|New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019|
Pagan Light is a reference to maybe the most well known novel set in Capri, Norman Douglas' South Wind. Part travelogue, part literary and art history, James' book is difficult to define. It offers a series of vignettes of varying length connecting a veritable who's who of famous (and not-so-famous) literary and artistic expats. The minor players are offered as mere asides and provide a more complete sense of Capri's expat society. Pagan Light is anchored with biographical accounts of the little known novelist and poet, Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen and the artist Romain Brooks.
Adelswärd-Fersen flees Paris after his proclivities run afoul of the law. Interestingly it wasn't his sexual interest in teenage boys that was the problem, it was his use of them in his theatrical 'messes noires' (a supposed satanic ritual) to which he invited his friends. The details of this scandal would later be memorialized in his 1905 novel Messes Noires : Lord Lillian. An English translation of the novel, issued by Elysium Press, was published in 2005.
On Capri, Brooks was able to become an independent woman and present herself the way she was most comfortable. She cut her hair short and styled herself in trousers and jackets instead of dresses. She interacted within the society of lesbians of the time including Radclyffe Hall (author of the classic lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness), Lady Una Troubridge (Hall's longtime lesbian partner), and American poet, Natalie Barney (Brooks' great love). Brooks is known for her portraits of important women in this lesbian circle as well as an early portrait of Jean Cocteau.
Adelswärd-Fersen and Brooks make for interesting subjects in that what we know of their lives is largely based on less than reliable depictions of them in their own and others writing. Adelswärd-Fersen's story is mostly known through The Exile of Capri, a roman à clef by Roger Peyrefitte, while Brooks' story largely comes from her own unpublished memoir as well as Compton Mackenzie's novel Extraordinary Women.
Ricardo Esposito, who runs the Capriot small press Edizioni La Conchiglia, sums up the importance of Capri nicely when he says, "Capri was an international laboratory for the avant-garde, a place where ideas were born, a new artistic vision, and given to the world." (p.288)