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.
Shortly after South Wind first appeared in 1917, George Saintsbury – then the doyen of English literary critics – sent a short note to Norman Douglas. Many editions of the novel reproduce this letter:
Permit me to be tedious, as well as illegible. I am seventy-five. I have read more novels than a man of seven hundred and fifty ought to have done. For some twenty years I used to review hundreds or thereabouts of English and scores of French as they came out. For another twenty, the first of this so-called age, I have come across just two new novelists who have given me something that I can recommend to a friend. The author of South Wind is the second in order of time, not rank.
That's quite a compliment to pay a writer approaching fifty who, up until then, had never written any fiction aside from a few short stories and was mainly known for his travel books about Italy, Siren Land (1911) and Old Calabria (1913). But did Douglas speculate, as I often have, about the identity of the other novelist that Saintsbury so admired? Possibilities include Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, both of them, as it happens, friends and champions of Douglas. The former's Nostromo appeared in 1904 and the latter's The Good Soldier in 1915. But are they really "new" enough authors? That said, I don't quite see Saintsbury admiring D. H. Lawrence, whose Sons and Lovers came out in 1913 and The Rainbow in 1915. E. M. Forster? Possibly. Howards End appeared in 1910. No, my guess is that Saintsbury would have gravitated to Arnold Bennett, especially his 1908 masterpiece The Old Wives' Tale. Whatever the case, we sometimes forget how much of our greatest fiction was written in the two decades just before the great modernist triumphs of the 1920s. These Edwardian and early Georgian novels, however, do tend to be old-fashioned in form and quite serious in intent, telling character-driven stories, raising complex ethical questions, and shot through with human unhappiness and disaster.
As it happens, South Wind breaks this mold; indeed, it cocks a snook at all such grave concerns. A leisurely – some would say too leisurely – comic novel, it is full of zest and high spirits, and completely amoral: "To feel righteous, or to feel sinful, is quite an innocent form of self-indulgence." Set on the Mediterranean island of Nepenthe – a stand-in for Capri, where Douglas lived off and on for much of his life -- it is just the book for a restful summer holiday. Almost nothing of consequence occurs, apart from a bishop questioning his faith and an unexpected murder. Instead it is packed with amusing vignettes; delicious intellectual conversation about beauty, art, and religion; and exceptionally polished prose, each sentence perfectly balanced and surprising. One can understand why Nabokov admired the book. It would be a treat to hear Jeremy Irons read it aloud.
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.
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.
Nepenthe itself is an isle of many secrets. "Curio-hunters, gentlemen of commerce, nautical wrecks, decayed missionaries, painters, authors and other vagrant riff-raff" regularly turn up, usually with something to hide or for other dubious, even sinister reasons. Douglas lists some of these in speaking of wizened Mr. Eames, who has been devoting his later years to annotating and updating Monsignor Perrelli's Antiquities of Nepenthe. His excursus on the sirocco, or south wind, alone extends to 23,000 words. Though an innocent antiquary, Mr. Eames nonetheless attracts continual speculation about his supposedly dark past:
It was not true to say of this gentleman that he fled from England to Nepenthe because he forged his mother's will, because he was arrested while picking the pockets of a lady at Tottenham Court Road Station, because he refused to pay for the upkeep of his seven illegitimate children, because he was involved in a flamboyant scandal of unmentionable nature and unprecedented dimensions, because he was detected while trying to poison the rhinoceros at the Zoo with an arsenical bun, because he strangled his mistress, because he addressed an almost disrespectful letter to the Primate of England beginning 'My good Owl' -- or for any suchlike reason.
As it happens, nearly all these suspicions about why Mr. Eames might have ended up on Nepenthe cut rather close to the bone. While Douglas, born in 1868, married and fathered two sons, by middle age he had become essentially homosexual, with a classical fondness for adolescent boys. In nearly every known case, he treated his various Ganymedes with kindness and generosity, remaining friends with them in later years, helping them in their married lives and eventual careers. Nonetheless, just before South Wind appeared Douglas was arrested and accused of forcing indecent attentions on a boy he met at London's Natural History Museum. Rather than face a trial, he adopted the course that Oscar Wilde rejected: Douglas fled to the Continent and didn't set foot in England for some twenty-five years.
While he behaved with atypical cruelty to his ex-wife and certainly neglected his own sons, Douglas really seems to have been as charming in person as any of his dissolute characters in South Wind. One young woman remembers meeting him in 1906 on Capri. She was being chaperoned by two respectable ladies but was immediately taken with the timbre of his voice and his irresistible, rushing energy. She timidly invited the attractive stranger to tea:
'Tea? No.... You shouldn't sit up in that cold hole drinking tea. Tea, my god! Who let you come over here with those two old women? American parents don't know the first thing about bringing up children. Have you read Plutarch's Lives? Do you learn a column of the dictionary every day by heart? Well, you should. Tea indeed -- come along...'
As young Muriel Draper is dragged off to see "the only real trees on this hellish island," en route the odd couple pass various Capri notables, about whom Douglas keeps up a running commentary:
'So you know that old thieving harlot, do you? I don't care if she is very well known in America. Look out for your purse and your lovers when she's about. Haven't got any? Well, you should have. Oh! These American parents!' And another passed.... 'Beware of that young Danish doctor now. He is here because he just murdered his old uncle for a paltry thousand pounds.... Yes, he did too.'
And still another:
'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.
Sham Bibles? A forty-pound salmon?
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.