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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'Frantic for three days she's been, that one, because she's expecting a new supply of drugs on the Naples boat and it hasn't come. The captain is probably holding it up for blackmail. Nice place you've picked in which to finish your education. Where are your parents, if you have any, which I'm beginning to doubt.... Where are they? I'll write them a letter and give them what-for. No, I won't. Serve them right if you come back a murderer, a drug-fiend, and a thief, to say nothing of.... Ah, well never mind. Come along.'
This extract, by the way, appears in Mark Holloway's biography of Douglas, a book well worth reading if you find yourself fascinated by a man who was a friend to Conrad, Ford, and D. H. Lawrence but also, in later life, to Graham Greene and the cookbook author Elizabeth David. Virtually all them visited or vacationed on Capri, where Douglas died in 1952.
Being in truth the central character of South Wind, the Capri-like Nepenthe is depicted in almost guidebook detail, from its port to its promontory (ideal for suicide). The main town, for instance, "was full of surprises.... Gardens appeared to be topping over the houses; green vines festooned the doorways and gaily coloured porches; streets climbed up and down, noisy with rattling carriages and cries of fruit-vendors who exposed their wares of brightest hues on the pavement. Country women, in picturesque cinnamon-coloured skirts, moved gravely among the citizens. The houses, when not whitewashed, showed their building stone of red volcanic tufa; windows were aflame with cacti and carnations; slumberous oranges glowed in courtyards; the roadways underfoot were of lava -- pitch-black. It was a brilliant medley, overhung by a deep blue sky."
As the good bishop observes, "there are no half-tones in this landscape." To which his Dr. Johnson-like friend Mr. Keith replies: "And yet perfect harmony." Style matters. As Mr. Keith observes, speaking in effect for everyone in the novel, "We all contribute our mites to the gaiety of nations." Indeed, they do. Even scholarly Mr. Eames. As I mentioned earlier, his past excites constant rumor, and Douglas periodically turns the islanders' speculations into little coloratura arias of scandal. I've quoted one but cannot forbear transcribing another:
It was not true to say of Mr. Eames that he lived on Nepenthe because he was wanted by the London police for something that happened in Richmond Park, that his real name was not Eames at all but Daniels -- the notorious Hodgson Daniels, you know, who was mixed up in the Lotus Club scandal, that he was the local representative of an international gang of white-slave traffickers who had affiliated offices in every part of the world, that he was not a man at all but an old boarding-house keeper who had very good reasons for assuming the male disguise, that he was a morphinomaniac, a disfrocked Baptist Minister, a pawnbroker out of work, a fire-worshipper, a Transylvanian, a bank clerk who had had a fall, a decayed jockey who disgraced himself at a subsequent period in connection with some East-End mission for reforming the boys of Bermondsey and then, after pawning his mother's jewelry, writing anonymous threatening letters to society ladies about their husbands and vice-versa, trying to blackmail three Cabinet Ministers and tricking poor servant-girls out of their hard-earned wages by the sale of sham Bibles, was luckily run to earth in Piccadilly Circus, after an exciting chase, with a forty-pound salmon under his arm which he had been seen to lift from the window of a Bondstreet fishmonger.