The day had ended in a flaunting sunset so apocalyptic a Last Judgement, an apotheosis, an assumption, one could have thought that each falling ray seemed a ladder for the descending Paraclete, and Berthe almost expected to see long-shafted trumpets advance along the slanting beams from the gold and crimson clouds. Each minor overflow of lava, heralded invariably by showers of ashes and an overpowering heat, was always halted by those intervening canyons known as "les chaudières" - a grey desert region of fumeroles and volcanic gas and half fossilised trees. Mentioned rather vaguely a couple of times yes and then a few pages from the end of the book, it is explained and my, did it bring tears to my eyes. John Craxton was sometimes called a neo-Romantic artist but he preferred to be known as a kind of Arcadian. Finally, the fact that this book was written by Patrick Leigh Fermor, He was widely regarded as Britain's greatest living travel writer during his lifetime. Imagine The plot actually reads like a romance and Im certainly not of that inclination but when you have an acclaimed travel writer, whose descriptive prose is heavenly and then to match it with unsurpassed fiction, well you have it all in my opinion. In the 1890s she was offered the position, which she readily accepted, as governess to the children of distant cousins of hers, the Serindans, and spent six years living on the fictitious island of Saint Jacques in the Caribbean. But there are delightful quirky instances studded throughout this novella: the untranslated French sentences; the fact that the local Creole population, including the Serindans, could not pronounce the R in the words; the ash from the volcano known as white snow; a stumbling block proving to be an armadillo, to quote just a few. Nevertheless, when I read the final sentence of this remarkable gem of a book, a feeling of elation swept over me.
It is precisely because we are concerned about them that the astonishing climax of the novel has such devastating power and a reverberation that lingers perhaps forever in the mind. The last few pages, from wherein the title of the work is taken, further cements this astonishing world in our minds, as a meditative piece of great beauty and sadness.
Fermor's only work of fiction is a tale of passion that reminds one of the Brontes and foreshadows in many ways Wide Sargasso Sea. The plot of the short novel, novella really, is pretty simple and easy to call in many ways for most seasoned readers.
Some seventy-five years later, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote a short novel entitled The Violins Of Saint Jacques about a Creole society that mounted a huge Shrove Tuesday ball on the island of Saint-Jacques -- a ball that reached a crescendo just as the volcano Saltpetrière blew its stack, and the lovely island and all its people sank forever into the Caribbean. They are irrelevancies.Within a page or two, the author/narrator -- presumably Fermor himself -- says that Saint-Jacques did not quite vanish without a trace:Last year when I was in Dominica and Guadeloupe, fishermen told me that anyone, crossing the eastern channel between the islands in carnival time, can hear the sound of violins coming up through the water. Fermor has written so few books -- all of them great -- that I am delaying finishing reading his oeuvre for a while yet.
Patrick Leigh Fermor's "The Violins of St. Jacques" Patrick Leigh Fermor has been called the greatest travel writer of his time, and I can believe it on the basis of this book alone.
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. In the course of a lengthy description of the Counts 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 Ss and a cumulative nexus of dog-Latin superlatives which hissed from the shattered slabs like a basketful of snakes. 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.
Whats also really interesting to me is that the Caribbean is just not the place where I tend to think of recent kinds of narratives in British literature. Patrick Leigh Fermor was an incredibly continental figure, so this makes sense, and the general possessiveness over narrative that British figures in novels often take are absent here.
This 'Tale of the Antilles' is related to the novel's narrator by Berthe, an elderly French lady, who, as a young woman in the early 1900s, had been governess to an aristocratic French family on the (fictional) island of St Jacques.
The build-up to a larger story is vivacious, but the eruption of action (or is that the other way around?) which ends the novella is incredible. There almost isn't enough of the book to become familiar with the author's writing to begin to enjoy it, but the vividness of the descriptions overcomes much of that difficulty.