Magazine article The Spectator

A Hedonist of the Old School

Magazine article The Spectator

A Hedonist of the Old School

Article excerpt

NORMAN DOUGLAS : A PORTRAIT edited by Wilhelm Meusberger, Michael Allan and Helmut Swozilek Edizione La Conchigli, Via le Botteghe, Capri, Euros 37, ISBN 8886443803

When the hero of Cyril Connolly's novel The Rock Pool was asked which modern writers he admired, he replied, 'Eliot, Joyce and Norman Douglas.' Eliot and Joyce have held up well enough, but Douglas? 'I thought he was quite forgotten, ' one well-read friend remarked to me.

So perhaps he is. But he loomed quite large between the two world wars, and his reputation was still high for a decade or so after his death in 1952. There were admittedly extra-literary reasons for this.

Admiring Douglas marked you out as a free spirit who had broken the bonds of Anglo-Saxon Puritan conformity. Douglas was a rebel, a scoffer, a hedonist, a pagan in the antique Mediterranean style. 'Why prolong life save to prolong pleasure?' he wrote. Our northern Puritanism is now dead, or in abeyance, Douglas's message therefore superfluous. At the same time his own style of paganism looks decidedly old hat: 'Many of us would do well to Mediterraneanise ourselves for a season, to quicken those eth[n]ic roots from which has sprung so much of what it best in our natures.' Douglas's Mediterranean was not that of mass tourism.

I once intended to write a biography of Douglas; it was indeed to be my first book.

I got warm encouragement from John Davenport and from one of Douglas's oldest friends, Edward Hutton, tepid encouragement from Harold Acton and cool discouragement from Kenneth Macpherson, his literary executor, in whose villa on Capri Douglas spent the last years of his life.

Macpherson was quite right to discourage me. I wasn't up to the task I had set myself, being far too immature. But the enterprise had taken me for the first time to Italy: to Rome, Florence, Naples, Capri and Calabria where I wandered for weeks in the early summer of 1964. So I have reason to be grateful to Douglas, quite apart from the pleasure his writing has given me.

I wasn't the first to have failed to write his biography. Davenport himself and Constantine FitzGibbon were before me.

Reasons were diverse, but one stumbling block was the nature of Douglas's sex-life, and how this should be treated. Then, at last, in 1976 a biography did appear, written by Mark Holloway; a very good one.

It was well-timed, appearing in that brief interval when it was possible to write honestly, but uncensoriously, about the subject. The blurb hardly gives the flavour of the book, but does highlight the question.

Douglas, a young diplomat in Russia, had to make a sudden departure because of scandal over a woman. Later he had to leave England equally hurriedly -- this time because of boys. He spent much of his time, in his own words, 'hopping it' over frontiers to avoid arrest. He was in fact a total hedonist, and, by even today's standards, a deplorable character.

This sounds like the publishers trying to drum up interest in an already almost forgotten writer. The blurb goes on to speak of his 'host of friends' and to call him 'irascible, intolerant, the kindest of men and a writer of near-genius'.

Douglas, born 1868, was a child of the 19th century and a European. By this I mean that he was almost entirely devoid of national feeling. He was three-quarters Scots and a quarter German, and his birthplace was Thuringen in the Vorarlberg in Austria, where his grandfather had established cotton mills, having married a Mancunian Scot. His branch of the Douglases -- 'old-fashioned, ' he once wrote, 'to the point of imbecility, and sometimes beyond' -- had been lairds of Tilquhillie on Deeside for centuries; his maternal grandmother, a godchild of Queen Victoria, was the daughter of Lord Forbes, premier baron of Scotland. He was educated mostly in Germany and his early interests were scientific, but he entered the diplomatic service, until that Russian scandal caused him to be placed 'en disponibilité'. …

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