- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SKEPTICAL ROMANCER: SELECTED TRAVEL WRITINGS

Edited by Pico Iyer

Everyman’s Library, $24, 196 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

It is difficult to think of a writer more quintessentially British in his persona and oeuvre than W. Somerset Maugham, yet he was in fact one of the most cosmopolitan English writers. Born in France, he spoke French before English, also knew German, Spanish, Italian and Russian, and was from the age of 16 an inveterate traveler.

He spent much of the next 75 years roaming the globe and for the last four decades of life made his home on the French Riviera, except for a wartime sojourn in the United States in the 1940s.

Maugham traveled for the sheer pleasure of it, always in search of all manner of adventure, always interested in and attuned to what he was encountering. And being a writer, he was assiduous in writing down his experiences. Still, as Pico Iyer (no slouch himself as a travel writer) points out in his insightful introduction to this slim volume of Maugham’s “selected travel writings,” he only wrote four actual books in this particular genre out of an enormous output:

“In practice, only four out of the seventy-eight books Maugham turned out are generally placed on the shelves marked ‘Travel’: his classic account of a journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour,’ brought out in 1930; a series of sketches and snapshots called ‘On a Chinese Screen,’ from 1922; a very early, boyish series of wanderings around southern Spain, ‘The Land of the Blessed Virgin,’ published in 1905, that he delighted in mocking and repudiating in later works for its flowery style and juvenile effusions; and a meditation on some figures in Spanish history - explicitly not ‘a book of travel,’ though often categorized as such, ‘Don Fernando,’ in 1935.”

Mr. Iyer has excerpted wisely and adequately from these first three books of Maugham’s, but because, as he rightly says “travel lay behind much of his work,” the editor has performed the more difficult but infinitely worthwhile task of mining what he terms the writer’s “masterly appraisal of his life,” ‘The Summing Up’ and ‘A Writer’s Notebook’ (joined with ‘The Summing Up’ to make ‘The Partial View’).

For interesting as those three travel volumes are, they are dwarfed by the fascinating vignettes Mr. Iyer has put together from those later works. They run the gamut from actual notes for what, duly transmogrified by his artist’s refracting lense, became renowned fiction to recollections of dreams, one of them opium-induced. So we even get glimpses into the subconscious of this generally guarded and cagey individual. But more often we are treated to accounts of his travels in the South Seas, especially Tahiti (location for much of one his best novels, “The Moon and Sixpence”), India and Russia. But whether he is giving a description of the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg during World War I or a Texas motel during World War II, Maugham is never anything less than totally fresh and original in his slant.

Few writers were more engaged in the actual world than Maugham. Trained as a medical doctor, he never actually practiced, but his experiences as a student and for a time in World War I on the Western Front (vividly described here) gave him an unusual insight into the physical side of life. As did his scorching libido, almost never directly referred to in this book, which was the engine of so much restlessness and which impelled him towards the seamier locales wherever he voyaged.

In World War I, he was an active operative in Britain’s intelligence service, first in Switzerland and then on an important - and of course ultimately unsuccessful - mission to keep Russia in the war on the Allied side after the revolution of March 1917. Some of the most interesting, albeit brief, sections of this volume deal with Maugham’s experiences as a spy, something he put to good use in the 1920s in his classic “Ashenden” short stories.

Maugham was never just a tourist: there was always an underlying purpose to his visits, usually the gathering of raw material for his fiction. Sometimes this showed up in novels like “The Painted Veil,” “Of Human Bondage” and “The Razor’s Edge” in addition to “The Moon and Sixpence.” But you see it even more in those magnificent short stories that may well be his chief claim to posterity. More elaborate and much more developed than most in the genre, he drew upon his knowledge of languages and wide acquaintance with European literature to assimilate the stories of Guy De Maupassant and Anton Chekhov and produce something often their equal and, more surprisingly, on occasion their superior.

Most often this occurs in those longer stories, collected in the volume he titled “East and West,” set in the South Seas or in Asian outposts of the British Empire. Singapore, Borneo, Malaya and the Pacific Islands provide the backdrop to such classic tales as “The Letter” or “Rain.” Both these were successfully (and in the case of the latter successively) filmed by Hollywood. Indeed, “Rain” was such a hit on page, screen and stage that it alone made Maugham a millionaire at a time when that meant a great deal. When you realize what Maugham was able to spin from the three brief sketches reprinted in this volume - drily annotated by him “On these three notes I constructed a story called ‘Rain’ ” - it is clear that ultimately, the travel and the travel writing were means to an end: the creation of a distinctive type of fiction all his own. And it will always be this for which we value him rather from that necessary but still inferior raw material.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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