19 February 2012

Collected Short Stories: Vol 4

Pages: 576

Much of what Maugham wrote was always greatly influenced by the numerous travels he made. In the course of his momentous writing career, there were few countries and cities that he did not visit. Yet, by his own admission Maugham found it difficult to open up and talk to the many strangers he encountered during his journeys. At the core he was a shy and introverted man. This, Maugham believed was an unfortunate handicap for a writer. Especially because no one could have been more interested and fascinated than him by the oddities in the men and women he met. Yet, he seemed to have managed rather well, as these experiences provided a rich source material for his stories.

And of course he had his fecund imagination. Maugham has been quoted saying that he could spend an hour with a person and quite comfortably come up with a decent enough story. But not everyone became a subject-matter for the writer, and what Maugham looked for in people was a singularity of character or circumstance.
Though a naturalist, Maugham laid a fair emphasis on making his stories engaging and entertaining and had a natural instinct for drama. Hence all the stories you see in this Volume (as is the case with all his writings), have something extraordinary in them, one way or the other.

As always, Maugham gives a lush description of his characters' physical self, surroundings, background. Often what the characters reveal in the end is an entirely unknown and unlikely facet of their personality. It is this hidden possibility in people that interested Maugham the most. Like a pathologist in a chemical lab, he liked to mix substances in various kind of solutions and watch the reactions that could take place.

These were stories that Maugham wrote during his stay in the Far East (Singapore, Malaysia). The place was under the rule of the British and the period setting is somewhere before WW2. The land at this point is dotted with Englishmen, as consuls, planters, skippers, captain and others. Their lives in the colony, interaction with the local Malay populace forms the subject matter for many of the stories. The steam ships that made travel so much easier in later years and completely altered the Englishman's attitude to his stay in colonies (he saw it as a temporary abode now as opposed to earlier), was yet to come. The long and dry ship journey also forms a significant backdrop to the tales.

This was a time when once an Englishman left for a colony, he spent almost his entire lifetime there. Often he took in a Malay wife as well, though the relation had no legally binding, and many left the woman and children behind (albeit well-provided for) if they did think of going back to England.

The White officers had important positions in the native land with spacious houses and a retinue of servants to do their bidding. This was convenient as well as flattering to the Englishman, many of whom took the posting out of some constraint back home. Suddenly now, they had power and enough money. Where they would have to follow the strictest austerity to make ends meet in England, here they could
almost be counted as rich. Naturally many looked upon with nervousness the prospect of going back to their homes after the end of their tenures. Many just stayed back,since by then they grew so comfortable in the skin of the native atmosphere. In fact, many of them didn't even relish the idea of confronting another White man after all these years.

Every story in Vol 4 is a gem. 'The Outstation' about two White men, a superior and his deputy, and the corroding effect of their mutual hate, is especially brilliant. These two men staying and administering an alien land, far away from their own country, despise each other, as both are offended by the other's peculiar bearing. Warburton, the colonial officer, is widely considered a snob, because he adores aristocracy and replicates the same English habits in the colony. Yet, he is fair and reasonable in his duties, and very fond of the natives. He isn't very thrilled on being told that a White man would be joining him in the district. The anxiety turns into a severe irritation when he meets the man who would be his deputy. Cooper, having heard of Warburton's elitist bearings, is determined not to appear subservient in any way. Believing offence to be the best form of defence, Cooper gets outspoken and rude. Warburton is positively shocked and offended by his junior's words but is keen to appear fair and dignified at all times. Their hatred grows with time with each being consumed with a gnawing anger for the other. Maugham achieves great narrative constancy, and the story is a marvel in character build up.

There's a pattern that starts to emerge with the stories. Just when things appear all hunky dory - and Maugham sadistically builds up an enviable image of felicity - a change in circumstance occurs that upsets the original status quo. It initially causes irritation and finally gives way to a deep seated resentment. From there on things quickly begin to spiral downwards. Repressed anger and despair finally end in a shocking catastrophe.

Appearance v/s reality is also another recurring theme in Maugham's stories. Things are never as they seem, and appearance and bearing often belie a dark, complex and unexpected side. ('Red', 'The Letter')

The other important theme is the impermanence and doomed nature of love and marriage. Infidelity is a running theme in most of the stories. (A Casual Affair, Neil Mac Adam, Episode, A Woman Of Fifty, The Letter, The Back Of The Beyond.)

Many of the stories point to the inherent confusion among humans, where situations are strangely always at odds, This makes men and women fickle, impulsive, and drives them to act in mysterious ways. This is true in Maugham's fiction, as much as it is the case in real life. One wonders if this is the greatest tragedy God inflicted on man where he would never get what he truly desired, and if at all he got it, he would stop desiring the very same thing.

As always, Maugham writes with tremendous skill and heart. The descriptions are slightly more lavish, given that the book is a travelogue of sorts. There are some elegant passages about setting and nature. But Maugham's greatest strength as a writer remains his ability to be lucid, and stick to his point without ever rambling. Every line he writes adds to the cumulative power and impact of these unforgettable stories.


Alexander said...

Splendidly evocative piece, Sandy. Very atmospheric, a window in time. I especially love the "pathologist in a chemical lab" simile: professionally accurate and philosophically compelling. Human nature is pretty much like the lab life: you think something, you get it wrong, surprises never end.

Looking over the contents of this fourth volume, it is indeed very rich in gems, although it contains some of Maugham's weakest efforts in the genre as well. I think "The Portrait of a Gentleman" is the worst story he ever wrote, for it is not a story at all but a character sketch, yet it is neither unreadable nor especially boring. Nor am I particularly fond of "Winter Cruise", despite the vivid character description of Ms Reed.

(By the way, dear, have you seen the old British movie "Encore"? It combines three of Maugham's stories, told as succinctly as possible. The script was published in book form together with the original story. Click my name for more info on that.)

But many of these stories are really gems, some of them unique in Maugham's oeuvre. "Princess September", for instance, is the only typical fairy tale he ever wrote; "Episode" and "The Kite" are his only stories with the charming Ned Preston as a prisoner's confidant (the former has one of the most shocking ends I know of and the latter was made into another great old British movie).

Also notable, indeed unforgettable, are "A Man with a Conscience" and "An Official Position", Maugham's only two stories set in this grim place St. Laurent de Maroni, the French penal settlement in Guiana. I find the similar beginnings of the stories, relying strongly on contrasts, immensely fascinating. The final pages of "An Official Position" I still consider one of Maugham's greatest moments. I don't know how many times I've read the story, but these horrifying last pages never fail to bring some cold sweat on my forehead.

Perhaps my personal favourite, together with "The Outstation" you have so brilliantly dissected, is "The Lotus Eater". The seductive atmosphere of Capri, Wilson's bizarre deed, inspiring yet heart-rending: I am never tired of reading about these.

"Mirage" is also a story I often re-read, always with great emotion. You it first appeared in one of Willie's travel books? How much of it really happened and how much was product of his imaginatio is anybody's guess. But it contains one of the most powerful description of what you also mention, that uneasiness of the British colonial officials when they get home - and feel complete strangers there.

There are also few pieces here which, I think, contradict the unfortunately popular notion that Maugham is a cold writer, without any compassion whatsoever. This is, of course, tosh. "Red", "A Casual Affair" and "The Back of Beyond" are but three fine examples of that, Maugham's only "problem" being that he does not descend to the level of cheap sentimentality and always keeps his head cool. "The Back of Beyond" is the source of some of his most famous quotes; it also contains - in George Moon - a character obviously modelled rather closely on Willie himself.

Yes, it's a rich volume that one. We can discuss its many face for quite some time. Meanwhile I am reading "Mrs Craddock" and will try to finish it as soon as possible; unfortunately it is one of Willie's most tedious novels I have ever read. Which is not to say it is without merit. I am especially curious for your opinion as a woman here, Sandy.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alexander, so good to see your views. I've altered the last few paras of the article.

I more or less liked every story in the collection, and have been re-reading them since the last one month. I forget what 'The Portrait Of A Gentleman' is about but Winter Cruise I vividly remember. The plot line didn't emerge very clearly, but as you say the description of Mr Reed was excellent. I liked a few passages in it so much, I wrote them down.

Like this one "There was no subject upon which she had not something prosy to say. She had a truism for every occasion. She hit on the commonplace like a hammer driving a nail into the wall..."

Maugham's only work that I felt is more a collection of scribbles than stories is On A Chinese Screen. Now it's another thing that you and I will hang on to Maugham's every word, but except for The Rolling Stone which I thought very insightful, the rest of the pieces are too short, and random. They don't even appear like they were meant for publication. So there was a disappointment there.

Did I tell you I found a binded version of Of Human Bondage, with original illustrations? I of course already had a book from Vintage, but when I saw this, I couldn't resist buying. And I'm reading it all over again.

Great that you're onto Mrs Craddock. I have a few notes on it, which I will post. And then I would love to hear from you. I can see why many would consider it tedious. It revolves around these two characters, and there is not much by way of plot. It has some similarities with Madame Bovary in the sense that things really happen in the heroine's mind. Both are romantic and fickle. I thought Maugham captured it fluidly and the story engaged me from start to finish. It's hard however to tell with whom Maugham's sympathies lie, making it a little ambigious.
It seems Maugham has somewhat detached himself and is clinically putting forth the facts and emotions that the lead character feels. Incidentally, wasn't it among his earliest of novels?

Alexander said...

That's very interesting about "Of Human Bondage". Would you mind giving a little info about year, publisher and illustrator? I'm just curious.

I was very amused by Maugham's words about Ms Reed in his introduction to the story on the scree: "I avoided her as a plague but all the same couldn't help liking her". Apparently she was firmly based on a real person he met during his South Sea travels who "had a heart of gold but was a crashing bore".

My dear, that's exactly the point of "On a Chinese Screen": it's a collection of impressions that were not meant for publication at all, rather for elongation into a continuous narrative. As explained by Maugham in his preface he was afraid he would loose the vividness if he tried to elaborate further and that's why he decided to publish them as he jotted them down (although he probably did add some polishing in many places). It's a strange book, but I find most of it compelling. Especially "The Taipan", which is also in Collected Short Stories, is one my greatest favourites; powerful, chilling psychological study. And there is some vastly amusing satire of "Far Eastern Europeans", as in "Dinner Parties".

"Mrs Craddock" is indeed only Maugham's third novel (published fourth and bowdlerized, due to a small Late-Victorian scandal), after "Liza" and the pretty wooden historical romance "The Making of a Saint". Just like the latter is significantly inferior to his later take of similar subject ("Then and Now"), thus I see "Mrs Craddock" as a dress rehearsal for "Theatre" - no matter that nearly 40 years lay between both books. My problem is not so much with the character-driven plot, admittedly a not very characteristic thing for Willie, but the unusually detailed and dull writing. But that of course is something more or less typical for all of his early books. Only with "Of Human Bondage" did he really, finally, find himself on the pages. However, I may well end revising my opinion on "Mrs Craddock" after the current re-reading. Whatever faults the novel may have, Bertha is certainly one of Willie's most compelling and masterfully drawn females; a quantum leap over Liza indeed.

Excellent point about the clinical detachment, as evident even in those early novels as it was to become notorious in the late ones. Most people, critics especially, tend to view this as a monumental limitation that firmly puts Willie in "Class Two, Division One". What's more baffling is that he himself seemed to have agreed with this assessment, although he definitely had a higher of himself than most of the critics did. For my part, this clinicism, cynicism, spiritual detachment, whatever, is certainly a limitation but it is also a merit. And I think the latter far exceeds the former.

I was just reminded, non sequitur, that another charming detail about "Winter Cruise" is that it is peppered with Wagnerian references. Minor detail, of course, but not without some personal appeal for me.

Alexander said...

"One wonders if this is the greatest tragedy God inflicted on man where he would never get what he truly desired, and if at all he got it, he would stop desiring the very same thing."

Profound wisdom, Sandy. Willie would have been proud of you!

Sandhya Iyer said...

Hey Alexander, I keep forgetting about the Human Bondage details, since I have temporarily moved to another Maugham book. Will tell you soon.

I took Husbands And Wives to read - a collection of his short stories. Hadn't read 'Jane' and 'the Creative Impulse'
Simply loved them.

Alexander said...

Don't worry, Sandy. It's not important; I'm just curious.

Isn't Jane cute, to say nothing of Mrs Albert Forrester? :-) I've always thought these stories some of Maugham's finest exercises in social satire. Quite devastating but oh, so terribly amusing.

Meanwhile I have fallen in love with, of all writers, Shakespeare. But I have - in between bloody tragedies - managed to finish ''Mrs Craddock'' and I was surprised how good the book is. Last time I read it it was a chore, this time it read like a thriller. Will put some thoughts about it these days. Am very much looking forwards to your reflections.

From a historical point of view, ''Mrs Craddock'' is probably Maugham's most astonishing novel after ''Of Human Bondage''. Considering that it was just his third - written in 1900, afte ''Liza'' and one lame (and lurid) historical ''romance'' - it is an amazing step forward. It is no wonder that such fine early novels like ''The Hero'' and ''The Merry-Go-Round'' came in the next few years.

To be continued...

Alexander said...


Some random thoughts on Bertha, Edward and company. A feminine perspective would be highly appreciated.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Wondferful piece Alexander. Had read this a while back but only got time to comment.

The whole review is insightful but this para particularly so

:But never mind that. The main problem is that Edward is a stupendously insensitive fellow. He is not deliberately cruel or anything like that, nor is he some kind of callous monster. The man is simply, naturally and completely incapable of feeling for his fellows. He genuinely lacks empathy, and he is certainly not intelligent enough to realise it. His normal reaction to Bertha's constant and admittedly annoying scenes is telling: ''Women are like chickens, when they click and cackle sit tight and take no notice.'' He is the epitome of mediocrity in each and every sense, intellectual and emotional. He is the chap who is always cheerful and nothing can disturb his equanimity. This is simply because he doesn't feel anything too deeply. Bertha's greatest problem, of course, is exactly the opposite. Small wonder that their marriage is unsuccessful."

How did you discover that Edward was cold fish in bed. LOL, was that suggested in the novel. I didnt notice. :-)

Remember you were surprised when I told you that I was loving the book. It seems to be written in own great sweep of emotion, it flows so beautifuly.

This is one of those novels where Maugham mearly hints at problems between the couple, without making anything too obvious. It is more vague than any other Maugham novel I thought. The narration and the episodes leave so much scope for interpretation. Of course Maugham - like he always does - builds up the relationship as a picture perfect one. He nevertheless drops hints that there could be trouble in paradise. Their backgrounds are different. Bertha has grown up in affluent circumstances and has refined tastes in the arts. Edward is a working class man and doesn't have much depth of feeling. His tastes are thus mideocre.

Bertha's attraction for Edward is physical to begin with. And she convinces herself how her lover's naivete and workaday intelligence is actually a good antidote to her own complex personality.

Now Maugham obviously sets up the relationship in such a way that it was going to fail. But i think the novel explores a greater truth about the man-woman relationship. I think it was Maugham who said that 'As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.'

This has nothing to do so much with their personalities but with how men and women approach love. For example that scene where Edward organises a tennis (or was it badminton) tournament at his house. Without meaning to hurt his wife he lets Bertha be in a team that has weaker players, so as not to spoil it for the better players. This Bertha takes as an offense, biwildered why her husband didnt want to play with her. But Edward is merely trying to make it interesting for himself and others.

Edward's lack of depth obviously make him a little callous, self-centered and exasperating to Bertha.

Maugham always beleived that love ends one way or the other. The pretext is the only thing that changes. The premise of Edward-Bertha relaitonship is not so wrong, because maugham himself said that marriage was such a risk that only physical passion justified it. But obviously even that doesn't work as Maugham demonstrates here.

I'm a believer of Maugham's ideology. Relationships are so complex that love eventually peters down to caring and affection. There is too much resentment that creeps in for love to remain undiluted. It's fine to say that fights heighten the love feeling. This is true, but a little something is always unresolved, and ugly arguments expose character flaws in the other that chip away the exalted images one has build about the partner. Eventually, the guy appears not so great as one thought, and the love that rose with such ferocity starts to recede as speedily.

There are very very few exceptions.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your blog and you excellent reviews!
I found your blog beacause I am looking for a Somerset Maugham story that talks about a englishman living in a far away land (I suppose it's an island) that receives supplies and newspapers from home only six months in six months. He reads in the newspaper that there as been a murder back home related to his family or friends but instead of looking for the result of that murder in the next newspaper (he has the last six months of newspapers woth him!), he reads a newspaper a day, like if was back home and time was six months in the future.
My father read this sotry when he was young and would like to read it again but doesn't remember it's name...
Can you help me? Maybe you've read it!

Sandhya Iyer said...

I think you are referring to 'The Outstation'. It is one of Maugham's greatest short stories. Do read.

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