Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Violins of Saint-Jacques, Fermor’s third novel, initiated his work in fiction. Preceded by The Traveller’s Tree (1950) and Chance Acquaintances (1952)—both best-selling travel books considered classics of their genre—it was heralded for the same descriptive flourishes that marked his previous writing. Before beginning his literary career, Fermor traveled extensively in Central Europe, Greece, and the Caribbean; this broad range of experience, coupled with an acute perception of unique cultures, brings to his writing a color and pageantry that re-create the most vital characteristics of exotic worlds. With his first novel, however, Fermor draws as well on his participation in World War II—years with the resistance forces in Crete—adding to the beautiful descriptions of the tropics an undercurrent of violent conflict that clearly distinguishes The Violins of Saint-Jacques as a work of subtle power.

In treating the war allegorically, despite firsthand experience of it, Fermor breaks cleanly from the war novelists of the first half of the twentieth century—Ernest Hemingway, for example—and joins the ranks of postmodernists. For his predecessors, the war, its battles and senseless deaths, metaphorically supports a fatalistic perception and provides content enough for the novel; the effect is too immediate to be sublimated and too sensitive to be determined meaningless. For Fermor, however, setting his characters an ocean apart from the fighting and locating them during crucial years before and after the conflict, the war represents another accident in the long, fortuitous history of human affairs. His contemporary outlook is at once more stark and more palliative than that of his predecessors. Fatalism permits little possibility for mankind to charter its own course, but it does not reduce mankind’s efforts to the absurdities of Fermor’s random world. On the other hand, as it does for Berthe de Rennes, that random world does relieve man of the guilty suspicion that he may have sabotaged his own existence.