Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Violins and Volcanoes

The Violins of Saint Jacques, a 1953 novella of some 140 pages, stands out by virtue of its claim to fame as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s sole work of fiction. Those familiar with Fermor’s many outstanding travel books will know that this is true only at a slant; his other works, based in fact and rich in historical and cultural detail, include passages of prose capable at any moment of blowing up like splendid dust devils of imagination into whirls of fantasy and poetry that entwine with the fictional realm. As though an experiment in inverse manner, Violins weaves into its fictional narrative a wealth of factual and historical detail equal to that in any of Fermor’s non-fictional works, as though he’s chosen to use the mold itself rather than the model, providing us a kind of negative of his usual approach such that the fictional elements dominate. The result is a baroque confection of rare concentration, compression and color in which the fiction is created parallel to an actual historical event, such that the full force of the event itself – the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pelée on the Caribbean island of Martinique on May 2, 1902, which purportedly killed all but one of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants – resonates in a way that an actual historical account never could (or should).

Fermor uses a framing mechanism to tell the story: the novel’s narrator, while on the Greek island of Mythilene, encounters one Berthe de Rennes, an elderly, worldly traveler and amateur painter who eventually tells him the extraordinary tale behind one of her paintings, a depiction of a smoldering volcano dominating an island town where a grand ball is under way. Essentially, the tale Berthe tells is that of the Mount Pelée disaster, though Fermor has elected to shift the site of the catastrophe to the fictitious island of Saint Jacques des Alisés, imaginarily located to the east of Guadalupe, Marie Galante and Dominica, and the date of the catastrophe – while still in 1902 – to Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). Berthe, while still a young woman, has quit the continent and moved to the island for adventure, welcomed as governess by a branch of her family, the Serindans, who own much of the island’s wealth. While the early part of the novel details Berthe’s installation and introduces the novel’s cast of characters, much of the narrative centers on the elaborate ball that takes place on the island the night of the catastrophe and which Fermor depicts in page after page of characteristically glorious Fermoresque description. This must surely rank among literature’s greatest parties, and includes a lovely passage summing up the experience that a great fête can convey:

A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself. Everything that happened beforehand retreats, for the time being, into a kind of pre-natal oblivion and the world waiting for you when you wake up next day seems as vague and shadowy as the eternity that waits beyond the tomb. Like somebody’s life, the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.

The party presents a grand vision of the world in all its complexity, with all the island’s inhabitants participating whether landowner or slave, seafarer or farmer, wealthy scion or banished leper. Love affairs unfold; enemies reconcile; duels are arranged; and a great myriad of events large and small take place amid the night’s dancing, dining, theatrics and intrigues. Fermor’s tale unfolds with the skill of a born storyteller. One could be forgiven for mistaking The Violins of Saint Jacques for one of Isak Dinesen’s densely rich tales. As in those tales, the pleasure lies not so much in plot or outcome but in the manner of the telling.

As in his other works, Fermor frequently employs various elements of the epic, which in Violins lend the novella a grandness that its brevity might otherwise be unable to convey. Principle among these is the epic catalog, a favorite Fermor device, and one which he puts to extensive use here, including a genuinely hilarious vision of the room of one of the novella’s most memorable characters, the lively writer and commander of the sloop Beauséjour, Captain Henri Joubert, who inhabits, during his respites on the island, a veritable cabinet of curiosities gathered from across the globe and painstakingly cataloged by the narrator.  In like manner, Fermor delights in this wildly inventive list of names of guests invited to the ball (should anyone ever write a treatise on the list as literature, Fermor should surely merit at least a chapter):

…the Solignacs of Triste Etang, the Vauduns of Anse Verte, the Tharonnes  of Morne Zombi, the Vertprés of Battaka and Bombardopolis, the Chaumes of Carbet du Roi, the Cussacs of Ajoupa, the Rivrys of Allégresse, the O’Rourkes of Bouillante, the Kerascoët-Plougatels of Cayes Fendus, the Fains of Noé des Bois, the La Mottes of Piton-Noir, the Fertés of Deux Rivières, the Flour d’Aiguesamares of Sans Pitié, the Montgirards of Morne Bataille, the Chambines de la Forest d’Irvy of Pointe d’Ivry and the La Popelinières from the strange named acres of Confiture; Hucs, Dentus, Pornics, Médards, Vamels; here and there a visiting cousin from another island - a de Jaham or a Despointes from Martinique, a du Boulay from English St. Lucia…

That Fermor did not write more fiction is unfortunate, for The Violins of Saint Jacques more than proves his capacity for it, and the sheer delight he takes in language gives the novella an almost delirious atmosphere of exaltation that manages to overwhelm the horror of catastrophe (about which philosophy is kept to a respectful minimum). The island sinks beneath the seas, taking with it its glittering human world in the full flush of both celebration and the courageous or nefarious machinations going on in the shadows beyond, serving as a moral warning for human effort in the face of indifferent powers beyond human control (“as wanton as the blows and tramplings of some immense and muscular idiot”). While the novella comes across as more of an entertainment than a serious treatise on human impotence in the face of raging nature, the harrowing description of the volcano’s sudden explosion and the realization of all the human complexities that it sweeps away present a nonetheless sobering vision of the nothingness beyond death and of the fragility of humanity. In the end, Fermor’s fictional, disappeared island lives on primarily in the mariners’ poignant superstition that lends the novel its title, the sounds of violins and voices they claim sometimes to hear coming from beneath the expanse of water at the site of the disappeared island. There is, however, one other place where life on this fictional island continues, one that Fermor would most certainly have found amusing. In response to various on-line inquiries about the most beautiful place in the Caribbean, someone has posted, on numerous Internet travel forums, a response with which, after having read Fermor’s novel, one would find it difficult to argue. Without question, asserts this clever Internet poster, it is the magnificent Beauséjour Marina and Resort, located on the tiny private island of Saint Jacques des Alisés, somewhere vaguely in the vicinity of Guadalupe and Domenica


  1. Wasn't aware (or had forgotten if I ever read about it) that Fermor had written a non non-fiction piece, Scott. Interesting. Enjoyed your description of Fermor using the mold rather than the model this time out but am now curious if you have a favorite work by him (I've only read A Time to Keep Silence, which I greatly enjoyed).

  2. Richard - They're all great, of the ones I've read. I'm a little partial to "Mani" since, despite having only been to Greece once, I feel about that book's relation to the place the way that Hemingway felt about Joan Miro's painting "The Farm" and its relation to Spain, so that I might say it seems to contain everything I felt about Greece when I was there and reminds me of everything I miss about since my return. But I'd most strongly recommend the the books for which Fermor is best known, "A Time for Gifts" and its sequel, "Between the Woods and the Water." You will not be disappointed. "A Time to Keep Silence" is a bit special in the Fermor world; if that's been your only exposure so far, prepare to be dazzled.

  3. I've just begun one of his travels books after learning of him recently. This excellent review encourages me to try his novel also.

  4. Ted - "Violins" really is a kind of light entertainment compared to Fermor's travel books, but at 140 pages, you can swallow it in less than an afternoon. So why not?

  5. Interesting review. I read the book recently, but I found it considerably weaker than his wonderful travel books, and his description of the island and its society is clearly the fantasy of a reactionary and imperialist. "Orientalism" at its worst in my opinion:

    1. Thanks very much for the comment and for the link to your own blog. I agree - the novel is fluff compared to Fermor's travel books.

      I feel rather ill-equipped to respond to your view of the book as "'Orientalism' at its worst." I might count some other examples of Orientalism as considerably more egregious (try Frederick Prokosch's Nine Days to Mukhalla for instance). I've also read neither The Traveler's Tree, Fermor's book on the Caribbean, nor the Artemis Cooper biography, both of which would presumably put Violins (a book from which Fermor distanced himself) a bit more in context. You may well be right, particularly given the British tradition from which Fermor emerged. But there's the additional problem here, in a work of fiction, of knowing just where the author's attitudes might lie. After all, the entire fantastic tale is recounted by Berthe de Rennes - an invented character.

    2. That's an interesting aspect. Leigh Fermor was like every author a child of his time and education; considering the few political statements he ever made, I got the impression that Berthe is voicing exactly her author's opinions. It comes to my mind now that I recently read another author who is frequently labeled as an Orientalist, Pierre Loti. Since you have a review of one of his books, I will leave my comment on Loti there. By the way, excellent blog, I really enjoy it.