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  • Norman Douglas:Correspondence
  • Owen Knowles
Norman Douglas: Selected Correspondence, Volume 7: Straining Friendship to Breaking Point—Letters from John Mavrogordato to Norman Douglas and a Selection of Letters from Douglas to Mavrogordato. Michael Allan, ed. General editors: Arthur S. Wensinger and Michael Allan. Graz/Feldkirch: W. Neugebauer Verlag GMBH, 2014. ix + 489 pp. Є45.00

THE PRESENT VOLUME is the seventh in a multivolume edition of the selected letters of Norman Douglas, the now largely forgotten author of Old Calabria (1915), South Wind (1917) and Alone (1920). Drawing upon a team of scholars associated with the Douglas Research Centre in Bregenz (Austria) and printed by an Austrian publisher, the edition eschews chronology in favour of a more personalized approach—that is, each volume collects letters to and from a particular friend of Douglas’s, in this case John Nicholas Mavrogordato (1882–1970), a gentleman-scholar of Anglo-Greek heritage.

Their friendship began in 1910 when Mavrogordato was a journalist, editor and part-time reader for J. M. Dent, and continued until Douglas’s death in 1952, by which time Mavrogordato had retired from his position as Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Oxford. As many of these letters show, “Mavro” was a literary advisor and [End Page 406] middleman in England for the Italy-based Douglas: he helped on matters of Græco-Roman history and literature, assiduously corrected and proofed the writer’s works, negotiated with his publishers, advised on contracts and undertook numerous other literary chores. Most of their surviving correspondence forms the basis of Volume 7 which, like others in the series, appears in a handsomely bound and illustrated form. A notable feature of the volume is its exemplary annotation. Douglas the polymath and polyglot presents formidable challenges to the annotator, and here Michael Allan, an evident Douglas enthusiast and advocate, has risen to virtually all of them: his explanatory comment is judiciously chosen, meticulously researched and generously detailed.

This said, the editorial choices underpinning the volume are, alas, not without serious oddities, limitations and problems. At the very outset, the eye-catching volume title—Straining Friendship to Breaking Point—arouses expectations of epistolary tension and confrontation, but, in fact, as the editor admits, the rubric is simply not applicable to the long and perfectly unruffled friendship between Douglas and “Mavro.” Why, then, risk misleading the reader by using it? Another, more serious problem soon makes itself felt. It becomes clear that the surviving correspondence between the two men is both patchy and unequal. Whereas Douglas is represented by a selection of 181 letters, his correspondent is represented by a meagre thirteen surviving items; moreover, while the former’s letters are all from a period after 1920 (his numerous letters to Mavrogordato before that date not having survived and leaving another significant gap), most of the latter’s are from the pre-1920 period. Thus, any reader expecting the correspondence to enact an intricate and continuous dialogue will be sadly disappointed. In order to fill in some of these awkward temporal gaps, the editors fall back on lengthy exposition and numerous indigestible extracts from Mavrogordato’s unpublished diaries. The recourse to such materials suggests that the decision to organize Douglas’s letters around a single friendship can make for highly cumbersome results. A further, more practical consequence is that while the volume’s early pages offer a veritable cascade of factual details about two individuals, they leave more basic questions about their bond largely unexplored: what qualities brought them together and why was their friendship so enduring?

While the policy of devoting the volume to a single Douglas friendship is certainly generous in intention, it turns out to be decidedly inflationary in effect. Despite a selection process that has reduced a large Douglas correspondence to just 181 printed items, there is still evidence [End Page 407] that quality has been sacrificed for quantity. The truth is that some of the chosen letters are so mundane and occasional in content (many of them relaying trivial Florentine news and gossip) that it is hard to see why they merit inclusion; others dealing with the nuts and bolts of literary production (choice of publishers, contracts, and often including...


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pp. 406-409
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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