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.
(Page 5 of 5)
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The wealthy Mr. Keith is always trying, unsuccessfully, to convince the proud but impoverished Mr. Eames to accept a small allowance, just a little something to help "smooth over the anfractuosities of life." Later, we meet the elderly but even more fabulously wealthy and shrewd Cornelius van Koppen, who sails the ocean on a yacht plentifully stocked with "a bevy of light-hearted nymphs." Douglas, in a passage of exceptional comic dexterity, neatly avoids saying straight out that van Koppen got his start by manufacturing some unmentionable item of private hygiene, apparently condoms.
Throughout the novel, Douglas refers to the halcyon days when Nepenthe was ruled by Good Duke Alfred. It doesn't take long before the reader realizes that the epithet is apotropaic, like calling the Furies the Kindly Ones. There are numerous stories about the Duke. "Simplicity he declared to be the keynote of his nature, the guiding motive of his governance. In exemplification whereof he would point to his method of collecting taxes -- a marvel of simplicity. Each citizen paid what he liked. If the sum proved insufficient he was apprised of the fact next morning by having his left hand amputated; a second error of judgment -- it happened rather seldom -- was rectified by the mutilation of the remaining member." In educating his subjects, the Duke was equally innovative. "Thrice a year, on receiving a list containing the names of unsatisfactory scholars of either sex, it was his custom to hoist a flag on a certain hill-top; this was a signal for the Barbary pirates, who then infested the neighbouring ocean, to set sail for the island and buy up these perverse children, at purely nominal rates, for the slave-markets of Stamboul and Algier. They were sold ignominiously -- by weight and not by the piece -- to mark his unqualified disapproval of talking and scribbling on blotting-pads during school hours."
The Nepentheans themselves venerate two local saints. Their patron, Saint Dodekanus, before his martyrdom "healed eight lepers, caused the clouds to rain, walked dryshod over several rivers, and raised twenty-three persons from the dead." They also celebrate the feast of Saint Eulalia, who tormented her body in myriad ways and "as a penance for what she called 'her many sins,' forced herself to catch legions of vermin that infested her brown blanket, count them, separate the males from the females, set them free once more, and begin over again. She died at the age of fourteen years and two months.... On dissection, a portrait of Saint James of Compostela was discovered embedded in her liver."
As such wry comment makes clear, South Wind is utterly pagan: Pleasure alone should be the aim of life. For the artistic Count Caloveglia, that pleasure ought to be moderate, Epicurean in the true sense, civilized. According to Mr. Keith, even knowledge itself "should intensify our pleasures. That is its aim and object, so far as I am concerned."
In short, a merry life -- one devoted to the senses and the body and the sunshine -- is the best life. This may not be a particularly profound approach to existence, but come the August holidays it somehow seems quite a sensible one. After all, even the most ordinary beach -- given the right slant of light on blue water -- soon starts to resemble the coastline of Nepenthe.