PAGAN LIGHT: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri. By Jamie James. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pages. $28.
Jamie James approaches the literary and artistic history of the Italian island of Capri with great seriousness, and he manages to touch on both the great and lesser-known writers and artists who took creative inspiration from each other and from the island during its more than 2,000-year history.
The “freedom” in the title refers to artistic or philosophical expression, as evidenced by the chapters on the Futurists, Fascists and Russian revolutionaries who spent time on Capri, but it also refers to the lives and works of the many gay men and women who found Capri a refuge.
All types of artists are represented here, starting with the Romans and including the likes of novelist D.H. Lawrence, poet-politician Pablo Neruda and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. James establishes Capri as a haven where people who rejected, or were rejected by, mainland and mainstream society could find a community.
Most of the people James focuses on are gay men who, hounded by allegations of improper sexual relations with teenage boys, fled to Capri. The fifth chapter on lesbian painter Romaine Brooks is the first to focus on a non-male artist. After reading four chapters on pederasty, her chapter was like a fresh Mediterranean breeze. While James does not shy away from the lust of his subjects, his analysis never veers into the tasteless or pornographic.
For example, the third chapter is framed by Oscar Wilde’s time on Capri, but mostly it is a critical analysis of writer Jacques d'Adelsward-Fersen’s life there after he fled Paris to continue “inciting minors to debauchery.” James manages to give a brief overview of d'Adelsward-Fersen’s history, books, style, contemporaries, predecessors and even what his house was like when James visited Capri in 2016.
It read like an interesting essay or academic article, but it made me wish for chapter titles so I could have a hint of what I was getting into. This, along with James’ tendency to wander off on a tangent, makes the book feel a bit capricious.
James’ prose is elevated and unafraid of alliterations, imagery and terms like “jeu d’esprit.” His interpretations of the historical texts are engaging and never feel like he’s just relaying facts. And his first-person descriptions of the island add dimension.
The very short last chapter doesn’t try to draw grand conclusions. James doesn’t wax elegiac about the artistic community of past centuries or bemoan the transformation of the island into a major tourist destination. Instead, he talks about the people who are the curators of the island, like the hotel managers or the local press that publishes good literature about Capri.
The main idea of the book is clear: While the nature of Capri and its visitors have changed over the years, the island’s magnetic power to attract and inspire remains potent.