(Farrar, Straus and GirouxSHER)

The island seems close but unattainable, in this world but not quite of it. Twenty-two miles from Naples, across an often-stormy gulf, it peeks up from the sea “like a perfect meringue,” writes Jamie James in “Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri.”

For thousands of years, the isle has attracted emperors and outcasts, revolutionaries and exiles, artists and criminals, tycoons and paupers. James, a journalist, critic and novelist, applies his cultural erudition to Capri’s history, particularly events of the 19th and 20th centuries, in a leisurely, sometimes even meandering, but always colorful way. He might interrupt a chapter on the painter Romaine Brooks for a seven-page digression about the artists John Singer Sargent and Christian Wilhelm Allers and the scandal-ridden tycoon Friedrich Alfred Krupp.

It’s as if the island’s hot breezes influenced the pace and whimsy of James’s elegant prose. If you’re what media savants call an “efferent reader,” looking for the efficient take-away, his approach will drive you bonkers. But if you treat the book like a languorous, tipsy walking tour of a locale laden with history, he proves a most entertaining guide.

James interweaves mini-biographies of figures for whom Capri was crucial as a catalyst or retreat. If their stories include stints in Paris, London, Rome, Naples or elsewhere, James follows them there, too. Capri, then, is the nucleus around which their lives, and his accounts, orbit, but he flits to and from, never constraining himself to its four square miles.

A motif is hedonism, dating back to the orgiastic excesses of the 1st-century Roman emperor Tiberius. “Like Las Vegas,” James writes, “Capri got a reputation as a place where easy sex of every variety was available in abundance and not unduly fraught with consequences.” Some of these behaviors are acceptable by today’s standards, others are criminal; some are unsettlingly in between.

The French writer Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen’s “reckless pursuit of love and sexual adventure with adolescent boys would make him the island’s most scandalous foreign resident after Tiberius.” He published a score of books of poetry and fiction, but his “most enduring creation was Villa Lysis, the opulent mansion he built in the early 20th century just an arrow’s shot down the hill from Villa Jovis,” Tiberius’s palace.

James the dauntless critic often accompanies James the cultural historian, as seen in his assessment of Fersen’s writing. “The particular interest of Fersen’s works for the modern reader,” James writes, “is the spectacle of the final decadence of Decadence, a bizarre efflorescence of hyperaesthetic attitudes of mind that shade provocatively into spiritual sickness.” Still, Fersen “displays a certain boldness, even bravery, by portraying love between men (or rather males) openly, while James, Forster, and Lawrence were writing in code.”

Of course, it wasn’t only the guys who found sexual latitude on Capri. Lesbian culture also flourished. The fascinating Romaine Brooks, for instance, first came to Capri penniless in 1899, then years later as an established portraitist who had become fabulously wealthy from an unexpected inheritance. She entered “a marriage of inconvenience,” as James puts it, with a homosexual dilettante and soon began experimenting with her own gender presentation.


The author Jamie James. (Fabrizio Ottaviani)

In London and Paris, Brooks painted and sometimes slept with members of a lesbian elite of writers and artists, but, a loner at heart, she “rebelled against this group, with its suffocating atmosphere of smug self-satisfaction.” Her love life involved men and women, an Italian general, a Russian ballerina. The vortex, however, was her relationship with Natalie Clifford Barney, an American expatriate writer in Paris whose Rue Jacob salon in the Latin Quarter lasted “more than 60 years, spanning the eras of Marcel Proust and Truman Capote.” There would be no happy twilight for Brooks and Barney, for whom love triangles remained the governing geometry, to the women’s alternating elation and misery.

Capri lured revolutionaries and fascists alike: Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Lenin, but also Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Göring . Then there were figures like the journalist and author Curzio Malaparte, who over the course of his career swung from fascism to Maoism. He is remembered less for his disturbing novels of wartime than for his house, Casa Malaparte, a modernist architectural gem.

There’s a parade of prominents: W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda and many others. But some of the most fun encounters are with lesser-known figures like the avant-garde muse Marchesa Luisa Casati. She “dyed her hair a flaming red to match her vermilioned lips, rimmed her large green eyes with kohl and dilated the pupils with belladonna, and framed them with extraordinarily long false eyelashes.” In proto-Gaga-esque fashion, she sported “snakes, big cats, and greyhounds (dyed to match her outfits) as props and personal adornments,” and she once arrived at the Paris Opera “with one bare arm dripping the blood of a chicken she had had beheaded for the purpose.”

Capri, in the 1950s, became “a playground for film stars and fashion icons,” then a shopping mall, James writes in resignation. But his book commemorates a more relaxed bohemian tempo. As the writer E.F. Benson describes it, “long mornings of swimming through translucent waters interspersed with baskings in the sun, siestas, fresh figs, walks up to the top of Monte Solara . . . dinner under the vine pergola, games of piquet in the café, strolling on to the piazza at night to look at the lights of Naples lying like a string of diamonds along the main, with the sultry glow of Vesuvius behind.”

If we can’t experience that in person, doing so in these languid pages is itself a pleasure.

Alexander C. Kafka has written about books for The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.

Pagan Light
Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri

By Jamie James

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 336 pp. $28