A historical novel seems a radical departure for Sontag, whose critical work scorns realistic fiction and argues in favor of avant-garde styles that challenge conventional ideas about the self and society. However, on another level, The Volcano Lover is an experimental novel. The narrator writes what are, in effect, mini-essays about the nature of art, why people collect it and prize it, and why Sir William Hamilton, in particular, was drawn to the beautiful. The novel is, in other words, about the aesthetic view of life which is, nevertheless, attached to the world of politics and history. Sir William Hamilton is, after all, a British ambassador living in Naples. He is a volcano lover and traverses the hot surface of Mount Vesuvius, an obvious metaphor for the passion that he is able to express only intermittently in his political life and in his marriage to Emma.
Into this aesthetic world Nelson (called only “the hero”) intrudes, enticing both Sir William and his wife to his side. Nelson’s boldness, his attentiveness, and his single-minded devotion to England and to his destiny as a hero make him irresistible—except to the narrator, whose ironic tone questions the brutal consequences of Nelson’s devotion to honor and patriotism.
Both a critical and popular success (the novel was a best seller), The Volcano Lover came at a unique moment in Sontag’s career, justifying her shift away from the essay form to that which she regarded as a more creative, capacious, and spontaneous kind of writing. Her radical politics and her aesthetics remain an important ingredient in the novel, but in this new form of fiction, she is able to harness her ideas to a very romantic and appealing story.