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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Fermina Márquez

Valery Larbaud

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To purchase Fermina Márquez

Title: Fermina Márquez
Author: Valery Larbaud
Genre: Novel
Written: 1911 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 110 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fermina Márquez - US
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Fermina Márquez - Canada (French)
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  • French title: Fermina Márquez
  • Translated by Hubert Gibbs
  • With an Introduction by Francis Wyndham
  • Also available in a translation by James Bishop (2010)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine school-age tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 22/6/1911 Mary Duclaux
TLS . 2/12/1920 Richard Aldington

  From the Reviews:
  • "The unconscious pedantry of the intellectual schoolboy, the inadequacy between his ends and his means, the unripeness of a mind already powerful but wholly inexperienced, are admirably indicated in a language precise, lucid, and delicate. If Stendhal had written, not a book for boys but, what is wholly different, a psychology of Latin and Ultramontane boyhood, he might have written something not unlike Fermina Marquez." - Mary Duclaux, Times Literary Supplement

  • "An English reader will feel these boys are extremely precocious, not to say priggish. Difference of race accounts for much, but difference of education for more. French education of the kind described by M.Larbaud was far more literary than sporting. Hence an early maturity and a precocious knowledge of books. A story and characters like these might easily become banal; M.Larbaud has certainly escaped banality, but he has not always escaped the opposite extreme. The secret of his success in rendering these children interesting is that he takes quite seriously their emotions and yearnings, explains thoughtfully their crudities, mawkishness, absurd ideals." - Richard Aldington, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fermina Márquez is a novel of a certain, lost age, the narrator looking back on his student days at "old, illustrious" Saint Augustine's:

more cosmopolitan than a world exhibition, abandoned now, already closed for fifteen years ...
       Largely set in the late-19th century fin de siècle -- but written from the perspective of the darker early years of the 20th century, and with the author describing at some length in the final chapter his return to the school as an adult, in 1902 -- it is a story of adolescents, young men, most in their late teens. Saint Augustine's is a fancy school on the outskirts of Paris, with many of the students the offspring of wealthy Latin Americans. Several already risk expulsion by venturing to Paris at night, reveling in adult pleasures (though not among the intimidating university students in the Quartier Latin, for example, where: "the milieu was too sophisticated"), but on the whole they're still rather innocent.
       The school-world is thrown into a bit of turmoil by the arrival of the Márquez-girls -- and particularly the older of the two sisters, Fermina. The lads -- "a set of impudent, sly young men (between the ages of sixteen and nineteen)" -- are quite taken by what is suddenly if not quite in their midst at least approachably near:
life was completely transformed; each of us felt in himself his own high hopes and was astonished to find them so oppressive and so wonderful.
       Eventually, the story focuses in on one student's seduction of Fermina. Joanny Léniot is the best student in class, driven to succeed academically because it was the only way he could achieve any sort of hold at school. But his devotion to his studies means his mind is also of a slightly different bent than that of other students:
At an age when we were starting to gorge ourselves on Emile Zola and Paul Bourget, sheltered behind our desks, Joanny Léniot was becoming intoxicated by Roman history.
       Common to them all is a lack of worldly experience: they escort Fermina and see themselves as her band of knights, but are hardly able to venture further except in their imaginations and their books. Joanny sets his mind on seduction, but is of course ill-equipped for it; nevertheless, the fact that he is more analytical than romantic (until, of course, he finds that feelings overwhelm him) make him an interesting character in this particular role.
       The charm of Fermina Márquez lies in the realistic depiction of the young folks -- Fermina, too, whom the adult narrator can now also recognize as similarly naïve. Yet this is a different take on unworldliness than is usually found in novels of this time. The awkward flirtatious dance among the youngsters is captured particularly well, and has a universal feel to it; Larbaud doesn't go for cheap theatrically romantic gush. Only in the nostalgic final chapter, in how he has his narrator describe what became of his classmates as he reflects from years on down the road, does the story seem more simply traditional; nevertheless, it's a quite fitting end.
       A slim but fairly elegant novel, and quite well done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2012

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Fermina Márquez: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Valery Larbaud lived 1881 to 1957.

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