This month we explore the experimental novel South Wind by Norman Douglas—a "thinly veiled portrait of Capri", published by Apollo as part of their mission to restore remarkable books for a new generation of readers.

About the book

In the 70-odd years since his death, Douglas has fallen out of the frame. His comedy requires a careful adjustment of the modern ear, no longer attuned to the wry, dialogic manner Douglas mastered. His moral stance in a permissive age no longer shocks, yet some of his sexual nonconformities are awkward to come to terms with.

These very challenges recommend him: he brings alive, like few other writers do, in an untrammeled spirit, an age and a culture too readily overlooked: the time just before the First World War when the old world still held together.

Norman Douglas. Image via quotlr

His prose remains rewarding, and even now he can instruct new writers in the art of fiction. His best novel, South Wind (first published in 1917, the year of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist) combines the virtues of a collection of essays, an anthology of stories, a parody of historical and anthropological writing, and a conventional adventure and murder novel, all rolled into one beguiling whole. It attracted imitators, among them Aldous Huxley whose early (and best) books grow out of Douglas. 

Aldous Huxley. Image via infobarrel

Born in 1868, Douglas’s grew up in Germany and on the ancestral estates in Scotland, then entered the British diplomatic service and was sent to Russia. Douglas fled from British jurisdiction four times as a result of the equivalent of public decency offences, two of them with boys. The place of exile where he felt most at home was Capri, in the Bay of Naples.

The Capri shoreline  

Nepenthe, the volcanic island setting of South Wind, has its imaginative source and much of its geography there. The volcano that erupts in the novel is not unlike Vesuvius with its sporadic emissions of smoke, ash and lava. 

The novel unfolds over 12 days and 40 chapters, with a large cast of characters—some permanent inhabitants, others who come for a time, are altered, and prepare to move on. His Nepenthe was famous "not only for its girls and lobsters, but also for its south wind", the sirocco that is a powerful presence in the book.



"Nepenthe unsettles Northern people—they lose their inhibitions, become irresponsibly, nakedly themselves"



Nepenthe unsettles Northern people. They lose their inhibitions, become to one degree or another irresponsibly, nakedly themselves—literally in the case of the Russians, figuratively in the case of the English, apart from Miss Wilberforce: strong-willed, English, alcoholic, prone to naturism after dark.

Those who end up on the steep, gaudy island—rich in flora, less so in fauna—change. Protestant prejudice is thinned, shredded and then blown away by the sirocco. Social custom holds, the formulas of the old religions, but private beliefs and values are at risk, individual life is subject to perils and possibility. 


The Excerpt

"The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick. Confoundedly sea-sick, in fact. 

This annoyed him. For he disapproved of sickness in every shape or form. His own state of body was far from satisfactory at that moment; Africa – he was Bishop of Bampopo in the Equatorial Regions – had played the devil with his lower gastric department and made him almost an invalid; a circumstance of which he was nowise proud, seeing that ill health led to inefficiency in all walks of life.

There was nothing he despised more than inefficiency. Well or ill, he always insisted on getting through his tasks in a business-like fashion. That was the way to live, he used to say. Get through with it. Be perfect of your kind, whatever that kind may be. Hence his sneaking fondness for the natives – they were such fine, healthy animals. 



"There was nothing he despised more than inefficiency"



Fine, healthy animals; perfect of their kind! Africa liked them to “get through with it” according to their own lights. But there was evidently a little touch of spitefulness and malice about Africa; something almost human. For when white people try to get through with it after their particular fashion, she makes hay of their livers or something. That is what had happened to Thomas Heard, D.D., Bishop of Bampopo.

He had been so perfect of his kind, such an exemplary pastor, that there was small chance of a return to the scenes of his episcopal labours. Anybody could have told him what would happen. He ought to have allowed for a little human weakness on the part of the Black Continent. It could not be helped. For the rest, he was half inclined to give up the Church and take to some educational work on his return to England. Perhaps that was why he at present preferred to be known as “Mr Heard”. It put people at their ease, and him too. 



"Above all, there was the unavoidable spectacle of the suffering passengers, natives of the country; it infected him with misery"



Whence now this novel and unpleasant sensation in the upper gastric region? Most annoying! He had dined discreetly at his hotel the evening before; had breakfasted with moderation. And had he not voyaged in many parts of the world, in China seas and round the Cape? Was he not even then on his return journey from Zanzibar? No doubt. But the big liner which deposited him yesterday at the thronged port was a different concern from this wretched tub, reeking with indescribable odours as it rolled in the oily swell of the past storm through which the Mozambique had ridden without a tremor.

The benches, too, were frightfully uncomfortable, and sticky with sirocco moisture under the breathless awning. Above all, there was the unavoidable spectacle of the suffering passengers, natives of the country; it infected him with misery. In attitudes worthy of Michelangelo they sprawled about the deck, groaning with anguish; huddled up in corners with a lemon – prophylactic against sea-sickness, apparently – pressed to faces which, by some subtle process of colour adaptation, had acquired the complexion of the fruit; tottering to the taffrail..." 


South Wind by Norman Douglas is published by Apollo

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