The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!

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3 comments

  1. Lori, what an endorsement! I feel like I must read this now, especially given the art theme. Gosh, I haven’t read Sontag in years. I know she is is an amazing writer. “The Volcano Lover” sounds fascinating, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Touches on profound subjects. I’m thrilled just from your review!

    Excellent. Another book to add to my ever-growing list. So many good things out there, I just have to get to them all!

    Claudia

  2. Claudia! I was so excited to learn that Sontag had written something that centered around art. She is such an absorbing writer. “The Volcano Lover” is such a “thinking” book too — through her characters, she ponders philosophy & life out loud, which makes it really unforgettable. (In other words, you don’t have to intuit too much from the characters actions or words what the deeper ideas are — Sontag comes right out and states them.) I’ve thought about it a lot ever since I turned the last page!

    Thank you for commenting!

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