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South Wind

Washington Post critic Michael Dirda weighs in on Norman Douglas' classic "South Wind" a 1917 novel that makes for hilarious and "utterly pagan" beach reading.

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The novel's extensive dramatis personae are all stock types of comedy: Liars and gossips, worldly-wise millionaires and impoverished aesthetes, con artists, thieves, and blackmailers, murderers and inebriated aristocrats, corrupt government officials, puritanical and sybaritic priests, a Russian "messiah," and even a ripely nubile maidservant. In Nepenthe everyone lives a life of quiet dissipation. Two outsiders thus serve as viewpoint characters: Mr. Heard, the middle-aged bishop of Bampopo, who, returning from his evangelical labors in Africa, stops on the island to visit a cousin, and the epicene, ineffectual Denis, an Oxford graduate who yearns to become a poet or an artist or, at least, the lover of the luscious Angelina. "He worshiped from afar. He would have liked to worship from a little nearer, but did not know how to set about it." Within just a few years, Denis will inspire a slew of similar wan young men in the early novels of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh.

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The book opens with a famous sentence: "The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick. Confoundedly sea-sick, in fact." In effect, Mr. Heard will be all at sea for most of the next several hundred pages. He knows that the island is full of "queer types" and "ultra-sophisticated cosmopolitans," yet he is overwhelmed by it nonetheless. As soon as he lands, he begins to be seduced by Nepenthe's languid charm. Its inhabitants, for instance, always meet in the morning in the piazza, "to exchange gossip, make appointments for the evening, and watch the arrival of new-comers to their island." Naturally, this time-honored custom prevents anyone from doing any work in the morning, "and, after luncheon, of course, you went to sleep":

It was delightful to be obliged, by iron convention, to stroll about in the bright sunshine, greeting your friends, imbibing iced drinks, and letting your eye stray down to the lower level of the island with its farmhouses embowered in vineyards; or across the glittering water towards the distant coastline and its volcano; or upwards, into those pinnacles of the higher region against whose craggy ramparts, nearly always, a fleet of snowy sirocco-clouds was anchored. For Nepenthe was famous not only for its girls and lobsters, but also for its south wind.

After the bishop disembarks, he gradually encounters the island's myriad eccentrics among them the rich Madame Steynlin, who is infatuated with a young follower of a seedy Russian fakir; the elderly and delightfully vulgar Miss Wilberforce who, when intoxicated, tends to lose her clothes and conduct herself with "all the shamelessness of a born lady"; and the disreputable "Commissioner" of the Alpha and Omega Club, Mr. Freddy Parker. "He was smoking a briar pipe and looking blatantly British, as if he had just spent an unwashed night in a third-class carriage between King's Cross and Aberdeen." We later learn that Parker masks, "under a cloak of boisterous good humour, a really remarkable combination of malevolence and imbecility.... He was the worst kind of Englishman; he could not even cheat without being found out." Other important figures include the cynical, slightly pompous Mr. Keith; the elegant, down-at-heels aristocrat Count Caloveglia; the mysterious Mrs. Meadows; and the immensely rich American Mr. Cornelius van Koppen.

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