The Art of the Sentence: Norman Douglas

James Guida

“Fascinated by the ultra-horrible, I have watched them for hours on end, and one of the most cherished projects of my life is to assemble, in a kind of anthology, all the invectives that have been hurled since the beginning of literature against this loathly dirt-born insect, this living carrion, this blot on the Creator’s reputation — and thereto add a few of my own.” Norman Douglas, Alone

This is Norman Douglas on the business of flies. It’s 1921 (or thereabouts) and he’s in Rome again. There are no mosquitoes in his room, he tells us, and few flies, and no incident involving either insect follows. Why even speak of them? Well, because it’s Norman Douglas, that’s why.

Though little read today, Douglas used to be known for the superb South Wind– a novel honored in wood form, I discovered a little while ago, in one of Saul Steinberg’s cool desk-with-books constructions – as well as for his extensive travel writings. In addition to such things and various scandals, he found time for a host of side-projects, including a bestiary, filthy limerick collection, aphrodisiac cookbook, and detailed record of the street games played by London’s school children. “Fascinated,” the opener here, will have to serve as understatement.

I note all this because, though I’ve plucked it for enjoyment’s sake, the sentence turns out to be oddly revealing as self-portraiture. There’s the candid interest in everything large or small, fair or foul; the related hints of long and lightly worn erudition in both the arts and sciences (that “hours on end” is probably not hyperbole); and then the champion choleric streak (other memorable Douglas tirades are aimed at Eucalyptus trees and the pillows in rural English inns). As usual, the author’s loves and hatreds are somehow resolved in a style of leisurely classicism. Has “blot” ever looked so formal, and how subtle and pregnant that “reputation” is. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but the “thereto” part also seems like a well-aimed last swat at his nemesis, as though withheld until the perfect moment. Digress all you want, Norman Douglas, digress!

James Guida is the author of Marbles, a book of aphorisms.