Places: South Wind

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1917

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Places DiscussedNepenthe

Nepenthe South Wind (nih-PEHN-thee). Fictional Italian island in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Nepenthe is noted for its sirocco or south wind, upon which the island’s inhabitants routinely blame their foibles and shortcomings. From a distance, Nepenthe looks to Mr. (Bishop) Heard like a cloud, its outline “barely suggested through a veil of fog.” There is “an air of irreality” about it. Once the morning mists roll away, however, Heard realizes that Nepenthe is a “rambling and craggy sort of place” studded with palms and festooned with green vines. As Mr. Keith, one of Nepenthe’s residents, remarks to Heard, “‘There are no half-tones in this landscape.’”

Although commentators have routinely identified Nepenthe as Capri, a famous Italian island where Douglas spent many years, he himself pointed out that he had borrowed many of Nepenthe’s physical features from other islands such as Ponza, Ischia, and the Lipari Islands. Douglas is careful not to locate Nepenthe too precisely, placing it several hours away by ferry from a busy port yet within sight of the Italian mainland. A clue to the island’s real nature is suggested by its name; nepenthe is a drug that helps those taking it forget their woes.

Nepenthe town

Nepenthe town. Port and only city on the island of Nepenthe. Its courtyards are aglow with oranges, and its precipitous streets are “noisy with rattling carriages and cries of fruit-vendors.” Heard finds the effect “almost operatic.” By inviolable custom, the town’s inhabitants gather every morning in its busy piazza or marketplace, one side of which presents a view of the island’s lower slopes and the sea. This custom is viewed as “admirable,” as it prevents anyone from getting anything done in the morning. A siesta accomplishes much the same result in the afternoon, at which time several of the novel’s male characters may be found slumbering at the tawdry Alpha and Omega Club, often suffering from the effects of the proprietor’s house brand of whiskey. Others gather to drink at Luisella’s grotto-tavern. On the edge of Nepenthe town, down a narrow lane, is the Villa Khismet (KIHZ-meht, meaning “fate”), where Mr. Keith entertains Mr. Heard.

Old Town

Old Town. Upper, somewhat inaccessible quarter of Nepenthe town. Unlike the modern settlement on the island’s lower slopes, the Old Town is “calm and reposeful,” its weather cooler thanks to its elevation and northern exposure. Its shady gardens are watered by the moisture of the south wind. The Old Town was originally built at such heights to preserve it from pirates. Subsequently it was revived by the good Duke Alfred, a feared and revered ruler who painted its buildings pink and enclosed it within a massive wall. The Old Town is the site of Count Caloveglia’s villa, where Mr. Heard enjoys many edifying conversations, as well as a villa known as Mon Repos (“My rest”), leased by Mr. Heard’s cousin Mrs. Meadows. Near Mon Repos is a dangerous and precipitous cliff, the Devil’s Rock, from which many have fallen or jumped to their deaths.

BibliographyGreenlees, Ian. Norman Douglas. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman Group, 1971. A pamphlet-length survey by a man who knew and traveled with Douglas. South Wind receives careful attention.Holloway, Mark. Norman Douglas: A Biography. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1976. The only comprehensive biography. A warm but judicious consideration by a man who admits to enjoying Douglas’ work “almost without reservation.” Contains the most thorough investigation available of South Wind’s origin, composition, and influence.Leary, Lewis. Norman Douglas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. A brief survey that treats South Wind prominently. Concludes that the novel remains as fresh as when it first appeared.Lindeman, Ralph D. Norman Douglas. Boston: Twayne, 1965. Easily the best book-length introduction to Douglas and his writings. South Wind receives specific treatment. Bibliography.Matthews, Jack. “Jack Matthews on Norman Douglas’s South Wind.” In Rediscoveries: Informal Essays in Which Well-Known Novelists Rediscover Neglected Works of Fiction by One of Their Favorite Authors, edited by David Madden. New York: Crown, 1971. A genial appreciation stressing the novel’s intelligence, compassion, and humor. Wonders at the book’s neglect. A good starting place for research.
Categories: Places