• U.S.

FICTION: To The Crocodiles!

4 minute read

IN THE BEGINNING—Norman Douglas —John Day ($2.50).

The Story. The authors of Genesis could not have had more fun than Norman Douglas. In his version of the beginning, when “the thing called Sin had not yet been invented,” there were gods in the Celestial Halls, and on earth Satyrs, serenely beautiful. These Satyrs were the first and best to cultivate the earth and the arts of music, weaving, medicine, meteorology. In fact they grew so wise that the Great Father (head god) in a fit of jealousy cursed them to infecundity. But gods thrive on the fear and flattery of mortals. So Great Father thought up subservient man for their entertainment, molded him of refuse. The dying Satyrs tried in vain to teach their lore to this tribe of puny and hornless creatures. But the earth-crawlers spent their happy, ignorant days in pleasant dalliance—not only with fair fellow mortals, but with the immortals who often condescended. Thereupon utter confusion arose as to who was half-god, who three-quarters.

Derco, the Fish-Goddess,was worshipped as Maiden-Goddess; and had therefore been careful to dally only with mortals, impotent as they were to affect her divine virginity. But Linus, secretly sired by a god, fecundated the unsuspecting Derco, much to her chagrin. Her temple was burned; her worshippers vowed they had suffered enough of her whims, and would choose themselves “a grave and reasonable man-god.” Such is the pliability of human nature, that they soon built her a grander temple, while they chanted that virginity is silly anyway. Linus married the offspring that had caused the disturbance. “Little she knew then or afterwards, that Linus was her own father. And— strange are the ways of half-gods—little would she have cared, had she known it.” For, blissfully mated, they lived as king and queen, inventing all manner of pleasantries, such as the “House of the Doves,” named after the creature whose love-antics are the most varied and delectable. But the gods, jealous of mortal contentment, sent a pestilence—the evil of goodness. Infected by goodness, mortals grew dull and spiritless as they debated dismally the line between good and evil. Their old tendency toward pleasures took vent in debauch, and the gods cared no longer to consort with them.

Supping their wine, the remaining Satyrs commented gravely on the degradation of man and the fickleness of gods. Solemnly they decreed: “To the crocodiles with both of them!”

The Significance. Something of a Satyr himself, Author Douglas has long contemplated the absurdities of man and man-made gods. The fruit of his three score years of contemplation is a brilliant exposure of those gods, pointing to the irony of the fear they are able to rouse in man. His leisurely narrative is rich in satire and delicious humor, which may easily be misunderstood for meaningless, if somewhat lickerish, drool. But even the most matter-of-fact reader will envy the bright existence led by Douglas’ creatures, and be charmed by his prose.

The Author. Norman Douglas divides his life into mystic twelves. His first twelve years he spent growing up (with Latin and Greek and a daily column of the dictionary by heart); the second in devotion to music, of which he is an accomplished votary; the next twelve in British diplomatic service to many strange countries; the next in writing erudite tracts on geology and archeology; and the latest twelve in more artistic though no less studied writing. His South Wind, which the needy author sold outright for £75, is an esoteric masterpiece of exotic beauties, which has nevertheless gained wide enough appeal to be published in a cheap popular edition.

Norman Douglas lives in Africa, Capri, Florence. He loves human converse, hates fatuous human conventions. Contemptuous of modern standards of morality, he promises little boys a penny to be “bad,” a thrashing for being “good.” Among his friends have been Conrad, Henry James, and Scott Moncrieff, brilliant translator of Marcel Proust.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com