Archive for the ‘Vincent de Swarte’ Category


March 17, 2021

Lighthouses have always made me uneasy ever since watching Dr Who and the Horror of Fang Rock as a child in 1977 (and this was despite the fact that the alien horror turned out to be a plastic ball covered in seaweed), but never as uneasy as Vincente de Swarte’s Pharricide. De Swarte was a French writer who was only a little older than me when the Dr Who serial premiered but sadly died young in 2006 having already written a number of novels, the second being Pharricide in 1998 (the first, not to discount it, was for children). His work remained untranslated during his lifetime, but in 2019 Nicholas Royale and Confingo brought us this English version of Pharricide which, in a suggestion of the novel’s standing, comes with a forward by Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore.

The novel tells a grisly story with an intensity which is irresistible. It is related in the first person by lighthouse keeper Geoffroy Lefayen in a series of diary entries which begin with his posting to the oldest lighthouse in France, Cordouan. A series of misfortunes leads to his placement – the previous lighthouse keeper blinding himself on the lamp; the couple he worked with dying in a car accident; the two trainees sent there temporarily rumoured to be involved in smuggling – a run of bad luck which seems to be off-set with the high regard in which Lefayen is held within the department of Lighthouses and Beacons:

“For my willingness to take risks, my strong constitution and my heroic physique. They say I’ll enter the annals.”

The truth of this will be borne out by what follows, though not in the way we might think.

Lefayen craves isolation. He agrees to man the lighthouse on the condition he does so alone:

“I pray to God no one comes to the lighthouse during those six months, no one at all…”

When the supply boat turns up early, he tells them, “I’d rather not see you, you know. It’s easier if I don’t see anyone.” If this doesn’t make the reader uneasy, the perhaps his attitude to the lighthouse will:

“Cordouan has woken me up. Cordouan has stripped my soul naked. It has reminded me of everything that lies within. It has replaced maybe with definitely.”

At times it feels as if the lighthouse is a living being in his mind (for example, he tells us, “The lighthouse pretty much let me sleep until five.”) He later comments that the lighthouse “has saved my knives from retirement”, a remark which is explained, however, by his interest in taxidermy, skills he first displays on a conger eel.

The confessional nature of the narrative gives the illusion that it is open and honest, but, in fact, much remains hidden from the reader. One entry begins, “The English couple arrived this morning” despite the fact that no English couple has been previously mentioned. We later learn that they phoned the week before (and have clearly been invited despite Lefayen’s desire for solitude). That he has planned for their arrival can be seen when he takes them to the shore to drive two stakes into the sand:

“They were so wrapped up in each other they would have believed anything.”

After the English couple, Lefayen decides “I’m no longer setting myself boundaries,” but his decision is complicated by the arrival of a female engineer from Lighthouses and Beacons, Lise, “a beautiful woman of about forty.” Lafayen’s desire for Lise is reciprocated, even as she recognises his madness, and the relationship accelerates Lafayen’s detachment from reality.

The novel explores madness in the same way as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, by placing the reader within the madness. Lafayen, we discover, has come from madness: he speaks of his mother being certified, and of the twins on whose fishing boat he worked (both called Roger, which suggests their parents’ sanity should also be questioned) where he learned taxidermy, becoming “gripped by murderous insanity.” Sanity largely feels weak and distant – blind Joel, or his son watching the lighthouse through his telescope; the mild-mannered investigations of the police. Madness, on the other hand, blazes fiercely like the lighthouse.

Lafayen’s madness is also an expression of individualism – an attempt to embrace rather than reject life. The passion he and Lise feel for each other is both destructive and life-affirming. He describes himself as a “gourmand” – the pleasure gained is more important than the suffering caused. He is not a ‘victim’, either in his own eyes or the eyes of others and the journey on which he takes us is, in some ways, one of  horrifying liberation. Pharricide is a thrilling read, but the thrill is one of terror.