Noel Coward’s notoriously pithy comments act as a kind of window onto the renowned British playwright's world. For example, he once remarked that his life was “one long extravaganza.” And on another occasion he called himself "the great celebrated glamorous cookie." This sense of grandeur often came with a darker companion — his belief that life is “nothing but a game of make-believe.”
So, how does one make sense of a man who seems wildly satisfied with his own achievements and abilities, but at the same time harbors a deeply cynical view of human experience? This is a question Janette Jenkins’s Firefly (Europa) sets out to answer.
Firefly is a fictionalized account of a few weeks of Coward’s later years, a few years before his death and sometime after tax issues forced him to leave Britain behind. He chose to resettle in Jamaica at an isolated estate house that gives the novel its name.
Jenkins attempts to revive the great British cultural icon through blending facts with varied techniques of fiction: stream of consciousness style, close third person narration, etc. This makes for a compelling read that sheds light on the cantankerous aging writer’s final years in a manner biography could not faithfully execute. Indeed, the richness of Coward’s inner life — his fears, his nostalgia, his longings — express richly with the tools of fiction.
Jenkins has clearly done a good deal of work to reconstruct Coward, particularly his distinctive voice and penchant for pithy phrases, as faithfully as possible. She includes intimate details about his life, and does so gracefully. The Coward of her novel, for example, offhandedly mentions he might like to paint some of his “touch and Gauguin” works; the Coward of actuality used that very phrase to describe his paintings, some of which were displayed at the New York Public Library last year.
The book charts the blossoming friendship of the playwright and his manservant, Patrice. The native Jamaican aspires to do the silver service at the Ritz in London. He is a chirpy, bright fellow — a quality that grates against Coward, the sarcastic “professional hermit” — but by the book’s end, the two men have become friends. (Patrice even goes so far as to refer to his boss as “Noel Diva Coward.”)
This plot line is not the novel’s most compelling aspect, but the friendship between the two men shouldn’t be. At its most basic, Firefly is a novel that strives to give life to the man who said, “I am England, and England is me,” yet lived exiled on a tropical island. And this is something it certainly achieves.