Long-awaited, long in the gestation, and just plain long, this novel by the renowned essayist is a weird hybrid. Ostensibly an historical romance novel about the love affair between 18th-century British naval hero Lord Nelson and the beautiful Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador to Naples, it is overlaid with Sontag's usual piercing cultural and political observations. Consider these ruminations, by Sir William Hamilton, upon the death of his first wife: "Incredulity is our first response to the destruction of something we cherish profoundly. To begin to mourn, one must get past the feeling that this is not happening or has not happened. It helps to be present at the disaster."
Such juxtaposition is common here: characters step out of the narrative to speak in the first person, the author shifts back and forth between period and contemporary language and imagery. At the very least, this allows Son-tag to ruminate on the nature of many things, from art collecting to class war. She even throws in a macabre, late-20th-century wisecrack, observing that as a "murdered city," Hiroshima is "more famous" than Nagasaki: "Nagasaki had a bad press agent."
But as a novel, Volcano is less successful, partly because the tangents are far heftier than the thin story they branch from. The author—who, after all, helped popularize the theory that in art, style has greater impact than content—has said she has tired of writing essays, that she wanted to try something new. This book is her valiant, occasionally interesting attempt to do just that. But it may just make reader-realize they liked the Perevious incarnation better. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22)