name is one that will become famous and notorious: Emma Hamilton.
The love affair of Emma Hamilton and the great British Admiral Horatio Nelson was a scandal in its time and has been a source of material for novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers ever since - from well-known retellings like Terence Rattigan's play "A Bequest to the Nation" and the Laurence Olivier-Vivien Leigh film of "That Hamilton Woman" to the kind of informal parodies that made the subject of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton a staple of after-dinner charades and tableaux vivants. It has been viewed as a grand love story; it has also been viewed as an outbreak of foolish passion that led a great hero (and otherwise honorable married man) to lose his judgment over a blowsy, no-longer-beautiful, reputedly vulgar, married woman.
In attempting a fresh look at this story in "The Volcano Lover: A Romance," Sontag is resourceful. Her first defense against triteness is to shift the bulk of attention to the neglected figure of Emma's husband, William - "the Cavaliere." In addition to putting a somewhat overshadowed figure into the limelight, this enables the author to portray Emma's charms - and Nelson's charisma - as seen through the eyes of a seasoned diplomat, who feels love and admiration both for his wife and their distinguished friend. Sontag also combats the reader's sense of over-familiarity by almost never referring to the characters by their all-too-well-known names: thus, Hamilton becomes "the Cavaliere" or "the collector," Emma, "the Cavaliere's wife," and Nelson, "the hero." In the same vein, Goethe, who makes a cameo appearance visiting Naples in the course of his famous "Italian journey," is identified simply as "the poet."
Narrating most of the story in her own voice, with plenty of opportunities for essayistic asides, Sontag surveys the salient features of the age. "The collector" and "the poet" are seen as epitomizing the contrast between the old-fashioned Enlightenment desire to add to the sum of knowledge and the "modern" (or Romantic) lust to understand the secrets of nature and human nature in order to be able to transform the world and oneself. Nelson, "the hero," emerges as a figure like his great foe Napoleon: con centrated, dynamic, and single-minded. He is also sincerely devoted to the idea of attaining glory through military bravery. He wants to be admired and "understood."
Some of Sontag's generalizations are surprisingly shopworn, as when she observes that the difference between an age that idealized its heroes and our own preference for seeing them "warts and all" is the result of our democratic dislike of "feeling inferior."
Perhaps Sontag's most impressive achievement is the way she places events in context: from the intimate drama of a love affair to the world-shaking crises of human - and natural - history. Before she is through, we have heard from everyone from the Cavaliere's first wife to Emma's doting mother, not to mention an unwittingly self-incriminating self-defense by Emma. Sontag gives the last word to Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel, one of the band of brave, gifted, and truly cultivated Neapolitan patriots condem ned to death by Nelson - who is in league with the vengeful Bourbon monarchy - for their part in the short-lived Neapolitan Republic.
What are we to think of a "civilized" Cavaliere who allows some of his own friends and fellow-naturalists to perish? And what of the warm-hearted, ever-sympathetic Emma, who cannot be bothered to think of anyone beyond her immediate circle? Sontag's penetrating, insightful portrayal of these people and their times is a devastating illustration of how seemingly minor moral blindness can lead to major moral catastrophes.