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- Published on Amazon.com
This phrase, which I loosely translate as something like "This former happiness Caesar has finished with", is the self-imposed capstone on the high-school years of young Joanny Leniot, an intellectually obsessed student pierced by the beauty of Fermina Marquez. Larbaud's nostalgic novella takes place outside Paris, in a private prep-school similar to one which the author himself attended. Fermina is a new student from South America (exotic foreign lands) from a wealthy family (like all the students at this particular school) and immediately enraptures young Leniot, as well as the more suave and brash Mexican student, Santos Iturria. At first it seems that the story will be about a conflict between Santos and Joanny for the attention of Fermina, but it soon becomes clear that Larbaud is more interested in those forgotten subtleties of youth that are so obscured by middle-age: romance, self-aggrandizement, and turbulent emotions. Upon meeting Fermina we learn of Fermina's religious impulse (similar to Franny, from Salinger's "Franny & Zooey"), and its interesting juxtaposition with Joanny's "Caesar complex" (similiar to the Machiavellian complex of Somerset Maugham's character, Simon in "Christmas Holiday"). Great writers always seem to be able to recreate scenarios and scenes lived but often forgotten in the course of one's life, and to throw in interesting characters and subtleties which are not always obvious, but there nonetheless. Larbaud seems to be one of the better observers of youth I've read (see also, "Childish Things" which is a beautiful collection of short stories related to youth). Fermina Marquez is no exception, and though it's a little rough around the edges, dwelling upon the trivialities of Joanny's obsession with Roman literature and times, it ends strongly and with many poetic, philosophical passages akin to the tantalizingly scarce writings of fellow Frenchman, Eugene Radiguet. For example, when Fermina finally confronts her own romantic feelings for Santos while struggling with her religous feelings she is up late one night: "The night hours have a romantic side. Two o'clock in the afternoon is prosaic, almost common; but two o'clock in the morning is an adventurer plunging into the unknown." Or, on the very last page when the nameless narrator is revisiting his school after many years, reminiscing about Fermina Marquez's impact on all the young men, a dilapidated building is "...wide open to today's sunshine, to the sky's blue: this Parisian sky, so astir with activity, with mists, vapours, halo of lights, balloons and Sundays."
Fermina Marquez is Larbaud's first novel, I believe, published in 1911, just before his more popular, and reknown "Diary of A.O. Barnabooth". Like Radiguet, Larbaud is one of those mostly obscure French writers from the early 20th century who don't get much attention these days unless you seek them out yourself. Larbaud is interesting in part because he was very wealthy, made many important translations of English authors into French, including James Joyce's "Ulysses", and was friends with Andre Gide and Sylvia Beech (Shakespeare & Co.), etc. If you enjoy obscure, but once influental writers you'll enjoy Larbaud. He is definitely a unique character living, and writing mostly in the "Belle Epoque" period just before WWI. Being stingy with my "star-ratings" I gave Fermina Marquez three not because it's "okay" or "not great" but because it's really a minor-classic, and to me, similar in quality and depth to some of my favorite "B-grade" Somerset Maugham novels like the one I mentioned above - all enjoyable and worthy of attention, just not of full-fledged literary classic caliber. In any event, check out Larbaud; and Fermina Marquez is a good place to start because if you do find the romantic quality in it that I have, you'll probably want to keep it in your library forever.