by Steve High
The more we know
about Somerset Maugham, writes Blake Bailey in a review of
biography published in May, the more admirable he becomesthe
more, in short, he seems the witty, cynical, eminently sensible
fellow that comes across in his writing.
was indeed eminently sensible: he earned more money than almost
any of the best writers in either of the centuries in which he wroteenough
money to live like a duke. (A single story, Rain,
available on our website, earned him more than $3 million.) And
yet Maugham did write not for money. He wrote as other men eat foodbecause
he had to.
What exactly drove Maugham
to write we cannot know, but a study of his stories reveals his
enjoyment of creating narrators and characters, describing natural
beauty, and expressing irony in characters and their actions.
It is easy to know and
like the narrator of Maughams polished short storiesthe
I who both tells and takes part in them. Maugham himself,
however, cautions against confusing his fictional and biographical
selves. He notes that the first person narrator of fiction is also
he [the writer] makes the I of his story a little quicker on the
uptake, a little more level headed, a little wittier, a little
wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence.
He must remember that author is not drawing a faithful portrait
of himself, but creating a character for the particular purpose
of his story. (W. Somerset Maugham, Preface to Collected Stories
Maugham created a large
number of such narrators over a literary career that spanned most
of the final century of the colonial era. He was already a successful
novelist when American, British, and German warships shelled Samoa
and divided the islands among themselves in 1899. He was Londons
most popular playwright when New Zealand replaced Germany as Samoas
ruler in 1914. He wrote a final memoir, Looking Back, in
1962, the year Samoa became an independent self-governing nation.
And he had already made this island the scene of one of his most
famous short stories, The
Set primarily in Apia,
Pool is one of Maughams earliest uses of first person
narration in a short story.
As the story begins,
the narrator (not the author, of course, but his fictional counterpart)
arrives in Apia and meets the members of the European community
there. The manager of the hotel, Chaplin, introduces him to Lawson,
the main character. The narrator listens with interest to their
stories, which, true or not entertain him. However,
the narrator (whom it is difficult not to think of simply as Maugham)
becomes uncomfortable and irritated with both mens excessive
was without enthusiasm that I yielded to Lawsons persistence
and accepted his offer of another cocktail. I knew already that
Chaplins head was weak. The next round which in common politeness
I should be forced to order would be enough to make him lively,
and then Mrs Chaplin would give me black looks.
The story reads as if
a trusted acquaintance were confiding in us. It is only with effort
that we can remember that I and the story itself are
both imaginative creations.
Likewise, the originals
of Maughams characters are similar to, but by no means identical
with, their fictional selves. For example, the real hotel owner
Maugham met in Samoa was indeed bullied by his wife. She sometimes
imprisoned him in his own room for his excessive drinking. But Chaplin
was a dentist, not a mining engineer. He had owned hotels and businesses
elsewhere. These details Maugham leaves out of the story because
they hint at a better-educated, wealthier, and more complex character
than the one Maugham needed to contrast with the upper-class Lawson.
There was a great difference
between Chaplin, rough and vulgar, and Lawson: Lawson might be drunk,
but he was certainly a gentleman.
The real Lawson
was a real estate agent, not a bank manager, and he had come to
Samoa for his health, not for professional reasons. Maugham recalled
him only as an unpleasant drunkard. But then he transformed him
into a much more interesting character in The
Pool. The narrator seems almost consciously aware of his
job as a writer:
would have thought that this wretched object was in his way a
romantic figure or that his life had in it those elements of pity
and terror which the theorist tells us are necessary to achieve
the effect of tragedy?
to the people he observed in Samoa, Maugham also described the pool
for which the story is named. In his journal,
he says only that it is a lovely spot. However, as with
his characters, he uses the medium of the story to make his original
coconut trees, with their frivolous elegance, grew thickly on
the banks, all clad with trailing plants, and they were reflected
in the green water. … it had a tropical richness, a passion, a
scented languor which seemed to melt the heart. The water was
fresh, but not cold; and it was delicious after the heat of the
day. To bathe there refreshed not only the body but the soul.
In the story, the pools
effect upon both Lawson and his wife is powerful and hypnotic. This
beautiful spot is central to both the beginning and the end of Lawsons
life and marriage on the island.
The beauty of Maughams
description, though, is not without its irony. Those who have read
the story through will recognize this trope in the words refreshed
… the soul. Indeed, Maugham had an exquisite sense of irony,
which he reveals throughout The
Trembling of a Leaf, from the vignettes that open and close
the collection to the plots and characters of the main tales. It
is this sense of irony that helps make the stories such a delight
to read nearly a century after their publication.
In his brief visit to
Samoa, Maugham saw only the middles of his stories; using his great
gifts, however, he imagined and set down the beginnings and the
ends. These gifts would make his stories immensely popular, in his
day and in ours. Nearly all appeared first in popular magazines
and continue to be reprinted. Yet Maugham rarely bothered to please
the literary elite. He felt that his vocabulary was too limited
and his mind too literal to compete with writers like James Joyce
or Virginia Woolf. He considered himself only at the top of
the second rank.
Study the boldfaced words
Trembling of a Leaf, and you will ascertain that Maugham
was too modest both about his vocabulary and his immense talent.
We have identified nearly 600 SAT words in this brief collection.
More important, these stories retain their power to delight readers
nearly 100 years later.
Fiction that outlasts
the writers lifetime is rare. Such longevity is the touchstone
of literary greatness.
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