This is my review of The Violins of Saint-Jacques: A Tale of the Antilles by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
In this short novel, written in a continuous chapter-free flow, an elderly artist name Berthe recounts to the narrator the dramatic climax of her time spent fifty years previously on the Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques, ruled as a benevolent dictatorship by the aristocratic expatriate French Count, by whom she was employed as a governess but came to enjoy the status of a respected virtual member of the family, his “confidant and counsellor”. It took me a while to grasp that the island is outlined so sketchily on the map provided, because it is imaginary. This enabled me to overlook some of the worrying geographical inconsistencies (for a travel writer) of having lush forest grow so close to the active volcano forming the core of the island.
Although many devotees of the travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor may be delighted by the only novel he ever produced in a prolific writing career, I abandoned it mid-way and had to force myself to finish it. I concede that the second half is better, since it contains more dramatic action, when all the “hazards and sorrows ahead ” begin to crack the surface of the idyllic bubble of exotic privilege which the author has inflated with his literary flourishes at full spate in the first half, largely devoted to the preparations and conduct of a grand Shrove Tuesday ball, no expenses spared.
I understand why some readers revel in Leigh-Fermor’s Rococo prose, which I admit once aroused my curiosity to visit what proved to be the remarkable Austrian monastery of Melk. However, in this context, the verbosity is just too much to take. In the course of a lengthy description of the Count’s background, Leigh-Fermor turns to the memorial slabs of his dead ancestors, the Serindans: “The orgulous record of their gestures…..their impavid patience in adversity…..the splendour of their munificence and their pious ends was incised with a swirling seventeenth-century duplication of long S’s and a cumulative nexus of dog-Latin superlatives which hissed from the shattered slabs like a basketful of snakes”. The “Serindan cognizance” crops up again: “ a shield bearing three greyhounds passant on a bend on a field of cross-crosslets within a tressure flory-counter-flory”. I found myself irritated by the author’s continual flaunting of his erudition and addiction to flamboyant verbal excess, rather than sincerely seeking to create three-dimensional complex characters for whom one might feel real empathy.
The frequent inclusion of Latin tags, and dialogues in French, often with a Creole patois, plus an imitation of the Count’s weak “r”s which the local people have innocently copied, often seem both pretentious and irritating if one cannot understand them. I may be underestimating his intention to write tongue-in-cheek as in the passage about ancient tree trunks, each “half following the spiral convolutions of the other like dancing partners in a waltzing forest; the rising moon entangled overhead in the silver and lanceolate leaves, had frozen these gyrations into immobility.” – A “highly literary simile" which he attributes to Berthe. Perhaps I should excuse the dated character of a book written more than sixty years ago about a period now more than a century past. Yet, in his creation of a dawn of twentieth century period when privileged people still lived complacently in the conspicuous consumption of untrammelled luxury served with unquestioning loyalty by contented slaves, I have the uneasy impression that Leigh Fermor does not question the morality of all this – it reads like a lost world for which he feels a sentimental nostalgia. An extreme example of this is the jovial acceptance of the Count’s practice of “droit de jambage”, a Leigh-Fermor conceit for “droit de seigneur”.
Perhaps, I am taking it too seriously, and should simply laugh at a guest dressed as a swordfish, and a heroine in flight falling over an armadillo.