Book Week: Siren Land by Norman Douglas

I cannot call this week’s post a book review, because I have been unable to read the book. Have you read Norman Douglas? If so, please share your experience with me.

I want to read it. Norman Douglas’s travel books on southern Italy are said to be classics of the genre. So I bought a paperback of Siren Land (a 2010 edition of a book first published in 1911, a sure sign of a classic) and have made several attempts.

This is not light reading, not the kind of travel book for hotel and restaurant reviews.

Norman Douglas in 1935

Granted, some might say I am a lazy reader, but Douglas writes dense, complex prose. He cites snippets of Latin, and uses Italian phrases, with no translation for the benefit of readers like me. He alludes to obscure mythologies and little-known historical events.

According to the introduction, Douglas said that the reader of a travel book is entitled to “all one would wish to know about the subject–features of landscape with their associative history, geology, zoology, botany, archaeology, etc.–but also that author’s ‘mind worth knowing'”. And Douglas has supplied these things, some of them in six- and eight-line sentences that require reading three or four times to disentangle the meaning from the words.

Truthfully, he lost me in the very first chapter, titled Sirens and their Ancestry. I tried to pick up on a topic of particular interest to me, his third chapter, The Siren Islets, and lasted a little longer.

His chapter On Liesure opens with this sentence: “Come, let us discourse beneath this knotty carob tree whose boughs have been bent earthward by a thousand gales for the over-shadowing of the Inspired Unemployed, and betwixt whose lustrous leaves the sea, far down below, is shining turquoise-blue in a dream of calm content–let me discourse, that is–for if other people are going to talk, as Whistler used to say, there can be no conversation–let me discourse of leisure, the siren’s gift to men.”

Who knew leisure would be such hard work? And that’s just the first sentence!

So this week, I would especially like to hear from anyone who has read Norman Douglas, with any hints or encouragements to help me through his book.



4 thoughts on “Book Week: Siren Land by Norman Douglas

  1. The passage you’ve quoted is just plain funny, and meant to be. It’s a long leisurely sentence about…leisure.

    Try to slow down; read it slowly, pay attention to the way it’s structured, think about what the author is doing with your reading experience.

  2. Norman Douglas’s books are certainly a rich, rather scholarly read, not pacy enough for many modern tastes but still rewarding if you can stick with him.
    The more recent travel writers I can think of that resemble him most are probably Patrick Leigh Fermor and Lawrence Durrell. My suggestion for a reader today would be to pour a glass of something, sit in the sun with a good view, read in small chunks, enjoy the passages you enjoy and don’t worry about the ones you don’t follow. If you warm to him in the end, try his longer book ‘Old Calabria’ as well.

    • Thanks for that encouragement, Peter. I might find ‘Old Calabria’ of more interest–my family roots are there. It would work especially well to be IN Calabria, with a glass of something, sitting in the sun…. Sandy

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