Norman Douglas and Calabria
To be a classic in one’s own lifetime — that seems a fate any writer would envy. In a world of very deciduous best sellers, leaves that vanish on the wind, the writings of Norman Douglas strike one as being evergreens, tough, fitted to survive. As tough, I should say, as their author — now a hale, vigorous man of over seventy who has just reluctantly abandoned mountaineering but is still capable of walking much younger men off their legs.
It is exhilarating to watch Norman Douglas moving with his firm, deliberate stride among a South European crowd, head and shoulders above them, his back as straight and strong as a young pine. Among those men of another climate he looks so completely a Scottish gentleman. (Once, in Sicily, Orioli and I bought some fantastic-colored tam-o’-shanters, and took them back to Florence. We made Douglas put one on. ‘What a Scot Norman is!’ exclaimed Orioli. By way of proving it, Douglas danced a Highland fling for us. He was then a mere youngster of sixtyfive.) But, obvious as the Scotchness is, as he walks alone among Latins the truly impressive thing is his vitality. Here, you feel at once, is a man who has loved life passionately and intensely; and life has repaid him by keeping him vigorous and alive long after most men have abdicated into a régime of gruel and nightcaps.
For this and other reasons I don’t believe that Norman Douglas is much impressed by being made a world’s classic. A little hard cash would be more to the point; or better still, a good deal of it. The world has not been generous to him in those small financial details which tend to make for good feeling between an author and his readers. I will give one example. Recently an edition of at least 100,000 copies of South Wind was sold in England; and Douglas himself assured me that he didn’t get one cent.
Old Calabria is one of the few genuine solid books of travel of this century. The area of old Calabria is roughly the southern and eastern portion of the old kingdom of Naples. So far as the cosmopolitan tourist is concerned, it is as unknown as the Gobi Desert, a no man’s land in the midst of civilized Europe. He —the tourist — disappears at Pæstum, half a mile south of the Greek temples, and doesn’t reappear until you strike Taormina in Sicily. Otherwise the only strangers you see are disgruntled commercial travelers from north Italy, loud in their disapproval of the region; one or two learned and adventurous Germans; and possibly a reckless Briton coming home from India, who has landed his car at Brindisi and may be met cursing his way over the tortuous mountain passes deep in snow while the lowlands are sweltering.
Calabria is a wild and povertystricken land of barren mountains and devastating intermittent torrents, malaria-haunted swamps and lowlands. Here and there are areas of exuberant fertility, relics which explain the ancient wealth and renown of this province. The torrents are due to that curse of the Mediterranean basin — deforestation and avaricious unintelligent exploitation. Two thousand years ago the trees came down to the sea and the rivers were partially navigable. Now there are huge treeless areas of parched desert desolation. In dry weather the torrent beds, often nearly a mile wide, are a tumultuous desert of torrid white stones and boulders; after a few hours of heavy rain on the mountains they are dangerous raging spates of muddy water. Woe to the man or animal caught in them — there is no escape from certain death.
I shall never forget crossing one of these fiumare on a rainy evening by car, south of Reggio. We had gone down to Bova and Pentedatillo, the most southerly points of the Italian mainland. I’d had so many punctures that I was driving on three tires and the rim of the fourth wheel — there was only a rough track across the half mile or more of a torrent bed, and I knew I had to get over at once or be stuck for the night in some ghastly wineshop. The water was just over the tires on the south side; when I managed to bump out on the other side ten minutes later it was already up to the hubs. So rapidly do these fiumare rise.
Why go to Calabria? For to the picture I have tried to give must be added the fact that time and again Calabria has been wrecked by appalling earthquakes. Whole towns and villages have been engulfed without a survivor. From the mountain watershed between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas you look down on a landscape tortured into fantastic shapes by earthquakes — the only area like it being the mad mountains in the earthquake area south of Lisbon. And then what a record of savage wars, vile misgovernment, brutal destruction, oppression, brigandage, superstition!
So, once again, why go to Calabria? The answer to that question will be found in Douglas’s book. For the scholar this whole region is full of interest and memories. This is Magna Græcia, and on the shores of this beautiful sea rose those powerful and wealthy Greek cities — Sybaris, Croton, Rhegium, Metapontum, Tarentum — where Pythagoras taught and Ibycus was born and Herodotus died. Beyond the names scarcely a trace of them remains; even the very site of Sybaris is in dispute. From the mountains you look down on a great stretch of desolate sea plain, furrowed by the fanshaped fiumare, and know that somewhere down there once stood Sybaris — the wealthy city whose name is still a synonym for extravagant luxury. At Croton, the great rival of Sybaris, one hoary column of the great temple of Hera still stands on the lonely headland. I was told that even now in the spring a procession of white-robed girls and women, garlanded with flowers, goes singing to the shrine of the Madonna, just as all those centuries ago far-off predecessors visited the shrine of Hera.
But Greece is only the bright beginning of the tragical story of Calabria. The free Greek cities were crushed by the grim military power of Rome; and though life returned, it was no longer the same. Yet in the extreme north of the province Horace had his country house, and centuries later, at Squillace in the south, Cassiodorus lived in pious and learned retirement. With the collapse of Rome the province was invaded by Goths and Huns — Alaric died at Cosenza and was buried somewhere in the river bed. Belisarius and Narses warred here, and the province passed to Byzantium. Then came the Normans with their brief brilliant culture; Frederick II, with his Saracen guards and Provençal poets —forerunner of the Renaissance. Then Aragonese and Angevins, and the new intellectual life — Campanella, for instance, was a Calabrian. And in Douglas’s book you will find a fascinating chapter on a Calabrian sacred drama, which probably gave Milton many hints for Paradise Lost.
The tragedy of the Spanish invasion and dull repressive reign of Spanish viceroys was accompanied by the intellectual repression of the Counter-Reformation. As if that were not enough, there came Bourbon misrule; then the Napoleonic invasion, with a brief period of reasonable government under Murat (the one great road in Calabria was built by his engineers); and then a further epoch of Bourbonism, with its terrible political persecution. Only with Garibaldi was the yoke lifted — and even then absentee landlordism and commercial exploitation continued the destruction of what was once so great a centre of human civilization and natural wealth. Is it any wonder that, in the years just before the World War, Douglas found village after village emptied of its male inhabitants, all emigrants to America? They sent home money and returned with new ideas. Douglas speaks of a village where nearly every man could speak some English. In out-of-the-way wineshops I have talked with men who had worked in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and faroff San Francisco. Outside Castrovillari are numbers of new houses — opulent, indeed for that region — built by the ‘Americani,’ as these returned emigrants are always called. Now that emigration has stopped. What does the future hold for Calabria?
Norman Douglas is the ideal guide to this strange tragical country. The union of ripe scholar and hardy adventurer is perhaps not so rare as people think, but it is not common. Ramage and Lenormant have preceded Douglas in Calabria, and Gissing along the coast. But Douglas tops them all. In these days of a multitude of shoddy superficial travel books, how satisfactory it is to find one that is solid all through! Here is an author of a travel book who speaks the language like a native, who is equally at home with the goatherds and charcoal burners in the mountain recesses, and with men who gather in wineshops and on the city squares, and with the Italian gentleman. Years of reading went to the making of this book, and repeated explorations, often on foot over long distances by rough mountain tracks which have scarcely been visited by any foreigner. There is something particularly attractive in this mingling of wide, often recondite learning with the breath of mountain air and the scent of Calabrian heath, the sound of mountain springs and wide prospects over sea and land.
Douglas’s culture is not merely literary, though his knowledge of literature is immense. His mastery of out-of-theway Italian and Italian-Latin literature is enormous, far beyond anything dreamed of by Burckhardt and Addington Symonds. Walter Pater is a mere amateur in comparison. There is not a professor in the wrorld with Douglas’s knowledge of the history and thought and archaeology of South Italy. Conscientious isn’t the word for it. In Old Calabria there is a chapter about levitating monks. To write that chapter Douglas hunted down and read some fifty baroque biographies, mostly of the seventeenth century, and staggered priests by his knowledge of local saints they had never even heard of! I myself have heard him correct a learned Italian on the finer shades of meaning of Neapolitan dialect.
But that is only a fraction of his knowledge. He says he has forgotten his Russian and modern Greek, by which he means that he no longer talks them as fluently as English. German is a second mother tongue to him. I have heard Frieda Lawrence say: ‘You think Norman is witty and amusing in English. You should hear him in German. It is marvelous!’ His book about Vorarlberg, the Austrian province in which he spent much of his childhood, is as much a mine of German lore as Old Calabria is of Italian. (The book is called Together. I recommend it.) An ex-diplomat will not be ignorant of French; indeed I can myself testify that Douglas is as much a Frenchman among the French as he is an Italian among Italians. He saw the Imperial Russian Ballet before any of us had ever heard of it. He visited the monasteries of Mount Athos long before they became a fashion. He knows the Greek islands and rode through Asia Minor. He has lived in British India and in Africa — Fountains in the Sand is a magnificent book on North Africa.
Did I omit to say that he is a classical scholar, and has published a book on the birds and beasts of the Greek Anthology? His book on Capri is a monument of learning, containing among a multitude of good things a spirited and documented defense of Tiberius. Do you know why he first went to Capri, some fifty years ago? To get specimens of the unique blue lizard which is found only on the Faraglioni. (He has written a treatise on the Herpetology of the Grand Duchy of Baden — just by the way, as it were.) He is an expert geologist and botanist — the next time you reread South Wind just note the geological and botanical knowledge incidentally displayed. He has a passion for afforestation, and knows enough about it to run any forestry commission. Zoölogy —last year he stayed a few days with me in my cottage on the French Riviera, and almost on arrival asked me if I had seen a genet. The only Genêt I knew was the one who writes for the New Yorker; so I said ‘No.’ It appeared that the genet inhabits the extreme south of France and that Douglas had tramped many miles and talked to many peasants in fruitless efforts to find one. Last week I nearly sent him a cable: ‘Come at once to New York have discovered three genets in Central Park.’ But, alas, even three live genets would not lure this hater of seas and modernity across the Atlantic.
Norman Douglas is a man of strong character and even stronger prejudices. He is the last of the polished individualists. As a man and as a writer he has gone his own way, contemptuous of majorities and fashions and the literary and social world. He has acquired immense knowledge because knowing is a pleasure to him. He has always written about what interested him, and not what the pundits or the public demanded of him. He is one of the few truly masculine writers; there are muscle and sinew in his prose. A mountain of a writer, who will not budge an inch for a wilderness of Mohanuneds — with the result that the Mohammed of the public is moving slowly towards him. This publication in The World’s Classics is one more step. The world will hear more about Norman Douglas, unless all interest in literature is swamped in barbarism. . . .
I forgot to say that he is an excellent pianist, a pupil of Rubinstein; and that he could write a book on the wines of Italy. I wish he would. But I have given up hinting to him that we should like another book from him. The reply is invariable: ‘Not for the wealth of Crœsus!’ And after all, why should he write another line? He has done more than enough for fame. As for money, a mean world has got its answer.