The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he’d met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well-known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar and they all get to chatting. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols. The other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is slow-paced, lazily describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are relieved to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands belonging to the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs).

Our team bump into a pleasant, big, strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

The suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day, but:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, and a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man gone to seed who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her, then touches her breasts. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

Later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days.

Which is why he is startled when an upstairs French window – which he knows is Louise’s  – opens, Louise comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath.

Louise goes back into her room and silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after.

Horrified Christessen lets Blake drop to the floor choking, and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and can see that it was obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements. So Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among his many contacts is an important politician, Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately, Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome young Blake. (Blake tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.)

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously.

Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that)?

Naively, Blake agrees and goes along to her house. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture.

Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands, feels a gun being placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father, but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of Blake Senior’s Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always seems to lead to death and disaster.

All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character).

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, they’d been drinking, Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning.

What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job of spiriting him away, the £200, off him at cribbage.

After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it. The kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height – from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders with his opium trances, and Frith with his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree.

But Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope, which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way that all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the peculiar and random moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again.

There’s no ‘why’ to any of this – just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Here is Saunders attending a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaya, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


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

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?


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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

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