The Volcano Lover is I think, Susan Sontag's most accessible book, and was a great pleasure to read. It reminded me so much of my friend Grace, and when, during high school, we first discovered and began to read the European novel of ideas. In addition to enjoying Sontag's novel on its own merits, there was an added layer of pleasure for me in recalling the companionship of my friend and our adolescent encounters with a certain type of novel.
Both a romance and a historical novel, The Volcano Lover recounts the life of a character called simply The Cavaliere, modeled after Sir William Hamilton. It dramatizes the peculiar three-way relationship that Sir William Hamilton fosters with his wife and his friend, famously depicted on screen in That Hamilton Woman. Set in Naples, Italy, a smoldering Vesuvius is an appropriate backdrop to the heated ideas and overwrought emotions that create the atmosphere of the book.
In addition to the retelling of the infamous Hamilton love affair, The Volcano Lover is a meditation on collecting. The Cavaliere is a collector of antiquities, as was Sir William Hamilton, who once provided Sir Josiah Wedgwood with the Portland Vase, which served as an inspiration for his jasperware pottery.
This is where, I think, the book seems relevant to internet culture. Sontag connects the collecting impulse to all acts of enumerating, including counting, classifying, sequencing, and list-making--all of which structure our experience of using and creating the interweb.
Sontag writes, "The list is itself a collection, a sublimated collection. One does not actually have to own the things. To know is to have (luckily for those without great means). It is already a claim, a species of possession, to think about them in this form, the form of a list: which is to value them, to rank them, to say they are worth remembering or desiring."
Yet the collection is always unfinished in Sontag's eyes. Rather than provoking frustration, this unfinished or open-ended aspect is the ideal state of the collection, placing the obsessed collector in a perpetual state of desire. "You think you want to finish it," she writes, "but you don't."
I did not want to finish The Volcano Lover. I lingered over the final chapters, dawdled over its last pages. If you have not read a Susan Sontag book ever, this is an ideal one to start with.