- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005


By W. Somerset Maugham

Everyman’s Library, $25, 839 pages


One of the more compulsively readable and consistently entertaining publications of recent vintage, this agreeable mini-doorstopper collects 31 stories written by a yarn-spinner par excellence , who is probably doomed to be forever underestimated.

Maugham (1874-1965) had an enviably lengthy and profitable career dominated by such commercially and critically successful novels as “Of Human Bondage,” “The Moon and Sixpence,” and “The Razor’s Edge,” which are remembered as much for the vivid film versions they inspired as for their own not inconsiderable merits.

Readers need to be so reminded, because, as editor Nicholas Shakespeare concedes (in his workmanlike, if uninspired “Introduction”), “In a writing career spanning sixty-five years, [Maugham] produced much that is well forgotten.” Fair enough, as the author himself often admitted, in various autobiographical writings, and — with interesting wrinkles — in his 1930 story “The Human Element.”

It describes a meeting between two writers in a restaurant in Rome. One (the narrator) thinks dismissive thoughts about his companion’s undeserved high reputation, which he perceives is based on stories in which nothing ever happens. Yet their conversation reveals that the latter author does have his own story: one of unrequited love and lasting regret. The condescending narrator acknowledges “the human element” even in a sensibility so alien to his own, expressed in the pragmatic mantra “I like a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Few writers have so assiduously practiced what they preached. And Maugham’s mastery of conventional narrative was apparent even in the first of his 12 published collections, “The Trembling of a Leaf” (1921). Its first story (and this volume’s first) “In a Strange Land” displays his wares adroitly, as an omniscient narrator summarizes the life of a former English housemaid who now runs a tourist hotel in Turkey. Without ever directly saying so, the story quietly reveals how, despite the freedom she has gained, the woman has remained continually in the shadow of even her own life.

English men and women abroad — adventurers, careerists, criminals fleeing justice — are constantly recurring figures: famously, in Maugham’s mordant story “Rain,” in which a Honolulu prostitute attracts the attentions of a clergyman determined to “save” her, with perilous consequences; and amusingly in “The Fall of Edward Barnard,” the tale of a businessman who travels to Tahiti, falls in love with its pristine beauty and simplicity, and abandons his fiancee to remain there.

The latter story is especially skillful in fairly balancing the claims of civilization and primitivism — evincing a sure grasp of technique that can make something special out of even conventionally imagined fictions. In “The Pool,” for example, a Samoan half-caste married to a Scotsman and relocated in his country comes to predictable grief — yet the story expertly covers an impressive range of space and time.

“The Yellow Streak” is an anecdotal study of cowardice, nicely elaborated by Maugham’s concise portrayals of two men who see the practical wisdom of keeping each other’s secrets. And “Footprints in the Jungle” tells a story of unpunished sexual misbehavior and murder, in the voice of the weary policeman who makes his peace with his failure to bring its perpetrators to justice.

Maugham did not always operate at peak efficiency, however, and even this sampling of his best contains a handful of clunkers. A depiction of French peasants surviving Nazi occupation (“The Unconquered”) and an Englishwoman’s nave romanticizing of her criminal neighbors (“The Happy Couple”) are quite pedestrian.

The disappointed lives of a failed artist reduced to begging (“The Bum”) and a Samoan girl stubbornly in love with an unstable sailor (“Red”) are thinly sketched and marred by coincidences. And “The Force of Circumstance” reduces to banal melodrama a dark tale of miscegenation and homicide in Malaya.

On the whole, though, Maugham’s excursions into exotic settings serve him brilliantly. A prudish missionary arranges the imprisonment of the drunken reprobate who scandalizes a small island in the Dutch East Indies, a less effective action than that of the clergyman’s spinster sister, who reforms the affable drunk — then marries him — in the boisterous comedy “The Vessel of Wrath.”

Elsewhere, graver matters are explored: in the confrontation between a benign colonial official who loves the childlike indigenous people in his charge and his judgmental subordinate, whose idealism ruins a placid demi-paradise (“Mackintosh”); a later reworking of the same contrast, in which an effete snob is humanized and an arrogant control freak destroys himself (“The Outstation” — whose content and title echo Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress”); and an upper-crust family’s decision to close ranks and protect a beloved daughter’s confession about her husband’s mysterious untimely death in Borneo (“Before the Party”).

Dexterous manipulations of viewpoint enliven and enrich those three stories, and also two indisputable Maugham classics. “The Book Bag” strikingly employs three distinct levels of narration to reveal a complex story of sibling incest in the tropics and its disastrous aftermath.

This memorable chiller is surpassed, though, by “The Letter,” a sinuous tale of jealousy and murder in the Far East: a many-layered narrative that’s filled with little shocks and surprises, is capped by a rip-snorter of a courtroom scene — and, incidentally, gave Bette Davis one of her finest screen roles.

Every reader will choose his own favorites. My three are a beautifully understated account of an English gentleman’s impulsive, inconclusive crossing of the social boundaries separating him from his “perfect” parlormaid (“The Treasure”); a polished comedy — with just a hint of indebtedness to Joyce’s “The Dead” — about a domineering husband who gradually realizes the source of his timid wife’s acclaimed volume of love poems (“The Colonel’s Lady”); and a rich revelation of snobbery, ethnic prejudice, and despair (“The Alien Corn”) which unforgettably dramatizes one of Maugham’s most celebrated and penetrating observations: that “Nothing is more terrible than the pursuit of art by those who have no talent.”

My complaints: That the volume ends with six comparatively middling stories from Maugham’s early espionage-inflected collection Ashenden (only one of which, the manifestly autobiographical “Sanatorium,” ranks with his best). And why, since so many of Maugham’s stories are quite time-specific, are they not dated? Quibbles, assuredly — but these are blemishes on the urbane surface of a volume which justifiably showcases a superlative craftsman’s enduring ability to involve, entertain and satisfy his readers.

Bruce Allen reviews fiction for the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, Sewanee Review, and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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