Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Late September through November Log: W. Somerset Maugham and Herman Melville

I write this from the Carolinas, where I am visiting in-laws and used bookstores and toiling over a hot laptop in quest of financial remuneration.  Since September I have taken on a volume of additional work that has left me little time to read fiction.  But I have managed to find little slivers of time in which to read three more stories by Somerset Maugham and to reread the great American novel, Moby-Dick.  

"The Letter," "Before the Party," and "The Force of Circumstance" by W. Somerset Maugham 

As I documented in my last two blog posts, I really enjoyed the first six stories in East and West, the first volume of The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham, but the next three are a mixed bag.  The basic plots and settings and characters are fine (all are set in Malaya and are about marriages that are in crisis, two feature white men having long term sexual relationships with nonwhite women and two feature women murderers) and there is lots of good stuff about relations between the sexes and relations between British people and the Asians over whom they rule, but two of them, in their execution, left me disappointed.    

"The Letter": Leslie Crosbie is the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaya.  One night Geoff Holland, another plantation owner, comes over to visit and she shoots him dead with a revolver.  She claims that he tried to rape her, and the authorities and the public all believe her, but, there being no witnesses, she has to go on trial for murder.  One reason everybody is on Mrs. Crosbie's side is that it has recently become public knowledge that Holland was living with a Chinese woman, and such an interracial liaison shows bad character.  The Crosbies' lawyer becomes aware of evidence that Leslie was having an affair with Holland and killed him in a jealous rage when she found out he was throwing her over for the Chinese woman.  The lawyer has a duty as an officer of the court to hand over all evidence to the government and the prosecution, but instead he hides the evidence and Mrs. Crosbie is acquitted.    

This story has interesting and valuable stuff about erotic and business relationships between whites and Chinese in Malaya and Singapore (one of the attorneys in the office of Craig's lawyer is a Chinese guy who studied law in England) and of course about people's attitudes about women accused of crimes, but somehow the pacing and the structure or tone or something left me cold.  "The Letter" is far less entertaining than the six Maugham stories I reread earlier this month. 

I may think "The Letter" is inferior Maugham, but it was developed into a play and even made into movies more than once!  Beloved movie reviewer MonsterHunter wrote a hilarious review of the 1940 Bette Davis production back in 2016.

"Before the Party": This is the story of the catastrophic marriage of an unattractive middle-class woman, Millicent, to an important administrator in Malaya, Harold, an alcoholic.  This guy took a trip back to England with the specific goal of finding a wife because the Governor of the colony told him that if he didn't stop getting drunk all the time he'd lose his job, and he should get an English wife because that might steady him; Millicent settles for Harold because no other guy is interested in her.  The story of their rocky marriage is not bad, but Maugham precedes the narrative of what happened to Millicent and Harold in Malaya with a long tedious account of Millicent and her family getting ready for a party back in England eight months after Harold has died and Millicent has returned to Britain.  Before heading out to the party Millicent explains to her family how Harold really died--she has allowed them to believe that he died of a fever, when in fact she murdered him and made it look like suicide!  Millicent's father is a lawyer, and, just like the lawyer in "The Letter," he now has to betray his duty by helping conceal a murder.  I guess the frame with all the stuff with Millicent's family is supposed to be a satire or expose or whatever of how wealthy society people are phonies and hypocrites and care more about appearances than pursuing laudable goals and doing the right thing and so on, but it is boring--the stuff I am interested in is life in a colony and sex and violence, and for me all the scenes set in England just get in the way.

"The Force of Circumstance": This is more like what I hope to get from a Maugham story.  Doris marries Guy, a guy who has lived most of his life in Malaya--since he was eighteen he was in charge of an "outstation," the only white person for miles and miles.  She accompanies him back to the East and they live happily for a few months together in the outstation.  Then she finds out that for ten years before his leave back in England where they met he lived with a Malay woman and even had three kids with her!  Doris is disgusted--will their marriage survive? 

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

This is my third read of my dogeared copy of that immortal work considered by many to be the greatest of American novels and by some the greatest novel in the English language, Moby-Dick.  No doubt you have heard panegyrics to it many times, and these is no point in me telling you it is tremendous, a compelling masterpiece full of adventure, vivid scenes, amusing jokes, philosophical asides, and fun little bits of trivia.  Most of the fiction I have talked about on this here blog has been what we call speculative fiction--science fiction, fantasy, and horror--and what I will suggest is that Moby-Dick is of particular interest to fans of SF.

Firstly, Moby-Dick has been an important influence on some of the more literary SF writers, like Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delany.  Secondly, Moby-Dick has many of the elements and themes we find in SF, like a guy on a quest who has encounters with alien others in the form of both dangerous monsters and intelligent beings of strange foreign cultures.  There is a lot of talk about "world-building" in SF, and in Moby-Dick Melville builds a fascinating and strange world, the whaling ship on its years-long voyage, and the seaside towns from which such ships hail, describing the methods and culture of the diverse group of enterprising men who hunt whales from one end of the Earth to the other.

Moby-Dick also seems an appropriate novel for the current moment--one of the main themes of the book is that pagans are as good (or better!) than Christians and non-whites are as good (or better!) than whites, which today seems to be the primary topic of our public discourse.  Moby-Dick is also full of homoerotic scenes.  This novel, written in the early 1850s, is very woke! 

(At the same time, fans of weird fiction will appreciate the many hints that some or all of the non-white members of the Pequod's crew have occult powers, are in league with the devil, and may be manipulating the monomaniacal Ahab.)