Seldom has a writer, on the strength of one novel, been made the object of such a cult as that centered on George Norman Douglas after South Wind had become well known. It was his only book to achieve any wide degree of popularity, yet because of it he overshadowed for a time writers of more enduring accomplishment. Ironically, the novel also eclipsed Douglas’s own more substantial works.
Douglas, the descendant of an ancient Scottish family, was born in Austria. Because he disliked English public schools he was sent to a Gymnasium in Karlsruhe in 1883, where he became a fluent linguist. While a student, he contributed articles on zoology to scientific publications. He joined the British Foreign Office in 1893 and in 1894 was sent to St. Petersburg; however, he soon withdrew from government service to become a writer, eventually settling in Italy.
His first book, Unprofessional Tales (1901), written in collaboration with his wife, had almost no sales; ten years later his second, Siren Land, was published only through the help of Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett. It was during the blackest period of World War I that he attained celebrity with South Wind.
It would seem that, during every literary period, there must be what might be called a “coterie novel,” familiarity with which becomes the hallmark of the cognoscenti. Such a role was played by South Wind as its fame gradually spread to the United States and it was taken up by sophisticated readers. The book’s tone fit in with the prevailing enthusiasm for the work of James Branch Cabell and Ronald Firbank, writers who, like Douglas, provided escape literature of a sophisticated kind. Polish, urbanity, and a gentle cynicism were important, and through the artificial atmosphere thus created the writer could satirize bourgeois society and its standards.
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