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 ... 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 ... A motif is hedonism ... If we can’t experience that in person, doing so in these languid pages is itself a pleasure.
James gives a full, intriguing, detailed history of the island’s colorful visitors and expat residents ... In addition to his nuanced analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of South Wind, James goes into detail about Douglas’s life, including the people he knew and which writers have been influenced by his work. James possesses the rare gift to be able to do this: he is both bookish and a world traveler ... James can pivot from a description of the landscape to a subtlety gradated literary analysis, to a piece of unfounded gossip, to a trial record reported in a French newspaper, all in the service of presenting a fuller picture of his subject...I never felt disinclined to follow him, nor did I think that he was wandering off the subject. This is what is remarkable about Pagan Light ... James has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subjects at his fingertips: he seems to have read the most obscure and hard-to-find books and articles on his subjects and, more importantly, is able to present what he has dug up in precise, gorgeous prose ... all the translations in the book are credited to James, a feat in and of itself.
Pagan Light is a sequence of braided long-form profiles, full of bright digressions, horrors and lives that dead end. Among other things, it will send you on dozens of Google searches for books and artists you’ve never heard of before ... Mr. James is primarily interested in the undiscovered, the unheralded, the anomalous and obscure ... Mr. James deserves a lot of credit for giving attention to important artists who, in many cases, have not been sufficiently examined by critics. He also has stories to tell about well-known figures ... Mr. James could have said more about the island’s native population, who had to adapt to this influx of egos. It’s one of the few quibbles to make about his roguish, diverting book.