Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare
When you come down to brass tacks the value of a work of art depends on the artist’s personality. W. Somerset Maugham.
Towards the end of his life, the most widely read English writer since Dickens, and the highest paid in history, was observed by an old woman on Vevey railway station trying to play hide-and-seek with his male secretary. “Yoo-hoo”, he called from behind a pillar. When the secretary began to reprimand him, the woman moved to intercede: “You should be gentle with that nice old man. He thinks he’s Somerset Maugham.”
Hide-and-seek was a game that Maugham had made his profession, a game of concealment and catching other people out. At the height of his powers he would have savoured the excruciating irony: the writer in decline accused of impersonating himself. This was the type of story closest to his heart. Perhaps like the old lady, and perhaps because he was so adept at constructing a monolithic persona, we all feel we know who Somerset Maugham is. But his large audience, swollen by screen and television adaptations, has tended to undermine his critical reputation. There hangs over his name a suspicion of something middle-brow that his personality has failed to dispel. Among the words he attracted were: misogynist, cynic, mysterious, sensitive, malicious, vulnerable, racist, suspicious, sophisticated, inscrutable. His authorial gaze has the expression of a tribal mask nailed to the wall, surmising you. A friend commented: “Not once in all the years that I’ve known him have I seen the mask drop. He’s on guard all the time, alert as a hawk, watching everything he does and says.” Only at one remove, in remarks he made about others – El Greco, Arnold Bennett, Maupassant – does there appear the occasional suggestive crack. Otherwise he maintains the pose in Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him. The defiant, unblinking, arms-crossed pose of a mandarin in a smoking-jacket.
Maugham was more than happy to probe into the lives of other writers, especially those he admired, but he was a litigious curmudgeon when it came to anyone investigating his biography. He behaved as if he could control its shape and content like one of his stories, but life has a tremendous resistance to being twisted and squeezed. It is not – as Maugham knew to his cost – a mask. In his essay The Art of Fiction, he observed with habitual common sense: “Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem. But in his book or picture the real man delivers himself defenceless.” Maugham proved no exception to his own rule. He understood that what a writer writes is “the expression of his personality and the manifestation of his instincts, his emotions, his intuitions and his experience.” In a body of 73 works nowhere does Maugham’s truest self call out louder to be recognised than in two or three of his novels and in his nine volumes of short stories.
Interviewed in 1933, Maugham remarked: “It has always seemed to me that literature can only find its fullest and freest expression in the essay or short story.” He wrote more than 100 stories, at least 14 of which he burned on one of his “bonfire nights”, after Winston Churchill warned that they contravened the Official Secrets Act. Of the stories that do survive, he estimated that maybe a dozen would find their way into anthologies, “if only because some of them deal with circumstances and places to which the passage of time and the growth of civilisation will give a romantic glamour.” When assessing his worth, Maugham had not too many illusions.
In a writing career spanning 65 years, he produced much that is well forgotten. At his worst, as David Garnett said of him, he reads like “a choppy sea”. He has a fatal fondness for the surprise twist which can, on occasions, rip the head right off a story. There are moments when he stirs in the reader the uneasy sense that he shares the prejudices of those he dissects with such pitilessness. (“I think of those thin black arms of hers around you and it fills me with a physical nausea.”) As for his women! When a woman in Maugham says: “One must behave like a gentleman,” you suspect that that is what originally she was. It comes hardly as a surprise, for instance, to learn that the model for the parlourmaid in “The Treasure” was a valet. Then there is the accusation that for all his genius at narrative, he has no depth. You wait for him to go to another level, but something always pulls him back, as in his own description of the fever bird. “It has three notes and it just misses the fourth which would make the chord and the ear waits for it maddeningly.” He lacks, in other words, that extra note which might make him great.
Maugham demanded, quite rightly, that a writer should be judged by his best work. He believed that this, rather like his talent at the bridge table, placed him “in the very first row of the second-raters” – a judgement with which the intelligensia whom he loathed concurred. “Division II, Class 1,” reckoned Lytton Strachey, after reading one of Maugham’s books during a bout of flu. His harshest critics, such as Edmund Wilson, positioned him still further back, on the level of “one of the less brilliant contributions to a prep-school magazine.” Perhaps his talent was, in the final analysis, a Gentleman’s Relish that he spread too thin, but his finest stories leave a taste that is not in doubt. At his best, his clear, painterly prose seems written by the light of the Mediterranean sun that fell across his page at the Villa Mauresque, streaming into his study through the Gauguin glass window of a Tahitian woman and a rabbit. To Desmond MacCarthy, he was “the English Maupassant”; to Cyril Connolly, who rated him the best short-story writer of the twentieth century, the Kipling of the Pacific. His admirers number Evelyn Waugh (“the only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit”), Gabriel García Márquez (“one of my favourite writers”) and George Orwell (“I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”). James Michener went further. Any time he hankered to set a story in Maugham’s world, he took down “Rain” and reread the first three paragraphs. “I hold those passages to be about the best beginning of a mood story extant.”
In an essay on the short story, Maugham set out his credo for the genre. “It is natural for men to tell tales and I suppose the short story was created in the night of time when the hunter, to beguile the leisure of his fellows when they had eaten and drunk their fill, narrated by the cavern fire some fantastic incident he had heard of.” Maugham tells his tales after the same fashion, within the radius of an acetylene lamp, over a cigar and a whisky and soda, at the card table, in a liner, a railway carriage, an outstation. A cramped and circumscribed stage, in other words, where all concentration is on him.
About the form, he had definite ideas. No Alice Monro ambiguities for Maugham. He liked a story that fitted. As his narrator says in “The Human Element”: “I like a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have a weakness for point.” Best of all he liked the sort of story he could write himself. “This is the sort of story that many people have written well, but no one more brilliantly than Guy de Maupassant.” When a medical student in London, Maugham often revisited Paris, where he had passed his first ten years, and combed the book-stores for editions of Maupassant, reading them sometimes standing up and “peering between the uncut pages”. He singled out La Parure as a model: “You can tell it over the dinner-table or in a ship’s smoking room and hold the attention of your listeners. It relates a curious, but not improbable incident. The scene is set before you with brevity, as the medium requires, but with clearness; and the persons concerned, the kind of life they lead and their deterioration, are shown to you with just the amount of detail that is needed to make the circumstances of the case plain.” Another model was Chekhov, who taught him to rid his story of anything superfluous, to keep his description of nature brief, and to narrate the facts, leaving it to the reader to decide what should be done about them. Lucidity, euphony, simplicity – these were his lodestars.
The stories Maugham most liked to tell were sparked by incidents that he had heard about, or, preferably, witnessed himself. Those that made up Ashenden (1928) were, he wrote, “on the whole a very truthful account of my experiences during the war when I was in the Secret Service.” In his other collections, too, he depended on that confirmative grain of truth before he could let his imagination run. “To know a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.” Like many writers, he was not good at pure invention.
In his most famous story, “Rain”, Maugham did not even bother to change the name of the plump, pretty prostitute, Miss Thompson, whom he had met on the deck of a cruise ship from Honolulu. About “The Vessel of Wrath”, he maintained: “all the people I have described in this story I met at one time or another.” An entry in his notebook, describing a Resident in an outstation who took a bottle of whisky to bed every night, was the source of “Before the Party”. A story he particularly liked, “The Alien Corn”, was based on a young man he knew who had made “a hash of his life” – while “The Colonel’s Lady” incubated for many years on the back of an envelope, Maugham dashing off the anecdote that he had heard when staying at the New York Ritz.
Three of his best stories –“The Letter”, “Footprints in the Jungle”, “The Book-bag” – were told to him straight. He came upon the incidents described in “The Letter” while on a visit to the Far East where he learned how Mrs Ethel Proudlock, wife of the acting head of the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, had shot dead on her veranda the manager of a tin-mine, not once but six times, after he tried to kiss her. “I had nothing to do but make them probable, coherent and dramatic.” Likewise, the story behind “Footprints in the Jungle,” involving another murder, was given to him “word for word” one evening in a club in a town in Malaya. “I was shown two of the people concerned in it and, believe me, when I looked at them, knowing their story, I could hardly believe my eyes.” The rest, he maintained, were invented “by the accident of my happening upon persons here and there, who in themselves or from something I heard about them, suggested a theme that seemed suitable for a short story.”
His themes elaborate a sceptical world view derived from Schopenhauer and La Rochefoucauld. Many of his stories read like dramatised maxims. Only a trembling leaf separates hope from despair. Suffering doesn’t ennoble. The murderer doesn’t get caught. The wages of sin aren’t always death. Men hate those they have injured. Beneath the mousiest woman lurks the most vicious Valkyrie.
If he had few illusions about himself, he had none whatsoever about his characters. “As a rule my characters are suggested by someone I have known,” he told The Bookman in 1926, in answer to a questionnaire. He was drawn to those men and women who were destroyed by a code of honour, an appetite, a passion. By the time he had finished with them, however, little remained of the original. Asked about his favourite characters, he singled out two for the reason that they were “gay, amusing and unscrupulous”. Rather like Maugham himself.
“The I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it is concerned.”
By common consent, Maugham’s most satisfying character is the “I” who sets the scene, the Marlow-like narrator who beckons you closer into the lamplight, the cigar-smoke, and over a gin prahit guides you by the elbow through several discussions until the conversation, so to speak, gets into its shirt sleeves and the guts of the story are laid out bare. To start with, though, we meet him in evening dress or white ducks. In the majority of stories, he is a middle-aged English author, married, although appearing to travel alone, which he does first-class, with infinite time on his hands, gliding at leisure through the South Seas, the Far East, the French penal colonies, the Riviera, Capri, Mayfair. He is at ease equally with prisoners, parlourmaids and Foreign Secretaries. By the same token, he cares precious little for those people whose tragedies he is swift to tap, his deeper emotions being reserved for a fine Havana or a cold grouse. “My sympathies were not deeply engaged in the matter,” is his typical response. For Anthony Burgess, who lived in Malaya, this narrator was “something that English fiction needed – the dispassionate commentator, the ‘raisonneur’, the man at home in Paris and Vienna but also in Seoul and Djakarta, convivial and clubbable, as ready for a game of poker as for a discussion on the Racine alexandrine, the antithesis of the slippered bookman.” Burgess was not alone in considering this poker-faced persona the character of Maugham’s most likely to endure. To V.S. Pritchett, Maugham’s uninvolved and cosmopolitan narrator was “the Great Dry Martini in person” and gratified the reader’s wish “to see oneself as worldly-wise and sagacious, to have impenetrable savoir-faire, to call for that dry Martini and light a sceptical cigar at the end of the day.” He reminds you of none other than the character he helped to inspire, save that unlike James Bond he would not have wished to be disturbed in bed. Whatever hidden steps Maugham’s narrator takes elsewhere in the territory of sex, almost the only lapse in the entire short-story canon is Ashenden’s flirtation with Baroness von Higgins – a flirtation he considers, then rejects.
Maugham, of course, took pains to point out that the first person narrator is a convention as old as the caves, the object being to create credibility. It had also the virtue of compactness, of limiting time and space. “When you are shut up with a man for ten days in a railway carriage you can hardly fail to learn most of what there is to know about him.” But the narrator in Maugham’s confined setting is much more than a technical device. He is also a thin disguise for the author. In few places is he so thinly disguised as in the character he named Willie Ashenden, a figure cited by Goebbels in a 1941 radio speech as an example of the repellent cynicism of the British Secret Service to which Maugham once belonged.
Like Willie Maugham, Ashenden was a student at Heidelberg; had an affair – long past – with a Russian lady who ate only scrambled eggs; lived in Chesterfield Street, Mayfair; used the codename Somerville, and once saw Ibsen in the flesh drink a glass of beer at the Maximilianhof. He bears the same relation to Maugham as, say, the Ambassador in “His Excellency” bears to the character in the story that the Ambassador offloads to Ashenden, about “a fellow I knew when I was a very junior clerk at the Foreign Office” – who is, of course, the Ambassador.
Maugham’s formula changes little, causing him to title one of his collections The Mixture as Before. An ordinary-looking man, thin, elderly, bald, at first sight with nothing to attract his attention – or it could be a prim, demure wife, “the sort of woman you simply didn’t notice” – sinks into a cane chair, glares at the narrator with pregnant eyes and says: “I’m afraid you’ll think it awfully strange of me to talk to you like this. I’m at the end of my tether. If I don’t talk to somebody I shall go off my head” – whereupon out tumbles a melodrama of incest, jealousy and parricide. It was a discovery of terrific consequence to Maugham that people at the end of their tether at the end of the world “find it a relief to tell someone whom in all probability they will never meet again the story that had burdened perhaps for years their waking thoughts and their dreams at night.” And, of course, the more cold, distinguished and snobbish the British official whom Ashenden/Maugham encounters, the more consuming and degrading the passion to which inevitably they confess. The nectar sucked, the narrator is free to flutter on. ”I like meeting people whom I shall never meet again. No one is boring whom you will never see but once in your life.”
Maugham rooted his stories in direct observations that beg certain questions of the unrooted author. He defined a work of fiction as “an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncrasies of his own personality.” In the end, the point of Henry James – for Maugham – was his personality, not his artistry. What, after all, has a writer to give you but himself? A writer has to write as he can “and as he must because he is a certain sort of man.” But what sort of man was Maugham? He exploited the “I” more so than most authors, and yet about himself he was astonishingly reticent.
It was well observed by one of his biographers, Anthony Curtis, that “everything there is to say about Maugham has (so it seems) already been said by Maugham himself.” The facts of his life are well known, but as Maugham observed, “fact is a poor story-teller”. They deserve retelling.
The author of the stories selected here was a stateless atheist born in an Embassy and raised until he was seventeen in a Vicarage. His birthplace in 1874 was a parcel of English territory abroad, the second floor of the British Embassy in Faubourg St Honoré that had been turned into a maternity ward in order to exempt him from French military service. His russet-haired mother was known to British diplomats as “Beauty”; his father, a diminutive, sallow-faced solicitor who worked for the Embassy, as “the Beast”. Willie, their fourth son, resembled his father. He looked in point of fact like a “sick monkey”, wrote Evelyn May Wiehe. As for his short height, this no doubt contributed to the fierce, Napoleonic angle of his gaze. “The world is an entirely different place to the man of five foot seven from what it is to the man of six foot two.” His smallness gave him the perspective and the disadvantages of a child. Travelling with his lover, Gerald Haxton in Sarawak in 1921, his boat capsized in circumstances that he describes in “The Yellow Streak”. “Gerald cried out that he could touch bottom. I put down my legs, but could feel nothing.” Feeling nothing was an emotion with which Maugham was familiar. While he had few scales in front of his eyes, plenty encased his heart.
He spent his first ten years in France and until he was twelve spoke better French than English. It was a Proustian childhood, of salons and servants and excursions to the coast. The first author he read was La Fontaine, whose fables he recited to his mother at teatime; the first sand that he played on was the beach at Deauville where he once spotted Lillie Langtry. “It was France that educated me, France that taught me to value beauty, distinction, wit and good sense, France that taught me to write.” Right up until the Second World War, his stories were more popular in France than in Britain. His French upbringing instilled in him two codes of life, two liberties, two points of view. But this duality, he believed, had a dislocating effect – and “prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one people or another.”
From his ravishing mother, he inherited an impossible, idealised notion of love as well as a susceptibility to tuberculosis. Mrs Maugham’s doctor believed that having another child would cure her. Actually, it killed both the child, who died on Maugham’s eighth birthday, and six days later the mother. Her death at the age of 41 was the tragedy of his life, concluded another of Maugham’s biographers, Ted Morgan. “If in some lives there is an original sin, in Maugham’s there was an original wound, from which, by his own admission, he never recovered.” Nearly sixty years later he broke down and wept as he talked of it. “I shall never get over her death. I shall never get over it,” he railed to his nephew. In his most persistent dream he would wake to find himself at home with his mother. When he died, her picture was on his bedside table. Her sudden disappearance, so early on, coloured his subsequent dealings with women. He never trusted any woman enough to replace her in his affections. At the same time, he clenched himself against the likelihood of being abruptly deserted. One of his favourite aphorisms was by Logan Pearsall Smith: “If we shake hands with icy fingers, it is because we have burnt them so horribly before.” There smoulders in the name of his alter ego the aroma of someone irredeemably scalded. “The first syllable had to me a particular connotation which I found suggestive.” Where Graham Greene had a splinter of ice in his heart, Maugham had a small mound of ash.
Two years later, in 1884, his father died and he was properly alone. His French nurse took him to Whitstable, to stay with his uncle Henry, a deep-eyed, snobbish parson married to a German aristocrat. Almost Henry’s first act was to sack the nurse. Maugham took eventual revenge on his uncle by drawing on him for the missionary figure in the story “Rain” – prompting Greene to observe that Maugham had done more than anyone “to stamp the idea of the repressed strait-laced clergyman on the popular imagination.”
The effect of being orphaned and uprooted had a further alienating impact. “Tell him I stammer, Uncle,” said the ten-year old Willie as they prepared to meet the headmaster of King’s School, Canterbury, where he would board for the next seven years. It was the stammer, wrote Morgan, of someone getting stuck on one word “like a typewriter key”, and it started more or less upon Maugham’s arrival at the ivy-covered vicarage, when overnight he had to exchange his primary language. Whatever the cause of his speech impediment, it indicated the separateness that already he felt from others, the sense that he did not fit in. As often is pointed out, his handicap was no less attention-drawing than the clubfoot that he gives to his autobiographical hero in Of Human Bondage. In Maugham’s case, it encouraged his natural shyness which he later described as a “mixture of diffidence and conceit”. He admitted: “My life and my production has been greatly influenced by my stammer.” Without it, he probably would have become a lawyer like his father and his brother Freddy, who rose to be Lord Chancellor. Instead, it hastened his retreat into the aloof, unobtrusive observer of the sort that he detected in Arnold Bennett, who suffered from the same thing: “It may be that except for the stammer which forced him to introspection, Arnold would never have become a writer.”
On top of everything, there was his homosexuality. The first glimmerings appear in an attachment he formed at King’s School, Canterbury. Possibly the other boy was Leonard Ashenden, with whom he shared a prize. At any rate, his sexual make-up – three-quarters “queer”, one quarter “normal” in Maugham’s arithmetic – was made conspicuous to him during a year he spent in Heidelberg, arranged by his German aunt. His seduction by a 26-year-old Cambridge graduate, John Ellingham Brooks, who later fled to Capri, launched Maugham into a life of unavoidable pretence and façade that must have been especially galling for a man who in most respects could not look at a façade without wishing to blow-torch it.
In Heidelberg, he discovered also the European writers and philosophers who would shape his literary tastes. La Rochefoucauld, Maupassant, Racine, Ibsen, whose influence saturates his earliest stories like “A Bad Example” and “Daisy”; and Schopenhauer, who believed, as Maugham came to believe, that religion was an illusion to help us endure the accident of existence. Their outlook chimed with Maugham’s association of love with suffering and his pessimistic view of human nature following his mother’s death. An entry in his notebook reads: “Everything in life is meaningless, the pain and the suffering are fruitless and futile. There is no object in life.” He returned to England equipped to see the worst in anything. To recreate Whitstable as Blackstable.
Turning down a chance to go to Cambridge – a decision he later regretted – he worked for a firm of accountants, a situation that he could only tolerate for a few weeks. He had started writing in a dedicated way from the age of 15, but could not explain to his uncle that this was the profession on which he had set his heart. “Why not try medicine?” suggested his uncle’s doctor in Whitstable, and so he enrolled at St Thomas’. If he could not yet be a writer, at least he could study medicine like some of the writers he admired: Chekhov, Conan Doyle, Keats.
He was grateful to his five years training at the London hospital. “There I saw human nature in the raw.” As it had granted Chekhov, his profession gave him access to where his stammer and his reticence denied him. In the slums of Lambeth, in kerosene-smoked rooms, he opened his doctor’s black bag, as later he opened the notebooks that he bought from the Papeterie Brocchi, 30 Faubourg St Honoré – and experienced the privilege and thrill of having utter strangers trust him with their lives. In one period of three weeks, he calculated that he delivered 63 babies.
He had no intention of practising. He had a mind, as Edward Garnett said, like a pair of scissors, but he would not have made a good surgeon. “One of our failures, I’m afraid,” recalled a doctor who had worked alongside him as a dresser. Fumbling to dissect a body in anatomy class, he could not for the life of him find an obvious nerve. His professor helped him to locate it, with a remark that Maugham took as his motto: “You see, the normal is the rarest thing in the world.” Once the pen had replaced the scalpel, as shortly it did, he never lost the vital habit of regarding all he met as patients to be dispassionately listened out and diagnosed. He behaved like Willie Ashenden, unmoved by the grief of Giulia Lazzari: “He felt his relation to her as impersonal as a doctor’s in the presence of a pain he cannot alleviate. He saw now why R had given him this peculiar task; it needed a cool head and an emotion well under control.”
Doctor, writer, spy: each operates from the assumption that the people around him nurse secrets, and his business is to chivvy them out. R’s true identity was Sir John Wallinger, a former India policeman, who during the First World War was in charge of deploying British Intelligence agents in France and Switzerland. Wallinger was also the lover of a friend of Syrie Wellcome, whom Maugham was squiring at the time, and later disastrously married. She arranged a meeting. Maugham turned up at a red-brick house where there was a “For Sale” sign. The upshot was that Maugham, already a successful playwright, agreed to go to Lucerne in neutral Switzerland where he would take a room in the Hotel Beau Rivage and there, while pretending to write a play, investigate an Englishman, married to a German wife, who R suspected of being a traitor. On assignments like these, he gathered the stories that he collected, ten years later, in Ashenden.
Maugham’s Swiss winter affected his lungs. It was partly to recover his health that in 1916 he travelled to the South Seas with his lover Gerald Haxton, a San Franciscan whom he had met two years earlier, in Flanders. Both were serving in the same ambulance unit. Maugham was 40 at the time; Haxton 22, with a pock-marked face that sometimes he disguised with make-up, and an appetite for gambling and alcohol. “He stank,” wrote Beverly Nichols, who considered Haxton a liar, a forger and a cheat. “If he thought if would be of the faintest advantage he’d jump into bed with a hyena.” Maugham in his stories makes extraordinarily few glances to his personal life, but the rare nod speaks volumes. “I know nothing more shattering than to love with all your heart… someone who is worthless.” That Haxton led Maugham on a dance as merry as it must have been painful is suggested by an uncharacteristic flight into verse (In weariness, and not in death or parting, is/The bitterness of love. Spent is my passion/Like a river dried up by the sun’s fierce rays) and further supported by his confession to Godfrey Winn: “You do not know what it is like, Godfrey, and I hope you never will, to be married to someone who is married to drink.” But Maugham loved Haxton, and his best stories were collected and written in his company. As he revealed in Ashenden: “In these stories no more than the barest suggestion has been made that Ashenden was capable on occasion of the passion ironically called tender… but even when suffering most acutely from the pangs of unrequited love, he had been able to say to himself, albeit with a wry face, after all, it’s only grist to the mill.”
In 1915, Haxton was arrested in a Covent Garden hotel and indicted on six counts of gross indecency. A cloud hung over him – “a cloud no bigger than a boy’s hand,” sighed a friend of Maugham’s on Capri, exiled for a similar reason. Not long afterwards Haxton was deported as an undesirable alien. The refusal of the authorities ever to let his lover enter England was the principal reason that Maugham left England, to live in France, but there were other factors, as he mentioned in The Summing-Up: “I am attached to England but I have never felt myself very much at home there. I have always been shy with English people. To me England has been a country where I had obligations that I did not want to fulfil and responsibilities that irked me. I have never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and me. Some fortunate persons find freedom in their own minds; I, with less spiritual power than they, find it in travel.”
By the end of his life, Maugham could claim with reason: “I have sojourned in most parts of the world.” Among the widest travelled of English authors, he even endowed a prize in his name that stipulated the money should be spent purely on travel. In travel, he could yield to the illusion that he might, just possibly, arrive at an answer to the riddle of life. “My whole soul aches for the East, for Egypt, and India and Japan,” says the doctor in Maugham’s 1904 novel, The Merry-Go-Round, a man who wants nothing more than to follow the example of his author and abandon medicine. “I want to know the corrupt eager life of the Malays and the violent adventures of the South Sea Islands.”
In 1916, Maugham sailed from San Francisco with Haxton to do just that.
The journey he made to the South Seas in the middle of the First World War released Maugham into a fresh burst of story-telling that guaranteed his position on the shelf between Kipling and Stevenson (whose grave in Samoa he visited). He had published one unremarkable collection, in 1899, when he was 25. To reread Orientations sent so many shivers down his spine that he thought he was going to have an attack of malaria. “It was as a beginner of forty that I wrote the story that is now called ‘Rain’.”
In the mosquito-infested tropics, he found much more than beauty and romance: “I found a new self.” Rather like the protagonist in “The Fall of Edward Barnard”, faced with the vast calmness of Pacific, he experienced an “irresistible light-headedness”. Or Lawson in “The Pool”: “he had never before known freedom or leisure and he was intoxicated by the sunshine.” Or the hero of “Mackintosh”: “By George, it’s like the Garden of Eden”. After the muddy hell of Flanders, these landscapes appeared exotic, unspoiled and thrillingly alien, and Maugham filled pages of his notebook with descriptions of fever birds, the croaking of chik-chaks, the outline of banana leaves (“like a lovely woman in rags”). Against their Edenic surrounds, his expatriate hosts – like the English manager of the Apia bank, who had met a 16-year-old Samoan girl at a rock pool and fallen in love – stood out in tormented relief.
On this and on subsequent journeys to Malaya and South-East Asia, in 1921 and 1925, Maugham met another kind of Englishman to the ones he had known in Whitstable and Lambeth. The Federated Malay States, formed in 1895, the same year as Oscar Wilde’s trial, were still under British rule. In remote outstations, days up river, Maugham uncovered a tattered version of Kipling’s Simla. Owners of rubber plantations who hankered after the Sussex Downs and read The Times six weeks late; customs officers who had or had not been to public school (or St Thomas’) and were losing the battle not to go native; civil servants who worked to keep the peace in the declining hours of the Empire, even as they themselves were falling to pieces through drink, lust, or merely tedium. “They were often dull and stupid. I did not care. They were different… Here people showed themselves bare.”
This was the world that Maugham colonised for himself, a place as ineradicable as Greeneland or Kipling’s hill-stations. Along with Ashenden, Connolly awarded The Casuarina Tree and Ah King a place on his list of the 100 best books of the modern movement because, he explained, Maugham “tells us – and it has not been said before – exactly what the British in the Far East were like”. Not that the British in the Far East agreed. Maugham’s portrait of a stranded European society with a predeliction for adultery, murder, alcoholism and suicide was bitterly condemned in the Singapore Straits Budget. “No wonder that white men and women who are living normal lives in Malaysia wish that Mr Maugham would look for local colour elsewhere.” Much to be preferred was the version served up by Cuthbert Woodville Harrison in his Illustrated Guide to the Federal Malay States, published a year before Maugham’s arrival: “There is no unrest in Malaya. The country is perfectly quiet and the people contented.
To someone whose infancy was spent in and around the Paris Embassy, who grew up in the Far East, and was living in Singapore when the loudspeakers in the Tanglin Club announced his death, Somerset Maugham had the characteristics of a chik-chak: he was always there in the background. The orange spines and blue jackets of his collected stories hogged the various shelves of my childhood rather as his presence dominated its television screens – in 1963 Rediffusion began broadcasting dramatizations of 63 of his stories, presented by him. The Empire was gone, but in far-flung pockets the sort of men and women he had written about were left in the shrimp-pools. Like Kipling, he had created the type of expatriate that people unconsciously lived down to: slightly seedy, going nuts in bungalows that imitated the homeland, yearning to return home at the end of their stint, and yet apprehensive that they might not, after all, recognise the place they had dreamed of, represented or even, at some level, dreaded. It was a lesson to discover that his characters did not die with him, nor were they limited to Singapore and Phnom Penh. I have come upon them since in Argentina, Patagonia, Morocco, South Africa, Australia, India, Canada – wherever there is a restless Englishman abroad within reach of a bridge table, a cocktail cabinet and a soda syphon.
There is plenty to say against Maugham, and yet when all is said and done, I side with the Waughs and the Micheners, and not with the Edmund Wilsons. For sheer narrative cunning Maugham is as good as it gets in the 20th century. There is a quality to his writing, in these days easy to ignore, which looks like champagne to everyone else’s lager. He did not write beautifully. He wrote ordinarily, like a speaker in prose. But for the authentic old-world pleasure he gave to the reader – pleasure in the words, pleasure in the atmosphere, pleasure in the brilliance of the artifice – he has few rivals. What might now seem anachronistic – ie escape into old-fashioned story-telling – is also the key to his endurance. When people look back and ask who else could offer this escape, they will have to say Saki, they will have to say William Maxwell, Raymond Carver and Frank O’Connor. And they will have to say Maugham too. Connolly was quite right. “If all else perish, there will remain a story-teller’s world from Singapore to the Marquesas that is exclusively and forever Maugham, a world of verandah and prahu which we enter, as we do that of Conan Doyle’s Baker Street, with a sense of happy and eternal homecoming.”