Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Four Stories by W. Somerset Maugham

I still remember my first experience of Somerset Maugham. I was at the Donnell Library Center, the branch of the New York Public Library on 53rd, across the street from the modern art museum. This wasn’t my “regular” library, but it lay directly between my office at 34th and Fifth and my home on the Upper East Side, so I would occasionally end up there. (Apparently this branch has been demolished and rebuilt since I went into exile, which is likely just as well; it was not a particularly charming piece of architecture.)
For whatever reason, I had the feeling that I should read something “serious” and “literary.”  The Donnell Library Center had a special book case of “classics” in paperback near the stairs, to the left, so I looked them over.   After some deliberation I decided to check out the Bantam Classic mass market paperback of Of Human Bondage, Maugham’s long and famous novel.  This edition had a grotesque modern painting on the cover, a woman eating pie and a store clerk hacking away at a huge ham. 
Like millions of people before me, I was thrilled by how good a novel Of Human Bondage was.  Maugham’s style was smooth and easy, and his attitude towards life and love in accord with mine.  In many ways, the issues Maugham was addressing and his sensibilities reminded me of Proust, but whereas reading Proust was a challenge, reading Maugham was comfortable.  Here was a new author to add to my pantheon of favorites, and one whose work was relaxing, and would not put a strain on my poor brain.
I have read several Maugham novels since then, checking them out from various libraries.  Shortly after moving to the Mid West, my wife bought me a charming old two volume boxed set of Maugham’s stories.  I guess I have read about half the stories collected therein.  Gene Wolfe mentions Maugham in Pandora by Holly Hollander, which I read a few days ago, and this put Maugham into my mind, so yesterday I took my boxed set off the shelf and decided to read a few stories I hadn’t read yet.  (Showing uncharacteristic foresight, in the endpapers of my Maugham books I have Post-it notes indicating which stories I have read, so it was easy to find new ones.) 
Over the last two days I have read four Maugham stories, and enjoyed them all.
“Miss King.”  In my edition there is a typo on the contents page, an inappropriate period after “Miss King.”  I would like to think this has some kind of mystical or eldritch significance.

“Miss King” is one of the semi-autobiographical Ashenden stories.  Ashenden is an English writer who, during the First World War, acts as a British intelligence agent in Switzerland, much as Maugham himself did.  This is an entertaining story, but it is lacking in plot, and is mostly a sort of mood piece about what it is like to be a secret agent in a neutral country full of spies, and a series of sketches of odd international characters; German spies, Swiss police detectives, decadent Egyptian royalty and their frail old English servant, as well as the French and British intelligence agents.  The episode that ends the story is a sort of ironical commentary on death, and reminded me of the stroke suffered by Marcel’s grandmother in The Guermantes Way – while we die the people around us find our demise insignificant, or are irritated at the inconvenience we are causing them.  

“Giulia Lazzari.”   This is another Ashenden story.  Chandra Lal, the smartest and bravest of Indian independence fighters, a man who has caused riots and planted bombs that have killed innocent people, is now in Germany along with other militant anti-British Indians.  British intelligence has made eliminating him a priority, and they have devised a means to do so:  Chandra has fallen in love with an Italian woman, Giulia Lazzari, who is in Allied custody.  Ashenden is given the job of forcing Lazzari to trick Chandra into coming to France, where the French government can seize him.

This story is quite plot-driven: what will happen to Chandra Lal and Giulia Lazzari?  There is also a philosophical theme: deception, masks, and the way people’s actions do not necessarily reflect their true feelings.  All the characters in the story lie, withhold information, wear disguises, or put on some kind of act, out of love, patriotism, or mere selfishness.

“Episode.”  This is one of those stories with an elaborate frame.  There is a first person narrator, who tells you all about his friend, a guy who has tuberculosis.  This tubercular gentleman volunteers to visit first-time offenders in prison and comfort them, give them advice, help them prepare for the return to the outside world, etc.  He tells the narrator a story told to him about one of the inmates he works with.  So we are getting this story third or fourth hand.  There is a whole theory about these framing devices, how they add to verisimilitude and challenge the reader with layers of narrative unreliability, but I sometimes wonder if there frames are inefficient, a waste of everybody’s time.  Luckily Maugham’s style is so smooth and pleasant that the frame is not at all a problem here, and Maugham, at the end of the story, uses the framing device to point out the callousness and heartlessness of the average person (or perhaps just the callousness of the average middle or upper class person towards the lower classes; class is one of the themes the story returns to again and again.)

The main story is about the doomed love affair between a handsome working class man and a beautiful girl whose working class parents, by dint of sacrifice and hard work, have been able to develop a prosperous shop and send their daughter to college.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some people thought this story melodramatic, sentimental soap opera nonsense, but I was moved by it.

“Flotsam and Jetsam.”  This is one of Maugham’s many stories about Europeans living in the East, and how they deal with life far from home in a strange climate and landscape, surrounded by people of an utterly different culture.  This one takes place in Borneo.  An anthropologist who hasn’t seen a white person in two years gets a fever, and his Chinese servant brings him to the estate of a rubber planter who lives with his wife.  This couple is miserable, and they hate each other. The man, though of English blood, was born in Borneo and neither the natives nor the British immigrants in the area accept him as one of them, with the result that the couple has no friends.  The wife misses England, which she has not seen in 16 years, but the rubber business has been bad to them, so there is no money to take a trip to England.  She talks to herself and has a terrible nervous tics.  Eventually we learn that the wife never loved her husband, and merely married him because she was stranded in the Orient with no means to survive.  After two years of marriage she had an affair with another planter, whom her husband killed upon discovering the affair.  For the last 14 years the couple has lived with only one goal in mind, to achieve revenge by making each other miserable.  

This story has some weaknesses.  For a reason I can’t understand Maugham introduces the anthropologist character but then does not have this character learn the couple’s terrible secret or upset the status quo.  The anthropologist suspects there is some dreadful secret, but when he recovers from his fever he leaves without having solved the mystery, and it is the omniscient third person narrator who tells the reader the secret of the murder.  I can’t help but feel that Maugham could have structured this one a little better.


So, four stories, all worth reading, one (“Episode”) powerful, one (“Flotsam and Jetsam”) flawed.  Not a bad tally. 

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