Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Battered Penguins - South Wind by Norman Douglas

I read some advice to writers given by Martin Amis the other day, to this effect: when reading, you should ask yourself constantly, 'How are they doing this, how are they creating this effect, how have they set up this scene, how have they created this character'. I thought I'd give it a go when reading South Wind. Very quickly though, I found myself drifting from 'How?', to 'Why?'

As page after page of tangled description and meandering plot line, (if this flimsy bit of gossamer could be given such a substantial description), confronted me, I became less and less able to understand what the hell Norman Douglas was thinking of as he wrote this heap of pages that he eventually called a novel.

A character is introduced, you follow him for a bit, and then another is introduced, and you are led off with him for a while. Another appears, and you wander off in the direction he takes for a few pages, before being introduced to someone else, who goes somewhere else and does something else, without any real connection or reference to those other characters you have already met. This goes on for hundreds of pages. As each new figure appears, you, the reader, like a starving man in the desert, clutch at them more desperately, hoping that at last you have found a central figure to cling to, a hero whose story will enlighten everything, a hero who will actually have a story, one that moves from somewhere to somewhere, one that will possibly even reach some kind of dramatic conclusion.

I used to think the phrase 'narrative arc' was an annoying publishing cliche, but now that I have read South Wind I am not so sure.

I should point out that there are amusing moments in South Wind and interesting apercus, but in the end the book is too much like Nepenthe itself, the book's setting, (a thinly disguised Capri, apparently), about which one character remarks,  'The canvas of Nepenthe is rather over-charged'.

Douglas may possibly have intended the book as some kind of fairy tale. Certainly, the fairy tale is a motif that recurs a couple of times - and the book actually ends with mention of one. There is one exciting moment, after hundreds of pages of rambling, when Douglas appears to have finally settled on murder-mystery as his form, but he rapidly lets the idea fall. Could the thing be a meditation on England - the island in the book is its antithesis and the text contains many observatons about being English? In the end, I have to admit that I have no idea.

To sum up, I am baffled by this book, with its crowd of well-observed characters having wordy and sometimes witty conversations. DH Lawrence portrayed Norman Douglas as Argyle in Aaron's Rod, (they fell out badly as a result); quite frankly, even a novel by DH Lawrence, for all his foibles and flaws, supplies more satisfaction for a reader, in my view, than does South Wind. And yet the book is not, paragraph by paragraph, badly written, and I know of readers who regard it as a brilliant work of early modernism. Therefore, I hesitate to condemn it. It is not undiverting; it is merely hard to get hold of or quite see the point of.

I'm haunted by the suspicion that it is simply a lack of sophistication that stands as a barrier between me and admiration of this novel. The same unsophistication means that I am appalled by another work of Douglas's, an absolutely filthy collection of limericks that he gathered and annotated. If you are at all easily shocked, I should leave them well alone, but perhaps somewhere within this latter work there may be some clue as to what the hell he was up to when he was writing South Wind.

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