The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)

The writer is more concerned to know than to judge. (Chapter 41)

After three volumes of short stories, I thought I’d try some of Maugham’s (shorter) novels.

This novel, very successful in its own day, is an account of a fictional English painter, ‘Charles Strickland’, who leaves his respectable job as a stockbroker and goes to seek his destiny as a painter first in Paris, then in the South Seas. It is loosely inspired by the career of French stockbroker-cum-artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). And it initially feels less appealing than the short stories because of the style.

Orotundity

In some of the short stories Maugham allows himself a page or so of meandering introduction, but generally he gets to the meat of the characters and their interaction quite quickly. In the novel, he has space for a much more leisurely approach and this results in a markedly more orotund and verbose style. He sounds pompous in a way he rarely does in the stories.

Here he is, early on, describing the impact of the war on the younger generation (bearing in mind that Maugham was 40 when the Great War broke out, 45 when this novel was published).

Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to see already the direction in which those who come after us will move. The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are like poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also. There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled anew.

Pompous, isn’t it? And waffle, empty of content. And sometimes incomprehensible. ‘The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky’ – there’s nothing that pointless in any of the short stories. Later on the narrator descants on the role of the conscience.

I take it that conscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. It is the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws. It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego. Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd. It will force him to place the good of society before his own. It is the very strong link that attaches the individual to the whole. And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself are greater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster. He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtier fawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders, he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience. Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does not recognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realises accurately enough that against him he is powerless. When I saw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame his conduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as from a monster of hardly human shape.

This may or may not be true or interesting, But it is certainly very wordy.

That said, this fairly short novel (217 pages in the Pan paperback edition) is divided into 58 chapters, giving an average of 3.75 pages per chapter. The point being that, although there are these occasional half page digressions, by and large the narrative moves on at quite a lick, moving from one scene to the next with a speed which makes it very readable.

1. The two narrators

The novel is told in the first person by a novelist. In the early scenes he is a young novelist who has just published his first book and is shy and nervous at the high-toned parties he finds himself being invited to. Presumably he’s in his early twenties. He spends five years in Paris, and then it’s fifteen years before he finds himself in Tahiti, so at least twenty years passes, which means he’s in his early or mid-forties.

Not unlike Maugham, who was born in 1874, published his first novel in 1897, aged 23, and made his first trip to the Pacific in 1916, aged 42.

The text itself is narrated by the older narrator which means that when he looks back on the early parts of the story, there’s quite a lot of commentary on the idealism of a young man, a beginner in ‘the world of letters’, on the social awkwardness of being a beginner in the art of letters, and so on – all set in stuffy upper-middle class Victorian society, all told with the urbane wisdom of age.

So there are a lot of sections starting with or including the thought – ‘When I look back I wonder at my young self, wonder that I didn’t realise, didn’t know, was too young to understand…’ and so on.

I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chance it excited attention… (p.13)

When I reflect on all that happened later… (p.26)

I did not know then how great a part is played in women’s life by the opinion of others… (p.38)

Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve’s acuteness…

Looking back, I realise that what I have written about Charles Strickland must seem very unsatisfactory.

Maugham’s own tone and voice, his worldly wisdom, is much evident in most of the short stories too, but there he really is an old man of the world, a tone and presence which I find reassuring and charming. But for some reason, I found his harping on about the immaturity of his younger self in this novel a bit irritating. Maybe because his younger ignorant and naive self just isn’t interesting.

His depiction of high society literary suppers is alright, his portraits of Mrs Strickland and her thick army brother-in-law are fun – but the novel only really comes alight when the narrator visits Strickland in Paris and discovers him to be completely transformed into a monster of egotism and obsession. That’s when the story catches fire and becomes really compelling. Maugham writing about Maugham (about being a writer, especially a naive young writer) is dull; Maugham writing incisively and analytically about almost anyone else is riveting.

2. The plot

The first-person narrator (he’s never named; let’s call him N), as part of his social life, encounters first Strickland’s wife, then the man himself, more or less as random elements of the social whirl experienced by a bright young novelist in London. These early scenes establish the tone and mores of the period, the stuffy late-Victorian 1890s, establishing Strickland as a boring suburban stockbroker, happily married to a wife who dabbles in a small way with holding a salon, or dinner parties, for low-level artists and writers.

1. Establishing scenes in London

N is taken up by the upper-middle class ladies who like the presence of artists and writers (though generally ignoring their art or writing) – a satire on the art-loving haute bourgeoisie of the 1890s. He is regularly invited to parties by the lion-hunter Rose Waterford. She introduces him to Mrs Strickland, who also hosts parties for the literary-minded. He visits Mrs Strickland, is told about her two lovely children, meets her stiff, unimaginative brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew, and finally Mr Strickland himself, an ugly commonplace man with large features. All part of the thrilling new social life he is enjoying.

One day the narrator bumps into Miss Waterford in the street, who tells him with glee in her eyes, that Strickland has run away from his wife. N goes right round to find Mrs Strickland in floods of tears being comforted by the stiff-upper-lip colonel. Next day he goes round again and a more controlled Mrs Strickland tells him about the letter Strickland wrote her, saying he had left for Paris and was never coming back. She asks the narrator to go to Paris, find Strickland and beg him to return.

2. Quick trip to Paris

N travels to Paris and discovers Strickland, not wasting money in a luxury hotel with some scarlet woman, as his wife and brother-in-law suspected, but living in a shabby pension, with no woman in sight. He surprises N (and the reader, a bit) by his complete insouciance. His wife is upset? ‘Doesn’t care.’ What about his children? ‘They’ve been pampered enough; time they stood on their own two feet.’ Where’s the other woman? ‘There’s isn’t another woman, you blasted fool.’ So why on earth has he walked out on his wife? Because he wants to paint, always has, did it as a kid, had to stop to earn a crust, been doing it recently at night school; now’s the time, now or never, to make a break and fulfil his dream.

Back in London Mrs S and the Colonel at first refuse to believe it. After a few days Mrs S accepts is and becomes extremely bitter: to have left her for another woman was at least understandable, and she could have hoped to defeat a rival. But he left her for an idea. There is no hope and her anger becomes complete. After discussion with friends, Mrs Strickland she sets up as a freelance typist for she is clever and quick.

3. Living in Paris

It is five years later. Mrs Strickland has by now set up a successful agency for typists. The Narrator informs her that he is going to Paris to live for a while and might contact her husband, and she doesn’t object to the narrator passing on her news.

But her wishes turn out to be completely irrelevant to what follows. She and London are completely forgotten when N arrives in Paris and encounters Strickland. He is now a very poor, shabby figure, who’s grown an enormous red beard and become known as notoriously rude and reclusive.

We are introduced to Dirk Stroeve, an artist the narrator met in Rome, a jolly stumpy fat man with red cheeks and blue eyes, who paints lamentably obvious commercial paintings of doe-eyed Italian peasants, which he can easily sell and make a living. It is an oddity that, although he himself paints lamentably rubbish paintings, he has an unerring eye for class in other artists – and he considers Strickland a genuine genius. He is obsessed with Strickland and regularly sees him. The narrator sees them together and observes Strickland’s deliberately cruel, humiliating treatment of his fat fan.

We get to know this setting and these characters in great depth – then Strickland falls ill. Characteristically, he has told no one and the narrator and Stroeve only hear about it by accident. They immediately go round and find Strickland in bed with a high fever, no food and nobody looking after him. They get food, drink and a doctor who prescribes medicine.

Back at his studio the narrator witnesses good-natured Stroeve asking his wife, Blanche, a placid, grey, unemotional woman who keeps his apartment in perfect order, if it’s alright if they move Strickland here, so as to look after him. The Narrator observes and describes all this with Maugham’s characteristic acuity. Stroeve’s wife fiercely resists, the excuse being how rude Strickland has always been to Stroeve, but the narrator thinks there’s something excessive about her protests.

Eventually she gives in and the narrator and Stroeve get Strickland into a cab and to Stroeve’s apartment. Here both he and his wife tend Strickland night and day. Slowly Strickland recovers. Slowly he gets up and walks around. Eventually he is up and painting again. The narrator meets Stroeve in a cafe and is surprised to see him unhappy. Strickland is painting – good – but refuses to have anyone round him: he has booted Stroeve out of his own studio!

Next thing he knows Stroeve comes knocking on the narrator’s door. Strickland has seduced and run off with his wife. So timid and concerned for everyone’s happiness, Stroeve is in tears but lets him. The narrator finds it very puzzling that the woman who fought so fiercely against Strickland going to stay with them, has now thrown in her lot with him.

There is much mulling over these events before the next decisive occurrence: Stroeve arrives on the narrator’s doorstep in floods of tears to announce that his wife has tried to kill herself. Strickland abandoned her and so she swallowed a load of oxalic acid. They go to the hospital but she refuses to see them, making Stroeve distraught. The attitude of the attending doctor and nurse, the hospital environment, are all described with a grim accuracy. On repeated visits Blanche refuses to see the narrator or anyone. Finally she dies of her injuries and the Narrator and Stroeve arrange the funeral together.

A week later Stroeve takes the narrator to dinner and tells him he’s going back to his native Holland. Over and again he wonders if he did right to ever leave. His father is a carpenter, son of carpenters. Maybe he’d have been happier if he’d followed his father’s trade and married the flaxen-haired girl next door.

Then Stroeve tells him about first the night he went back to the studio where Strickland and Blanche had been living, all in perfect order by the homely Blanche. And he had come across some of the paintings Strickland had made there. When he came across a stunning nude of Blanche he was seized with rage and went to destroy it, but couldn’t: as a keen appreciator of art he realised he was in the presence of the real thing. As he listens, the narrator describes the way:

I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him. I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenly transported into a world in which the values were changed. I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where the reactions of man to familiar things are all different from those he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about the picture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant. Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him. He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the bold simplification of the drawing which showed so rich and so singular a personality; it was not only the painting, though the flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which had in it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, so that you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; there was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries. (Chapter 39)

Stroeve tells the Narrator he had gone to see Strickland and say goodbye. Amazingly, Stroeve asked Strickland if he wanted to come with him to Holland and live simply with his peasant mother and father. It was during this description of the simple homely life of his parents back in Holland that the reader feels the ghost of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s ill-fated friend, hovering closest to the Stroeve character, despite Maugham’s attempts to distance his character from the legendary Dutch artist.

Then the narrator bumps into Strickland in the street. Characteristically, Strickland behaves like a monster, completely impervious to all the narrator’s conventional reproofs. So what if Blanche killed herself; it was her choice. So what if Stroeve’s world is in ruins. He chose her. And then Strickland tells us the story behind their marriage, namely that Blanche was a servant to a posh Italian family, the son of the family made her pregnant and they kicked her out on the street, where she tried to commit suicide. Stroeve found her, saved her, and married her.

This leads the narrator on to thoughts about the strangeness of people and the unknowability of human relationships. Specifically the way, for his part, Strickland loathes and hates sex as a distraction from his mission to pain, but when it comes, it seizes him like an animal.

I do not know what there was in the way he told me this that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.

For her part, Blanche showed a complex combination of ‘female’ traits. Her degradation, her attempted suicide after being kicked out by the Italian family, were not healed by marriage to the kind, loving Stroeve, She needed to re-enact the humiliation and sexual abasement of the original trauma – in that way Strickland’s brutal sexual needs and Blanche’s wish to be humiliated met and matched – but at the same time she wanted to reclaim him, to own him. At least that’s how Strickland sees it:

‘When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone.’

I fully understand that this is two men talking about the motivations of a woman who has not only killed herself but was never given any voice in the novel; and that the whole thing is the creation of a male mind (Maugham’s). But it is nonetheless a very powerful portrait of this particular woman and of this particular relationship which she got into with Strickland.

When Blanche found out that Strickland was completely unreformable or controllable, having burned her boats with Stroeve, she took the only way out. Stroeve would have willingly taken her back. But Blanche realised she didn’t want to go back to being placidly accepted by the kindly Dutchman.

When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his moments of passion, Strickland remained aloof, she must have been filled with dismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she realised that to him she was not an individual, but an instrument of pleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind him to herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him with comfort and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him. She was at pains to get him the things to eat that he liked, and would not see that he was indifferent to food. She was afraid to leave him alone. She pursued him with attentions, and when his passion was dormant sought to excite it, for then at least she had the illusion of holding him. Perhaps she knew with her intelligence that the chains she forged only aroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass window makes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart, incapable of reason, made her continue on a course she knew was fatal. She must have been very unhappy. But the blindness of love led her to believe what she wanted to be true, and her love was so great that it seemed impossible to her that it should not in return awake an equal love.

Having heard all this, the narrator tells Strickland to his face that he is a loathsome, hateful, sorry apology of a man. Strickland laughs as he always does, and points out that the narrator likes his company because it makes him feel so superior. Which is why, when Strickland for the first and only time, invites the narrator to come and see his paintings – he goes.

Here in Strickland’s studio he sees something he’d never seen before: the crudity of the design, the roughness of the brushstrokes, the garish colours – this sounds, up to a point, as if describing the paintings of the real Paul Gauguin. However actual description is skipped over quickly so that the narrator can get to the psychological impact of the works, always what interests him most.

When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me—and perhaps even this was fanciful—was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.

The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort to express some state of the soul, and in this effort, I fancied, must be sought the explanation of what so utterly perplexed me. It was evident that colours and forms had a significance for Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under an intolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and he created them with that intention alone. He did not hesitate to simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, for beneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked for something significant to himself. It was as though he had become aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled to express it.

So the narrator (and reader) is left puzzling at length over a man who behaved appallingly to all around him but was driven by a higher calling, by fanatical devotion to his art.

With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself, he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entombment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.

And then, after several chapters of thoughts and meditation on these striking events – ‘A week later I heard by chance that Strickland had gone to Marseilles. I never saw him again.’

This concludes the lion’s share of the story. You feel that the love triangle between Strickland, Stroeve and Blanche was the dramatic core of the novel. It certainly leaves you shaken like one of  his best short stories, shaken and meditating on the behaviour and psychology of all three characters. And because they are three such strongly drawn characters the narrator’s post mortem on them and the events is interesting (unlike his thoughts on his own younger self, as mentioned earlier).

4. Marseilles

15 years later the narrator arrives in Tahiti on research for a book he’s writing. There is vivid description of the island, the air and the people. He meets one Captain Nichols who knew Strickland during the period when the latter arrived in Marseilles from Paris. Nichols is a dodgy character and he gives a lurid account of befriending Strickland on the streets of Marseilles and then their adventures cadging jobs, begging, living in flop houses. it’s quite a detailed account of the different establishments in Marseilles which give beggars, food, soup and lodging, which reminded me of the journalistic detail of George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually, they get on the wrong side of a tough mulatto named Tough Bill. Strickland lays him out in a bar room brawl, but they hear the gang master has vowed to kill him, so Strickland wangles a job on the first ship out of Marseilles, which happens to be heading for the Pacific.

The chapters describing all this are interesting in themselves, but also because Maugham paints an amusing portrait of Nichols himself as a henpecked wastrel, at the beck and call of his starched thin-lipped wife. And in a throwaway last sentence, remarks that the whole sequence of events may be no more than a fantasy, given that Nichols is a famous liar and fantasist.

5. Tahiti

In Tahiti the narrator meets various characters who provide glimpses and views of Strickland in his final years there, including the Jewish trader Cohen, the obese hotel owner Tiaré Johnson who arranged for Strickland to marry a fifteen-year-old local girl, Captain Brunot (who tells the narrator his own story about buying and settling a small offshore atoll), and Doctor Coutras, fat and good natured, who diagnoses Strickland with the leprosy which eventually kills the painter.

Several years pass, and Coutras tells the story of his final visit to Strickland’s remote hut, to find his wife, Ata, weeping, and Strickland’s dead body on the mat. He had been blind for the final year of his life.

And inside the hut he discovers that Strickland had painted all the walls with his final masterpiece, a panorama of Tahitian landscape and life, done in terrible demonic colours, with a voodoo power and compulsion. After the doctor leaves, Ata burns it to the ground as per the painter’s final wishes.

The narrator is shaken by Coutras’s account and thinks, hopes that Strickland finally reached the perfection he was striving for, but was bloody minded to the end, burning it down indifferent whether the world ever knew of it.

6. Back in England

Eventually the narrator leaves Tahiti, after a stifling embrace and many presents from vast Tiaré Johnson, arriving back in conventional London. Out of courtesy he contacts Mrs Strickland and pays a visit to pass on what he’s discovered. He discovers her now to be a prim and proper sixty-year-old, living in some comfort, the proud mother of two sterling children, a parson in the Army and the wife of a major in the Guards. And it is the final irony in the book that he discovers she is now playing the part of ‘the wife of a genius’. For the narrator’s visit coincides with that of a Mr. Van Busche Taylor, the noted American art critic. Strickland is now a modern classic. His paintings are bought and sold for small fortunes. Many monographs have been written about him. And his wife is cultivating the image of the soulful survivor of his great genius.

The final punch of the book is in the complete transformation of Strickland’s inhuman, despicably selfish, art-haunted behaviour into polite drawing room conversation. He has been assimilated, incorporated, into the narrative of Great Art and Inspired Geniuses.

It is the genuine success of the novel that it has shown us that Strickland’s personality and driven quest was something completely different, other, strange, repellent and compelling than this. The book ends on this travesty and on the prescient insight that modern art will be bought up, tidied up and neutered by America, country of Puritan morality and narrow judgmental critics, right up to the present day when Gauguin’s art is routinely vilified and attacked for its racism, sexism, colonialism, objectification of women, exploitation of under-age girls, male gaze and general wickedness.

How Maugham would have laughed at the smug judgmentalism of modern politically correct American art critics.

The narrator

By this stage it should be obvious that he is a very fallible narrator. At numerous points he says he has had to piece together accounts of events which he didn’t witness. Even events which he personally witnessed leave him puzzled and confused and he spend entire chapters trying to figure out the real motivation and psychological prompting of the main characters. Other sequences, like the scenes set in Marseilles, might be complete fiction made up by a fantasist.

The narrator’s perfect understanding of his own fallibility and partiality inform the reader that Maugham was aware of all the developments of his time which focused on the problematics of the narrator, from Henry James and Joseph Conrad onwards.

I am in the position of a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits.

By the end of the book you have read quite a few passages, not only about art and love and sex, about character and England and France and the South Seas – but about the difficulty of ever telling a coherent believable story. In its quiet understated way this is as much a meditation on the problematics of fiction as many a more showy Modernist work.

Characters

Maugham is so good at thumbnail sketches of characters, before going on to penetrate deeper into their psychology. Here’s Mrs Strickland’s older sister.

Mrs. Strickland’s sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.

And the lengthy portrait of the obese Tahitian in the final chapters is not only wonderfully done in itself, but an indication of how far the narrator has come, in geography, in experience and in human sympathy, from the dowdy drawing rooms of Victorian England.

Tiaré Johnson was the daughter of a native and an English sea-captain settled in Tahiti. When I knew her she was a woman of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions. Tall and extremely stout, she would have been of imposing presence if the great good-nature of her face had not made it impossible for her to express anything but kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, her breasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gave you an impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chin succeeded to vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were. They fell away voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom. She was dressed usually in a pink Mother Hubbard, and she wore all day long a large straw hat. But when she let down her hair, which she did now and then, for she was vain of it, you saw that it was long and dark and curly; and her eyes had remained young and vivacious. Her laughter was the most catching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her throat, and would grow louder and louder till her whole vast body shook. She loved three things – a joke, a glass of wine, and a handsome man. To have known her is a privilege. (p.177)

By the time we get to Tahiti we feel the narrator’s understanding and compassion for all types of humanity has broadened and deepened out of all recognition from its tyro beginnings.

Maugham’s philosophy

In numerous short stories and here, embedded throughout the narrative, are various expressions of Maugham’s philosophy of life, namely people are more complex than they seem; alongside charming and polite qualities can go malice, hate and envy. Thus the thrust of The Traitor in the Ashenden stories is that Caypor is a mild-mannered jovial chap who loves his dog, is a keen botanist, is in love with his wife and courteous to all around him. Shame he also spies for the Germans and so has to be handed over to the authorities to be executed for treason.

For his part, the mature Maugham depicts himself as observing and recording – detached, calm and unruffled – the absurd and unexpected behaviour of all sorts of people. Here there are early, rather clunky formulations of this indulgent, non-judgmental approach:

I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.

Or again:

I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.

It’s not rocket science, is it? But then a writer’s philosophy doesn’t need to be. James Joyce’s ‘philosophy’ never seemed to me to amount to much, but that’s irrelevant beside his achievement, the awesomeness of his stories and novels. Same here. Saying that people are a funny old mix of good and bad is desperately banal; but showing it in stories of tremendous psychological penetration and plausibility, is a great achievement.

Who can fathom the subtleties of the human heart? Certainly not those who expect from it only decorous sentiments and normal emotions.

Style

In my reviews of the first three volumes of short stories I’ve said enough about the odd unEnglish nature of many of Maugham’s sentences and its probable origin in a) hangovers from the peculiar manneredness of Victorian phraseology which lingered on like fossils embedded in his more modern prose, b) the fact that he was brought up speaking French and English was in many ways his second language. Still, some particularly odd sentences deserve highlighting.

The nurse was pitiful to his distress… (Ch 36)

He had even a black border to his handkerchief. (Ch 38)

Best of all:

I do not suppose he had ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which on my first visit I found him. (p.76)

Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and he could never overcome the horror with which it filled him. He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a man condemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane and healthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life. (p.201)

Not English, is it? It’s Maughamese.

Ole blue eyes

Its trivial but I can’t help noticing how many of Maugham’s characters have blue eyes:

[Charles Strickland] was a man of forty, not good-looking, and yet not ugly, for his features were rather good; but they were all a little larger than life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was clean shaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked. His hair was reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small, blue or grey. (Chapter 6)

The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean man of fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He had pale blue eyes and a weak mouth. (Chapter 8)

[Dirk Stroeve] was a fat little man, with short legs, young still—he could not have been more than thirty—but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted. (Chapter 19)

‘When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail.’ (Chapter 38)

Captain Nichols… was a very lean man, of no more than average height, with grey hair cut short and a stubbly grey moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. (Chapter 46)

Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and exceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck’s egg; and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and then with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. (Chapter 55)

Why always blue, I idly wonder. Was it simply that Maugham liked blue eyes?


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume three

Ashenden had a confident belief in the stupidity of the human animal, which in the course of his life had stood him in good stead. (Miss King)

In 1928 Maugham published Ashenden, or the British Agent, a book-length collection of linked short stories, told in the first person, about a British spy based in Switzerland during the First World War.

The stories are highly autobiographical. When the Great War broke out Maugham had volunteered to work in the ambulance corps and served on the Western Front for a year. In 1915 he returned to Britain to promote his new novel, Of Human Bondage, but then found it impossible to return to the ambulance work. His wife, Syrie, arranged for him to be introduced to a high-ranking intelligence officer, referred to in the stories, as ‘R’. (Syrie does not appear in of these stories.)

Since he came from a family of distinguished lawyers, with a father who had served in the Diplomatic Service, Maugham was deemed to be a good security risk, recruited and despatched to Switzerland in September 1915. He was one of the network of British agents who operated against ‘the Berlin Committee’, a German-funded spy organisation which had numerous projects afoot to undermine the British war effort. One of these was to encourage Indian revolutionaries to overthrow Britain’s colonial rule in India, a theme which has a long story devoted to it.

Maugham returned to Britain after a year. In June 1917 the British Secret Intelligence Service asked him to undertake a new mission, this time to Russia. He was to be part of an attempt to keep the Provisional Government brought to power in the February Revolution in power, and Russia in the war, by countering German pacifist propaganda. Two and a half months after he arrived the Bolsheviks staged their coup and seized control, ultimately signing a peace treaty with Germany.

The stories in Ashenden, or the British Agent are:

  • R.
  • A Domiciliary Visit
  • Miss King
  • The Hairless Mexican
  • The Dark Woman
  • The Greek
  • A Trip to Paris
  • Giulia Lazzari
  • Gustav
  • The Traitor
  • Behind the Scenes
  • His Excellency
  • The Flip of a Coin
  • A Chance Acquaintance
  • Love and Russian Literature
  • Mr. Harrington’s Washing

Volume three of Maugham’s collected short stories is devoted to the Ashenden tales, but for this republication he amalgamated the 16 short stories listed above into six longer ones. I can see why he did this, it makes the stories all about the same length, all long and meaty, and it gives a kind of weight to the book. He also added an additional story, Sanatorium, which doesn’t appear in the original 1928 volume.

Overview of the stories

Switzerland

  1. Miss King incorporates A Domiciliary Visit and Miss King
  2. The Hairless Mexican incorporates The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman and The Greek
  3. Giulia Lazzari incorporates A Trip to Paris and Giulia Lazzari
  4. The Traitor incorporates Gustav and The Traitor

Russia

  1. His Excellency incorporates Behind the Scenes and His Excellency
  2. Mr. Harrington’s Washing incorporates A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature and Mr. Harrington’s Washing

Years later

  1. Sanatorium

The stories themselves

1. Miss King

Three pages describe Ashenden’s recruitment into the Service by ‘R’, described as tall, clever, dispassionate, his piercing eyes too close together.

Then we jump to a description of Ashenden returning to Geneva on the ferry which he uses once a week to pop across the lake to France to file his reports. In Geneva he discovers two policemen waiting in his hotel room. Technically, the French visits are illegal and they examine his passport and question him after having obviously searched the place in his absence. Ashenden knows he could face two years in a Swiss prison for illegal activities. He also knows that ‘R’ won’t lift a finger to help him. That’s part of the deal. His cover is that he is a writer (true) and has come to Switzerland to complete a play, a light comedy (also true). The draft manuscript of the play is on his desk and the Swiss detectives have noted it. They leave with no further fuss.

There are two further strands in this story: in one Ashenden spends a few pages facing down one of his operatives in Germany who’s insisting on a raise. Ashenden says like it or lump it but if you betray us things will go very badly for you.

Then the final part of the story gives us an overview of the hotel where Ashenden stays, and the cast of exotic guests – the Austrian baroness, the Egyptian pasha and his family and numerous other dubious characters – any or all of which might be spies like himself. Ashenden, in his lofty amused style, is considering having a flirtation with the Baroness, not just to fish for information but for the fun of it, however after a few days he receives a stiff message from London telling him to lay off. So, he realises – he is being watched!

In the middle of the night he is woken by the hotel staff and asked to come to Miss King’s room. The tiny old lady has had a stroke and cannot speak. Her little black eyes are trying to tell him something. He promises her he will stay with her. Completely separate from any considerations of espionage or the war, Ashenden or Maugham wins our respect for his humanity and compassion. He stays with her till she dies.

2. The Hairless Mexican

‘R’ calls Ashenden to the French city of Lyon to brief him (over a characteristically luxurious meal) that a Greek agent, Andreadi, is travelling from Greece to Brindisi in Italy with documents for German intelligence.

He then introduces him to an extraordinary character, the larger-than-life Mexican Manuel Carmona, who insists on being referred to as ‘the General’ and immediately starts recounting stories of his heroic deeds in Mexico where he would have been the next Minister of War had it not been for the present government which had him arrested, but he escaped etc. But all this is to overlook his main feature which is that he is completely hairless; he wears a wig and his eyebrows are painted on.

Ashenden is to accompany the Mexican to Italy, where they will split up, Ashenden going to stay in Naples while the Mexican meets Andreadi off the Brindisi ferry and brings him to Ashenden. For the purpose of the trip Ashenden has the cover name ‘Somerville’.

The point of the story isn’t at all Andreadi or the papers, it is Ashenden’s bemused reaction to the Mexican’s absurdly larger-than-life speech, manner and behaviour. He nearly misses the train to Rome, he shows off his knife and revolver, with swaggering stories about how he used both, when he takes Ashenden for a meal at a low dive he immediately chats up and dances with the prettiest hooker in the joint.

After a prolonged description of this preposterous character there is an eventual sting in the tail of this story, but you’ll have to read it to find out.

3. Giulia Lazzari

Called to Paris, Ashenden is briefed by ‘R’ at another characteristically swanky restaurant. The most important Indian nationalist – Chandra Lal – the leader of the group which has been organising unrest and bomb attacks in India with a view to distracting British forces from the Western Front, is coming to Europe, specifically to Switzerland, to pass on information to German agents there.

‘R’ tells Ashenden that Lal has fallen in love with a dancer – Giulia Lazzari – an entertainer, a courtesan who he met in a cabaret in Berlin. MI6 tracked her across Europe and arrested her when she came to England. Searching her belongings they discovered passionate love letters from Lal. Ashenden’s mission is to accompany Lazzari back to Thonon on the French side of Lake Geneva, and do whatever is necessary to force Lazzari to persuade Lal (by letters) to cross the lake and visit her. Lal will be arrested as soon as he steps on French soil.

And this is just what happens. The interest isn’t in the result, it is in the interaction between Ashenden and Lazzari; it is in his simultaneously clinical use of her and his odd, detached compassion.

4. The Traitor

In the first part Ashenden goes to Basel to check on one of his most successful agents inside Germany, the spy ‘Gustav’ who sends detailed accounts of troop movements and so on. He is not all that surprised to find him at home with his wife despite having just despatched a ‘top secret’ message from Mannheim. Without much pressure, the ‘spy’ admits that he’s been living in his nice apartment with his wife all this time, making up his reports from newspapers and magazines.

In the second part Ashenden is sent to Berne to get to know a boisterous Englishman, Grantley Caypor, living in a hotel there with his grudging German wife, who MI6 now have proof is a spy and a traitor, for he is sending German High Command information for a salary of £40 a month.

Again, the interest isn’t in the ‘story’ as such, it is entirely in the depth and detail with which Maugham depicts this character, big bluff and jovial, a hearty walker in the mountains, interested in botany and boyishly devoted to his ugly bull-terrier.

‘R’ has instructed Ashenden to use the cover name Somerville again and to put about a cover story that he’s recovering from an illness and had previously worked in the British Government Censorship Office.

‘R’s plan is simple. He knows the censorship story will get back to Caypor’s minders; he knows they will immediately think of using ‘Somerville’ as a way of getting Caypor into the Censorship Office, too good an opportunity to miss.

And so it comes to pass: with suddenly frightened eyes, Caypor asks ‘Somerville’ for recommendations to his superiors in London which ‘Somerville’, acting all artless and helpful, writes for him, and Caypor reluctantly sets off to France and then to London. He doesn’t want to; he knows the risk; but his German minders have obviously forced or even blackmailed him into doing it. And Ashenden knows all this.

Every day Caypor’s tight little German wife goes to the post office expecting the letter he’d promised to send when he arrives safely. But it never comes and ‘Somerville’ knows why. Caypor will have been arrested on reaching British soil, tried and executed as a traitor. Ashenden envisions the scene, the grey morning, the blindfold, one member of the firing squad throwing up, the officer stepping forward to fire the coup de grace.

The ‘interest’ is in Maugham’s clinical observation of Caypor, noting every detail of his quirks and characteristics, pondering the One Big Message of Maugham’s fiction which is that People are More Complicated Than They Seem.

5. His Excellency

The Russia stories dramatise Maugham’s second mission, to Russia, between the March revolution and the Bolshevik coup in October.

The first one describes Ashenden’s encounters with the British Ambassador to Russia, initially rather frosty, but which slowly warm up until the Ambassador invites him to dine in the extraordinary splendour of the British Embassy.

No summary can convey just  how incredibly posh and upper class this meal is, both men dressed to the nines, at a small dining table in the vast dining room designed to hold 60, festooned with paintings by Old Masters, gold candelabra. In this setting Ashenden tells a story-within-a-story, about a successful British diplomat they both know – Byring – who threw away his career after falling in love with the most famous courtesan in Europe.

Before I started reading his short stories I had the impression that Maugham was the poet laureate of colonial life in the Far East, but there turn out to be far more stories about swanky meals at posh restaurants in London or very, very upper-class dinner parties at which the narrator tells or hears stories about the very highest in society. Although he is at pains to depict himself as an outsider, as a writer only admitted for his fame and not really a part of this society, nonetheless this is Maugham’s real milieu.

Stepping back from the details of this story, it is staggering that Maugham was in Russia during the most exciting months of its history, and yet that his longest, most intense story about being there is an account of a very formal dinner with the unutterably upper-class ambassador at which neither of them even mention the War or Russian politics.

Instead the discussion of Byring’s foolishness leads on to the best thing in the book, which is a long monologue in which the Ambassador reveals that he himself had a rash and foolish love affair when he was a young man without connections, with a penniless and vulgar circus performer. This doesn’t sound particularly promising but, in the ornate surroundings of the embassy dining room, with the candles flickering, the Ambassador becomes so electrified by his vivid memory of the past and by the one great love of his life that he is reduced to tears, Ashenden is mortified with embarrassment and the reader is absolutely transfixed. It is one of the most riveting things I’ve ever read. My heart was racing when it ended.

6. Mr. Harrington’s Washing

The scene completely switches to describes Ashenden’s arrival by ship at Vladivostock. Ashenden had (as Maugham did) crossed the Atlantic, taken a train across America then ship from San Francisco to Japan and then onto the East Russian port.

Here Ashenden boards the Trans-Siberian Express for the 11-day non-stop train journey to Saint Petersburg and the point of this story has nothing to do with espionage – Ashenden is cooped up for this entire time with the most boring American in the world, Mr John Quincy Harrington who talks relentlessly, in a dull monotone about his family, friends, the excellence of the United States, as well as describing in detail the plotlines of all the books he’s ever read, and on, and on, and on, till Ashenden feels like he’s going mad. It is a portrait every bit as exasperatingly funny as the ambassador’s story in the chapter before had been intense and moving.

Once he finally arrives at Petrograd the mood changes as Ashenden meets, contacts and sizes up the situation – namely the army is mutinous and the Kerensky government weak and on the verge of collapsing.

However, you shouldn’t be alarmed that too much seriousness will intrude on Maugham’s habitual sang-froid, his taste for the absurd and the self-deprecating. While Russia hurtles towards revolution, his hero spends time wondering whether it is best to write in the bath or on a train journey.

Ashenden had never quite made up his mind whether the pleasure of reflection was better pursued in a railway carriage or in a bath. So far as the act of invention was concerned he was inclined to prefer a train that went smoothly and not too fast, and many of his best ideas had come to him when he was thus traversing the plains of France; but for the delight of reminiscence or the entertainment of embroidery upon a theme already in his head he had no doubt that nothing could compare with a hot bath.

This leads into reminiscence about his ill-fated affair with Anastasia Alexandrovna Leonidov which is played entirely for laughs, with the naive young Ashenden behaving like Bertie Wooster to Anastasia’s cartoon impassioned-tragic Russian heroine. Their affair eventually comes to grief because of her insistence that she have scrambled eggs for breakfast every day, without fail. Now he meets up with her again, but it is purely business, as they both work together to try to prop up the government.

Then the Bolsheviks seize power and all Ashenden’s plans are smashed. In the days leading up to the coup, he had been deploying a few Czechs who had been assigned to him (they want Russia to stay in the war so that the Allies win the war so that Austria loses so that Czechoslovakia can be free of Austrian domination) and, despite his best efforts to shake him off, the irritating American Harrington has continued to pursue his damn fool task of getting a commercial agreement with a government which is on the verge of collapse.

On the morning of the revolution Harrington comes into Ashenden’s room where the latter explains the situation and says he better leave, and quickly. But Harrington insists on getting his laundry which he gave to the hotel servants the night before. Anastasia volunteers to help the foolish American and they quickly establish that the dirty laundry has been sent out to a laundry. Harrington sets off to get it, chaperoned by Anastasia who knows the streets.

They find the laundry, have a big argument with the laundress but retrieve the bundle of Mr Harrington’s precious shirts, suits and pyjamas, and are returning when a couple of armoured cars come zooming down the street taking pot shots at passersby. Harrington is shot dead instantly. When Ashenden finds his body, face down in the mud, his hand is still clutched round his bundle of washing.

7. Sanatorium

There are people who say that suffering ennobles. It is not true. As a general rule it makes man petty, querulous and selfish.

Sanatorium was published a full ten years after Ashenden. It has nothing to do with spies. Ashenden is sent to a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Scotland. Here he gets to know half a dozen or so of the patients, and becomes involved in their lives and hopes. It’s difficult to summarise, but the story is full of love and kindness and ends on a very moving note.


Being a spy

At several points the narrator points out on Ashenden’s behalf that espionage work is boring, not unlike that of a clerk in the City who turns up at his office every day and spends it going through paperwork. He uses this as the basis for a small aesthetic statement, pointing out that art is required to shape and give point to this mundane matter.

Fact, as I said in the preface to the volume in which these stories appeared, is a poor storyteller. It starts a story at haphazard long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequentially, and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author himself has to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.

Morality

1. Patriotism

Maybe what comes over most from the stories is Ashenden’s laconic, amused scepticism. I wonder if he was criticised at the time for a lack of patriotism. Certainly ‘R’ tackles this issue head on, saying he has two types of chap working for him, gung-ho, public schoolboy patriots who’ll stop at nothing to biff the Hun; and then cold calculating types like Ashenden, who aren’t all that excited about King and Country and regard the whole thing as an amusing game of chess. The thing is, ‘R’ knows that Ashenden’s type is just as useful as the gung-ho type, more so in the kind of quiet, observant missions he is sent on. They also serve who only stand and mock.

2. Against undergraduate morality

In our day and age when patriotism is not much discussed or praised, the keepers of culture are still obsessed with morality, it is just a different morality from old. In this respect I can see a thousand undergraduate essays being written about Ashenden’s obvious heartlessness in the way he exploits Giulia Lazzari or coldly observes Caypor, the man he knows he is sending to his death.

And as soon as you introduce a feminist perspective on Lazzari, or a post-colonial (i.e. race-focused) perspective on Chandra Lal, the floodgates would open and a million more essays pour forth, all of which condemn Maugham for not sharing the enlightened moral values of 2018.

Which is why discussing ‘morality’ doesn’t interest me. Debating morality suffers from two weaknesses or drawbacks: it is endless and so rarely arrives at a conclusion. And it is obvious.

Obviously, judged by ‘our’ standards, Ashenden is heartless and cruel in his treatment of both people. Obviously, judged by the standards of modern political correctness, he is sexist and racist. But should we be judging him by ‘our’ standards? Maugham himself anticipated all such moralistic approaches and explains:

Ashenden admired goodness, but was not outraged by wickedness. People sometimes thought him heartless because he was more often interested in others than attached to them, and even in the few to whom he was attached his eyes saw with equal clearness the merits and the defects. When he liked people it was not because he was blind to their faults; he did not mind their faults, but accepted them with a tolerant shrug of the shoulders, or because he ascribed to them excellencies that they did not possess; and since he judged his friends with candour they never disappointed him and so he seldom lost one. He asked from none more than he could give.

Maugham observes, it is for others to judge, if they feel the need. If the observation is so detached as sometimes to border on the heartless, well, that is the fault of the world and how people behave, not of the detached observer.

Part of the entertainment of the long chapter on His Excellency His Majesty’s Ambassador to Russia is the way you can’t help hearing the note of admiration in Ashenden’s voice at having met someone even more lofty and disdainful of humanity than himself.

Sir Herbert raised the glass to his nose and inhaled the fragrance. Then he looked at Ashenden. He had a way of looking at people, when he was thinking of something else perhaps, that suggested that he thought them somewhat peculiar but rather disgusting insects. (p.157)

But the accusation of heartlessness obviously rankled. So much so that he repeats his defence of his attitude ten years later in the final story, Sanatorium.

The conversation left Ashenden pensive. People often said he had a low opinion of human nature. It was because he did not always judge his fellows by the usual standards. He accepted, with a smile, a tear or a shrug of the shoulders, much that filled others with dismay.

Acceptance. Acceptance of each other’s weaknesses and folly. That’s what I find so missing in contemporary political, critical and social media discourse, where everyone seems so quick to call out, name and shame, humiliate and attack. Hard not to prefer Maugham’s slow, calm, accepting worldview and attitude.

Ashenden continued to read and with amused tolerance to watch the vagaries of his fellow creatures.

3. Murmurs

Maugham is a suave murmurer. The regularity with which his protagonists murmur a sentence crystallises their role – suave, sophisticated, urbane, detached, laconic, witty, barely speaking.

‘Death so often chooses his moments without consideration,’ murmured Ashenden.

‘In my youth I was always taught that you should take a woman by the waist and a bottle by the neck,’ he murmured.

‘Your hands are like iron, General,’ he murmured.

Ashenden murmured a civil rejoinder.

No need to raise your voice. Never any need to lose your cool.

Fattipuffs and thinifers (and blue eyes)

Having noticed in volume two of the short stories that a lot of Maugham’s characters fall into two pretty simple categories – Fat and jovial or Slim and handsome – I quickly noticed this dichotomy present throughout Ashenden. Thus Chandra Lal’s main feature is that he is fat and oily.

[The photo] showed a flat-faced, swarthy man,  with full lips and a fleshy nose; his hair was black, thick and straight, and his very large eyes even in the photograph were liquid and cow-like.

The peasant woman who smuggles his instructions in from France when she attends the weekly market in Geneva is fat and jolly. The rich Egyptian in Ashenden’s hotel, the Khedive is ‘a little fat man with a heavy moustache’. He is attended by:

Mustapha Pasha was a huge fat fellow, of forty-five perhaps, with large mobile eyes and a big black moustache… He was exceedingly voluble and words tumbled out of his mouth tumultuously, like marbles out of a bag. (p.31)

The traitor Caypor is fat as we are relentlessly told: he has a fat face, fat arms, fat hands, and a fat chuckle.

In sharp contrast the good guys are lean and tall and trim. Take ‘R’:

He was a man somewhat above the middle height, lean, with a yellow, deeply-lined face, thin grey hair, and a toothbrush moustache. The thing immediately noticeable about him was the closeness with which his blue eyes were set. (p.9)

Of course, Rose Auburn, the epitome of the Bright Young Things who is the subject of the long conversation between the ambassador and Ashenden, is herself a model of the slender flapper.

She had an exquisitely graceful and slender figure, and her innumerable frocks were always made with a perfect simplicity.

And the piece de resistance of trim elegance is the exquisitely turned out Ambassador to Russia.

Ashenden, as he sat down, gave the ambassador a glance. He was beautifully dressed in a perfectly cut tail-coat that fitted his slim figure like a glove, in his black silk tie was a handsome pearl, there was a perfect line in his grey trousers, with their quiet and distinguished stripe, and his neat, pointed shoes looked as though he had never worn them before. You could hardly imagine him sitting in his shirt-sleeves over a whisky high-ball. He was a tall, thin man, with exactly the figure to show off modern clothes, and he sat in his chair, rather upright, as though he were sitting for an official portrait.

In his cold and uninteresting way he was really a very handsome fellow. His neat grey hair was parted on one side, his pale face was clean-shaven, he had a delicate, straight nose and grey eyes under grey eyebrows, his mouth in youth might have been sensual and well-shaped, but now it was set to an expression of sarcastic determination and the lips were pallid. It was the kind of face that suggested centuries of good breeding, but you could not believe it capable of expressing emotion. You would never expect to see it break into the hearty distortion of laughter, but at the most be for a moment frigidly moved by an ironic smile. (p.151)

Blue eyes

Blue eyes are genetically recessive, which means they are relatively rare. It’s estimated that approximately 8% of the world’s population has blue eyes. But not in Maugham’s fiction, where they are remarkably common. We have met ‘R’s blue eyes, above. Also:

The spy was a stocky little fellow, shabbily dressed, with a bullet-shaped head, close-cropped, fair, with shifty blue eyes and a sallow skin. (p.20)

The baroness has fine features , blue eyes, a straight nose, and a pink and white skin…

There was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face… (p.27)

Mrs Caypor has blue eyes.

Rose Auburn, the heroine of the story Ashenden tells the ambassador, has an ‘oval face, charming little nose and large blue eyes’, ‘blue starry eyes’.

Alex, the woman gymnast the British ambassador has an affair with, has ‘a great deal of hair, golden, but obviously dyed, and large china-blue eyes’.

On the trans-Siberian Express he meets an American salesman and – yes, you guessed it:

Mr. John Quincy Harrington was a very thin man of somewhat less than middle height, he had a yellow, bony face, with large, pale-blue eyes…

And in Sanatorium, when Ashenden is wheeled out onto the sundeck he finds:

On the other side of Ashenden was lying a pretty girl, with red hair and bright blue eyes; she had on no make-up, but her lips were very red and the colour on her cheeks was high.

A new patient arrives at the sanatorium.

After Ashenden had been for some time at the sanatorium there came a boy of twenty. He was in the navy, a sub-lieutenant in a submarine, and he had what they used to call in novels galloping consumption. He was a tall, good-looking youth, with curly brown hair, blue eyes and a very sweet smile. (p.226)

Blue eyes everywhere.

Style

In my review of short stories volume two I highlighted Maugham’s odd way with the word order in his sentences, and attributed it, maybe, to his Victorian roots i.e. as a hangover from the Victorian prose he was raised on.

But I’ve changed my mind. All the Ashenden stories are set abroad and require the protagonist to speak either French or German and, as the foreign locale and the snippets of German or French quoted in the text began to sink in, it dawned on me that the Victorian thesis may be wrong.

All the biographies mention that Maugham was born and raised in the British Embassy in Paris and that French was his first language. Maybe that’s the origin of his odd word order; maybe he’s thinking in French. And maybe his rather foreign approach to English sentence structure was compounded when he spent some years as a student in Heidelberg learning German.

Sentences like the following occur on every page and are not, I suggest, the phraseology that any native English speaker would use.

Two sailors went to the side of the boat and withdrew a bar to allow passage for the gangway, and looking again Ashenden through the howling darkness saw mistily the lights of the quay.

Though he made the journey so often he had always a faint sense of trepidation…

These men were even stupider than he thought; but Ashenden had always a soft corner in his heart for the stupid… (p.18)

A police officer amiable is more dangerous to the wise than a police officer aggressive. (p.19)

Her surname, so far from Teutonic, she owed to her grandfather. (p.25)

He did not know if it was his fancy that he read in her eyes now the despairing thought that she had not the time to wait. (p.38)

The sun was shining as brightly as usual on the square, the shabby little carriages with their scrawny horses, had the same air as before, but they did not any longer fill Ashenden with gaiety. (p.68)

He did not know what were the Mexican’s plans.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. It was one of his notions that only such persons were as had no resources in themselves. (p. 77)

He found the carriage in which Guilia Lazzari was, but she sat in a corner… (p.92)

They walked down the hill and reaching the quay for shelter from the cold stood in the lee of the custom-house. (p.101)

He wondered what had been her origins. (p.104)

Ashenden wondered if Gustav was aware that a typewriter could betray its owner as certainly as a handwriting. (p.117)

Most of the hotels were closed, the streets were empty, the rowing boats for hire rocked gently at the water’s edge and there were none to take them. (p.118)

Then entered a very old tall bent man. (p.120)

That frank, jovial red face bore then a look of shifty cunning. (p.122)

He had naturally a pale face and never looked as robust as he was. (p.128)

The shadow of a breeze fluttered the green leaves of the trees; everything invited to a stroll. (p.129)

Ashenden knew in Lucerne a Swiss who was willing on emergency to do odd jobs. (p.141)

Ashenden waited in the hall for a quarter of an hour so that there should appear in him no sign of hurry…

Presently he received a letter from the consul in Geneva to say that Caypor had there applied for his visa…

She was disappointed, but not yet anxious; she knew how irregular at that time was the post. (p.144)

Except to go morning and afternoon to Cook’s she spent apparently the whole day in her room. (p.145)

When first Ashenden met Byring he did not very much take to him. (p.159)

He did not keep his promise. He made her terrific scenes. (p.175)

It’s English, Jim, but not as we know it.

The only man on the ship who spoke English was the purser and though he promised Ashenden to do anything he could to help him, Ashenden had the impression that he must not too greatly count upon him. (p.179)

After Ashenden had been for some time at the sanatorium there came a boy of twenty.

I have given so many examples to show that this unEnglish influence isn’t an occasional hiccup, it is intrinsic to Maugham’s prose style and plays an important part in creating the strange detached, slightly otherworldly effect which Maugham’s stories have on the reader.

Ashenden

Maugham went on to use Ashenden as the narrator of the later novels Cakes and Ale (1930) and The Razor’s Edge (1944).


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume two

‘It’s rather a long story. I’m afraid it’s not a very nice one and I find it rather difficult to tell. I’m going to ask you not to interrupt me, or to say anything, till I’ve finished.’
(The Force of Circumstance)

William Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories were published in four volumes by Penguin in 1963, and have gone through various editions with numerous publishers in the 55 years since then (at one stage available from Pan, the four volumes are currently published by Vintage).

This is volume two, which contains 24 stories in 400 closely-printed pages, all told with the leisurely urbanity for which Maugham is renowned, the texts unfurling like the turbid rivers which flow past the planters’ bungalows in his tales of the Far East.

She was sitting on the veranda waiting for her husband to come in for luncheon. The Malay boy had drawn the blinds when the morning lost its freshness, but she had partly raised one of them so that she could look at the river. Under the breathless sun of midday it had the white pallor of death. A native was paddling along in a dug out so small that it hardly showed above the surface of the water. The colours of the day were ashy and wan. They were but the various tones of the heat. (It was like an Eastern melody, in the minor key, which exacerbates the nerves by its ambiguous monotony; and the ear awaits impatiently a resolution, but waits in vain.) The cicadas sang their grating song with a frenzied energy; it was as continual and monotonous as the rustling of a brook over the stones. (The Force of Circumstance)

24 stories

Here’s a brief summary of each of the stories, with its publication date, setting and whether the story is told by a third or first person narrator.

The Vessel of Wrath (published in 1931 – set in the Alas Islands, Papua New Guinea – told by a 3rd person narrator) In the remote Alas Islands fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter is astonished when the flat-chested, dried-up old missionary’s sister, Miss Jones, manages to persuade the islands’ resident drunk and ne’er-do-well, Ginger Ted, to marry her.

The Force of Circumstance (1924 – Malaysia – 3rd) In a remote station in Borneo, fat red-faced Guy is perfectly happy with the new wife he’s brought back from England, Doris, until he is forced to confess that, before her arrival, he had lived for some years with a native woman and sired three children. Disgusted, Doris asks for six months to recover her feelings for him, but fails and heads off back to England, leaving a devastated Guy to set up house again with his Dyak wife.

Flotsam and Jetsam (1940 – Borneo – 3rd) Skelton an anthropologist is taken in by gruff, poor planter Norman Grange and his slight, withered, tic-ridden wife, Vesta. Terrified of her husband, Vesta tells Skelton her story – a down at heel actress stranded in the east after the theatre company went bankrupt she jumped at the chance to marry a wealthy planter, only to discover Grange’s poverty when it was too late. When a handsome kindly planter buys an estate nearby she starts a passionate affair with him, only for Grange to find out and shoot the man, who topples onto Vesta covering her in blood. Hence her obsessive, Lady MacBeth-like nervous tics of the hand.

The Alien Corn (1931 – Home Counties – 3rd) Set in very high society, the story is about a successful family of Jews who have completely assimilated to English society and pass themselves off as upper-class English family, the Blands. The narrator knows the more openly Jewish brother of the main family and it is via this contact that he observes the family tragedy, namely that the young son, George (21), wishes more than anything else to become a pianist (the family want him to go into the family business, then inherit the family constituency as an MP). Grudgingly they let him go and study piano in Germany for a few years, where the narrator visits him. Back in England, the narrator is present for the denouement, when the family invite the greatest pianist of the age, Lea Markart, down to their country home to hear the young man perform. George plays his heart out whereupon Madame Makart politely but firmly declares that he will never in a thousand years be up to concert standard. George nods, chats politely to the other house party guests, pops out to the gun room and shoots himself through the heart.

The Creative Impulse (1926 – London – I) A satire on the literary world. The novelist Mrs Albert Forrester lives happily with her compliant, weedy husband Albert, and surrounded by adoring acolytes; she has, we are assured, done absolute marvels with the semi-colon! And then, one fine day, out of the blue, Albert leaves her for the cook, Mrs Bullfinch. When Mrs F confronts Albert and Mrs B in their cosy love nest, wailing that she won’t have enough money to live on, Mrs B looks up from her ironing and throws out the suggestion that she write a detective story. Mrs Albert Forrester mulls this idea over on the Tube back to her apartment, where she announces to her adoring fans that this is precisely what she will do. Genius idea, they all crow, and that is the origin of that noted bestseller, The Achilles Shield.

Virtue (1931 – London – I) The narrator bumps into Gerry Morton who he had met in Borneo and invited to come stay when he was back in London. Now he is so obviously lonely that the narrator introduces him to a very happily married couple, the Bishops and to everyone’s amazement the wife, Margery, has a fling with the unprepossessing young man, eventually leaving her husband, who goes through the phases of a) not believing it b) drinking heavily and, when he learns that his wife is going to travel out to Borneo to be with young Morton, he c) kills himself.

The Man with the Scar (1925 – Guatemala – I) A very short story in which the narrator is told the story behind a beggar with a scar who comes into the local hotel every day. Apparently the beggar was a high-ranking opponent of the current regime, arrested, tried and about to be shot by a firing squad. Granted a last wish he asked to see his beloved for one last kiss, they fetched her and he stabbed her in the neck, killing her, for being unfaithful to him. The officer and men of the firing squad were all so awed that they set him free, and here he is begging in a tourist hotel.

The Closed Shop (1926 – South America – I) The President of an unnamed Latin American country passes a liberal law allowing people to divorce in 30 days. This has the unintended result that lots of Americans descend on the city to file for divorce, almost all of them women, staying for the requisite 30 days and, since they’re dumping their husbands anyway, many of them have flings with the local men. This threatens the livelihood of the local prostitutes who form a deputation of three leading (female) brothel-keepers to visit the president. He treats them courteously, listens, agrees, and adjusts the law to stop American women consorting with local men. The prostitutes’ business booms again, and the narrator assures us that the three madams in question now have enough money to fund their children through expensive colleges in America. Very droll.

The Bum (1929 – Vera Cruz, Mexico – I) Very short story in which the narrator is stalled in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz, waiting for a ship, dines in the same town square every lunchtime and is struck by one beggar who stands out from all the others by dint of  his bright red hair. After a few days he realises with a start that it is a man he knew twenty years earlier in Rome, when he was in his early twenties, dashing and handsome who told everyone he was going to become a Great Writer.

The Dream (1924 – Vladivostok – I) Very short story in which the narrator recalls visiting Russia in 1917 (part of Maugham’s real-life MI6 mission to Russia after the March 1917 revolution), being stuck for a day in Vladivostok and dining with a fat ugly Russian who tells him about a recurring dream his wife had of being pushed over the banisters of their 6th floor apartment and plummeting down the stairwell – and which eventually comes true, as the fat Russian describes with an indescribable look of ‘malicious cunning’.

The Treasure (1934 – London – 3rd) Richard Harenger is a successful civil servant. He separates from his wife and goes to live in a flat where he has a cook, a butler, but requires a housemaid. He’s recommended a handsome discreet lady named Pritchard who turns out to be the absolutely perfect servant in every respect, the ‘treasure’ of the title. The story lists the ways she is impeccably turned out, serves at meals immaculately, is always on time and discreet. Eventually, one night at a loose end, Richard comes home to find Pritchard in the flat (she was meant to be going out but had been stood up). On the spur of the moment Richard invites her to the pictures; on a whim invites her for supper; then, as they arrive back at the flat, on an impulse, he kisses her, then… they go to bed. He wakes in the morning thinking what a fool he’s been, how he’s compromised his position for half an hour of fun, how he will have to get rid of her etc. Until Pritchard comes into the bedroom, dressed in formal housemaid uniform, serves his breakfast and lays out his clothes as if nothing had happened. Yes, she really is the perfect housemaid!

The Colonel’s Lady (1946 – 3rd – Country mansion and London) Social satire. George Peregrine is a type of the stiff-upper-lip, Conservative MP, local magistrate, grand landowner and so on, living in his ancestral pile in rural Yorkshire. He discovers that his grey, characterless wife has published a slim volume of verse which has taken London by storm, and he slowly discovers that the book describes a passionate affair between the bored wife of a country landowner and a passionate young man i.e. broadcasts to the world that his wife has been unfaithful to him.

Lord Mountdrago (1939 – London – 3rd) A sort of ghost story. It opens with a portrait of a tall thin cadaverous doctor, Dr Audlin, Maugham’s version of a psychoanalyst, who has discovered an ability to cure and heal troubled people via the talking cure. To his office comes bluff, bullying snob Lord Mountdrago, who happens to be the Foreign Secretary. What slowly emerges is that he’s been having tortured dreams – of attending a grand aristocratic party wearing no trousers, of being ridiculed in the house – and all featuring the vindictive figure of a common, working class Welsh MP. What makes it genuinely eerie is that this same MP appears to know about the dreams and makes smart references to them when Mountdrago bumps into him in Westminster. The tale moves like a dream towards a surprisingly spooky climax. Along the way it allows Maugham, through the character of Audlin, to mull over the way people at large are more surprising, shocking, unexpected, violent and unhappy than any of us realise.

The Social Sense (1929 – London society – I) Tom and Mary Warton are a happily married couple in London’s high society. He is a portrait painter and she a former concert singer. This short story is a profile of their increasingly unhappy marriage, as Tom fails to reach his potential and Mary taunts and humiliates him. For the last 25 years she has in fact being having an affair with ugly but brilliant literary critic, Gerrard Manson. The story, such as it is, finds the narrator sitting next to Mary at a formal dinner while she struggles to conceal her distress at just discovering that Manson has died – while the narrator watches, and helps with small talk, consumed with admiration for her resilience.

The Verger (1929 – a London church – 3rd) A slyly comic, and very short, story about a long-standing verger, Foreman, at a fashionable London church who’s worked himself up from being fourth footman, through various positions with the gentry. The vicar learns that, despite all this, Foreman cannot read and write and, being modern, dismisses him. Foreman goes wandering, dazed through the streets, fancies a fag and finds himself in a long Victorian terrace with no newsagents, and it crosses his mind to open one. Long story short, he gets a loan from the bank, the shop is a success, he finds another London neighbourhood with no convenience shop and opens one, and so on, until ten years later he owns a chain of shops and is worth a mint. Bank manager calls him in to discuss what to do with his fortune and is flabbergasted to learn his best customer can neither read nor write. ‘Why, man, just imagine where you’d be if you could read and write’. ‘I know where I’d be,’ says Foreman with a smile. ‘I would still be verger of St Peter’s church, Neville Square.

In a Strange Land (1924 – Turkey – 1st) opens with a page long meditation on how the narrator/Maugham has found intrepid Englishwomen living in solitude in the most out-of-the-way places. As an example he tells the story of the time he checked into a shabby hotel in Turkey and was surprised to find it kept by a former lady’s maid from England. She had been married to a dashing Italian who had an affair with a Greek girl and had two sons. The Italian died some time ago and the handsome young chaps still adore her. As with much of Maugham it is a short exercise in unexpected psychology.

The Taipan (1922 – Shanghai – 3rd) A very short ghost story, reminiscent of Kipling’s imperial horror stories. A successful Brit, brought up in suburban Barnes and now running a big business in China, living in a mansion with three servants, strolls through the English cemetery and sees two coolies digging a grave. When he asks people in his office and officials they all deny any Brits have died. That evening he drinks to much at the club, wakes in the night in a panic, and is found next morning stone dead. The grave was for him boom boom!

The Consul (1922 – China – 3rd – Interesting to learn that this, The Taipan, and three other stories were published in a volume titled Foreign Devils in Asia.) Another very short and relatively early story, just a few pages long. A working class woman in England marries a Chinese lodger who gives the impression he is rich and lives in a palace. When they arrive at this out of the way town she discovers to her horror that he is fairly poor, lives in a grimy little hut with his domineering mother and – this is the final straw – his first, Chinese wife! She goes to see the vain, pukka British consul with an endless litany of complaints but what drives him to distraction is that, despite the whole situation and endless provocations, she refuses to leave him. The consul offers to arrange accommodation with some missionary ladies and then travel back to England but she refuses. Extremely frustrated the consul asks why, to which she replies:

‘There’s something in the way his hair grows on his forehead that I can’t help liking.’

A Friend in Need (1925 – Japan – I) Edward Hyde Burton is a tiny man in his 60s who has carved out a successful career as a businessman in Japan. After two pages setting the scene where the story is told (gin fizzes at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama) the narrator finds himself listening as Burton tells the story of a white man who arrived in Yokohama, socialised, played cards, and turned up on our Burton’s doorstep one day stony broke after losing all his money at poker. Burton asks if the chap has any talents and the other reveals that he can swim, that in fact he swam for his university. Well, says our man, swim round the cape, about three miles, I’ll meet you with a car and towels at the beach and we’ll see about a job. Surprised and puzzled, the other agrees and leaves the office. Eye witnesses say he arrived at the start beach, stripped to his costume and set off into the water – but never arrived at the finish beach. Drink and dissipation had undermined his constitution. The narrator asks, ‘Didn’t you realise he’d be drowned?’ Little, innocent, white-haired Burton replies: ‘Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a vacancy in the office.’ The narrator – like the reader – is quietly appalled at the dark depths of even the most inoffensive-seeming people.

The Round Dozen (1924 – a resort on the South Coast of England – I) A broadly comic story in which the narrator is resting at a south coast resort when he meets two sets of people: at the hotel is a very old-fashioned elderly couple, the St Clairs, who he enjoys spending time with because they remind him of his Victorian youth, accompanied by their fifty-something daughter, Miss Porchester, who has a trim figure and silver hair. And out on his rambles, the narrator several times encounters a shabby-looking man who cadges cigarettes off him before revealing, with a flourish, that he is none other than Mortimer Ellis, the famous bigamist. (It is a comic and typical moment when he reveals this and Maugham looks on without changing expression, having never heard of him.)

‘I’ve had eleven wives, sir’, he went on.
‘Most people find one about as much as they can manage.’ I replied.

Ellis gives Maugham the inside dope on What Women Want and how to get them to marry you. He was eventually caught by one of his wives and sentenced to five years in gaol, has only recently got out, hence the shabbiness and the cadging. And, he explains to the narrator, it’s always irked him that he only married eleven wives – such an uneven, lopsided number: twelve would have been much better, like the disciples or signs of the zodiac. To cut a long story short, Ellis ends up persuading the quiet spinster daughter of the Victorian couple to run away with him, much to the narrator’s amusement.

The Human Element (1930 – London and Rhodes – I) In Rome in the off season the narrator bumps into Humphrey Carruthers, a pompous humourless man from the Foreign Office who he is then forced to see socially a few times. To his surprise, on one of these occasions Carruthers breaks down and tells him the long story of his unrequited love for Lady Betty. The story then stops for a long recap of the career of Lady Betty, Maugham’s portrait of an archetypical Bright Young Thing, the young hedonists who filled the gossip columns and celebrity pages after the Great War. (It is bracing to see Maugham pooh-pooh the brainless worship of celebrities, of gossip columns, of the way they endorsed beauty products – all a hundred years ago: nothing changes.)

Our hostess had a weakness for the persons technically known as celebrities.

Carruthers falls heavily for Lady Betty but she is thronged by admirers. She disappoints them all by marrying the very rich son of a northern businessman and, as a result, slowly becomes less of a fixture of wild parties at fashionable nightclubs. However gossip soon spreads that the marriage is failing. The husband goes off to sanatoria on the continent, leaving Lady Betty at home. Eventually they separate and Lady Betty goes to live on the Greek island of Rhodes. But Carruthers has never forgotten her. He wangles an invitation to go and stay with her for a fortnight and this is the core of the story he tells the narrator: he spends the first week of his stay nerving himself to propose to the love of his life, but then, one night, he discovers her swimming naked and giggling with the chauffeur, a rough, brawny, handsome specimen. In a flash Carruthers realises they have been lovers for a decade, that the marriage to the northern businessman was only for his money. As a snob, Carruthers is appalled; as a lover he is prostrate with grief. And this is the story he pours out over cocktails in a Rome restaurant to Maugham who, being the urbane man of the world that he is, keeps it to himself but rather approves of her conduct.

Jane (1923 – London – I) A broadly comic story about two ladies in their fifties – Mrs Tower, the type of London society hostess Maugham is always being invited to parties by, and her plain sister-in-law, Jane Fowler, very straitlaced, traditionally dressed and dull. To everyone’s amazement, Jane becomes engaged to a stylish young man 27 years her junior, Gilbert Napier, who finds her funny and attractive. Gilbert proceeds to completely revamp her appearance, designing dresses to bring out her surprisingly beautiful neck and shoulders, inviting her to parties and so on. The narrator goes on a long trip abroad and when he returns is astonished to discover that Jane has become the talking point of the season, dressed in her astonishing outfits and reducing all and sundry to tears of hilarity with her blunt plain-speaking conversation. Barely have we processed this transformation than there is another one, that Jane separates from hapless Gilbert and elopes with an admiral.

Footprints in the Jungle (1927 – Malaya – I) A fairly long story in which the narrator plays bridge (as so often) with a charming couple, the Cartwrights, and the local head of police Gaze. Later that evening, over drinks, Gaze tells the long story of how the strong sturdy Mrs Cartwright’s first husband, Bronson, was found shot dead in the jungle and how it took him a long time to compile the evidence leading him to think he was murdered by Cartwright who, he thinks, was having an affair with the wife and had impregnated her. The couple murdered Bronson, and then married. And you know what – you couldn’t meet a happier or nicer couple.

The Door of Opportunity (1931 – Malaya – 3rd) A very powerful story, given force by its artful construction. In part one an English couple arrive back in London from service in Malaya, the tall handsome man, Alban, brimming with excitement to be back in London. But we realise that his wife, Anne, is not happy and, once they’ve checked into a hotel and he’s gone off to visit his club, she makes plans to pack her things and leave him. Why?

Now comes the central flashback of the story which details their life in the small remote station in Malaya. Alban is universally disliked because he is tall, handsome, well educated, intellectual and sensitive. Anne doesn’t care; she is, in contrast, short and monkey faced, but they understand each other perfectly. Until the day of the coolie rebellion when the workers on a rubber plantation some distance away in the jungle rise up and murder the owner, Prynne, injuring his manager, who makes it to Anne and Alban’s station more dead than alive.

This is when it happens: Alban tends the injured man, ascertains the facts and then, instead of setting off with the handful of men at his disposal to confront the murdering natives, he announces that he will send a launch to the nearest town for reinforcements and wait. The wounded manager is surprised. Anne is horrified. She looks into his soul and realises he is a coward.

After two tense days, a police man arrives from the town with 20 Sikh soldiers and they set off on a night-time journey upriver. But instead of finding rampaging coolies, they find a jolly fat Dutch planter who has quelled the whole ‘rebellion’ within hours of it occurring with just two assistants. Alban is shown up as being an over-cautious coward.

He is called down to town to answer to the governor: the governor is impressed by the rational lucidity of Alban’s defence, but sacks him nonetheless. The image of the brave, decisive white man must be kept up, and Alban has let the side down. What is fascinating is the accuracy with which Maugham depicts the reactions of all concerned, the other chaps in the club, the wives, the padre, the governor and his wife – sympathetic but all agreed: the chap must go.

So Alban is fired and sails back to England with Anne. In the final pages Anne tells him just what she thinks of him, how he has let not just himself down but everything they believed in, art and intelligence; how she loathes and detests him and is leaving him. Tall, handsome Alban collapses in tears but Anne walks out.


Comments

I shall draw attention to:

  1. Maugham’s prose style, its smooth leisureliness but frequent oddities
  2. his eye for a good figure, male or female
  3. the settings, in the Far East or the Home Counties
  4. the way he changed the titles of the stories
  5. Maugham’s oddly mundane quotability
  6. Maugham’s ‘philosophy’

1. Prose style

Leisurely

‘Excuse me sir, but am I right in thinking that you are the well-known author?’ (The round dozen)

Maugham’s tone and approach is spectacularly leisurely and relaxed. True, it varies a little from story to story, the really short ones being, of necessity, relatively pithy. But, given enough space, Maugham likes to start a story with the kind of long-winded introductions which remind you of Victorian essayists.

Take, for example, the two-page introduction to Virtue, which starts by describing exactly the type of Havana cigar the author enjoys before going on to consider the oddity of the life force which has evolved countless millions of creatures over billions of years so that a lamb cutlet ends up on your plate or a brace of oysters are served on ice. By such oddities and quirks are human lives decided.

The contrast between Maughan’s leisurely style and his often biting narratives

It is only after these leisurely lucubrations that the author finally gets round to describing the random chance by which he bumps into an acquaintance from Borneo in Bond Street and unintentionally sets off the chain of events which the story describes (summarised above). Having got to the end of the tale, and been as surprised and shocked as the narrator by the tragic, drunken suicide of fat jovial Charlie Bishop – it is disconcerting to look back at the opening pages about cigars and sheep from this now bitter perspective; the author’s calm urbane tone seeming incongruous and almost surreal.

The same device is used for The human element where there is a long page and a half of leisurely thoughts about Rome in the off season before we get anywhere near meeting the main character, Carruthers.

I looked around me with satisfaction. It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is not yet quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom. I felt the wings of my spirit give a little flutter of delight.

Or in The round dozen which opens with the author’s impression of English seaside resorts. The technique in all these stories is to lull you into the author’s worldview, sedate, civilised, slow and leisurely – to slow you right down to his speed, before introducing any of the characters.

This element of slowing down – more than any of the actual plotlines – may partly account for the stories’ success and enduring appeal. In a world of rush and stress, they are immensely relaxing.

Riverscapes

The Far East stories, of course, contain extended descriptions of the scenery, the jungles and especially the rivers of Borneo and Malaysia, like the excerpt at the top of this review. For practical reasons of transport most of the colonial stations in remote places seem to have been on rivers, but it also occurs to me that this is very convenient from the writer’s point of view, because ‘the river’ is a ready-made symbol. And wide, powerful, slow-moving rivers naturally lend themselves to being similes, metaphors and symbols of the slowly unfolding patterns of human destiny.

And they’re picturesque. After reading only a handful of tales from the East you have the impression of having yourself watched countless poignant sunsets or meaningful dawns breaking over wide muddy rivers. Again – very relaxing.

Oddities

Maugham’s prose aspires to a leisurely graciousness, and yet it is prone to a variety of quirks and oddities which prevent it ever achieving real elegance. There are one or two moments on every page which disrupt the flow or give you pause. No page goes by without you being brought up short by odd phrasing. You are continually reminded that this is not modern prose, that its roots are in Victorian stylistics and yet these moments occur in prose which is happy to use a range of modern idioms and whose characters use (fairly) slangy expressions – resulting in an odd mix of twentieth and nineteenth centuries.

The main feature is his odd ordering of clauses within long sentences, his idiosyncratic word order

‘If you’re going to do that I think to take up any more of your time can only be a waste of mine.’ (Lord Mountdrago)

These men, living for many years with one another lives that were methodically regulated, had acquired a number of little idiosyncracies. (The Taipan)

He paid no attention to his house which was always in great disorder, nor to his food; his boys gave him to eat what they liked and for everything he had made him pay through the nose…

And now, turning out of the street in which was the consulate, he made his way to the city wall… (The Consul)

I was like an archaeologist who finds some long-buried statue and I was thrilled in so unexpected a manner to hit upon this survival of a past era. (The Round Dozen)

He soon ceased to choose every morning from his wardrobe the tie he wanted, for he found that she put out for him without fail the one he would have himself selected. (The Treasure)

I had to read some of these sentences two or three times to be quite certain of the meaning. They’re not grammatically incorrect but his ordering of clauses, his word order, is often pretty idiosyncratic. In fact, reading a bunch of these examples one after the other forces the thought that maybe it’s plain clumsy.

I had not looked forward with any enthusiasm to the probability which I so clearly foresaw that he would favour me with an account of his matrimonial experiences, but now I waited if not with eagerness at least with curiosity for a further observation. (The Round Dozen)

I am an amateur of humour and I sought to discover in what lay her peculiar gift. (Jane)

He was a man who took his work hardly, worrying himself to death over every trifle. (The Consul)

The imagination lingers here gratefully, for in the Federated Malay States the only past is within the memory for the most part of the fathers of living men. (Footprints in the Jungle)

Trivial though it may be, he has a particular way of positioning ‘had’ in the place which makes it stick out unnaturally in a sentence.

It was impossible not to perceive the fineness of her character. It had even nobility.

The hall was large and low, with the same whitewashed walls, and he had immediately an impression of comfort and luxury.

If you were marking an essay by a student learning English, you would say they had got the word order wrong. But after a while, reading Maugham, you come to expect these clunky broken-backed sentences, the odd word order, and the peculiar phraseology – it becomes part of his charm.

He has an elegant tone and attitude and describe elegant characters in elegant settings. But his prose is not elegant or stylish.

2. Fine figures

Slim Maugham likes slender figures, male or female. He admires a fine deportment, a commanding presence. He likes tall and slim.

Jack Carr his name was. He was quite a different sort of chap from Norman; for one thing he was a gentleman, he’d been to a public school and a university; he was about thirty-five, tall, not beefy like Norman, but slight, he had the sort of figure that looked lovely in evening dress; and he had crisp curling hair and a laughing look in his eyes. (Flotsam and Jetsam)

He had been putting on weight lately, but was still a fine figure of a man; tall, with grey curly hair, only just beginning to grow thin on the crown, frank blue eyes, good features and a high colour. (The Colonel’s Lady)

I observed that he was in his way good-looking; his features were regular, his grey eyes were handsome, he had a slim figure. (The Human Element)

The younger woman had her back turned to me and at first I could see only that she had a slim and youthful figure. (The Round Dozen)

She was dressed in white. Her arms, her face, her neck, were deeply burned by the sun; her eyes were bluer than he had ever seen them and the whiteness of her teeth was startling. She looked extremely well. She was very trim and neat. (The Human Element)

I remembered him as a curly-headed youngster, very fresh and clean-looking. He was always neat and dapper, he had a good figure, and he held himself well, like a man who’s used to taking a lot of exercise. (Footprints in the Jungle)

He was just under six feet tall, and slim, and he wore his clothes well, and his clothes were well cut. He had fair hair, still thick, and blue eyes and the faintly yellow skin common to men of that complexion  after they have lost the pink-and-white freshness of early youth. (The Door of Opportunity)

And eyes. Maugham is always alert to the state of his characters’ eyes. They are often large and soulful eyes.

It was not hard to believe that in youth he had been as beautiful as people said. He had still his fine Semitic profile and the lustrous black eyes that had caused havoc in so many a Gentile breast. He was very tall, lean, with an oval face and a clear skin… He had kept his figure and held himself as magnificently as ever. (The Alien Corn)

She had never been handsome and the passing years had changed her little. She had still those fine dark eyes and her face was astonishingly unlined. She was very simply dressed and if she wore make–up it was so cunningly put on that I did not perceive it. She had still the charm she had always had of perfect naturalness and of a kindly humour. (Virtue)

She had a neat figure. That was her best point. That and her eyes. They were very large, of a deep brown, liquid and shining; they were full of fun, but they could be tender on occasion with a charming sympathy. (The Door of Opportunity)

In The human element Lady Betty, a kind of force of nature, an embodiment of youth and enthusiasm, has her deep blue eyes described again and again, shining with joy, radiating a part bantering part tender look, shining with sudden gaiety, and so on. In Footprints in the jungle the pale blue eyes of the protagonist, Mrs Cartwright, are referred to again and again.

Maugham was bisexual, and I think there’s something of that in the way his head is turned equally by a handsome man or a shapely lady. Both have their appeal – so long as they are slim and elegant.

Fat Fat people, on the other hand, are generally also short, red-faced and jovial – Chaucerian publicans until, that is, they collapse in tears, like Charlie Bishop in Virtue or Guy in The Force of Circumstance.

He was twenty-nine, but he was still a school-boy; he would never grow up. That was why she had fallen in love with him, perhaps, for no amount of affection could persuade her that he was good-looking. He was a little round man, with a red face like the fall moon, and blue eyes. He was rather pimply. She had examined him carefully and had been forced to confess to him that he had not a single feature which she could praise. She had told him often that he wasn’t her type at all. ‘I never said I was a beauty,’ he laughed. ‘I can’t think what it is you see in me.’ But of course she knew perfectly well. He was a gay, jolly little man, who took nothing very solemnly, and he was constantly laughing. He made her laugh too. He found life an amusing rather than a serious business, and he had a charming smile. When she was with him she felt happy and good tempered. And the deep affection which she saw in those merry blue eyes of his touched her. It was very satisfactory to be loved like that. Once, sitting on his knees, during their honeymoon she had taken his face in her hands and said to him: ‘You’re an ugly, little fat man, Guy, but you’ve got charm. I can’t help loving you.’

The Vessel of Wrath features the fat, jovial, Dutch governor Evert Gruyter through whose eyes we see the surprising love story of Ginger Ted and Miss Jones. And the final story features another fat Dutchman, Van Hasseldt, who puts down the coolie rebellion almost single handedly`.

It’s not that fat symbolises one particular virtue or that slim and trim is always good – it’s just noticeable that a number of Maugham’s characters do tend to fall into these fairly obvious categories.

3. Painting a scene

Malaya

When the little coasting steamer set them down at the mouth of the river, where a large boat, manned by a dozen Dyaks, was waiting to take them to the station, her breath was taken away by the beauty, friendly rather than awe-inspiring, of the scene. It had a gaiety, like the joyful singing of birds in the trees, which she had never expected. On each bank of the river were mangroves and nipah palms, and behind them the dense green of the forest. In the distance stretched blue mountains, range upon range, as far as the eye could see. She had no sense of confinement nor of gloom, but rather of openness and wide spaces where the exultant fancy could wander with delight. The green glittered in the sunshine and the sky was blithe and cheerful. The gracious land seemed to offer her a smiling welcome. (The Force of Circumstance)

The Far East stories contain yards of this sort of thing. It is extremely restful and relaxing.

London society

Maugham was phenomenally posh. His father and grandfather were eminent lawyers and his elder brother, Frederick, served as Lord Chancellor and was made 1st Viscount Maugham. Thus his gentlemanly characters have no trouble at all dining in the finest restaurants, conversing with lords and ladies, being introduced to cabinet ministers and kings.

Before I began these books I had the impression from summaries that Maugham’s books were about posh planter society in Malaysia. This is misleading on two accounts: 1. The Far East stories seem to concern men in rather desperate straits, men in extremely isolated outposts, rather than ‘society’ in places like Singapore. 2. They are in a minority. The majority of the stories are set in England, most of those in a London of extremely posh dinner parties, parties, cocktail parties and receptions. Or ‘at home’ in the swank country houses of, for example, the Blands in The alien corn or the colonel’s country house in The colonel’s lady.

You’d have thought the unvarying tone of this high society might get a bit stifling, or be plain off-putting, except that the Maugham narrator is so dryly ironic, so observant of human foibles and weakness, and tells his stories so compellingly, that you feel quite at home in these remote and lofty milieu.

There is an element of manners. Maugham is a gentleman and his stories have perfect manners, in the sense that they admit you as an equal to these upper class circles. He never talks down to the reader. Because his ironic attitude to human nature extends to everyone, it is democratic. You feel privileged to eavesdrop on such juicy gossip.

4. Titles

Many of the stories were renamed after their initial appearance. In all cases the titles get shorter, sometimes reduced to just one word. Thus:

  • The Verger was originally The man who made his mark
  • Lord Mountdrago was originally Doctor and patient
  • Neil Macadam was originally The Temptation of Neil Macadam
  • The social sense was originally The extraordinary sex
  • Louise was originally The most selfish woman I knew
  • The Man Who Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly becomes the more teasing A friend in need

And so on. It’s interesting, this trend towards brevity, making things more pregnant with meaning, or symbolism – or just more abbreviated and tight. It’s oddly contrary to the actual approach of the stories which is almost always leisurely, slow and wordy.

5. Quotes

Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. He isn’t to do with wit and clever paradox. The opposite, really, his thoughts are rather run of the mill and his style is neither compressed nor stylishly paradoxical; it is wordy and prolix. But nonetheless, precisely because he (and his characters) are given to such lengthy lucubrations on life and its peculiarities, he often ends up expressing general thoughts about human nature which have a sort of ruminative appeal.

It is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it. (The treasure)

Life is really very fantastic, and one has to have a peculiar sense of humour to see the fun of it. (Virtue)

If the folly of men made one angry one would pass one’s life in a state of chronic ire. (Virtue)

People are always a little disconcerted when you don’t recognize them, they are so important to themselves, it is a shock to discover of what small importance they are to others. (The Human Element)

No day is so dead as the day before yesterday. (The round dozen)

Courage is the obvious virtue of the stupid. (The Door of Opportunity)

She managed (as so few people do) to look exactly what she was. (Jane)

See what I mean by not really witty or very insightful. More the calm, steady, civilised reflections of a well-travelled, urbane man of the world.

Women are always sensitive to the self-sacrifice of others. (Virtue)

The worst of having so much tact was that you never quite knew whether other people were acting naturally or being tactful too. (The Human Element)

6. Maugham’s philosophy

Nothing profound, the opposite really. Maugham’s view is that people are really a lot more complex than they let on. There’s more to us than meets the eye.

For thirty years now I have been studying my fellow–men. I do not know very much about them. I should certainly hesitate to engage a servant on his face, and yet I suppose it is on the face that for the most part we judge the persons we meet. We draw our conclusions from the shape of the jaw, the look in the eyes, the contour of the mouth. I wonder if we are more often right than wrong.

Why novels and plays are so often untrue to life is because their authors, perhaps of necessity, make their characters all of a piece. They cannot afford to make them self–contradictory, for then they become incomprehensible, and yet self–contradictory is what most of us are. We are a haphazard bundle of inconsistent qualities. (A friend in need)

What gives this remarkably shallow idea its weight is the narrative that follows, in which an apparently harmless little man turns out to have unsuspected depths of malice in him.

Maugham is right that it is the people who make his stories. There are hardly any intellectual insights, and his occasional tangle with intellectual milieus – his satires on the literary world, his description of a painter or a musician – carry little conviction. But the way he manages to convey the peculiarity of being human, how we are prey to all kinds of odd and contradictory impulses; and how profoundly other people remain unpredictable mysteries to us – that is fascinating, riveting, and what makes every single one of his stories worth reading.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 @ Imperial War Museum London

This is the UK’s first major exhibition to bring together a broad range of artists’ responses to the age of war and conflict which we’ve lived in since 9/11. It features some 50 works of art by over 40 artists, and so – quite apart from the fascinating subject matter – represents an interesting overview of the contemporary art world, from international superstars like Ai Weiwei and British national treasure Grayson Perry, to a raft of Middle Eastern artists who are exhibiting in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition also showcases an impressive diversity of artistic media including painting, film, sculpture, installations, photography, tapestry and ceramics.

A very brief history

The exhibition is based on the premise that the world changed on the morning of 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, and also attacked the Pentagon building.

The exhibition kicks off with the events themselves being depicted in a 57-minute-long video by Tony Oursler. Oursler was in his apartment just blocks from the World Trade Centre when the first plane struck. He grabbed his camera to shoot footage of the burning building and continued to record as the second tower was hit. He went out onto the street to capture the responses of New Yorkers  on that morning and over the following days.

Image result for 9/11 newspaper

A few days later President George W. Bush declared an all-out ‘War on Terror’.

A month later, on October 7, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had refused to hand over the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and ran training camps in the country for his terrorist network. The Taliban government was swiftly overthrown by Western forces, but bin Laden wasn’t captured. (He wasn’t tracked down and killed until 2 May 2011 when United States Navy SEALs stormed his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)

Eighteen months later, after a prolonged standoff over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, in March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow long-standing enemy President Saddam Hussein. the invasion swiftly led to looting and widespread chaos. Within a few months reports began to emerge of American guards carrying out human rights abuses on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army instituted its own investigation which ended up detailing the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and was accompanied by photos of naked and tortured Iraqis which were reproduced around the world and became a rallying point for anti-Western anger.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster which led to a prolonged civil war in which new Islamist groups emerged, not least the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS). ISIS took advantage of the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 to expand into a swathe of territory across northern Iraq and into Syria, itself the victim of a prolonged civil war.

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

Saddam is Here by Jamal Penjweny (2009–10) Courtesy The Artist and Ruya Foundation

In the years since 2001 there have been numerous further Islamist terrorist attacks in America itself and across Europe (there was one in the South of France on the day I wrote this post). They have become a fact of life in the modern world.

Set down briefly like this, these facts make a devastating and depressing narrative. But do they mean that we now live in an ‘Age of Terror’? And to what extent can works of art answer that question or explain the situation?

Themes

The exhibition is divided into themes including:

  • 9/11
  • Surveillance
  • Prisoner abuse
  • State control
  • Weapons
  • Home

To be honest, although the treatment was sometimes interesting, I found the choice and explanation of some of these themes a bit obvious.

‘9/11’

As well as Tony Oursler’s video, the 9/11 attacks are marked by a number of works. A long room/corridor contains no fewer than 150 front pages of newspapers from around the world which reported the attacks, gathered together in a ‘work’ by Hans-Peter Feldman titled Front Page. Like a lot of conceptual art, this is really a one-trick pony. You could, if you want to, examine every single front page to see how the selection and cropping of pictures and the use of headline text varies from country to country. In the event what this big display shows is how remarkably little variation there was between countries. The 9/11 attack was front page news and so… it made a lot of front pages. It would have been a bit more teasing and unexpected to make a collection of newspapers which didn’t lead with the attacks as their main story (if any).

A whole room was devoted to an installation, The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro, a spooky work which uses mirrors and lights to give the sense of a limitless hole extending infinitely down into the floor. As it happens, I myself visited Ground Zero in New York a few years ago and saw the enormous square fountains created around the base of each fallen building as a memorial. (In fact I visited the Twin Towers themselves back in the 1980s and took the superfast elevator to the viewing platform.) Navarro’s work is interesting but I found it clinical and clever rather than moving.

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

The Twin Towers by Iván Navarro (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Gerhard Richter is a German painter well known for creating large canvases of smeared paint. He was on a plane heading towards New York on that fateful morning which was diverted. He later created a characteristic smear painting which he later – according to the wall label – had second thoughts about whether to display or not. But he did. Here it is.

There’s a video of a piece of performance art, where an actor wore a dust-covered suit, as if he was a survivor of the attacks, and walked or stood at locations around the city a year or so later. The suit is hanging up next to it.

Video artist Kerry Tribe placed an advert in a Hollywood actors magazine for a role she described as ‘potential terrorist’. She then shot silent minute-long profiles of the men who replied, splicing them together into a 30-minute video, Potential Terrorist. Well, they all look a little sinister, given that the context, title and purpose of the film have put you in that paranoid frame of mind.

Grayson Perry was working on a large vase about the power station at Dungeness when he heard about the attacks. He modified the design to include crashing planes and terrified civilians.

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

Dolls at Dungeness September 11th 2001 by Grayson Perry (2001) © Grayson Perry / Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Stephen Brayne

‘Surveillance’

The room on ‘Surveillance’ explains the way we citizens of the West World are now more intensively surveilled and monitored than ever before. It contains arguably the two best works in the show – Jitish Kallat’s comical series of Action Man-sized models of people being searched and frisked at airport security; and Ai Weiwei’s brilliant marble statue of a CCTV camera on a plinth.

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Surveillance Camera with Plinth by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Ai Weiwei Studio; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

‘Iraq’

Peter Kennard has been making fiercely political photomontages made from press photographs since the 1980s. (The IWM hosted an impressive retrospective of his work in 2015.) His contribution here is an enormous collage made in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, and using newspapers and black ink.

The basic image is a blown-up photo of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who decided to support George Bush in the American invasion of Iraq, against the wishes of a huge number of British citizens.

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Head of State by Kennardphillipps (2007)

Since about 2010 American artist Jenny Holzer has been working on a series titled Redaction paintings. She uses official documents about the attacks and the two invasions, which have been released to the public but with sections blacked out or ‘redacted’, to indicate the scale of what is still kept back from the public, from us, the people who pay the wages of politicians and civil servants and armies.

In a corridor between rooms hang ribbons of black bunting, a work titled Black Bunting by Fiona Banner.

‘Prisoner abuse’

Rachel Howard has done a painted version of the iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner being tortured which went viral after its release in 2004. His name is Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist / Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

DHC 6765, Study by Rachel Howard (2005) © The Artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates

Nearby is a room in which a 59-minute-long video titled Operation Atropos 2006 by Cuban-American director Coco Fusco is screened. Fusco worked with retired U.S. Army interrogators who, at her request, subjected a group of volunteer women students to simulations of POW experiences in order to show them what hostile interrogations can be like and how members of the U.S. military are taught to resist them. The documentary includes interviews with the interrogators that shed light on how they read personalities, evaluate an interrogatee’s reliability, and use the imposition of physical and mental stress strategically. It’s violent and distressing stuff but then… what did you expect an interrogation to be like?

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Operation Atropos directed by Coco Fusco (2006) Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / © Coco Fusco/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Nearby is a painting, Bound by John Keane, depicting a figure in an orange jump suit against a stark black background and with no head, representing the civilians and prisoners which various Islamist groups have executed on camera and posted online over the past 17 years.

‘Home’

This part of the exhibition consists of four rooms containing works mostly by Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian artists. The idea is to reflect how the disastrous conflicts in their countries have shattered traditional ideas of a safe, secure ‘home’.

They include a work which is like an enormous tapestry made of cardboard egg cartons spliced together and which tumbles down the wall and onto the floor, Floodland by Walid Siti. Dominating one wall is My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah, made up of layers of burnt canvas arranged to create a tattered and scorched map of the Middle East, with only a few vivid highlights of colour.

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

My Country Map by Hanaa Malallah (2008) © Courtesy The Park Gallery & Roger Fawcett-Tang

There are a lot of videos in this section including one by the Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian which shows a scale model he made of the apartment block in Damascus where his family lived till he fled the city. The video then shows the artist smashing the model to pieces with a big hammer – Homesick, 11 minutes long.

Elsewhere White House is a video by Afghan artist Lida Abdul which shows a woman painting whitewash with a big housepainting brush onto the ruins of a palace in post-Saddam Iraq.

‘Weapons’

There are several pieces meditating on the rise of drone warfare. The first ever drone strike was launched from an unmanned and weaponised Predator aircraft on 7 October 2001. One of the most striking pieces in the show is a site-specific installation made by James Bridle. He was allowed to paint the full-scale outline of a predator drone onto the floor of the main atrium of the War Museum in a piece titled Drone shadow. Watching people walk across it, mostly unaware of its significance, is spooky.

Drone shadow by James Bridle

Drone shadow by James Bridle

There’s a dark room devoted to a 30-minute-long video of an interview with a now-retired ‘pilot’ of one of these drones, Omer Fast’s 5,000 feet is best. I was very disappointed when I discovered that the nervy unshaven dude in the film is in fact an actor. (The devastating power of these weapons, as well as the difficulties of using them without causing collateral damage, is the subject of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky.)

There’s another video showing Afghan soldiers and civilians stripping, cleaning and rebuilding automatic weapons. The sound of the metallic clicks becomes steadily more oppressive the longer you watch, and follows you as you walk into other rooms – click, click, click…

Media

As well as by subject matter, the exhibits can also be divided by media:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • photomontage
  • video
  • rugs and tapestries
  • ceramics

The most unusual artefact is probably Grayson Perry’s big vase. A vase commemorating 9/11. OK.

I was also surprised at the half a dozen so rugs and tapestries made by different artists, some using tradition Afghan methods and motifs, others more overtly depicting automatic rifles or the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Some of the paintings are powerful, for example of the tortured Abu Ghraib man and the Gerhard Richter smear.

But two things struck me about the exhibition as a whole:

How many videos there were and how long they were. Tony Oursler’s eye witness account is nearly an hour long, the drone pilot is half an hour, the students being shouted at in the Atropos film is an hour long – that’s two and a half hours you’d have to spend in the exhibition just to see these three pieces. But in addition there’s also the stripping guns film, the man smashing a model of his house film, the woman painting a palace film: three hours minimum.

The best pieces were sculptures: the Ai Weiwei camera, a scary model by Jake & Dinos Chapman of small bodies accumulated into two great mounds of corpses (one for each tower) and Jitish Kallat’s toy people being searched.

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

Circadian Rhyme 1 by Jitish Kallat (2011) © The Artist / Photo Thelma Garcia / Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels

And also a brilliant piece in the ‘Weapons’ section, a cabinet full of model hand grenades made in the kind of coloured glass that Christmas tree decorations are made from, by Mona Hatoum.

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Natura morta (bow-fronted cabinet) by Mona Hatoum (2012) © Mona Hatoum / Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Thoughts

1. The new normal

I found a lot of the show a little boring. None of it moved me. 9/11 is pretty old news now. I was very moved by visiting the actual Ground Zero in New York, but not by seeing a wall of old newspapers about it, or even the clever piece by Iván Navarro. Similarly, a big photomontage of Tony Blair as hate figure is pretty old news now, as is the image of the man from Abu Ghraib. 14 years old.

2. Has modern warfare really changed all that much?

Similarly, when the exhibition claims that the nature of modern warfare has changed decisively, I don’t think that’s really true. What was striking about the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and latterly in Syria is how very conventional they have been – after the ‘shock and awe’ bombing, it still boils down to our guys going in and shooting their guys and their guys trying to blow up our guys. The misery of house to house fighting through densely packed towns and cities which was a feature of fighting in the Second World War (if not before) was also a feature of the fighting in Falluja and is still taking place in eastern Ghouta and other urban centres in Syria.

Atom bombs, neutron bombs, smart bombs – all the science fiction weapons of my boyhood turn out to be completely irrelevant in modern warfare. It involves air strikes like World War Two, and sometimes artillery bombardments like World War One, but always ends up with bloody street fighting – witness the numerous accounts of British soldiers patrolling Helmand or Baghdad and getting sniped at and blown up by improvised explosive devices, witness movies like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker.

The only real innovation seems to be unarmed drones, which are guided by controllers thousands of miles away in the States. This is new for the people doing it, but the result is pretty familiar – bombs fall out of the sky, sometimes on valid military targets, often on civilian bystanders, as they have since the First World War (as vividly described in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate).

3. Art in the internet age

What is nowhere mentioned is that the Age of Terror has coincided, more or less, with the Digital Age, the Age of the Internet.

This means lots of things (al-Qaeda posted their videos on YouTube, ISIS has an effective social media presence, terrorists embedded in the West can contact each other digitally without even meeting). But in the realm of aesthetics it means that we are even more totally saturated with imagery and news than ever before.

In my opinion, this has had a seismic and catastrophic impact on art. After all, why care very much about ‘art’ images, displayed in ‘art galleries’, when there is such a bombardment of interesting, funny, shocking, comic, tragic, diverting and exciting imagery to be found all the time, everywhere else?

Most of the artworks in this exhibition are very slow. Very old school. Oil painting? Like Rembrandt and Turner did? Why on earth make oil paintings about the surveillance society or the war in Iraq? What on earth has painting to do with a world of suicide bombers and drone attacks?

A lot of the artworks here are conceptual in the sense that they are based on an idea which you either ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ in much the same way that you ‘get’ a joke.

  • 150 newspaper front pages about 9/11.
  • Painting redacted documents.
  • Interview with a drone operator.
  • Jamal Penjweny’s idea to get normal citizens of Iraq to hold a photo of Saddam in front of their faces, photograph them and create a portfolio titled Saddam is here.
  • Painted versions of the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib.

One-idea gags. They are a kind of intellectual embellishment of the perplexingly complicated historical, political and military events out there in the real world. None of them adds a lot to your understanding of the causes and effects of 9/11 and Iraq. They are another – admittedly sometimes rather demanding – form of entertainment in a world drowning in visual entertainment.

I think this helps explain the impact of the sculptures, the way they emerge as (I think) the strongest pieces. The most impactful three – the Chapman brothers’ piles of bodies, Ai Weiwei’s CCTV camera, Jitish Kallat’s searched action figures – all of them have an instant and powerful visual and conceptual hit.

The Chapmans came to fame in the 1997 Sensation exhibition of works collected by famous advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi. Just about every critic of the time made the connection between Saatchi’s day job selecting instantaneously powerful images which pack a punch (the pregnant man poster, the Labour isn’t working poster) and his taste for the ‘shocking’ and immediate works of Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin or the Chapmans or Marcus Harvey or Marc Quinn.

I think Ai Weiwei’s work is smack bang in this tradition. He has mastered the skill of applying the ‘instant recognition’ techniques of advertising, to works of ‘art’. It is no surprise that the sculpture of the security camera on a plinth was chosen for the posters and adverts for the exhibition. Like Charles Saatchi Ai has a perfect eye for the iconic image. He is the leading examplar of the way the events of the last 17 years or so can be pillaged for images and icons which can be turned into ‘art’ and form the basis of a lucrative career.

But giving you a better understanding of the world we live in?

4. Understanding issues

No one in their right mind should go to a work of art to ‘understand an issue’. You should read a book, articles, journalism, cuttings and speak to experts in order to ‘understand an issue’. You should research and analyse an ‘issue’.

The commentary asks, ‘Does art have a place in helping to understand terror?’ to which the simple answer is, ‘No, not in the slightest’. What does Ai Weiwei’s stone camera or Mona Hatoum’s glass hand grenades add to your understanding of the causes and consequences of Islamic terrorism? Nothing. They decorate it.

Art is a luxury product, designed to enhance the lives of the rich, or be added to well-funded public collections – it is not history or sociology or anthropology. It is not the study of geopolitics or international affairs or military strategy or state security.

Turn the question round: which work of art has helped you understand the Syrian Civil War best? (Not to understand that war is horrible and violent and people get killed in it – any child knows that, though gruesome photos of victims being dragged from bombed buildings always ram it home. But they don’t help anyone to understand anythingmore than that people suffer and die in war.)

Which work of art has helped you understand why the people of Syria rose up against Bashar-al-Assad in 2011, helped you understand why Syria split up into different geographic units, helped you understand the mosaic of religious and ethnic groups which make up the Syrian population, helped you understand why the West was reluctant to send in troops or commit militarily to the war, helped you understand why Vladimir Putin stepped in and made Russia the main external player in Syria, helped you understand why – lacking Western support – the anti-government forces were soon outstripped by better-funded militant and Islamist groups, helped you understand why U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 creating a vacuum into which ISIS quickly spread? Helped you understand why, after seven years of agony for the people of Syria, the chances are Bashar-al-Assad will probably stay in power?

Not only does no work of art do this, but no work of art could do this. Only a carefully researched factual account, in fact numerous such accounts, in-depth information about the country’s history and culture and religious and ethnic composition, a good grasp of the geopolitical interests of the local powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia) and the international powers (Russia, America), and a knowledge of the political and military strategy of the United States in neighbouring Iraq could even begin to help you understand the situation.

A painting won’t do that. A sculpture is no replacement for that. Even a video can’t convey that depth and clarity of information required for such a complicated subject. A woman painting a ruined palace is a good gag, a memorable riff, a nifty concept which can be worked up into a ‘piece of art’ which can be sold on to a willing gallery. But it is no replacement for sober, thorough and intelligent analysis.

If the community of galleries, curators, art schools and artists decide that art can be made from subjects, ideas and images in the news, that’s one thing. But pretending that art helps us to ‘understand’ social and political issues is a fond and futile delusion of the art-making and art-consuming classes.

Featured artists

Lida Abdul, Khaled Abdul Wahed, Francis Alÿs, Cory Arcangel, Fiona Banner, James Bridle, Christoph Büchel, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Mahwish Chishty, Nathan Coley, David Cotterrell, Dexter Dalwood, Omer Fast, Coco Fusco, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Mona Hatoum, Jenny Holzer, Rachel Howard, Shona Illingworth, Alfredo Jaar, Jitish Kallat, John Keane, kennardphillips, Fabian Knecht, Hanaa Malallah, Julie Mehretu, Sabine Mortiz, Iván Navarro, Tony Oursler, Trevor Paglen, Mai-Thu Perret, Grayson Perry, Jamal Penjweny, Gerhard Richter, Martha Rosler, Jim Ricks, Hrair Sarkissian, Indrė Šerpytytė, Santiago Sierra, Taryn Simon, Walid Siti, John Smith, Kerry Tribe, Ai Weiwei.

There’s quite a lot of art to enjoy and admire here, and I found this a very thought-provoking exhibition – but not necessarily in the way the curators intended.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham Volume One

‘Human nature is very odd, isn’t it?’
‘Very,’ said Landon, helping himself to another glass of brandy.

Biography

William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874 in the British Embassy in Paris, where his father was a lawyer. His first language was French. His mother died when he was eight and, when his father died two years later, young Willie was farmed out to his unsympathetic uncle in Kent and then on to the traditional English miserable experience at boarding school. During his unhappy childhood he developed a debilitating stammer.

At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King’s School and was allowed to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. Here he wrote his first book, a biography of opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, and he met John Ellingham Brooks, with whom he had an affair. He discovered, in other words, that he was gay.

Maugham returned to England and began to study medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, while writing fiction in the evenings. The success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897, persuaded him to try writing full time. He proceeded to churn out numerous articles, reviews and other ephemeral journalism, while producing a sequence of mostly forgotten novels during the Edwardian period. In 1904 his first play was performed and he turned out to have a great flair for dramatic writing. At one point no fewer than four of his plays were running simultaneously in the West End and he continued to have theatrical success throughout the 1920s.

In the Great War Maugham served in France as a member of the British Red Cross’s ‘Literary Ambulance Drivers’. He met Frederick Gerald Haxton, who became his permanent companion and lover until Haxton’s death in 1944. Of Human Bondage, published in 1915, brought more critical and popular success.

In the same year Maugham became a British agent working for the forerunner of MI6 in Switzerland, keeping tabs on the representatives of all the combatant nations, an experience he recycled into the excellent series of stories collected in his spy book, Ashenden (1928).

After a year Maugham, relieved of espionage duties, came back to London to promote his latest play and, in 1916, he and Haxton made the first of numerous trips to Pacific islands to research the novel which became The Moon And Sixpence, loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin. Published in 1919, it was not only a commercial success but began the process of associating Maugham with settings in the Far East and Pacific, confirmed by his next book, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921).

In May of 1917, Maugham had married Syrie Wellcome, with whom he had a daughter. It was to turn into a very unhappy marriage. In June of 1917 he went on another mission for the British Secret Intelligence Service, this time to Russia to counter German pacifist propaganda and keep the provisional government in power. That didn’t work out so well but Maugham had some fascinating and historic encounters.

After the war Maugham wrote fewer plays but a steady stream of short stories which established his reputation for chronicling life among the fast set on the Riviera, and an equal fascination with life in the Far East and the Pacific Islands. He travelled widely, funding himself by travel articles and features, which he gathered into a series of travel books, and everywhere he went he carefully took notes on the people and places.

In 1927 he and Syrie divorced and in 1928 Maugham bought the Villa Mauresque in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. The villa became famous as a great literary and social salon as well as his home.

In 1940, as France fell to German occupation, Maugham fled to the United States. In Hollywood he tried his hand at screenwriting. When Haxton died in 1944, Maugham returned to England, then in 1946 to his villa in France, where he lived until his death. Alan Searle became his companion in this latter part of his life.

Whether at home at Cape Ferrat, at social events in London or Paris, travelling in Spain, America or the Pacific, Maugham made notes and observations, which he worked up into a sequence of short stories which slowly came to eclipse the reputation of his novels.

His Edwardian plays didn’t wear well into the very different atmosphere of the feverish Jazz Decade and not many of his twenty or so novels have lasted – but his short stories have endured.

The stories amount to a collective portrait of remote and exotic places between the two wars, when the European empires of France and Britain were at their height, although the American presence was being felt more and more. Alongside these are elegant portrayals of society life in Paris and London, stories about Spain which he regularly visited, and stories set in country house England of the very comfortably off middle class which recall the settings of Agatha Christie novels or even Wodehouse’s comedies.

By the time of his death in 1965, Maugham had become a kind of poet laureate of a type of refined and gracious upper-middle-class living – in London and the Home Counties, in Paris or the Riviera, and in the oppressive heat of the tropics where gentlemen still dressed for dinner – which had slipped into history.

April 1921 cover of The Smart Set magazine advertising Maugham's long short story, 'Miss Thompson', later retitled 'Rain'

April 1921 cover of The Smart Set magazine advertising Maugham’s long short story, Miss Thompson, later retitled Rain

In 1951 Maugham’s life’s work of some 100 short stories was collected into a complete edition in three big volumes. These were reprinted as four Penguin paperbacks in 1963.

Short stories volume one

Volume one of Somerset Maugham’s Complete Short Stories is 476 pages long and contains the following 30 stories.

  • Rain (1921 – Samoa – 3rd person narrator)
  • The Fall of Edward Barnard (1921 – Chicago/Tahiti – 3rd)
  • Honolulu (1921 – Hawaii – 1st person narrator)
  • The Luncheon (1924 – London restaurant – 1st)
  • The Ant and the grasshopper (1924 – London restaurant – 1st)
  • Home (1924 – Somerset and China – 1st)
  • The Pool (1921 – Samoa – 1st)
  • Mackintosh (1921 – Samoa – 3rd)
  • Appearance and Reality (1934 – Paris – 1st)
  • The Three Fat Women of Antibes (1933 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Facts of Life (1939 – London – 3rd)
  • Gigolo and Gigolette (1935 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Happy Couple (1908 rewritten 1943 – the Riviera – 1st)
  • The Voice of the Turtle (1935 – the Riviera – 1st)
  • The Lion’s Skin (1937 – the Riviera – 3rd)
  • The Unconquered (1943 – Soissons, France – 3rd)
  • The Escape (1925 – England – 1st)
  • The Judgement Seat (1934 – Heaven – 3rd)
  • Mr. Know-All (1925 – on a liner – 1st)
  • The Happy Man (1924 – London and Seville – 1st)
  • The Romantic Young Lady (1947 – Seville – 1st)
  • The Point of Honour (1947 – Seville – 1st)
  • The Poet (1925 – Ecija, Spain – 1st)
  • The Mother (1909 – Seville – 3rd)
  • A Man from Glasgow (1947 – Algeciras – 1st)
  • Before the Party (1922 – England and Borneo – 3rd)
  • Louise (1925 – England – 1st)
  • The Promise (1925 – Claridge’s restaurant, London – 1st)
  • A String of Beads (1927 – London dinner party – 1st)
  • The Yellow Streak (1925 – Borneo – 3rd)

Style and voice

The voice is humane, civilised and ironic, always detached and urbane. 18 of the 30 stories are told in the first person, the remaining 12 via a third-person narrator. But even the the third person ones often feature a character who observes the action and comments on it with much the same detached urbanity as Maugham’s ‘I’. In other words, the cumulative, ‘centre of gravity’ of all of them, is an urbane man of the world.

In fact the line between Maugham the author and the narrator is deliberately blurred when quite a few of the stories are told in the voice of a famous writer who lives in the south of France and dines at good London restaurants with notable members of the upper classes or writers or opera singers or gentlemen of his acquaintance. This use of his own persona was a particular characteristic of Maugham’s later fiction

(The Happy Couple seems to take place at Maugham’s own house on Cap Ferrat, The Voice of the Turtle in a Bloomsbury apartment where he’s been invited to sign some of his books, and so on).

Obviously the narrating voice of these stories is manipulated in each of them in order to suit the narrative and bring out the story’s points – but, collectively, they create a very consistent world of charming old-world manners and dignified high living, amid which there are sudden surprising revelations.

Take the moment in the story The Promise, where an ageing aristocratic lady is confiding her love life to the narrator.

‘If a man stops loving a woman old enough to be his mother do you think he’ll ever come to love her again? You’re a novelist, you must know more about human nature than that.’

In the third person narratives, I noticed the number of times there is a character who plays a backseat, observing role – the Watcher, the Observer, the Writer – who sometimes barely even speaks. At most The Observer murmurs or nods, as the various troubled or tortured or sometimes comic protagonists pour out their agonies to him.

‘Heaven helps those who help themselves,’ I murmured. (The Facts of Life)

‘I sometimes think you’re quite strong enough to do the things you want to,’ I murmured. (Louise)

‘Don’t forget that you’re English yourself, George,’ I murmured. (The Alien Crn)

Characters rather than people

For a century literary criticism has concerned itself with psychology, especially the depth psychology of Freud which has been spun into hyper-sophisticated theories, not least by the French, much influenced by the Freudian revisionism of the influential Jacques Lacan in the 1950s, and then a cohort of French feminist psychoanalytical critics from the 1970s, who deconstruct all language in terms of its patriarchal sexism.

In complete contrast, although some of Maugham’s stories deal with intense psychological states, most of them begin and many of them continue, at what you’d call a purely social level, with the narrator simply interested in people as they appear, as they present themselves to the eye.

As a token of this, it’s noticeable how the appearance of every character in all the novels and all the stories is noted, often at some length. I kept being reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip, ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’

Once I’d noticed this I began to consider that there’s some kind of sense in which even the plots of the stories seem oddly external. Even the most intensely terrible and murderous ones – and there are several stories about murders and suicides – retain something detached about them. Of course there’s psychology of a sort involved in all of them, but often it is conveyed by appearance and changes in appearance. We rarely go inside the heads of these tormented characters. They are seen from outside, and even then often at one remove, for the narrator mostly hears about the story ‘later’, via other third-part tellers. Very often he is telling us a story which he himself was told.

Rain

Thus the plotline of one of his most famous stories, Rain, is notoriously intense.

A missionary and his wife are forced to hole up in a cheap boarding house while they wait for a boat to take them onto their mission in a remote South Seas island. Unfortunately, a rough working class woman, Miss Sadie Thompson, who likes putting on ragtime records and entertaining ‘the boys’ in her room, and who we quickly realise is a prostitute, is also staying in the same hotel.

After some shouty confrontations, the missionary undertakes to save her soul and goes every afternoon to pray with her and for her, encouraged by his dry-as-dust missionary wife. All this is observed with characteristic detachment by Maugham’s representative in the story, the calm and phlegmatic Scotsman, Dr McPhail.

After 40 pages of slow build-up the surprise climax comes suddenly in the last few page when the good missionary fails to come back to the room he shares with his sister and his body is then discovered in the sea next morning, still clutching the razor with which he has cut his throat.

After identifying the body, Doctor McPahil returns, stunned, to the boarding house where he finds Miss Sadie putting a ragtime record back on the gramophone and breaking out the scotch with some sailor friends. ‘Pigs. All men are the same. Pigs’, she yells at McPhail- and he understands. In the battle for her soul – in the battle between God and the Devil – the dark lord won, the high and mighty missionary was tempted and fell. He had sex with Miss Thompson, and then had nowhere to hide from his own guilt and remorse.

Obviously, the plot sounds pretty lurid, but it’s only in the last page or so that it turns melodramatic. The previous 39 pages have all been very buttoned-up and British, and the plot developments have been conveyed not only (obviously enough) through the characters’ dialogue and confrontations – but also by their appearances and by the changes in their faces, features, stances and so on which take place during the sequence of events.

Maugham goes to a lot of trouble to really concretely describe his characters’ appearances, their physical behaviour and presence, right down to the last detail.

Mrs Davidson came and stood beside him. She was dressed in black and wore round her neck a gold chain, from which dangled a small cross. She was a little woman, with brown, dull hair very elaborately arranged, and she had prominent blue eyes behind invisible pince-nez. Her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness; she had the quick movements of a bird. The most remarkable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating to the nerves like the pitiless clamour of the pneumatic drill.

A little way off [McPhail] saw his wife in a long chair talking with the Davidsons, and he strolled over to her. When he sat down under the light and took off his hat you saw that he had very red hair, with a bald patch on the crown, and the red, freckled skin which accompanies red hair; he was a man of forty, thin, with a pinched face, precise and rather pedantic; and he spoke with a Scots accent in a very low, quiet voice.

[Mr Davidson the missionary] was a silent, rather sullen man, and you felt that his affability was a duty that he imposed upon himself Christianly; he was by nature reserved and even morose. His appearance was singular. He was very tall and thin, with long limbs loosely jointed; hollow cheeks and curiously high cheek-bones; he had so cadaverous an air that it surprised you to notice how full and sensual were his lips. He wore his hair very long. His dark eyes, set deep in their sockets, were large and tragic; and his hands with their big, long fingers, were finely shaped; they gave him a look of great strength. But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.

[The prostitute, Sadie Thompson] was twenty-seven perhaps, plump, and in a coarse fashion pretty. She wore a white dress and a large white hat. Her fat calves in white cotton stockings bulged over the tops of long white boots in glacé kid. She gave Macphail an ingratiating smile. ‘The feller’s tryin’ to soak me a dollar and a half a day for the meanest sized room,’ she said in a hoarse voice.

‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’

Maugham’s prose style

It’s not great writing, there’s nothing fancy or rhetorical about it. And it’s not profound psychology either. But in story after story Maugham is able to limn a character in a paragraph and then lead you slowly by the hand through their tale, leading you in a deliberate dance to unexpected places, surprising revelations or bathetic comic climaxes.

It is, throughout, not an experimental or particularly elegant prose, but eminently practical, limpid and enjoyable. A very clubbable, confiding sort of tone.

I don’t know that I very much liked Landon. He was a member of a club I belonged to, and I had often sat next to him at lunch. He was a judge at the Old Bailey, and it was through him I was able to get a privileged seat in court when there was an interesting trial that I wanted to attend. He was an imposing figure on the bench in his great full-bottomed wig, his red robes and his ermine tippet; and with his long, white face, thin lips and pale blue eyes, a somewhat terrifying one. He was just, but harsh; and sometimes it made me uncomfortable to hear the bitter scolding he gave a convicted prisoner whom he was about to sentence to death or a long term of imprisonment. But his acid humour at the lunch table and his willingness to discuss the cases he had tried made him sufficiently good company for me to disregard the slight malaise I felt in his presence. I asked him once whether he did not feel a certain uneasiness of mind after he had sent a man to the gallows. He smiled as he sipped his glass of port.

‘Not at all. The man’s had a fair trial; I’ve summed up as fairly as I could, and the jury has found him guilty. When I condemn him to death, I sentence him to a punishment he richly deserves; and when the court rises, I put the case out of my head. Nobody but a sentimental fool would do anything else.’

Gossip

Maybe the stories’ success is due on one level to their nature as a sort of higher gossip. Above and beyond the first- or third-person narrator, Maugham often invokes the idea of a community among which certain characters and their stories are well known. This is particularly true of the stories set on Samoa or in Seville, for both of which he conjures up the sense of local communities – not least through the use of native words and vocabulary – where everyone’s business is known, where nothing can be kept secret.

Maugham travelled widely and met many interesting people, high and low, Europeans and ‘natives’, and he quietly soaks up stories, tales, yarns and anecdotes about all of them. People confide in him. He likes stories about people and his characters like telling and listening to stories and the stories themselves often comment on the process of story-making and story-listening.

‘I hope you won’t think it very odd for a perfect stranger to talk to you like this.’ He gave an apologetic laugh. ‘I’m not going to tell you the story of my life.’ When people say this to me I always know that is precisely what they are going to do. I do not mind. In fact I rather like it. (The Happy Man)

I do not vouch for the truth of this story, but it was told me by a professor of French literature at an English university, and he was a man of too high a character, I think, to have told it to me unless it were true. (Appearance and Reality)

Collectively, the stories build up a portrait of a mature and wise man who is fascinated by the endless foibles and weaknesses of human nature, sometimes subtly ironic, sometimes howlingly funny, sometimes bitterly tragic – and who applies the same sympathetic but calm and even tone to all of it.

Middle age

Maybe another element of the effect is related to Maugham’s age. He wrote short stories during the Edwardian decade, but his first successful ones seem to date from just after the Great War, by which time he was well into his 40s. In 1924 he turned fifty. Quite old, isn’t it, to be hitting your stride as a writer?

Maugham’s relative maturity means that he tells his tale with the mellowness of age, the detachment of a man whose passions are beginning to wane, who is able to cast a pretty cold eye on life and death. He is often quizzical, a little puzzled by his characters; sometimes horrified, often urbanely amused – but never really shocked or disrupted. Nothing ever really ruffles his well-bred feathers.

And, of course, Maugham was a Victorian, already in his late twenties when Queen Victoria died. Although he is at home in the world of charabancs, cocktails and parties on the Riviera, he doesn’t bring the wide-eyed youthfulness of a Scott Fitzgerald or the macho posturing of a Hemingway to the French scene. He brings the courteous manners and gracious politeness of a much older generation.

His age means that he often writes about women of a similar age to him, mothers or even grandmothers. When young women are behaving badly, Maugham’s stories aren’t about them but about the worries of the parents. This is a refreshing change from the tortured novels of authors in their twenties who think they are the first people ever to have their hearts broken.

And his homosexuality means that Maugham writes about women in a particular way: he is polite, as always, but he sees them for what they are, with neither the lust of the young male hetero nor the bitterness of the old debauchee. He combines precise external description (as always, it is a hallmark of his approach) with unflinching accuracy about women.

Sometimes it is for comic effect – there are quite a few raddled and ravaged 60 and 70 year old ladies in his stories who are plastered in inappropriate make-up. Often comic, but also compassionate. We all age and wither, and Maugham, writing in his 50s and 60s, knows it. But he also knows that just because people are old, doesn’t mean you should let them off the hook.

Mrs. Forestier was a very nice woman. Kindly people often say that of a woman when they can say nothing else about her, and it has come to be looked upon as cold praise. I do not mean it as such. Mrs. Forestier was neither charming, beautiful nor intelligent; on the contrary she was absurd, homely and foolish; yet the more you knew her, the more you liked her, and when asked why, you found yourself forced to repeat that she was a very nice woman. She was as tall as the average man; she had a large mouth and a great hooked nose, pale-blue short-sighted eyes and big ugly hands. Her skin was lined and weather-beaten, but she made up heavily, and her hair, which she wore long, was dyed golden, tightly marcelled and elaborately dressed. She did everything she could to counteract the aggressive masculinity of her appearance, and succeeded only in looking like a vaudeville artist doing a female impersonation. Her voice was a woman’s voice, but you were always expecting her, at the end of the number as it were, to break into a deep bass, and tearing off that golden wig, discover a man’s bald pate. She spent a great deal of money on her clothes, which she got from the most fashionable dressmakers in Paris, but though a woman of fifty she had an unfortunate taste for choosing dresses that looked exquisite on pretty little mannequins in the flower of their youth. She always wore a great quantity of rich jewels. Her movements were awkward and her gestures clumsy. If she went into a drawing-room where there was a valuable piece of jade she managed to sweep it on the floor; if she lunched with you and you had a set of glasses you treasured she was almost certain to smash one of them to atoms. Yet this ungainly exterior sheltered a tender, romantic and idealistic soul. (The Lion’s Skin)

Irony

The term ‘irony’ is bandied about a lot in literary criticism. In his tragic stories, there is straightforward tragic irony: the protagonist is fortune’s fool, wishing and intending one thing, and then finding that the exact opposite comes about.

Thus in The Pool, the protagonist’s passionate love for the half-breed native woman makes him take a series of decisions which lead her to despise him. In the rather shattering story, Before the party, the nice middle-class family start out fussing about what hat and gloves to wear to the vicar’s garden party until, little by little, it comes out that their widowed daughter’s husband didn’t die of some exotic illness on colonial duty in Borneo, and that he didn’t even commit suicide, a rumour the elder daughter has heard from friends just back from the area. No, what slowly emerges is that the man was a hopeless alcoholic who made their sweet younger daughter’s life a misery and that one night, in a fever of disappointment and rage she murdered him as he slept.

So there’s a shattering irony in the complete disconnect between the nice middle-class chatter with which the story opens and the appalling secret which is revealed.

And then, in another layer of irony, and in a classic example of Maugham’s detached urbanity – despite this bombshell going off in the middle-class family’s nice drawing room – when the servant knocks a moment later to announce that the car has been brought round to the front of the house, mother, father, shocked elder daughter and the murderous younger daughter duly dry their eyes, apply a puff more powder, and set off for the garden party, regardless.

Very English

All this is very English. In the hands of a Sartre or Camus, some of the more intense stories might have been the opportunity for much description of the searing heat and the blinding sun and alienation, about the Absurdity of Existence and the Tragedy of Being. Maugham, on the other hand, rarely expresses much emotion. On the contrary, he often uses the stories to emphasise his stiff upper lip and emotional distance.

In The voice of the turtle, when the preposterous opera singer, La Falterona, shouts abuse at him in his own home, Maugham replies with a studied dissection of her maliciously narrow character which they both know to be true. They stare at each other, cards on the table. And then agree to be civil and return to dinner. Just so.

The traveller

Maugham never loses the habit of airing his lofty, travel writer’s knowledge of the customs and language of wherever the story is set. There are a handful of stories which deal with out-and-out tragedy, murder and suicide – Rain, The Pool, Mackintosh, The Unconquered (an oddity – the only story set during any of the wars of Maugham’s time, viz the German invasion of France 1940), Before the Party. He isn’t shy of using the correct native term to describe for the natives’ clothes, or drink, or dugout canoes. Similarly, the stores set in Spain urbanely let you know that the narrator is a fluent speaker. Naturalmente!

As Maugham knew, it is precisely the attention paid to the little details of daily life, the polite hellos, thank yous and goodbyes, to the exact clothes and shoes and hats which the characters wear – and to the little local phrases, clothes and customs, which make them so human, so mundane, so believable – and therefore the shocking things which happen to them all the more unaccountable and upsetting.

It is part of what lifts them above run-of-the-mill entertainments and makes them worth rereading, even when you can remember the plot – for the skill with which character is etched in and then events and changes in character or perception conveyed through selected details.

Overt comedy

Some of the stories are intended to be comic, for example The Luncheon.

In this story the narrator is middle class but hard up and has to count his pennies very carefully. A lady fan invites herself to lunch with him and dismays him by selecting an expensive restaurant, which he thinks he’ll be able to afford if he chooses the cheapest items. The meal that follows is an ordeal because the well-born lady, while telling him all the time that she prefers a simple luncheon and only ever eats one item, in fact chooses a whole string of the most expensive items on the menu, including champagne.

The comedy derives from her reiterated claim to preferring simplicity and diet, before then ordering meringue and cream – while we observe the narrator’s mounting anxiety and eventual collapse, as he realises he will be spending his entire monthly allowance on just this one meal.

High Life

It’s so obvious maybe it doesn’t need saying, but most of Maugham’s characters come from the English professional upper middle-classes (like his father, a lawyer at the British Embassy in Paris) and live a charmed and elegant life most of us can only dream about. By my count at least four of the stories are set on the French Riviera, in wonderful villas or restaurants; three are set in very nice restaurants or clubs in London; one is set in a fashionable night club in Paris.

In these stories the reader enjoys the pleasure of pure social escapism. None of the characters in these stories seem to work. Captain Forestier in The Lion’s Skin lives entirely on his rich wife’s money, dressing to perfection, playing golf and dining at Riviera restaurants. When Louise in the story of that title marries her second husband, she forces him to resign his commission in the army and then they spend their winters at Monte Carlo and their summer’s at Deauville.

Does anyone live like that nowadays? Doing nothing except lunching and dining and attending smart parties? Reading Maugham’s short stories allows you, for the duration of the reading experience, to vicariously enjoy these charming elegant, if sometimes rather damaged, lives.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a wonderfully fun and uplifting exhibition but be warned: only go if you’re prepared to step carefully among the scores of toddlers large and small, running squealing and laughing from one interactive treat to the next. For this exhibition is an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to create a fun and stimulating exhibition for parents and children, very small children. Very, very small children.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What I hadn’t expected is that, in among all the fabulous blow-ups of the characters, the models, the play tent, the mock-up stairs and the slide, there is also quite a serious and scholarly exhibition of some 95 of E.H. Shepard’s original Winnie the Pooh illustrations, accompanied by some very interesting and illuminating commentary.

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch. He was a prolific professional writer, producing humorous verse, social satire, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for Punch as well as numerous other magazines and illustrated a variety of books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front. These are collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War, on sale in the V&A shop, and were also included in the excellent overview of Shepard’s career held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000.

In 1913 Milne married Dorothy ‘Daphne’ de Sélincourt and in 1920 she had a baby they named Christopher Robin Milne.

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

In 1924 Milne published a volume of verses he’d made up for his son, When We Were Very Young, which included a poem about his son’s bear, humorously nick-named Winnie the Pooh. This was followed by a book of stories –Winnie-the-Pooh – in 1926, then The House at Pooh Corner (1928) with a second volume of poems, Now We Are Six, in between (1927).

An exhibition for children

Five minutes after it opened the exhibition was packed, and I mean packed, with mums and prams and scores and scores of 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, toddling from one treat to the next. The exhibition has been designed to be as toddler-friendly as possible, in numerous ways:

– There are as many blow-up images of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and the rest as it’s possible to ooh and aah at. I particularly liked the model of Pooh holding on to his blue balloon and sailing up towards the ceiling.

– There is lots going on down at floor level, starting with the large-scale words naming each section, festooned with jolly cutouts of all the Pooh characters.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– Other treats include a cubby hole inside a big blow-up of the letter O of ‘Owl’ for the very small to crawl into, and a mock-up of the tent Pooh makes in the woods, to hide in. There’s a slide to slide down and little tables and chairs with scraps of paper and coloured pencils to draw on. I used to take my small children to one o’clock clubs to play and draw. I remember it all so well.

– There’s even a mock-up of pooh sticks bridge which, alas, only has a digital stream running underneath it so no actual dropping of sticks is possible. (Given that there’s a fountain and pool in the main courtyard of the V&A I wonder if it crossed the designers’ minds to make this flow from one end to the other, erect a bridge and give kids real sticks.)

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– There’s a model of the door into the tree where Pooh lived to run in and out of, along with a bell with a rope hanging from the knocker, so that the sound of a bell being manically rung by a succession of three-year-olds accompanies you around the exhibition.

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room where you can lie on the floor and watch the words being projected on the ceiling.

– And throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

  • ‘Piglet is struggling against the snow and the wind. How would you feel if you were Piglet?’
  • ‘What do you think a heffalump looks like?’

Suggestion

My experience of looking after small children in party places is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and exhaust themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience.

At the recent exhibition on Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, they filled the ante-room half way through the show with lots of cushions and lots and lots of books, large and small, picture books, cartoon books, story books, and while I was there these were permanently full with kids reading for themselves, or mums or grandparents reading to toddlers. For all its digital wizardry, what this exhibition missed was some quiet spaces like that.

Still, top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show child-friendly and exciting.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

Milne himself was the first to acknowledge that it was Shepard’s illustrations which brought Pooh and his animal friends to life. From the start of the exhibition Shepard’s original pencil illustrations for the books are sprinkled in among the displays of Pooh memorabilia, first edition books, props and toys – but as the exhibition proceeds there are steadily more of them and, particularly in the final three, rather narrow corridors, the show turns into a fairly scholarly and fascinating analysis of Shepard’s drawing technique.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, showing a mock-up of Christopher Robin’s bedroom (with a toy bed which you’re encouraged to lie on and read). Note the half a dozen prints of Shepard’s original artwork on the wall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These last few corridors group Shepard’s marvellously evocative drawings into sets of two or three and uses each group to demonstrate a particular aspect of his craft. This is actually quite rare at art exhibitions. Usually you get a lot of biographical information, general history, some explanation of the subject matter and so on – but you rarely very much about how the works are actually made.

The curators have done a tremendous job of explaining how Shepard gets his effects. For example, in this drawing of Pooh and Piglet walking through the snow, they explain how Shepard first drew the figures, then used gouache to ‘stop out’ i.e blot over, some of the lines, thus creating a realistic sense of the snow falling in your line of vision between you and the characters.

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

Next to it is the picture of Hundred Acre Wood in the downpour which causes the flood. The commentary explains how Shepard methodically drew the main subject – the imposing beech tree and the rising water level – and then used a knife to incise the surface of the paper in diagonal lines to create an almost physical sense of rain falling.

There are about twenty little sectionettes like this, packed with insights. They bring you right into the pictures and give you a tremendous appreciation of Shepard’s skill and technique. Subjects include:

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail, to give a sense of movement and dynamism.
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves, which is much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book.
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always show foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom.
  • Expression – Related to the above, the curators point out the simple fact that none of the animals has an expression, their fixed expressions never change. The powerful sense you have of the characters’ changing moods is created almost entirely by their stances and attitudes.
  • Slapstick – shows how Shepard drew sets of pictures giving a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly something he learned from the movies. The example given is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it.
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them, and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about.
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being the scene when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the balloon, the way the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action.

Shepard’s trees

I found myself falling in love with Shepard’s depictions of trees.

At one stage there’s a set of drawings Shepard did when Milne took him to Ashdown Forest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood –  and, devoid of animals or characters, they are simply very good drawings of a wood, a copse, a clump of trees, or individual beech trees.

The more illustrations you look at, the more you realise it’s the completely naturalistic rendering of the trees and bushes which gives so many of the pictures their sense of space, depth and verisimilitude, against which the little animals live out their adventures.

Surely the tree is the real star of this illustration. From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surely the tree is the real star of this colour illustration, bringing everything else to life? From Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees was drawn in tremendously realistic detail, Shepard using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right. Whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, using a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume. Note how Pooh is in a characteristically phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back, Piglet is (as so often) looking up in admiration of some larger animal) while ahead of them Tigger is in characteristically exuberant mood, caught off the ground in mid-bounce (note the little shadow beneath his body).

In other words, this detailed commentary to Shepard’s illustrations gives a fantastic insight into how he used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As I mentioned earlier, there are some 95 drawings and illustrations by Shepard in the show, and the wall labels explaining in detail how he created his visual effects, how he and Milne integrated the pictures large and small into the text, creating dramatic and ironic effects by their interplay – provide one of the most genuinely illuminating and insightful commentaries on an artist’s work I think I’ve ever read.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

All Too Human @ Tate Britain

Britain is a collection of chilly rainswept islands in the North Atlantic, on the same latitude as Moscow (as we may learn to our cost in the decades to come, if global warming really does disrupt the Gulf Stream). For more than half the year the sky is overcast and grey. Whereas the inhabitants of southern countries like Spain or Italy have a tradition of living outside for much of the year, and dressing their finest every night for the evening stroll or passeggiata, ours is a country of fusty pubs for the working class and dinner parties for the posh. Ours is an indoors country.

This basic fact about life in Britain come across very strongly in Tate Britain’s new exhibition, All Too Human: Bacon, Freud And A Century Of Painting Life. It is a show of some 93 paintings, one sculpture and half a dozen black-and-white photographs by some of the most celebrated British artists of the past 100 years who have painted depictions of the human body. In roughly chronological order the artists are:

  • Walter Sickert b.1860
  • David Bomberg b.1890
  • Stanley Spencer b.1891
  • Chaim Soutine b.1893
  • Giacometti b.1901
  • William Coldstream b.1908
  • Francis Bacon b.1909
  • John Deakin b.1912
  • Lucian Freud b.1922
  • Francis Souza b.1924
  • Leon Kossoff b.1926
  • Dorothy Mead b.1928
  • Michael Andrew b.1928
  • Frank Auerbach b.1931
  • Dennis Creffield b.1931
  • Euan Uglow b.1932
  • R.B. Kitaj b.1932
  • Paula Rego b.1935
  • Celia Paul b.1959
  • Cecily Brown b.1969
  • Jenny Saville b.1970
  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye b.1970

Mud or Mad

A reviewer of Tennyson’s long poem, Maud (1855) sardonically commented that it would have been more accurately named if either of the vowels had been removed. As I walked round this grim, dark and oppressive exhibition, I began to think most of the works on display could similarly be divided into ‘Mud’ or ‘Mad’, with maybe the additional category of ‘Livid Corpse’.

1. Mud

The School of Mud was inaugurated by Walter Sickert, leader of the so-called Camden Town Group. While John Singer Sargent was painting evocative portraits of fine society ladies or women with parasols lounging in the Mediterranean sunshine, Sickert painted prostitutes in dingy attics or leering crowds in half-lit music halls. The three works by him here are deliberately squalid, dark and dingy, so dark you have to peer up close to see any detail.

Nuit d'Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Nuit d’Été by Walter Richard Sickert (c.1906) Private Collection, Ivor Braka Ltd

Rooms five and six of the exhibition explore the work of David Bomberg as artist and teacher at Borough Polytechnic, where his emphasis on the tactile quality of paint influenced his students Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.

Bomberg is represented by Vigilante, which I quite liked because of its powerful vertical lines, which reminded me of the Vorticist work of Wyndham Lewis or Jacob Epstein. But it was his use of thick impasto which influenced his students and went on to become the distinguishing characteristic of the paintings of Kossoff and Auerbach.

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of Jake by Frank Auerbach (1997) © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

These murky, smeary, thick abortions of the darkest browns and blacks possible made me think of an explosion in a sewage farm. Some of them made me feel physically sick. The joke is that many of them are meant to be outdoors scenes. Is this how you see or experience London?

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Or this?

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach (1965)

The commentary claims that:

Both Auerbach and Kossoff display great sensitivity to the conditions of light, convey the dynamism of city life and reflect the mood of a specific moment

which I thought might be a joke. Let’s look again at Kossoff’s sensitive depiction of light.

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Early Morning Willesden Junction by Leon Kossoff

Not quite so muddy, but still revelling in gloom, bleakness of mood, greys and blacks splattered with neurotic blotches of colour, is the handful of works later in the show by Celia Paul.

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Painter and Model by Celia Paul (2012) © Celia Paul, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London / Venice

Cheerful stuff, eh?

The smear-and-daub tradition (Sickert-Bomberg-Auerbach) which this exhibition reveals to be a major thread in modern British art is represented in our day bt the bang up-to-date works of Cecily Brown.

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

Boy with a Cat by Cecily Brown (2015) © Cecily Brown. Photo by Richard Ivey

2. Mad

Only room one deals with the depiction of the human figure between 1918 and 1945. That’s not much space for nearly thirty years, is it? Murky Sickert, distorted Soutine and blue-veined Stanley Spencer are the only artists included (We’ll come back to Spencer under the category of ‘livid corpses’) thus omitting quite a lot of other artists active during this period.

Then it’s quickly on to Francis Bacon, who dominates rooms two and seven with his screaming popes, tortured dogs and baboons, men turning into hunks of meat. All depicted against precise geometric backgrounds as if caught in cages or on stage as specimens. Angst. Existential despair etc.

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

Portrait by Francis Bacon (1962) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London

In the hall outside the exhibition there’s a loop of videos playing which show interviews with some of the featured artists, alongside display cases and wall displays showing photographs of the artists’ studios. Bacon’s was a notoriously filthy, dirty, messy cave with only a skylight allowing the grey light of Soho to penetrate down into the torture chamber. It tends to confirm your prejudices to learn that Lucian Freud’s studio, also in Soho, was nearly as dirty and scrappy.

The room after the early Bacon is devoted to Francis Souza whose strikingly large paintings are done in an edgy, angular, primitive style. The room is dominated by an enormous Crucifixion and a full figure painting of a naked black woman. Reproductions can’t convey how enormous, dark and menacing they are.

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza (1959)

Again – dark dark dark, intense or even demented. I actually liked them, they have a terrific style, but God the mood they convey is wretched.

Room ten of the exhibition is devoted to paintings by Paul Rego. To quote the curators (there are three curators, all women):

Women’s lives and stories have often been overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity. Rego places them at the centre of her work. Women are portrayed as undertaking a variety of activities, in a broad range of moods and temperaments, as victims, culprits, carers, passive observers and sexually-charged creatures. As viewers we are drawn into and become complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power.

Here’s an example: can you feel yourself being drawn into it and becoming complicit in an unruly world shaped by patriarchal power?

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

The Family by Paula Rego (1988) Marlborough International Fine Art © Paula Rego

Obviously, the more you look at it, the more disturbing it becomes. Maybe that’s what the commentary meant. For me the disturbing element is the way the schoolgirl fiddling with the man’s trousers in a way which in recent times we’ve been taught to think of as pedophilia, as being a sex crime. Yet she has the head of an adult woman. So…

Livid corpses

There aren’t any actual corpses on display, that’s just a short hand way of describing a style of painting human skin and bodies which emphasises the whiteness of English complexions, the lack of exposure to sunlight which leaves so many English bodies pale, pallid and covered in blue veins.

The exhibition decisively shows the strong tradition in English art of arranging and depicting the naked human body in the most unflattering way possible, as if it was a corpse just been pulled out of the Thames. It is as unsensual and unsexy as it is possible to be.

One recurrent cliché or trope of this styleis to depict a woman mostly wearing clothes but revealing one slack, white, veined breast in the most unappealing way possible. We see Stanley Spencer establishing this tradition in room one.

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece by Stanley Spencer (1935)

(There’s a lot more to Spencer than his full frontal nudes, as any visitor to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham or even to the 1910 room in Tate Britain will discover – but for some reason it’s always the saggy-boobed and flaccid-penised nudes which feature in exhibitions like this, never the scores of paintings he did of the cheerfully clothed men and women of his native Cookham.)

Anyway, saggy blue-veined boobs was a motif picked up by young Lucian Freud fifteen years later.

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Girl with a White Dog by Lucian Freud (1950-1) © Tate

Freud makes his first appearance as a pupil of art school teacher William Coldstream in room four, and then has the largest room in the show – room seven ‘Lucian Freud: In the Studio’ – devoted to him, with 13 big paintings.

It is interesting to learn that Freud’s mature style was the result of his switching from the small brushes which produced the smooth finish of paintings like the one above, to using bigger, coarser brushes which produced a more modern, slightly blotchy style. And that he moved away from the sitter – instead of being close and smooth, his portraits become more distant, more mottled.

Those changes by themselves, however, don’t account for the drastic change from the smooth, light palette of the painting above to his fascination with all the hues of brown, orange, grey and white which result in the characteristic blotched skin of his mature work.

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

David and Eli by Lucian Freud

The Freud room is full of paintings which revel in the ungainliness and the sheer ugliness of raw, naked, gawky, livid English bodies. Feet with their corns, legs with varicose veins, the tanned face and chest contrasting with the rest of the pallid body, the livid puce of this man’s flaccid cock and balls. In all of Freud’s ugly nudes I get the feeling the painter is daring you to come out and say how disgusted you are. Just how ugly can he make his people, before the viewer cries ‘Enough!’

Recognisably in the same tradition of ‘English ugly’ are the paintings of Jenny Saville although, unlike Freud, for reasons I can’t quite define, I’ve always loved Saville’s work.

Saville broke through in the fabulous Sensation exhibition of 1997, with paintings of grotesquely fat people who seemed to be pushing right up against the surface of the canvas, squeezed and compressed right into your face. All her works are awesomely big.

For some reason, although Freud’s blotchy nudes with their hairy penises and ragged vulvas make me feel like I’m in a butcher’s shop, I find Saville’s work visually thrilling and exciting. But it’s still from the very English ‘school of ugly’.

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Reverse by Jenny Saville (2002-3) © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

A little light

Is there any light in this gallery of murk, madness and tormented flesh? Yes, some.

I’d never heard of Michael Andrews. In line with the general vibe two of his paintings here are of gloomy roughly-sketched interiors in Soho, namely the notorious Colony Club where Bacon et al. hung out, drank and bitched. But there is also this surprisingly touching outdoors scene.

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

Melanie and Me Swimming by Michael Andrews (1978-9) Tate © The estate of Michael Andrews

It was admiring the grace and tenderness in this painting which brought home to me how much the qualities of gentleness or grace are missing from almost all of these paintings – certainly from all the screaming Bacons, blotchy Freuds, oily Kossoffs, murky Auerbachs and mad Regos.

And for that matter, scenes simply set outdoors are few and far between in this show: there are none in the Bacon room, none in the Freud room. Even when there are supposedly outdoor scenes, as in the Auerbach and Kossoff rooms, you wouldn’t really know it, so buried are the motifs in layers of industrial thickness sludge.

No – happy, light, outdoor scenes are conspicuous by their complete absence, as is the depiction of the human body as a thing of beauty. Think of Aubrey Hepburn. Think of a ballerina. Think of Lionel Messi nutmegging a defender. Think of a hundred images of people in outdoors settings, laughing at cafes, walking through woods, gardening, sunbathing.

All of that, almost all of actual human life, is consciously excluded from this parade of horrors and corpses.

It’s odd that anyone takes ‘Art’ as being in any way representative of the actual life of its era when it is quite obviously the opposite – the product of a cloistered, hermetically-sealed world which almost makes a virtue of not capturing or depicting the actual lives of the people around it.

The only room which provided a relief from torture and turpitude was room four, devoted to the teachings of William Coldstream at the Slade School of Fine Art. Coldstream developed a process for marking out the canvas with precise grids to help construct a realistic image, deliberately leaving bits of grid visible to hint at the geometric framework beneath the ‘reality’.

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

Seated nude by William Coldstream (1973)

I liked the precision of his draughtsmanship and the way you can see original lines of the sketch showing through the oil colours. That sense of outlines and shape. Three or four of Coldstream’s relatively light and airy works are included, alongside some by his pupil Euan Uglow.

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Georgia by Euan Uglow (1973) © The Estate of Euan Uglow

In the flesh, up close, you can see traces of the lines of the grid which Uglow created across the canvas and many of the little crosses formed by the crossing of lines remain visible through the paint. I like that sense of the mechanical or mathematical emerging from the picture – or the sense of the work being unfinished, a work in progress.

As to the actual image, it’s another unsmiling person. In an exhibition devoted to the depiction of human beings over the past 100 years of English art not one person is smiling, let alone laughing (apart from the mad mother in the Paul Rego painting).

All confirming that ‘Art’ is a bloody serious, sombre, tragic business, you know.

Contemporary artists

The eleventh and final room is devoted to works by four younger or contemporary artists, all four of them women – including Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown and Celia Paul (all mentioned and illustrated above).

The Saville I loved, the Brown and Paul a lot less so. And, alas, as so often with contemporary artists, their work turns out – according to the (female) curators – to be all about sexuality and identity.

In their representations of figures they explore what it is to be human from a contemporary perspective. Throughout their work, they investigate and stretch stereotypical views on femininity, masculinity, race and many other categories that define and constrain identity.

Last word for Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1970 and so, along with Saville, the youngest artist in the show. According to the wall label she knocks out her paintings in a day of rapid and intense work. I liked both her pieces on display here, because I like disegno, the ability to conceive and carry out accurate line drawings. Both her works here display extremely skilled draughtsmanship, a handy way with oil paints, and the ability to create mood and expression.

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Coterie Of Questions by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (2015) © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Still, though – very dark aren’t they? Britain is for much of the year a dark and gloomy place which, at least according to this exhibition, has inspired a lot of dark and gloomy art – and the sombre palette of Yiadom-Boakye’s work fits right into that tradition.


The promotional video

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Lucinda Rogers: Drawings from Ridley Road Market @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is located just north of King’s Cross station, London, and contains three exhibition spaces.

The Main Gallery (four rooms) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition of posters and everyday products from North Korea, highlighting the distinctive graphic design and colour palette of that most isolated of countries.

Leading off a side-corridor is a small L-shaped room which is the Quentin Blake Gallery, periodically hosting small shows of selected works by Blake, who was a leading force behind the foundation of the House of Illustration.

And the South Gallery (one room as big as a church hall) is currently displaying a selection of the graphic journalism of Lucinda Rogers.

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Fruit mountain at the entrance to Ridley Road by Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers

The HoI is the only UK gallery which commissions illustrations for public display. For this, its fourth commission, it approached the young graphic illustrator, Lucinda Rogers.

Rogers is interested in realistic depictions of urban environments. As this exhibition more than proves, she has a staggering ability to capture the complex architecture and bustling street life of inner city environments. Rogers’ technique is to immerse herself in the setting of her chosen subject and record straight from eye to paper, without preliminary sketches or the photographs which some other illustrators use. She lives in London but has drawn in other urban settings from New York to Marrakech.

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

Lucinda Rogers at work in Ridley Road Market. Photo by Patricia Niven

This exhibition combines Rogers’s ability as a highly gifted graphic artist with her campaigning concern for issues around gentrification and urban development.

On Gentrification: Drawings from Ridley Road Market

The show consists of 35 large-scale drawings which capture the bustling street life of Ridley Road Market in Dalston. Rogers spent over four months on location at the market, which has been held since the 1880s and is one of London’s oldest East End institutions.

Her drawings display a breath-taking way with line, a really gifted ability to capture volume and depth – but not of simple and easy subjects like a couple of aristocrats or the still lifes of the Old Masters – but the extraordinary visual complexity of the hyper-cluttered modern scene.

Just being able to draw a transit van from scratch would impress me, but then to sketch in all the street clutter surrounding it, the stacked crates on their trolley, the detail of the retractable awning, as well as the old geezer at the cafe table with his patterned tie, the pens in his pocket and his watch – is quite stunning.

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

View from Almond Lane coffee house by Lucinda Rogers

Each of the drawings is accompanied by sometimes quite lengthy captions explaining the history and context of the subjects, of the different shops and stalls which throng the market.

The ‘issue’ behind the exhibition is the way this teeming street life is threatened by the erection of a luxury apartment block next to the market. This is bound to attract richer buyers, who will then fuel a need for ‘smart’ coffee shops, organic grocers, chi-chi bakers and bijou fashion stores. Then the influx of identikit estate agents.

Rogers’ view is that markets like Ridley Road often provide the only way for small businesses to start up, and they serve as a wonderfully colourful reflection of the diverse communities they serve. Both are lost when a neighbourhood becomes ‘gentrified’.

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Outside Ka-sh fabric shop by Lucinda Rogers

Admittedly an abstract concept like ‘gentrification’ is a little hard to capture solely with pictures. Just drawing the foundations of the luxury apartment block doesn’t really convey the complexity of the issues involved – hence the need for the sometimes lengthy captions. These you can read or not, depending on your interest in the issue.

Where Rogers’s drawings unambiguously score is in their astonishingly detailed and precise, yet loose and evocative impressions, of all aspects of the street market.

I particularly like the restrained, impressionistic use of colour. Only a minority of the images in any picture are coloured in: generally (as in the example above), she combines casual dabs and washes which overlap the borders of the object, with the very precise capturing of patterns and designs on just some of the elements.

I found her selectivity about what to colour and what to leave uncoloured absolutely perfect, displaying a wonderfully sure touch, knowing just how much colour to add to bring the image to life, and how much to leave out in order to leave it rough, sketchy and evocative of movement and street life.

In the picture above, I love the way the guy at the right is semi-transparent, like the fleeting impression of an over-exposed photo. And the way his trousers bunch around his snazzy, pointed shoes. All of the drawings here demonstrate a quite breath-taking talent and, in addition, a wonderful sureness and taste of colouring and restraint.

It is mostly left to the picture captions to explain the issues surrounding the threat to the market. These make a good case, which her drawings powerfully underpin. But it is also possible to not read any of the captions and still come away astonished at Rogers’ fleetness of hand and pen.

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

Bedding stall and Alex the plant man by Lucinda Rogers

The House of Illustration

All three shows – North Korean produce, Quentin Blake’s Valentine drawings, and Lucinda Rogers Ridley Street drawings – are included in the one admission price of £7.50. Crack along!


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Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 @ the Heath Robinson Museum

Although the Heath Robinson Museum is a relatively small gallery, this is a major exhibition. It is the first time a substantial collection of work by the Neo-Romantic book illustrators of the 1940s has been gathered together in one place. With nearly 50 prints, drawings, paintings and lithographs, and over 20 original book jackets from the period, this is a unique opportunity to sample a special and distinctive moment in English publishing and art history.

Neo-Romanticism in England

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

In British art history, the term ‘neo-romanticism’ is applied to a loosely affiliated school of landscape painting that emerged around 1930 and continued until the early 1950s. It was first labeled in March 1942 by the critic Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman. These painters looked back to 19th-century artists such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, but were also influenced by French cubist and post-cubist artists. The movement was part a response to the threat of invasion during World War II. Artists associated with the initiation of the movement include Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and especially Graham Sutherland. A younger generation followed in the same vein, including John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

This new visual style was most obvious to the general public in the form of book and magazine illustrations, particularly during the Second World War. The spirit of romanticism – a focus on nature, emotion and individual expression – was in part a reaction against the gloom of the blackout and rationing (and, possibly, against the very urban and politicised art of the 1930s).

Neo-Romantic artists looked back to the tradition of English landscape painting, drawing inspiration partly from the mystical Kent countryside portrayed by Samuel Palmer, and from the heavily stylised illustrations of William Blake.

But it’s not that simple – they also subtly acknowledged the visual possibilities opened up by more recent European art movements such as cubism and surrealism.

Book illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Book illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Government sponsorship

The war itself played a key role. It cut English artists off from all contact with European art for six long years. And it forced many artists and writers to reconsider what it meant to be English, across all the arts (for example, George Orwell’s long essay on the English character, The Lion and the Unicorn, published in 1941).

This impulse received official support when, in 1940, the British government commissioned artists including John Craxton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, John Minton, Paul Nash and Ceri Richards, to document lives in towns and villages across the country for a project called ‘Recording Britain.’ It was intended to boost national morale during the Second World War by celebrating the nation’s landscape and architecture.

In other words, a large number of artists in the 1940s became aware, through friendships, their own experiences and official commissions, that they shared certain values and artistic approaches to romantic ideas of English landscape, English culture, English art and English writing.

Neo-Romantic book illustration

Book and magazine publishers weren’t slow to pick up on the new look, seeing an opportunity to commission illustrations from this new wave of exciting illustrators in order to make both classics and new books appear up-to-date. The result is a very distinctive style of book illustration which is immediately recognisable, and powerfully evocative of the period (say 1940 to 1955), but hard to put into words.

The style is definitely figurative, not abstract – but the figures, the landscapes and buildings, have been through the wringer of Modernism and have emerged leaner, tauter, more stylised and simplified.

Depth and perspective don’t have to be depicted with punctilious precision, as in Victorian or Edwardian illustration. Hatching and shading, colour and tinting don’t have to be perfect, but can hint and gesture towards the subject.

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster's novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

Cover design for Vicky Lancaster’s novel Short Lease, by Eric Fraser (1950)

There’s an article about Neo-Romanticism on the Tate website which uses the word ‘sombre’ and I think this opens up one way of thinking about the style. It is often mysterious, sometimes a bit threatening, often psychologically intense. There is a lot of black in many of the illustrations, often a hint of menace, of threat.

Possibly this derived from the six-year-long threat of Nazi invasion, but it was there in the 1930s work of Graham Sutherland, one of the godfathers of the new look – a darkness, a blotty inkiness,and it spills over as a vague and disturbing presence in many of the illustrations here.

Of course, this ability to convey menace and mystery was perfectly suited to many modern books, of both poetry and fiction, or travelogue – somehow conveying the troubled mood of mid-century life. And not only adult books – the ability to conjure a sense of danger is intrinsic to many children’s books, particularly adventure and mystery books.

The exhibition

The exhibition contains work by about twenty artists, to wit:

  • Keith Vaughan (12 b&w prints)
  • John Minton (8 colour, 4 b&w illustrations for Time Was Away, 3 other prints and book covers)
  • Michael Ayrton (3 illustrations to John Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller)
  • Eric Fraser (4 big colour illustrations)
  • John Piper (one dramatic ink and watercolour of an Oxfordshire tomb)
  • Edward Bawden (5 original artworks for book covers)
  • Barnett Freedman (4 colour lithographs)
  • Robin Jacques (three fine pen and ink illustrations, two for Don Quixote, in a very different style from most of the other artists)

These are the big names. They each get a substantial wall label detailing their biography, artistic career, describing their style and the books which they illustrated or provided cover art for, and so on.

Also featured, but with less commentary, are:

  • Julian Trevelyan (two Gothic illustrations for a work by poet Kathleen Raine)
  • John Elwyn (2 small drawings)
  • John Bantin (1 book cover)
  • Bryion Winter (1 drawing)
  • Rigby Graham (three or four illustrations)
  • Leonard Rosman (two small pen and ink drawings for the Radio Times)
  • Henry Moore (four studies for illustrations to a book by Edward Sackville-West titled The Rescue, as well as a copy of the book open so we can see some of Moore’s characteristically lacerated mannequins in situ)

Several additional illustrators feature in the three display cases, which present vintage books in order to show the Neo-Romantic style of their cover art. Among them is an early edition of Mani, the travel book by Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose jacket was done by his good friend John Craxton. (Leigh Fermor and Craxton are the subject of a fascinating exhibition currently running at the British Museum.)

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

Display case of Neo-Romantic book covers

John Minton (1917 – 57)

Minton emerges as the strongest presence and the exhibition features more examples of his work than anyone else. An entire wall is devoted to the colour illustrations he did for a travel book, Time Was Away, the result of a tour he made with the writer Alan Ross around Corsica in 1947.

Minton combines a kind of rough but keen descriptive line, which is then touched and dabbed by colour washes which:

a) are in a very distinctive and limited palette (mustard yellow, dull dark green, sky blue, orange-brown)
b) only partially colour the picture

The way his colour washes deliberately don’t fill the lines creates a sense of spontaneity and openness. ‘Scrappy’ isn’t the right word, but a sense of roughness. This deliberate lack of finish contrasts oddly with the actual lines of the drawing which are quite… stiff.

Both features are clear in the picture below. The drawing is highly figurative yet stylised, not quite ‘real’. The colour is a) deliberately unnaturalistic and b) only applied in patches or washes. And look at the pose of the boy – it isn’t fluent and graceful, it is somehow stiff and hieratic, almost clunky.

Illustration for 'Time Was Away' by John Minton (1947)

Illustration for Time Was Away by John Minton (1947)

Oh, and Minton likes to draw people with Roman noses, I noticed a number of classic silhouettes in his pictures. The result of all these effects is an odd sort of classicism, hard to describe but instantly recognisable.

Minton was prolific, which may explain why he is the most represented artist in the show, which itself reinforces the sense of his art being one of the most memorable. There’s a copy of the edition of Treasure Island which he illustrated, open to the dramatic, full-colour, double-page illustration on the end papers.

And it was Minton who did the jacket covers for Elizabeth David’s epoch-making cookery books, which brought recipes from the Mediterranean into middle-class households across Britain. These are always cited in social histories as defining cultural products of the age, reminding grimly snowed-in Brits of the delights of sunshine and fresh fruit in far-off, exotic locations, such as Greece. A whole generation learned to cook – or at least fantasise about cooking – Mediterranean food form David – and visualised these luxury landscapes via Minton’s depictions.

Jacket illustration for Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Dust jacket illustration for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food by John Minton (1950)

Keith Vaughan (1912-77)

Next to the Minton is a set of black-and-white illustrations by Keith Vaughan for the children’s novel The Spirit of Jem by P.H. Newby. According to the fascinating wall label, Newby wrote 17 books, as well as being a full-time senior manager at the BBC, eventually rising to become Managing Director of BBC Radio. (He was also the recipient of the first ever Booker Prize, in 1969.)

'I wedged myself into a fork and waited' from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

‘I wedged myself into a fork and waited’ from The Spirit of Jem, illustration by Keith Vaughan (1947)

The intense design of Vaughan’s drawings, like the one above – the wildness of the trees and the semi-abstract treatment of the leaves – remind me of Graham Sutherland’s intense landscapes, and reach back past him to Samuel Palmer.

You don’t necessarily need to know that Vaughan was gay and lived for some time with Minton, but it does shed light on the closeness of the artistic as well as personal relationships of the period.

Michael Ayrton (1921-75)

Speaking of close friendships, Michael Ayrton shared a studio in Paris with Minton in Paris just before the war. Ayrton went on to illustrate over 35 books as well and worked for leading magazines of the day such as the Listener, the Radio Times and Penguin New Writing.

He’s represented here by some of the illustrations he made for Thomas Nashe’s Elizabethan picaresque adventure, The Unfortunate Traveller and by some book covers, including the cover art he did for a book called The Problems of Lieutenant Knap by the Czech writer Jiri Mucha, which really caught my eye.

In this drawing the moon appearing in a kind of flame of cloud reminds me of Paul Nash or Sutherland and harks back to Samuel Palmer’s rural visions, but whatever visionary element there is in that symbolism is obviously and brutally contrasted with the random piece of military equipment leaning against the doorway and the casual bored posture of the smoking soldier.

Cover art for 'The problems of Lieutenant Knap' by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Cover art for The problems of Lieutenant Knap by Michael Ayrton (1945)

Barnett Freedman (1901-58)

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Freedman developed a really distinctive variation on the Neo-Romantic look, a compositional style which features curled scrolls or decorative borders around his often cartoonish and childlike illustrations. Take an example of both in this fabulous poster promoting cheese which he made for the Milk Marketing Board. Look at the houses, the church spire. Childish innocence.

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

Real Farmhouse Cheese poster by Barnett Freedman

The scroll and especially the font whose letters contain shading and decoration put me in mind of the posters and promotional material for the Ealing Comedies of this period, and the wall label points out that Freedman did, indeed, help to create the Ealing Studios look and logo.

Freedman also created a host of eye-catching book covers during the period, the most distinctive example being the cover for a complete edition of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

Cover of the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

Cover of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear designed by Barnett Freedman

One Freedman piece which stood out for me was a wonderful colour illustration, apparently for a Christmas card. For its precision, its gentleness, its warm vision of the English scene, and for its use of the gentle, understated palette which so many of these pictures used (was it a limitation of the printing technology of the day?) I found myself returning to this particular picture again and again.

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Christmas card by Barnett Newman

Edward Bawden (1903-89)

I’ll be writing at length about Edward Bawden when the retrospective exhibition devoted to him opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May.

What the five book covers by him here bring out is something of the childishness of some of these covers. None of these illustrators were amateurs – the opposite, many of them made very successful careers as commercial artists. But many of the illustrations and covers deliberately accentuate a kind of hand-drawn, childish or naive style. This is one of the things that give them such a strong sense of nostalgic warmth and comfort – they are sub-consciously infantilising – you want to say ‘aaaah’ at so many of them. Atmosphere of the nursery. And the artlessness of the imagery deliberately connects them with an older tradition of English arts and crafts, foregrounding the hand-made and the hand-drawn.

Take this cover by Bawden for Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind In Jamaica. Everything about it is deliberately hand made and naive – the very hand-drawn figures of the centaurs, the simplicity of the horizontal mustard-coloured bands representing the fields, but above all the highly decorative border round the main illustration, with its deliberately artless use of details i.e. sheafs of wheat or clumps of grapes woven into the composition.

Edward Bawden's cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Edward Bawden’s cover art for A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

What came next

In the second half of the 1950s, a new look came in. Book covers and magazines began to reflect the influx of new consumer goods into Britain, and the rise of consumer culture. Harsher covers using the language of Abstract Expressionism became popular and, by the end of the 1950s, imagery inspired by the shiny high gloss look of American advertising and movies.

The world became modern, shiny and urban – the exact opposite of Neo-Romantic imagery showing an underpopulated countryside or Mediterranean harbours or childish, hand-drawn figures – a shininess which went on to be celebrated and/or mocked in the plastic brightness of Pop Art.

The Neo-Romantic look was old hat by 1955 and quickly disappeared, surviving as dog-eared copies of beautiful old editions in the kind of provincial library where I first came across them as a boy.

Conclusion

This exhibition chronicles a relatively brief period of highly distinctive book covers and illustrations which, looking back, now seems classic, warm and overdue for a revival.

It has clearly been a labour of love on the part of exhibition curator, Geoffrey Beare, to track down and retrieve many of the prints and paintings, drawings and lithographs from public and private collections around the country, and bring them all together for our enjoyment. And it’s been a very worthwhile effort.

This is a lovely exhibition, which inspires you to explore further, to find out more about Minton, Craxton, Vaughan, Freedman – about this whole generation of wonderful and under-appreciated illustrators.

The promotional video


Related links

NOTE ONE: there is currently an excellent exhibition about Craxton and Leigh Fermor which features many examples of Craxton’s art and illustrations from this period, at the British Museum.

NOTE TWO: A major retrospective of Edward Bawden opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in May this year.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor @ the British Museum

The British Museum is a vast maze and labyrinth full of treasures – that is part of its charm. Part of the embarras de richesses is that, as well as the two big exhibition spaces (at the back of the courtyard and on the first floor of the Rotunda) where you generally have to pay quite a lot to see the blockbuster exhibitions – there are a number of other rooms and spaces devoted to ad hoc displays and exhibitions, most of which are free.

Thus if you turn left immediately on entering and walk through the long narrow cloakroom, packed with schoolkids, towards room 6 (The Assyrians), you’ll come across the entrance to a free and lovely exhibition currently on in room 5, about the lives and work of three influential writer-artists, who lived and worked and loved in post-war Greece and, to some extent, created many British people’s austerity-era image of this beautiful sunlit country.

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor examines the friendship between Greek modernist painter Nikos Ghika, English painter John Craxton, and English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

All three made homes in Greece, writing, drawing, painting, and socialising. Hence the show brings together not only their published writings and plenty of their paintings, but memorabilia from all aspects of their lives, including letters and personal possessions, and lots of wonderfully evocative black and white photos.

Nikos Ghika

Which one first? How about Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994).

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Nikos Ghikas was a leading Greek painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and academic. He was a founding member of the Association of Greek Art Critics. He studied ancient and Byzantine art as well as folk art. During his youth he was exposed in Paris to the avant-garde European artistic trends and he gained recognition as the leading Greek cubist artist. His inspiration was in the harmony and purity of Greek art, and he aimed to deconstruct the Greek landscape and intense natural light into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Today in Greece he is celebrated as one of the most important modern Greek painters. His house has been converted to a museum and is run by the Benaki Museum.

The combination of French avant-garde influences with the sunlit environment of Greece resulted in the distinctive light and airy feel of his paintings immediately after the war.

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Nikos (as his friends, and we, shall call him) lived in a grand 18th century mansion built by his great-great-great-grandfather overlooking the town of Hydra, a hilly port town, which provided the subjects for hundreds of paintings and sketches. To this grand setting he invited numerous friends, including, among others, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton who he had met, separately, on visits to London.

Paddy was given a room of his own for an extended stay during which he wrote his successful travel book, Mani. And Nikos arranged a studio for Craxton, who gave him support and encouragement: Craxton acknowledges his enduring debted to the Greek. For fifteen years after the war this mansion was Nikos’s base and he made it a popular venue for artists, writers and performers in all the arts to meet and mingle.

Evocative black and white photos on display show some of the celebrity guests who came to stay, to enjoy the wonderful climate, the great view and the stimulating company, including ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, choreographer Frederick Ashton, critic Cyril Connolly, the poets Stephen Spender and Giorgos Seferis, the American novelist Henry Miller, and many more.

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

There are lots of examples of Nikos’s work. Broadly speaking, he is a figurative painter, in that his pictures always have a real-world object, but he gives everything a strongly geometric stylisation.

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

He himself said he was interested in ‘austere structures’, which he saw embodied in the higgledy-piggledy flow of white Greek houses down the hillside at Hydra, or in the stone walls zigzagging across the dry landscape. Where Craxton painted lots of people, Nikos tended to do landscapes; he is the more abstract of the two. His early works contain Picasso-like birds, and wibbly lines reminiscent of Miro. Later on his style gets thicker, as in 1973’s Mystras.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

There’s an excellent 8-minute long video in which the English and Greek curators of the exhibition (it’s a joint effort) explain the relationships between the three men and – since Craxton was gay – between the wives of Nikos and Paddy as well.

Aged just 18 Paddy impressed his friends by setting off to walk to Constantinople. In 1977 he published the account of his trek, A Time of Gifts, sometimes described as the best travel book in English.

Paddy was a dashing figure during the war, spending two years working underground on Crete, helping the Greeks resist the German occupation. The highlight was his capture (with a fellow Brit and partisan help) of a German general, who he smuggled off the island to a waiting British submarine. When his second in command, Stanley Moss, wrote up the story in his book Ill Met by Moonlight in 1950 it made Paddy famous, redoubled when the book was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring Dirk Bogarde as the dashing hero, and released in 1957.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika's house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Having had such a heroic and glamorous war, Paddy was initially at rather a loss when it ended. Eventually he took up a post with the British Institute in Athens, and combined this with extensive tours of Greece. His extensive tours round the Peloponnese resulted in his travel book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), which was followed by Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966). As mentioned, Paddy spent a lot of time at Nikos’s house, becoming close friends with the Greek painter and that’s where most of Mani was written.

Eventually, in the early 1960s Paddy and his wife Joan discovered a crumbling house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. He commissioned local builders to create a modern dwelling, and there are splendid black and white photos of him supervising and even dancing (!) with the builders, as well as happy snaps of himself writing, strolling round the garden with his wife, and of the dazzling view across pine trees to the rocky bay.

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

Both Nikos and Craxton visited him here, painting the house itself and its beautiful view. Craxton shared with Paddy’s wife a love of cats, and in among all the letters and notes and postcards they sent each other, are some lovely sketches and paintings which Craxton made of Joan’s cats.

John Craxton (1906–1994)

Craxton first visited Crete in 1947 and was bowled over by the light, the clarity and also by the simple earthiness of the people. In his early years in Greece, he stayed regularly at Hydra with Nikos, meeting and becoming close friends with Paddy and Joan.

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

The exhibition features a lot of paintings by both Craxton and Nikos and it’s natural to compare and contrast them, and also to notice how their styles changed over the long period of their friendship.

Craxton is the more naturalistic of the two. He painted lots of Greek people, cats and goats. Craxton learned peasant Greek and was attracted to young men, sailors, goatherds.

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Arguably his book illustration work from the 1950s is the most enjoyable, like the fabulous depiction of a fish market or of a carnival horse.

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers and Carnival horse by John Craxton

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers, and Carnival horse by John Craxton

He went through a phase of doing dark linear works in the 1960s, with a kind of harsh abstract horizon, epitomised by several paintings here, including Landscape Hydra 1963.

In 1960 Craxton discovered a crumbling house and studio on the Venetian harbour of Chania, Crete’s second biggest town. As with the other dwellings, the exhibition shows us photos of the house, the stunning view over the harbour, Craxton at work, and some of the paintings he made there.

The exhibition includes large-scale works from the 1980s which show how far his style changed and evolved in three decades. Compare two men in a taverna with works like Three sailors, Voskos or Reclining figure with asphodels (1983). They are much bigger, and often a bit more garish.

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

The book covers

The friendship between Craxton and Paddy was crystallised when the writer asked the artist to do the covers for all six of his travel books, starting with Mani. The exhibition includes not only the original art works, but first editions with dedications to Paddy’s wife, to Craxton, to Nikos, to this close circle of friends which made his writing possible. (It even includes Paddy’s typewriter!)

The covers aren’t available to include here, so I’m linking off to the books’ Amazon pages, where you can see the Craxton’s cover art work which they retain to this day.

It’s a smallish exhibition but with quite enough to enjoy and admire. I kept going back round it to look at another atmospheric photo, to look closer at one of Craxton’s wonderful goat paintings, or Nikos’s geometric fields; to reread the snippets from Paddy’s clear evocative prose which are quoted liberally on the walls, to watch the video again, with its snippets of interviews by the three artists.

What wonderful lives they led! And what a privilege to share even at one remove their happiness and creativity.


Related links

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