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South Wind is a rich but deceptively casual novel by the expatriate English writer Norman Douglas. Known for his controversial opinions and brilliant wit, Douglas made his own personality the template for the novel, which revels in humor, philosophical speculation, and idleness. Published in a tumultuous year of war and revolution, 1917, South Wind seems especially irreverent in depicting a group of eccentric and even scandalous characters wiling away their time in a sunny Mediterranean resort. The novel takes place on Nepenthe, Douglas's thinly veiled version of Capri, the island in the bay of Naples where he spent a good deal of his life and a retreat for pleasure-seekers since Roman times. In classical mythology, “nepenthe” was a medicine that caused one to forget melancholy and suffering; Douglas' comical duchesses, American millionaires, and expatriate freethinkers forget not only suffering, but conventional morality and even ordinary discretion. But if the rarefied setting and hedonistic antics of South Wind were far from the grim realities of the battlefield, its intellectual concerns went to the heart of the crisis of the West. In the series of witty conversations that make up much of the novel, the characters analyze (and mock) religion, science, morality, progress, and the legacies of classical civilization and the Church—issues that were fiercely debated throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. A constant theme is the difference between Mediterranean culture, which Douglas sees as still essentially pagan, and the harsh and puritanical civilization of northern Europe, with its “plague of repression” and “gargoyle morality.” The playfulness of South Wind is ever ambiguous and multifaceted; when in the end the Anglican bishop, Mr. Heard, glimpses finally “the screamingly funny insignificance of everything,” it is both an awakening and the terminal stage in his progressive loss of faith. South Wind resonated with the exuberant and irreverent spirit of the Roaring Twenties, and later generations of readers have found it an amusing tale, a masterpiece of intellectual ventriloquism, and a landmark of its time.
Norman Douglas (1868–1952) was in many ways a composite European: born in Austria to a Scottish family, he was educated first at English schools and later in Karlsruhe, Germany, and spent most of his adult life in Italy. Douglas received a traditional classical education but was keenly interested in the sciences, and in fact his first publication (when he was only seventeen) was in a zoological journal. He maintained his scientific interests in later life, publishing studies in both English and German, and his travel writings, as well as South Wind, reveal his talent for detailed observation. But this objective side was also matched by a radical subjectivism where morals, society, and experience are concerned—“what a man posits is truer than what exists,” as one of his characters says. Douglas’ unconventional and sometimes reprehensible behavior made it difficult for him to fit into the rigid structures of Victorian society. He joined the British Foreign Service and was sent to St. Petersburg in 1894, but his career was effectively ruined by a scandal over his affair with a Russian noblewoman—the first of several such episodes. Douglas married a cousin in 1898 and had two sons, but was divorced in 1903. He settled on Capri and earned his living mostly by travel writing. When he returned to England in 1910, he made friends in literary circles, and Joseph Conrad helped him get a job and get published. Just a year later, he published his first successful book, Siren Land, about Capri and the environs of Naples. In 1916, he published Old Calabria and that same year was forced to leave England to avoid prosecution for an affair with an underage boy. He returned to Italy, where he spent most of the next twenty years. Douglas became a fixture on Capri and was renowned for the clever and erudite conversation so apparent in South Wind, his major artistic accomplishment. The novel spoke to the young, rebellious, and cynical generation that was scarred by the experience of World War I, and influenced younger English writers such as Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene. Douglas’ career later in life was in the main disappointing. His unconventional attitudes hardened into strident and illiberal rants in such books as Goodbye to Western Culture (1929). He was even accused of fascist sympathies, though the Mussolini government did not return the sentiment and in fact drove him out of the country after yet another scandal. While he had many loyal admirers—such as the wealthy bohemian poet and publisher Nancy Cunard, and leading Imagist poet Richard Aldington—Douglas quarreled with others, including a notorious feud with D. H. Lawrence. He returned to Italy after World War II, but died in poverty in 1952, possibly from suicide.
Douglas, both as a person and a writer, is full of contrasts and contradictions. His family was wealthy, his father being a manager of cotton mills and his mother descended from the nobility. The death of his father when Norman was only six years old was an early trauma, as were, apparently, his stays in British boarding schools. Brought up bilingual in English and German, Douglas also learned Latin, Greek, Russian, and Italian. Perhaps it was because of personal unhappiness that the cosmopolitanism of his upbringing seems to have led him to become not so much a “citizen of the world” (an ideal embodied in South Wind) as a wanderer, an outcast. Yet in many ways Douglas was not a rebel at all but a creature of his time, holding conventional Victorian ideas about the colonized peoples of the Empire, the roles of women, and democracy's erosion of aristocratic culture, as well as the anti-Semitism of the period that exploded in 1894 in the infamous Dreyfus affair.
Douglas was not an innovator. South Wind is not aesthetically experimental, even though he was writing it at the time of the great upheaval of modernism. One must remember that Douglas sat astride the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, his lifetime almost evenly divided between the two. He was just shy of fifty years old when South Wind was published. Even his most provocative ideas can be found already in the works of Nietzsche and other writers, and were the common currency of what is known as the Decadence of the late nineteenth century, which was less a movement than a mood. But in South Wind Douglas was able to compose these ideas into a kind of chamber music for several voices, which made the most of his own talent for witticism while also casting this “novel of ideas” in a form that would be entertaining and informal rather than didactic and wooden.
Yet the novel’s conversations will strike the contemporary reader as anything but naturalistic:
“Poverty is like rain. It drops down ceaselessly, disintegrating the finer tissues of a man, his recent, delicate adjustments, and leaving nothing but the bleak and gaunt framework. A poor man is a wintry tree—alive, but stripped of its shining splendour. . . . One by one, his humane instincts, his elegant desires, are starved away by the stress of circumstance."
When we read a speech like this, we may object that people don’t really talk that way. Nevertheless, we admire the balanced phrasing and the evocative imagery. And anyone who has ever been in the position of not knowing where the rent is going to come from may well find in it some truth.
But before we dismiss the “conversational” tone of South Wind as artificial, it is well to remember that this was the age of some of the greatest wits Britain and Ireland had produced since the eighteenth century—G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. People traveled out of their way to hear them converse; large crowds attended debates in which Chesterton and Shaw deliberated in exactly the manner of the characters of South Wind, and indeed about some of the same issues. Their off-the-cuff remarks were more trenchant and more quotable than many essayists’ most polished writings.
Douglas, too, practiced this art. The novel is filled with striking aphorisms: “When people cease to reflect they become idealists”; “Men, refusing to believe what is improbable, reserve their credulity for what is utterly impossible”; “You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements”; “All life . . . is a search for a friend.” Such statements are carried off for the most part by placing them in the mouths of aged characters—either aristocratic, rich, or both—who have arrived at a mature and polished philosophy of life. The most fully fleshed out (as well as entertaining) are the wealthy Englishman, Mr. Keith, and the impecunious Italian, Count Caloveglia. Keith is “in love with life” and “knew too much, and had travelled too far, to be anything but a hopeless unbeliever.” He is an omnivorous student, interested in everything, and passionate also in his pursuit of pleasure. His one terror is death: “to bid farewell to this gracious earth and the blue sky overhead, to his cooks and his books . . . to exchange these things of love, these tangible delights, for a hideous and everlasting annihilation.” It is an eloquent evocation of our most stark and dreadful fear as conscious beings.
Douglas was perhaps poking fun at G. K. Chesterton (whose middle name was Keith); he gave Mr. Keith atheistic views antithetical to Chesterton’s, but the physical description suits Chesterton to a tee:
His face was clean-shaven, rosy, and of cherubic fullness; his eyes beamed owlishly through spectacles which nobody had ever seen him take off. But for those spectacles he might have passed for a well-groomed baby in a soap advertisement.
While many of the characters seem to express parts of the author's personality (this sympathy is largely responsible for the novel’s artistic success), Caloveglia expounds ideas that were particularly close to Douglas’ heart. His passionate love of art, antiquity, and Italy is that of a man who “had discarded superfluities of thought and browsed for a lifetime, in leisurely fashion, upon all that purifies and exalts the spirit.” He is the “epitome of the Ionian spirit,” upholding classical ideals of beauty while decrying democracy, which “has substituted progress for civilization” and created new forms of slavery just as injurious as that of antiquity. Above all, Caloveglia advances the aesthetic attitude toward life, “the Mediterranean note,” against the Puritanism he finds in modern industrial society. For him (and probably for Douglas), this difference also rests on nature: the gentler climate of the south “meets you half-way,” and instead of struggling just to get enough to eat and stay warm, the southerners “have leisure to cultivate nobler aspects of their nature."
Were the novel just the record of these would-be sages holding forth, it would be a mere set piece, static and lifeless. What it needs is seekers, questioners whose minds are not made up, and these Douglas supplies. The novel begins with Thomas Heard, an Anglican bishop who has returned with impaired health from Africa, stopping in Nepenthe to visit his cousin, Mrs. Meadows. In antiquity, Capri was the place where the Roman emperor Tiberius retired to indulge his debauched tastes out of sight of the Roman senate, and it has never quite lost its reputation as a glamorous and decadent playground for the rich. Against this background, the bishop seems like a fish out of water—which is exactly the point. Heard fulfills the classic role of foil for the others, yet he is hardly a mere prop. Of the many threads woven together in the story, his is the strongest. Another foil—a minor, comical one—is the young and insecure Denis Phipps, who “exhaled that peculiar College aroma which the most heroic efforts of a lifetime often fail to dissipate.” He approaches the other figures as a novice seeking instruction, which he receives in full measure.
Around these central characters swirl a bewildering array of grotesques and buffoons: the fat and affable monsignor Don Francesco (“like most Southerners, a thoroughgoing pagan”); Ernest Eames, who has spent decades annotating an old history of Nepenthe that he never intends to publish (fragments of which Douglas invents); Miss Wilberforce, an alcoholic English lady who takes off her clothes in public; and a gang of sixty-three Russian religious maniacs gathered around “the Messiah,” an ex-Russian monk who is, of course, senile (Douglas never misses a chance to lampoon organized religion). As Heard remarks, “the canvas of Nepenthe is rather overcharged."
Things do happen, however: a small earthquake, a volcanic eruption, religious processions with the local saints, and even a murder. A central conceit of the novel is that the hot south wind, the scirocco out of Africa that blows uninterruptedly through most of the story, unhinges the straight-laced foreigners and eventually divests them of their too rigid morality and opinions. Bishop Heard, in fact, resolves to leave the church—but he is hardly mad. His journey is a thoughtful one, and he is admirable in being a man neither ashamed to defend his opinions nor too proud to change them. Indeed, he is more open-minded and compassionate than his creator succeeded in being, though unfortunately Douglas imputes to him the view of Africans as simple primitives and “healthy animals.” Though even here, the idea is more complex than the obvious racial stereotype, for the hedonistic Keith also advises Denis to “Try to be more of an animal”:
Try to extract pleasure from more obvious sources. Lie fallow for a while. Forget all these things. Go out into the midday glare. Sit among rocks and by the sea. Have a look at the sun and stars for a change; they are just as impressive as Donatello. Find yourself!
Heard, on the other hand, loses himself—or rather, he finds his old, received ideas have been disturbed, and “the structure of his mind had lost that old stability; its elements seemed to be held in solution, ready to form new combinations.” It is a pity that Douglas was not able himself to remain in this state of suspension, where various elements are “held in solution,” for that is the balance that makes South Wind work. Douglas maintained his intellectual curiosity, but not perhaps his emotional equipoise, instead falling like Caloveglia into the stridency of self-contradictory statements like “What is the outstanding feature of modern life? The bankruptcy, the proven fatuity, of everything that is bound up under the name of Western civilization.” He was not alone in this, of course; the disasters of the twentieth century were only beginning, and the bankruptcy of Western civilization, ultimately symbolized by the Holocaust, is a theme that has haunted the Western mind ever since.
Faced with a moral dilemma—actions that his old self would condemn—Heard ultimately throws over his old morality and takes what is presented as a more compassionate, forgiving, and “Mediterranean” view of human nature. It probably goes without saying that Douglas’ notion of Italy and of “Mediterranean culture” was a simplification and an idealization, in some ways perhaps a self-serving one. In this he was not alone; D. H. Lawrence wrote that “Italy does not judge,” and many generations of travelers and expatriates have found or imagined in Italy an ideal “siren land” of tolerance and seduction (forgetting that expatriates are to an extent not expected to play by the local rules). But there is certainly some truth here as well; Douglas’ physical descriptions of the eye-opening and soul-opening landscapes and seascapes of southern Italy are vivid, and among the few sentences of the book untinged with irony. And there is no doubt that if we come to South Wind, to Nepenthe, to be beguiled, we shall not be disappointed.
Bruce F. Murphy is the author of The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (2001) and the editor of the fourth edition of Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia (1996). His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Paris Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly, and other journals.