BOOK REVIEW / How did Emma first kiss Nelson? Discuss: Natasha Walter finds Susan Sontag shrugging off the messiness of fiction in favour of the essay: The Volcano Lover - Susan Sontag: Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99

IT IS A truth universally acknowledged that great critics rarely write great novels. They are too used to the risk-free market. When it comes to the maelstrom of fiction, they either stay on the edge and write detached taradiddles, like George Steiner or Gilbert Adair, or fall in, losing their cool entirely, and then we are left with the mushy embarrassments of a Michael Ignatieff or Julia Kristeva.

Susan Sontag's earlier fiction scarcely qualified as fiction at all, it was so safe, so detached, and quirky and unengaged. A so-called short story called 'Project for a Trip to China' written in 1978 had paragraphs that ran, complete: 'Consider other possible permutations,' or 'Colonialists collect.' But her new novel, The Volcano Lover, is subtitled 'A Romance', went into the bestseller lists in the United States, and weighs in at more than 400 pages.

Certainly, it is not an embarrassment. Sontag maintains her critical distance throughout. By choosing a historical subject - the lives of Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to Naples and collector of antiquities; his second wife Emma and her lover, Lord Nelson - she can flaunt her learning, and can retreat within the carapace of a critic when things look too dangerous outside. That is very clear in the most difficult section of the narrative, when the three darlings of British and Neapolitan society bring disgrace on their heads by instituting a Terror in Naples as retribution for a republican revolt.

Sontag does not even try to discover on her own terms, on fictional or biographical terms, what their motivations were, what scalding guilt they felt or did not feel. She slips briskly into history-student mode, detached and hanging fire: 'Since they were individuals, claiming to be acting for the public good, one says that they did not know what they were doing. Or that they were dupes. Or that they must have felt guilty after all.'

Even during gentler stretches of narrative, Sontag too often shrugs off the messiness of fiction by sticking with the genre she knows and loves - the essay. William Hamilton becomes a pretext for an essay on collecting; Nelson on being a star; Emma on beauty - 'What do you do with beauty? You admire it, you praise it, you embellish it, you display it; or you conceal it . . .'; elsewhere we get short disquisitions on privilege, on art and horror, whatever. These are invariably intelligent and often funny, but because they are here they are not as closely argued as her actual essays, and because they are here they block the movement of the story, with their very pressing, contemporary tone taking over from the historical novelist's essential methods of mimicry and pastiche.

No one expects Sontag to be Marguerite Yourcenar or Leo Tolstoy or Hermann Broch; but some way of representing the voices of her historical characters has to be found. This is her great problem, which she sidesteps in various clever ways. She uses direct quotations from letters or memoirs. She over-uses that style of excessive clipping and repetition, without proper punctuation, that has become so beloved of clever writers forced to deal with the banal. 'The Cavaliere said it was very tasty. The King said, tell me a story. A story, said the Cavaliere.'

She questions the need for mimicry at all with would-be post- modern yearnings over the impossibility of representation. And she destroys its possibility with fey anachronisms, flip 18th-century references to Darwin and Freud - here is an 'evolutionary overachiever', here a 'sign of repressed rage'.

But from time to time Sontag has to do it - do the party, the inquisition, the sex scene, the letter, the interior monologue. And then she often loses control. It is funny to see how Americans have been conditioned to see the historical past as something lived in translation; here are whole paragraphs so tainted with unEnglish phrasing and expression that they would be thrown back in the face of any student presenting them in an unseen paper: 'Learning the news that same morning,' one classic sentence begins, 'the Cavaliere set out in his best carriage to perform the offering of condolences. Upon entering the palace . . .' Mixed in with these Latinate constructions and stilted dialogues are truly archaic uses - splendorous for splendid; acerb for acerbic - and misuses: Catherine Hamilton daubs rather than dabs at her eyes; Goethe herborises when he talks about plants.

Writing a novel is harder than Sontag realises. She said in an interview that she found it simpler than she expected, 'making things up'. It is easy for her, because she stays clear of the emotional discipline of the ideal novel-writer, the negative capability, the sway of empathy, the immediacy of realisation. The typical Sontag scene comes when Emma and Nelson kiss for the first time - a hard scene to make memorable, although it must carry some weight in the demands of the narrative. Sontag gets round the emotional demands by making it happen in a nobleman's folly where all the walls are broken mirrors 'as faceted as a fly's eye', so that the kiss 'was shattered, multiplied in the mirrors above', and we quickly lose interest in the people (if we ever had any) and are thrown back on contemplating their imaginary and symbolic images.

It is a clever way to make the moment stick, but it is not difficult to play out, once the idea has formed. Much harder would be to do the scene without the props, to get the weight of it just by the Emma-Horatio responses. But without such clever sets, without Sontag's critical games, and, let us not forget, without their historical reality, these characters would have little to hold us.

The sad thing is that if Sontag had pushed a bit harder in the other direction, she might have done something rather exciting. Where she lets herself rely on her own insights, we see that they have the irrational rightness and prescience of a natural novelist. So there are scenes to remember in the book: Marie Antoinette on the scaffold, feeling the yoke choking her; Emma Hamilton dancing the tarantella, 'orange with jaundice and bloated with fluids' or dying incognita in Paris, not even telling her daughter who she is, with the 'acrid stream of vomit' choking her last words.

That occasional sensual shock of recognition, if it had been extended, played on and trusted, would have made the novel truly forceful. The real problem is, Sontag does not trust fiction: 'Impossible to describe,' she makes Sir William reiterate on telling a tale. 'He can condescend, he can ironise. He can have an opinion . . . An odor. A taste. A touch. Impossible to describe.'

One day, with all her famed discipline and workaholism, Sontag may well produce a good novel; unfortunately this is not it. In the last analysis, it is not even particularly readable, the essay-snippets aside: there are too many lists, enumerations and abstractions in every chapter for the narrative to find its own rhythm. Although The Volcano Lover has gone to the bestseller lists in the States, I would guess that most of those buying it were accessorising rather than reading.

In this extract from The Volcano Lover, a statue comes to dinner:

A male statue who wakens - in the modern version, a machine given human form and then animated - comes to kill. And his being-really-a-statue packs him full with the martial virtue of single-mindedness, makes him unswervable, implacable, immune to the temptations of mercy.

It's a dinner party. Sophisticated people who have dressed up in handsome and revealing clothes are enjoying themselves in the atmosphere in which such dedicated partygoers enjoy themselves best - something of both brothel and salon, minus the exertions or risks of either. The food, whether chewy or delicate, is bountiful; the wine and champagne are costly; the lighting is muted and flattering; the music, and the aromas of flowers on the table, enveloping and suffusing; some sexual tomfoolery is taking place, both of the wanted and of the other kind ('We're just having fun,' says the would-be Don Juan, interfered with by the one who notices him relentlessly pressing his unwanted attentions on some woman); the servants are efficient and smile, hoping for a good tip. The chairs are yielding, and the guests profoundly enjoy the sensation of being seated. There are treats for all five senses. And mirth and glibness and flattery and genuine sexual interest. The music soothes and goads. For once, the gods of pleasure are getting their due.

And in comes this guest, this alien presence, who is not here to have fun at all. He comes to break up the party and haul the chief reveller down to hell. You saw him at the graveyard, atop a marble mausoleum. Being drunk with self-confidence, and also a little nervous about finding yourself in this cemetery, you made a joke to your sidekick. Then you halloed up to him. You invited him to the party. It was a morbid joke. And now he's here. He's grizzled, perhaps bearded, with a very deep voice and a lumbering, arthritic gait, not just because he is old but because he is made of stone; his joints don't bend when he walks. A huge, granite, forbidding father. He comes to execute judgment, a judgment you thought outmoded or that didn't apply to you. No, you cannot live for pleasure.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past