Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume four

Consisting of a preface and 30 tales, this is the longest of the four volumes of Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories, made up of 461 densely-printed pages.

Preface Maugham says these stories were set early in the twenties, long before aviation became common. The British people who staffed remote outposts in Malaysia were very isolated and a long way from home. They served five years with hardly any contact with other white people, rarely saw newspapers, and dreamed of a Britain which slowly changed and left them behind.

Now, as he is writing the preface in the early 1950s, the experience of colonial administrators has changed out of all recognition. Radio, TV, jet airplanes, have all reduced the distance and abolished the sense of psychological isolation, which was so often his subject in the stores from the 20s and 30s.

In this preface Maugham is also at pains to emphasise how much he respected the people who did these thankless jobs so far from their homeland. I know from his biography that Maugham received a lot of criticism for enjoying the hospitality of Brits in faraway places and then betraying their confidences and telling stories about real people which, in these small colonial societies, could be very damaging to the individuals described.

In this preface he goes out of his way to emphasise that his often lurid stories are about rare and exceptional people or incidents, and that in reality almost all the Brits he met administering the empire were honest and good.

The short stories

The Book-Bag (1932 – Malaya – 1st person narrator) This is an eerie, powerful and disturbing story, up there with Rain as one of his best. In Penang Maugham stays with the British Resident who tells him a story about a chap they bumped into at the club earlier in the evening, Tim Hardy. His parents had been divorced and Tim and his sister Olive were brought up apart, she in Italy, he in Britain. Then the parents died and the adult siblings hooked up and came to stay in Malaysia, keeping themselves to themselves. Over a period of time Maugham’s host, Featherstone (the man telling us the story) falls in love with Olivia but she is playfully stand-offish. Then Tim, her brother, is called back to England. After a few months he telegraphs from there to say he’s met someone and fallen in love. Then another telegram to say he’s got married. Featherstone notices Olivia taking this nervously, but continues to woo her right up till the moment when Tim Hardy arrives back at Penang with his new blushing bride. Everyone welcomes them and Featherstone accompanies them all the way to the bungalow Tim had shared with his sister. He is outside when he hears a gunshot. Featherstone rushes in to find that the beautful Olivia has shot herself, blowing half her face off. In shock Featherstone staggers back to his house and sits stunned, as darkness falls. He is startled by a knock at the door. It is Tim Hardy’s new wife, in hysterics. She needs to leave, now, right away, she never wants to see Tim again, she is weeping, hysterical. Suddenly Featherstone realises the truth. Hardy and his sister were lovers. Olivia shot herself in rage and jealousy at Tim abandoning her for another woman. And this is the story Featherstone calmly tells the narrator, over gin at the club.

French Joe (1926 – Thursday Island, the Torres Straits – 1st person) The hermit they call French Joe fled to a remote South Sea island after the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871, having been a commune-ist. This is a brief but intense, three-page description of French Joe’s character and oddities.

German Harry (1924 – Trebucket, near Thursday Island, Torres Straits – 1st person) Another brief thumbnail sketch, this time of a grumpy old German who lives on a desert island, the conclusion being that isolation brings no enlightenment, but a return to savagery.

The Four Dutchmen (1928 – Singapore – 1st) The four fat, friendly Dutchmen who crew a lugger, are legendary throughout the South Seas for their bonhomie. Until the captain takes a native mistress and his insistence that she accompanies them on their voyages drives a wedge between him and the others. The captain finds the girl in bed with the chief engineer, shoots the latter dead, then goes up on the bridge and shoots himself.

The Back Of Beyond (1931 – Timbang Belud, Malaysia – 3rd person narrator) George Moon is the Resident in Timbang Belud, a fictitious town in the Federated Malay States (a British colony). He is on the verge of retiring. One morning he is surprised to get a visit from Tom Saffary, with whom he has argued in the past. Both have heard of the death of the popular member of their ex-pat community, ‘Knobby’ Clarke, on board ship back to Britain. Now Saffary tells Moon the story behind it. In a sequence of very believable scenes and dialogues, Saffary describes how he realised that his wife, Violet, was having an affair with Clarke. The guilty couple had got as far as deciding to run away together, when suddenly Clarke’s wife announced that she was pregnant. Unable to leave her, Knobby decides to do the decent thing and leave the scene of his affair, taking his wife back to Blighty for the birth. But overcome by misery at leaving his true love (Violet) he killed himself on the ship home. Which plunges Violet into such unhappiness that she reveals all to Saffary. Which explains why Saffary is now in Moon’s office, helplessly crying his eyes out. Moon gives him what succour he can and the crying man eventually leaves.

Then, adding a further level to the narrative, Moon reflects on his own marriage, and the wife he divorced years ago when he discovered that she was having an affair. Meeting her years later, he realized his mistake in giving up years of happiness, comfort and companionship for the momentary satisfaction of his pride disguised as honour.

So this tale is a complex interplay of timelines, and of two highly emotional stories, handled with immaculate skill.

P. & O. (1923 – P&O liner from the East back to England – 3rd) Another longish story, given depth and resonance by the complete verisimilitude with which Maugham creates his characters. Mrs Hamlyn is a middle-aged, pukka lady on the long sea journey from the East back to Britain. There is a lot of social observation of the other passengers and a distracting side story about whether or not the second class passengers should be allowed to attend the Christmas party being arranged by the first class passengers – but all this is really just to create more ‘reality’ as background to the principle story. The story consists in the fact that Mrs Hamlyn casually meets a big Irish man named Gallagher, they chat, they flirt. She is surprised to hear, a few days later, that he’s become confined to his bed with, of all things, hiccups. Mrs Hamlyn encounters the short cockney man, Pryce, who was Gallagher’s assistant on his rubber plantation out East and is accompanying him home. Pryce explains that before Gallagher left, he had offended a fat old native woman who put a hex on him, vowing he would die before they next sighted land. Initially laughing this off, Mrs Hamlyn comes to almost believe it as she watches Gallagher become progressively more ill. One night, on deck, she sees a crowd around a small fire and observes from a distance the magic ceremony which Pryce has organised, led by one of the ship’s Malay sailors, and which involves sacrificing a cockerel in a bid to counter the old woman’s curse. But it doesn’t work, and Gallagher eventually dies and is buried at sea. The Christmas party, which had been rumbling along in the background, goes ahead, with the second class passengers now invited. But the oddest thing about the story is the impact of all this on Mrs Hamlyn: she had previously been tired and depressed. Somehow, now, she feels rejuvenated and energised. Gallagher’s death makes her realise how important life is. She faces the future radiant with hope.

This is another complex, absorbing and completely compelling story, rich in layers and meanings.

Episode (1946 -Brixton – 3rd) A story told to the narrator by his friend Ned Preston, a semi-invalid who has become an unpaid ‘prison visitor’. At a typically Maughamesque upper-class party Ned tells the guests the story of a convict he’s met in prison, Fred Manson. Fred was a postman in Brixton where he chatted up the ladies and, one day, a young woman called Gracie Carter. They walk out together. Her family are appalled because they have invested a lot of time and money getting her into teacher training school and don’t want her consorting with a rough postman. But Gracie rejects them in favour of Fred who, alas, is shortly afterwards arrested and convicted for stealing money out of the letters he handles and sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It is here that Ned meets him, hears his story, and gets into the habit of visiting the Carter family to pass on Fred’s messages. From this vantage point that Ned is able to paint such a convincing picture, giving not only Gracie’s side of events but the opinions of her respectable working class parents, especially the mother. So for some months Fred and Gracie correspond and have occasional prison visits. She is devoted to him, waiting only for his release. Then only a month before the big date, Fred has quite a bad illness and takes a few weeks to recover. And when he does Ned is astonished to discover that he doesn’t want to marry Gracie any more, he doesn’t even want to see her. He is sick of her cloying possessiveness. He’s had enough of her. When Ned passes this shocking news on to Gracie the latter says, ‘Well, there’s nothing for me to do but go and stick my head in a gas-oven.’ Which is what she does. The end. A grippingly detailed account of working class life with a stunningly abrupt ending.

The Kite (1946 – London – 1st) A second story sourced from the narrator’s friend Ned, the prison visitor. Herbert Sunbury is brought up in a close-knit, if not cloying lower-class suburban family. He enjoys flying kites with his dad, really enjoys it, it is a passion and hobby every Saturday to go to the nearby park and fly one. He becomes attached to the rougher, more ambitious Betty Bevan, disapproved of by Herbert’s parents, who seduces him into marrying her. But they are forced by poverty to live in a tiny apartment and soon her clinging possessiveness drives Herbert to distraction. All he wants is to spend Saturday afternoon with his dad flying their kite, but Betty tries to stop him and, in a climactic argument, makes it a point of honour: me or the kite. Herbert pushes her out of the way, and goes and spends a happy afternoon with his dad flying the kite. That night there’s a bit of rummaging around in the bins and sheds at the back of the Sunburys’ terraced house. In the morning Herbert discovers that Betty had been round and has smashed to pieces the new superkite which was his dad’s new prize possession. At which point Herbert refuses to give Betty her support money or, when the furniture rental falls due, to pay it. With the result that he is summonsed before a magistrate who orders him to pay his wife her support. Still refusing, Herbert is sentenced to imprisonment. Which is where Ned meets the Man Who Is In Prison Because His Wife Smashed Up His Kite.

A Woman Of Fifty (1946 – Mid-West America – 1st) This story has the tone of a very senior author, a man of the world (Maugham was 72 when it was published).

In the placid surroundings of a mid-Western university, at a faculty party, Maugham meets a middle-aged woman named Laura and it sparks a distant memory, taking several days for him to remember her part in a scandal which took place a generation earlier. Against her family’s advice, as a beautiful young woman, Laura had married a handsome, young hot-headed Italian man, Tito, son of an elegant if penniless count. Tito turns out to be an addicted gambler, and becomes increasingly harsh to his wife. To save him from his addiction, Laura closes their apartment and moves them into the count’s dilapidated palazzio outside town. Slowly Tito begins to suspect there is something between Laura and his father, an old but elegant and courtly man. Eventually, in a passion of jealousy, Tito shoots his father dead and is arrested. A distraught Laura is persuaded that the only way to save Tito from a life in solitary confinement is to ‘confess’ that she was having an affair with the father and so Tito’s act was defensible as a crime passionel: which she does. The kick in the story is that, some time later, when the narrator is talking the story over with some American ex-pats who knew her, one of the ex-pats says that Laura confessed to her that she was in fact having an affair with the father!

And now, 25 years later, here is Maugham meeting the heroine of this wild, garish, violent melodrama, transformed into a plump respectable matron, in the respectable surroundings of a cocktail party at a nice American university.

Mayhew (1923 – Capri – 1st) Mayhew was a big, brawny lawyer in Detroit when he heard of an old house for sale on Capri and, on a whim, decided to buy it. He realises he wants to escape the rat race, sells all his worldly possessions, buys an annuity i.e. an annual pension with the money, and retires to the house with its great view over the Bay of Naples. Here Mayhew becomes obsessed with the Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37) and decides to devote his life to researching and writing a history of the Second Century of the Roman Empire. He spends 15 years acquiring books, making vast volumes of notes, employing all his forensic skills. His once big, tough body wastes away. He becomes a shadow of himself. Finally he sits down to write this great magnum opus and drops dead.

The Lotus Eater (1935 – Capri – 1st) Maugham dates the first part of this story to 1913. On Capri he meets a charming Englishman named Wilson. After the usual drinks and dinner they get to chatting and Wilson tells him that he used to be a respectable bank manager in London but one day realised that he just wanted to escape the rat race. Wilson calculated to perfection the money he had and bought an annuity which would last him till age 60, he being 35 when he made the decision. When that day comes and his money dries up, Wilson has cheerfully vowed to kill himself. He has lived on Capri in a simple house and meagre rations but in perfect happiness ever since.

Then the Great War breaks out and Maugham doesn’t return to Capri for many years. It is then that he hears the grim second part of the story. As the deadline for the end of his pension – and his act of suicide – approached, Wilson found he couldn’t do it. He began borrowing money from the shopkeepers, putting off paying his landlord, kept this up for a year or so, and then went completely bust. On the day before the landlord was due to evict him, Wilson barricaded the doors and windows and lit a brazier, planning to asphyxiate himself to death. But it was a leaky old house and enough air got in so that he lost consciousness but didn’t quite die. The landlord’s wife found him, he was sent to hospital, it was touch and go whether he’d survive but, although he was eventually cured in body, it became apparent that Wilson had gone a bit mad. After some consideration the landlord – a simple peasant himself – put Wilson up in a lean-to next to his barn and the wizened, mad old Englishman became a regular sight on the island, hiding behind trees, dodging behind rocks, avoiding all human contact. Finally he was found dead having spent the night at a famous beauty spot.

Salvatore (1924 – Capri – 1st) Maugham starts the story by teasingly asking the reader whether he can do it – leaving us a bit mystified at what he means by ‘it’. He then proceeds to tell the story of a beautiful Italian youth on Capri, Salvatore, who falls in love with a local girl, has to do national service, catches an illness in distant China, is invalided out of the Navy and returns to his native village where he discovers that his beloved (and her family) have all heard about his illness, learning that he will never be fully well again, and so she has married another man. After his initial disappointment, Salvatore’s family fix him up with another woman, not so good-looking, older than him, but sturdy and loyal. They have children. Watching big strong Salvatore bathe the babies in the sea is a pleasure to visitors to the island like the narrator.

And now Maugham reveals what the challenge is that he mentioned right at the start of the story: it was to see whether he could hold the reader’s attention with a description of human goodness. Nothing bad happens. there are no murders or suicide. the story is a portrait of simple goodness.

The Wash-Tub (1929 – Positano – 1st) The narrator is in Capri, gets bored and rows over to Positano. It’s out of season so he’s surprised to find another guest at the hotel, is introduced and gets to know him, a charming American professor who says his name is Barnaby. That’s funny, says the narrator: this summer London was taken by storm by an American millionairess. She said she was a rough daughter of the West, married to One-Bullet Mike (who got  his name because he shot two bandits with one bullet), that she had cooked and kept camp for a gang of miners out West, till One-Bullet Mike struck oil and paid for her to fulfil her ambition of visiting Europe.

By accident the narrator sees the photo of this same Mrs Barnaby in his new friend’s hotel bedroom, whereupon the full story comes out. This sophisticated university professor is in fact Mrs Barnaby’s husband. On the liner from the States to Britain, Mr Barnaby was taken ill and cabin-bound for a few days. One morning Mrs Barnaby got nattering to the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and experimentally told a tall tale about the West, which went down well, then another, and another – and soon found herself being introduced to other aristocratic Brits as a ‘Daughter of the American West’. She came back to their cabin and told her husband all about it and they treated it as a big joke, her husband telling her old Bret Harte tales of the Wild West which Mrs Barnaby then retold to the posh British passengers as her own experiences.

But Mrs Barnaby became such a celebrity aboard ship that she eventually asked her husband to remain in the cabin, even when he was better. Her cover story had been that One-Bullet Mike had struck oil back West while he sent his good lady wife for the trip of a lifetime, and she couldn’t afford to change it now.

Things eventually went so far that she asked him not to get off at Southampton and show up all her stories as lies; she asked him to go on to France and, since the professor fancied doing some research at the Sorbonne, he agreed. But as Mrs Barnaby established a base in a swanky London hotel and set about taking ‘the season’ by storm, she realised he must never come to England and burst her bubble. So she sent word to him in Paris to go somewhere out of the way and obscure for the whole summer – and that’s why he is whiling away the summer in remote Positano, reading books and bored to death!

A Man With A Conscience (1939 – French Guiana – 1st) Maugham gives us a detailed factual introduction to St Laurent de Manoni, capital of the French penal colony on Guiana, a prison for murderers, which he had himself visited and been shown round.

The narrator meets the governor and has the rules and regulations of the prison explained to him. Then he tells the story of a convict he names Jean Charvin. Charvin grows up with a best friend, Henri. They both fall in love with the same small-town beauty, Marie-Louise. Jean works in a boring job in Le Havre. Henri is offered a job with a trading company in faraway Cambodia, but it is so far away that Marie-Louise refuses to go, so – victory for Jean.

But then, before the Cambodia job falls due, Henri is offered a job at the very firm where Jean works in Le Havre, threatening to stay and win Marie-Louise’s hand. To avoid his friend getting the job and – therefore, probably winning the hand of the town beauty in marriage – Jean tells the boss that his best friend Henri is unreliable and shouldn’t be given the job. And so Henri doesn’t get the Le Havre job and is forced to accept the post in faraway Cambodia, leaving the ground clear for Jean to woo and marry Marie-Louise. But – slowly he comes to realise that she is dull and superficial. Slowly he comes to resent her.

Then, disaster – they all hear that Henri got an illness and died out in Cambodia. Now Jean feels mortally guilty at having sent his best friend out to his death. He begins to have bad dreams and then nightmares in which his dead friend reproaches him. And he projects that guilt and resentment onto empty-headed Marie-Louise. One morning Jean is exercising with his dumb bells when she a particularly idiotic remark about Jean’s mother, and with all his strength Jean cracks her round the head, smashing her skull. Jean’s guilty dreams about poor Henri disappear. From that day to this, he has slept perfectly.

Jean is arrested, tried and sentenced, but no-one can adduce a motive, and so he only gets six years. He has been a model prisoner and hopes, upon release, to be able to go back to France and get a job. And here Maugham adds his characteristic touch, the sliver of ice in the heart, the glint of cold cynicism. Jeans tells Maugham that he’d even like to get married again – but next time he’ll marry for money, not for love!

An Official Position (1937 – French Guiana – 3rd) Still in the penal colony in French Guiana, the third person narrator describes the life and character of Louis Remire, convicted for murdering his wife but who, through good behaviour, has been allowed to become the penal colony’s official executioner. His predecessor was assassinated by freed convicts (after serving their time in the prison, convicts are freed, but not allowed to leave the colony, and so roam far and wide, begging and often reverting to crime in order to survive). Remire goes fishing on a rock near his hut and realises that for the first time in his life he is happy, genuinely happy. He naps a while, then wakes to go back to prison to perform a midnight execution. On the way he is ambushed and, like his predecessor, horribly murdered.

The main drive in this story is in the contrast between Louis’ happy carefree moments fishing by the sea and, later that night, his terror-stricken walk through the dark jungle, which is terrifying enough to make your hair stand on end.

Winter Cruise (1943 – Transatlantic steamer – 3rd) Miss Reid runs a tea rooms in Plymouth. She has saved up and bought herself a return ticket on a tramp steamer which goes from Germany, via England, to the Caribbean. It is crewed by six German sailors. The other passengers alight in the Caribbean and then Miss Reid is the only passenger. The trouble is that she won’t stop talking and is an intolerable bore. She is driving the ship’s crew to distraction with her ceaseless nattering. One night, the ship’s doctor, over a beer with the rest of the crew, suggests that maybe Miss Reid is a virgin and needs to be… needs a… you know. The captain blushes red, considers his options, and then orders the tall, handsome, blonde young radio engineer to do his duty. He reports at Miss Reid’s door late that night and – it happening to be New Year’s Eve – helps her start the new year with a bang.

Mabel (1924 – Burma – 1st) In 1923 Maugham travelled through Burma, Siam and into French Indo-China. He took his time composing his impressions into a travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which was published in 1930. This ‘story’ and the next four ‘stories’ are included in that book as factual encounters, which just goes to show the very thin wall between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in Maugham’s short stories.

This is a short, comic story of a chap named George who gets engaged to a girl in Britain before going out to Burma, but years pass and when she finally sails out to join him, he gets cold feet, panics, and flees to Singapore. Here, however, he finds a loving telegram from his fiancee awaiting him. So he flees to Bangkok. And to Saigon. And to Hong Kong. Each time followed – uncannily – by a telegram from his beloved promising to catch him up. So he flees into China, deep into remote rural China, where he hides out in a place called Cheng-tu. And a few weeks later is enjoying a drink with the local British Consul, when there’s a knock at the door and Mabel waltzes in, fresh as a daisy, and asks if he’s ready to marry her now.

Masterson (1929 – Burma – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. At a village in Burma, Maugham dines with Masterson, who is twitchy and unhappy. It emerges that he has been there for years, taken a beautiful Burmese girl as a mistress, and had three children with her. But eventually she became insistent that he marry her. She wasn’t getting any younger and soon no Burmese man would look at her. But Masterson can’t bring himself to; it would mean the end of his dream, which is to eventually quit the East and retire back to Cheltenham, to become a kindly old buffer pottering about second-hand bookshops, quite impossible with a ‘native’ wife. . So as quietly and politely as she came, the Burmese wife packs her bags, takes the children and leaves. And now Masterson is lonely and miserable.

Princess September A number of prominent authors were invited to donate volumes to a doll’s house which was being created for the young Princess Elizabeth in the early 1920s. Maugham wrote this fairy story. It has an Oriental setting, probably inspired by Maugham’s 1921 trip to Siam, and he later included it as a chapter in his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The King of Siam had nine daughters named after the months of the year. The youngest daughter named September had a very pleasing personality. Her other sisters were all of sullen nature. One year on his birthday the King gave each of his daughters a beautiful green parrot in a golden cage. The parrots shortly learnt to speak.

Unfortunately, the parrot of Princess September died. She was heartbroken. Presently a little bird bounded into her room and sang a lovely song about the king’s garden, the willow tree and the goldfish. The princess was thrilled. The bird decided to stay with her and sing her beautiful songs. When the princesses’ sisters became jealous when they came top know of the sweet bird that sang better than their parrots.

The malicious sisters urged Princess September to put the bird in a cage. The innocent princess put the bird into a cage. The bird was bewildered but the princess justified caging the bird as she was afraid of the lurking cats. When the bird tried to sing, it had to stop midway as it felt wretched in the cage.

The next morning the bird asked Princess September to release her from the cage, she did not listen to it. Instead she assured the bird that it would have three meals a day and nothing to worry all day. The bird was not happy with it and pleaded to let it out from the cage. September try to console the bird saying that she had caged the bird because of her love for it. The distraught bird did not sing the whole day and stopped eating its food.

The next morning the princess noticed the bird lying in the cage still. Thinking that the bird was dead, she started weeping. Then the bird rose and told the princess that it could not sing unless it was free and if it could not sing it would die. Taking pity on the bird, the kind princess released the bird. The bird flew away. Yet, it returned to enchant the princess with its sweet songs. The princess kept her windows open day and night for the bird to come and go whenever it wanted.

A Marriage Of Convenience (1929 – Aboard ship off Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. Maugham is on a small steamer running up the Indo-China coast carrying a rum collection of passengers, including an American husband and wife who run a miniature circus. Another passenger is a French Governor, a small man married to an enormous, stout woman.

She was a large woman, tall and of a robust build, of fifty–five perhaps, and she was dressed somewhat severely in black silk. On her head she wore a huge round topee. Her features were so
large and regular, her form so statuesque, that you were reminded of the massive females who take part in processions. She would have admirably suited the role of Columbia or Britannia in a patriotic demonstration. She towered over her diminutive husband like a skyscraper over a shack.

The Governor candidly tells his back story. When he first applied for the post he was rejected because he wasn’t married. The interviewer said the post would be his if he could find a wife within a month, and recommended advertising for a wife in Le Figaro. The Governor did so and was amazed to be overwhelmed by offers of marriage, so many (over a thousand) that he didn’t know where to begin. Then he took the advice of a friend who said he had a nice cousin holidaying in Geneva who might be suitable. So he travelled straight to Geneva, found the (large, imposing) cousin and proposed. Laughing, she accepted. And here they are, both completely happy!

Mirage (1929 – Haiphong, Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The ship Maugham’s on which is still steaming up the coast of Indo-China, docks at Haiphong, which Maugham goes to explore. Sitting at the bar of his hotel he is approached by a big, shabby, red-faced, fat old boy who announces that his name is Grosely and that he was in the same class as Maugham back at St Thomas’s Hospital, must have been in back in 1892.

It takes Maugham a while to remember that this Grosely was once a slender, attractive 19-year-old boy who lived a surprisingly luxury life for a student – until, that is, he was arrested for defrauding pawn shops on an industrial scale. Grosely takes him back to his house which turns out to be a dingy room in the roughest part of the native quarter, where he lives with a local woman. She makes him several opium pipes while he tells Maugham his story.

After getting arrested and briefly imprisoned, thus ending his medical school career, Grosely headed out East to make his fortune and became a ‘tide-waiter’ i.e. liaised between trading ships coming into Shanghai and H.M. Customs. Obviously crooked, he spent decades raking off bribes and kickbacks, but always harboured the fond ambition of going back to London to show everyone he’d done good. Finally he did make the trip ‘home’ and spent a miserable month realising he knew no-one and that the entire place had changed. Even the tarts in Piccadilly didn’t want to be propositioned by a fat, red-faced old buffer. (Maugham describes his unhappiness and alienation brilliantly.)

Eventually Grosely takes ship back out East, stopping at various places on the way, until the ship puts in at Haiphong and… and… Maugham realises what happened next. Grosely had lived for years for one mirage – Old London Town – and it had let him down badly. Now, in his retirement, he was worried that returning to China would be no good either; that he would see his life for what it really was. So, instead, he parked himself with a retired prostitute in seedy Haiphong and spent every evening dreaming of the happy China he’d once known, continually promising himself to finish the journey and return to China, knowing deep down he never will, happy to live with his mirage.

The Letter (1924 – Singapore – 3rd) An absolutely riveting story, told from the point of view of the family lawyer – Mr Joyce – defending a white woman – Lesley Crosbie- accused of murder. She claims that tall, good-looking Geoff Robinson came to her bungalow late at night and tried to rape her so she defended herself in a blind panic, grabbing a gun which went off in her hand. Now she is in gaol awaiting the trial which should be a formality leading her to release when – the lawyer’s Chinese assistant mentions to him the existence of ‘a letter’.

The Chinaman explains that only days before his death, Robinson had received a letter from Lesley begging him to come and see her. The lawyer realises that the existence of such a letter implies a relationship between the defendant and the murdered man and would completely change the complexion of the case. The sleek, inscrutable Chinese assistant goes on to say that he has a friend who possesses the letter, and will sell it for $10,000.

This is a huge amount but when Joyce goes to meet Lesley’s husband, Crosbie, at the club, the latter in his simple-mindedness, immediately vows to raise the cash. And so, late that night, Joyce and Crosbie are taken by the Chinese to a creepy room above a native store where a fat Chinese with a gold necklace (gangster bling even in those days) takes the cash and hands over the letter.

The trial goes ahead and, in the absence of the letter, Lesley is indeed released. Only when the couple get back to Joyce’s house does Crosbie confront his wife with the truth and storm out. And then the apparently mild, frail and posh Lesley confesses everything to the horrified lawyer. She and Robinson had been having an affair for years. It was her passion, her whole life. Then she learned that he was seeing a Chinese woman and sent the letter demanding a meeting to confront him. At this midnight meeting Lesley goaded Robinson so much that finally he snapped and said he no longer loved her, and had been living with the Chinese woman all along. At which point Lesley cold-bloodedly shot him six times at point blank range.

Lesley finishes telling all this to the stunned lawyer, gets up and walks out leaving him, as so many of Maugham’s storytellers, stunned with horror at the depths of human passion.

The Outstation (1924 – Malaysia – I) A new assistant, Cooper, arrives to help British resident Warburton at an isolated outstation in Malaya. They do not get on. Warburton is an upper-class snob who blew a fortune hanging out with England’s finest aristocrats – a natural gentleman – whereas new boy Cooper was born and educated in Barbados and has a chip on his shoulder about being an outsider. But, counter-intuitively, it is Warburton, the snob, the one who dresses impeccably for dinner every day in that ridiculous imperial way, who in fact understands and likes the Malays, who speaks fluent Malay and rules them wisely, loves the people so much that he wants to be buried there when he dies. And it is Cooper, fiercely anti-snob who is, paradoxically, harsh and bullying to his Malay servants.

Warburton, seeing Cooper alienate and enrage the Malays, writes an official request for Cooper to be transferred but this is rejected. So Warburton lets Cooper bully his houseboy and all the other servants and Malays he come sin contact with, so severely that, with complete inevitability, Cooper is one night murdered in his sleep. Warburton goes about the formalities with scrupulous efficiency, but in his heart rejoices.

The Portrait Of A Gentleman (1925 – Korea – 1st) At a loose end in Seoul, Maugham comes across an old copy of The Complete Poker Player by one Mr John Blackbridge, published in 1879. This is barely a story, just a series of quotes to back up Maugham’s claim that the book is the most perfect example of an author unconsciously painting a self-portrait that he knows of. In fact, neither the book nor the quotes Maugham chooses are particularly impressive. Maugham was conventional in  his tastes and opinions.

Raw Material (1923 – Shanghai – 1st) Maugham tells us he had always wanted to write a novel about card sharps. In Shanghai, and then in Peking, he meets two Americans who like playing cards in the clubs and bars he frequents – elegant little Campbell and big, bearish Peterson. Maugham becomes convinced they are professional card sharps and that their claims of being a banker and mining engineer, respectively, are just ‘cover’ stories. Maugham takes careful notes of their conversation and method of play, so as to use them in future stories. Imagine his chagrin when, back in New York, at a smart salon, he is introduced to… none other than Campbell and Peterson, who really are a banker and a mining engineer. How disappointing. How silly an author’s whims and fancies.

Straight Flush (1929 -Aboard ship – 1st) Aboard ship on a very rough passage in the North Pacific, Maugham encounters two old millionaires, Mr Rosenbaum and Mr Donaldson who tell him the stories of why they, separately, gave up poker: Donaldson because he took part in a game out West where two brothers fell out and one shot the other dead right in front of him; and Rosenbaum because during a fateful game he realised he was going so blind he could no longer see a straight flush when he had one.

The End Of The Flight (1926 – Borneo – 1st) Maugham stays with the District Officer in a remote town on the north coast of Borneo, who proceeds to tell him a story about the last man to sleep in the spare bedroom, an extremely nervy Dutchman who was fleeing from a native, an Achinese, who he had offended and who was convinced that this man had followed him to towns all across the East.

Here, in this out of the way spot, he thought he would finally be safe, but nonetheless locked the door and windows and got into bed with a gun by his side. But in the morning the District Officer had to break the locked door down and found the man dead in his bed, with a kris (the Malay dagger) placed carefully on his neck.

Maugham and the officer both look at the bed where all this happened and in which Maugham is set to sleep that night. Sweet dreams, says the Officer.

A Casual Affair (1934 – Borneo – 1st) As so often Maugham is staying with a District Officer in an out-of-the-way part of the British Empire, this time in Borneo, an amiable little man named Low and his wife, Bee.

As usual there’s a fair bit of circumlocution before we come to the ‘story’. This is that Low is called to attend the corpse of a white man found in a scrappy Chinese slum, his only belongings a suitcase containing a package with a written message requesting it be hand-delivered to the extremely posh Lady Kastellan in London. When Low opens the package it turns out to contain forty or so love letters written by the man, signed only as J., to this Lady Kastellan, detailing the course of a passionate love affair. Low’s wife insists on reading all the letters and drawing her own conclusions. Low then tells Maugham that on his next trip back to England he took the package to Lady Kastellan’s and she accepted it without a tremor, their interview being interrupted by the entrance of Lord Kastellan. During their brief conversation Lady K confirmed the man’s identity as dashing Jack Almond.

Now, the point of the story is that it allows Maugham to show his skill in delineating character: for a start the contrasting characters of Mr and Mrs Low back in Borneo, both essentially comic creations.

It goes on to give a terrifically acute description of Mr Low’s resentment at being treated as a common tradesman by the immensely self-possessed and superior Lady Kastellan. We now understand how the entire anecdote started – with the fact that the Lows happened to glimpse Maugham at a fantastically posh party given by Lady Kastellan, on the occasion of Low’s trip back to England when he delivered the package. They didn’t know her at all but she obviously thought it shrewd, after Mr Low had given her the letters, to invite them. The story is enlivened by Mrs Low’s chagrin at buying a dress specially for this party which turned out to make no impression at all among the millionaire ball gowns.

And this in turn adds spice to Mrs Low’s malicious dislike of Lady Kastellan for leading Jack Almond such a merry dance.

But there’s more: because it’s only when Lady Kastellan mentions Jack’s name that Low realises that he himself knew young Jack as a dashing handsome chap out East, a nice chap who played tennis, drank at the club etc, and was the life and soul for five years, until he went back to England.

From that trip he returned a broken man, fell into dissipation, and disappeared off the social scene. And it turns out that Maugham himself knew Jack during his own brief involvement with the Foreign Office where Jack had been a junior official.

With all the evidence to hand, Maugham now speculates that Jack and Lady Kastellan had a passionate affair but that Lord Kastellan found out. To avoid the threat of scandal it was agreed that Jack would quit his Foreign Office job and be packed off to the colonies, but for five long years he had continued to carry a torch, convinced that Lady Kastellan secretly loved him and would eventually leave her husband for him. Obviously, on that trip back to England, she had calmly disabused him of this notion, and Jack had realised that all his dreams were ashes. He came back to the East a broken man and let himself go to pot.

The story of a disappointed love affair is relatively straightforward. But Maugham manages a) to tell it in an extremely complex and sophisticated way, combining fragments and different points of view of a number of characters, a technique which b) sheds a tremendous light on the psychology of the characters he’s created – on Mr Low, on Bee his wife, on Lady Kastellan and even on the briefly glimpsed Lord Kastellan.

It is a work of tremendous sophistication in every sense – in the airy confidence with which it describes life and manners at the top of the aristocratic tree, as well as its completely convincing description of colonial life – and in the high artfulness of its construction and telling.

Red (1921 – An island near Samoa – 3rd) This is a wonderful story. The fat, raddled old Yankee captain of a schooner puts into a remote island and makes his way to the hut of an isolated European. He’s come to bring supplies to a trader down the coast but could do with a guide to take him there. In the hut is a fat old Swede gone to seed named Neilson, surrounded by books and a piano. Neilson (as usually happens in  Maugham tale) proceeds to tell his life story.

He was 25, a philosophy lecturer, diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one year to live so he decided to travel. He fell in love with the South Seas. He came to this island, stumbled across this particularly beautiful spot and heard about the Love Story connected to it. The story was this:

Years earlier, an American sailor with long pre-Raphaelite red hair – and so nicknamed ‘Red’ – had deserted his ship and fetched up here, falling in love with a beautiful native girl, who he called Sally. He was 20, she was 16, their love was pure and true. He built the hut and they lived together in perfect bliss. After a year he heard that an American ship had anchored outside the reef and paddled out with a native friend to see if he could swap coconuts for real tobacco, which was the one thing which was hard to get in his idyllic life. But the crew slipped Red a mickey fin and, while unconscious, shanghaied i.e. kidnapped him – the native being thrown back over the side, to regain his canoe and return to tell Sally what had happened. Sally was distraught but never gave up hoping that Red would one day return.

A few years later Neilson pitched up looking for somewhere to live out his last year of life, fell in love with the island, with this spot and with the grieving native girl, still young and beautiful. He listened to Sally’s story, became friends with her family, realised he was falling in love with her, and launched a campaign to marry her. Eventually, she acquiesced and married him, but Neilson was never happy because he realised that he never truly possessed her. Always Sally remained faithful to her memory of Red.

25 years have passed. The healthy climate and modest diet ended up curing Neilson’s TB and he lived on here while the native girl got fat and blowsy (as did he).

Neilson had gone off into a storyteller’s trance as he told all this. Now he comes out of it to realise that the jolly fat sea captain opposite him is chuckling in a crude, horrible way. Suddenly he has a flash of insight and asks the captain… can it be… could he be… Yes, the captain confirms. He’s an old seadog known around the islands as Red – though it’s a long time since he had that full head of hair.

So this is the man who kept Sally’s heart from him, who stymied Neilson’s happiness, who ruined both of their lives. He feels a flash of anger, a wish to smash up everything. But the captain is looking at him, chuckling. At that point fat old Sally comes in to serve tea and for a moment Neilson has the opportunity to explain to her that this is the slim young hero she has cleaved to all her long life.

But the moment passes: what would be the point? She goes out and Neilson calls a local to guide the captain to the trader down the coast.

Neil Macadam (1932 – Singapore – 3rd) One of Maugham’s longest stories, at 40 pages, this one describes the arrival of young, earnest, virginal Scot, Neil Macadam, to be assistant curator at the museum at Kuala Solor curated by the kindly, older Scot Angus Munro. Munro’s wife Darya is the daughter of a Russian general and princess, who Munro saved from a life of poverty in Japan. While the old man is a passionate and honest naturalist, his wife is a crazy, impulsive, passionate Russian, mad about Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, unconventionally taking the cigarettes out of shy Macadam’s lips to smoke them herself, or talking with grating candour about sexual and other bodily functions.

At the club in town, when Macadam innocently announces that the Munros have invited him to stay on with them, some of the young bloods snigger and say he isn’t the first one to be seduced by Mrs Munro. At which puritanical Macadam punches the man who said this.

Then Munro announces that he and Macadam are going on a month-long expedition upriver into the jungle to catch specimens and that, unusually, Darya has volunteered to come with. And it’s on this trip that Darya makes her intentions increasingly plain, whenever Munro’s back is turned: she loves Macadam, she can’t do without him, he is so young and virile etc. She surprises him bathing in a pool naked and strips and gets in herself before he can stop her. She tries to sneak into his tent to seduce him but Macadam makes a great fuss to wake up Munro. And so on. She tries everything to have sex with him; Madadam keeps nobly putting her off.

Finally Munro goes off on a lengthy solo exploration from the main camp which they’ve established, and Darya spends the whole afternoon trying to wear down Macadam’s resistance to her. Up till now he’s taken the moral high ground that he can’t possibly betray the trust of a man he respects so much, but when quite literally push comes to shove he admits, at least to himself (and the reader) that he dislikes sex, finds it messy and disgusting, and that is why he is still a virgin.

Darya physically assaults him, trying to kiss him, then biting the hand Macadam puts up between their mouths, provoking him so much that he punches her quite hard, and takes to his feet, fleeing into the jungle. Darya staggers to her feet and hurries after him. On and on they run. Finally in a clearing somewhere he stops exhausted and she unveils her final weapon: if he won’t love her, she will tell Munro that he tried to rape her. The bruise on her face, the bitemark in his hand, everything will incriminate him. Her eyes glow red with triumph. She walks slowly towards her prey: and Macadam turns and flees again, running, running, running he knows not where.

Eventually, exhausted, he stops, completely lost. But he has a compass and he knows the direction of the camp. It takes over an hour but by careful navigation he arrives back at parts of jungle which he recognises, then, finally, at the camp.

At the end of the day Munro arrives back from  his trip and asks where Darya is. ‘Oh, isn’t she in her room?’ asks Macadam, all innocently. Munro rummages round the camp, then asks the Chinese servants. No-one knows where she is. Panic-stricken, Munro organises the Dyak bearers into search parties, one led by young Macadam, one by himself, and they set off to triangulate the jungle. But Macadam knows they won’t find her, he knows they ran for ages into the jungle, he has no idea where. He had a compass, but she didn’t.

Clouds gather over the mountains. Then a tremendous tropical storm comes howling down, splitting the night with lightning, deafening them with thunder.

Macadam knows he has done his duty by his host and his own morality. His heart is pure.

Brief thoughts

Love The stories are all about love. War and peace, diplomacy and politics, all social issues and any interesting ideas about art and culture, are all banished from his stories. Love, passion, marriage, infidelity, murder and suicide are his subject.

Artfulness A large part of the enjoyment is the ornate elaborateness of the initial settings within which the stories eventually come to be told. Sometimes the frame narrative about a planter or resident or a dinner party or a shipboard encounter is as subtle and enjoyable as the central tale.

Travel What a lucky man Maugham was, to have travelled so widely and seen so much. Nowadays travel is a) expensive b) ruined by overpopulation and airplanes, package holidays and cars c) made difficult by dangerous political regimes or wars. But Maugham wandered at will through Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and China with perfect ease and security, and his stories transport you back to that simpler, less violent age.

Social history Having now read all his short stories, I see how they provide a wealth of social history of two broad types:

  1. the culture, lives, expectations and behaviour of white men in the colonies of the Far East and the Pacific
  2. the culture, language and behaviour of the English upper classes in England, from the Edwardian decade through into the 1920s and little into the 1930s

On both counts, Mauagham’s stories are a treasure trove of fascinating linguistic, cultural, behavioural and fashion history.


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

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

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

**********

Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Hérodias

Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.

Christianity

And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson (1987)

Solitary people interest me. There are so many ways of being solitary. (The Garden of Eden)

This is a selection of 12 short stories by Tove Jansson. She was 73 when the book was published. It was only when starting the fifth story that I realised they all had the theme of a journey in common.

In An Eightieth Birthday the daughter of a redoubtable 80-year-old bohemian artist takes along her new man, Johnny, to the birthday party. In part one they mingle, embarassedly among the guests, getting stuck with a bunch of critics discussing ‘perception’.

In part two they leave the party with a group of three older men, obviously once known artists themselves, now alcoholics and a bit hard-up, on nodding terms with the derelicts in a big church square in Helsinki. They wander across the city towards May and Jonny’s flat, where the three old artists carry on discussing how important it is to have a ‘passion’, how older artists had to try and copy the new fashionable styles of the 1960s, how her grandmother kept her integrity and carried on painting Finnish trees, about lots of things. They admire the scale model Jonny has built of a boat. They discuss the way sometimes just admiring beautiful things like a tree in blossom is every bit as important as trying to paint or recreate it. And then they leave.

There’s a plot of sorts, a narrative: bohemian party, wander across Helsinki, drinks at Jonny’s flat – but the poetry  is in the calm acceptance – of her grandmother, of her husband, of Helsinki, of tiresome critics and drunken artists – of life and art and words.

A Summer Child is quite a brutal story about a middle-class couple (Hannah and Axel) with three kids (Tom, Oswald and Mia) who decide to take in an inner-city child for the summer which they always spend among the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Now, if they took an inner-city boy from round where I live in South London they would be in for quite a culture shock, but this inner-city boy – Elis – to their slight dismay, turns out to come from quite a well-off family and drives the others nuts because of his unrelenting social conscience.

He nags the family about throwing food away, reminding them that people round the world are starving; for throwing away landfill, reminding them that the seas are filling up with plastic (this was forty years ago; none of this is new); using an outboard motor when the air is full of pollution – and so endlessly on. The father decides to take the kids on a boat trip to drop supplies to a number of lighthouses, drops the city boy and his oldest son on an uninhabited island planning to be back in an hour, but his fuel line ruptures and he ends up being away for a day and a night, with the result that the story turns into a Finish version of Lord of the Flies.

In A Foreign City the elderly male narrator is invited to go and stay with his godson and wife, but is in a fluster from the word go, forgetting his hat on the flight, getting into a muddle at Customs, then at the Lost Property office where, after much confusion, he ends up accepting a hat belonging to someone completely different. By the time he emerges to the airport taxi rank all the other passengers have gone. Then he realises he has completely forgotten the address of the hotel the relatives had booked for him. But he has an inspiration – to ask the taxi driver to take him to the address on the owner’s label inside the wrong hat he was given at the airport. With odd results…

In The Woman who Borrowed Memories, after fifteen years Stella goes back to the old apartment she lived in with her lover, where they had wild bohemian parties and a passionate love affair. But now she discovers it is lived in by a woman, Wanda, who she and her lover thought of as a waif and stray tagging on to their wild artistic circle. They let her stay with them for a while, before Wanda went off to London to study art, sending letters asking her lover to follow.

Now, to her dismay, Wanda treats Stella as the interloper. She claims it was always her flat, that it was she who hosted the famous parties and had all the bohemian friends, who made the bookshelf by hand, who took all the photos on the walls. Stella thinks it must be some kind of joke then realises – with some horror – that Wanda genuinely believes all this. She has effectively taken over Stella’s life and memories.

Stella becomes disorientated and tired, asking to rest on the sofa. Wanda makes her comfortable, tucks her up in a blanket and then, rather as if in a horror story, moves from words of comfort to repeating the words which she obviously used to Stella’s boyfriend when she (Wanda) seduced him: softly saying that Stella is no good for him, Stella is holding her back… and she says all this she slowly moves the blanket up over Stella’s ace as if… she is going to asphyxiate her!

Terrified, Stella leaps to her feet, makes Wanda open the door and stumbles down the stairs. This is tantamount to a horror story.

The title story – Travelling Light – is also very odd. The plot itself is a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man who ups and leaves his apartment and old life with no real explanation and sets off on a luxury cruise. He is hoping to get away from them, from humans, from all the beastly people who keep pestering him with their endless tedious problems. Except that, rather inevitably, on the cruise he meets nothing but the same: first of all the apparently rambunctious man who is sharing his cabin, who soon drinks too much and gets maudlin about his wife and children; then, when the narrator runs away and tries to wrap himself in a blanket on a deckchair on the passenger deck, he finds himself getting involved with an irritable middle-aged woman whose deckchair he’s dossing down in (the deckchairs are numbered and allocated by ticket). After some bad-tempered exchanges, she buys them both drinks, they settle into an uneasy truce and — this wretched woman starts telling the narrator about her family, ‘here would you like to see some photos?’ Precisely everything he spends his life trying to avoid – other people, entanglements.

The real message of this story, though, isn’t in the plot, it’s in the extraordinarily uptight tone of the narrator. He could almost be a Beckett character, describing the endless anxiety and unease other people cause him, and the lengths he will go to to find a place of isolation, aloneness, peace and bloody quiet.

Perhaps you have some idea of the depth of my fatigue, of my exhaustion and nausea in the face of this constant need to feel sorry for people? (p.91)

In The Garden of Eden Professor Viktoria Johansson arrives at a little hilltop village west of Alicante to visit her god-daughter only to discover the latter has had to rush off to see her ill mother. She’s left the keys, basic instructions etc. So Viktoria makes herself at home, tests her Spanish on the local shop-keepers, but then is visited/welcomed to the ex-pat community, by a brusque hysterical woman with four neurotic little dogs who is convinced her next door neighbour is trying to kill her.

Now Viktoria likes a good murder mystery and, being a professor, is systematic, so she opens a notebook and decides to ‘investigate’ the case, starting by paying a visit to the woman she labels X. X turns out to have lived in the village longer than all the other ex-pats and she despises them – their wealth, their lazing around sunbathing, their insistence on gutting the traditional houses and filling them with all the latest mods cons. Yuk!

Around this rather slow, ironic ‘investigation’ Jansson depicts the moods and thoughts of an ageing spinster, Viktoria, as she reminisces about other foreign trips, about old friends who she should get in touch with. There’s a ‘plot’ in the present, but it’s also a pretext for the portrait of a woman’s mind.

She attends the local town’s colourful fiesta where everyone dresses up in ornate and convincing costumes, and there sees the two women dancing with knives in their hands in a way which looks genuinely threatening until Miss X darts forward and in two swift movements, chops off Josephine’s red plaits.

Viktoria organises an unconventional grand meal (choosing the successive dishes solely on the basis of their sound, with no knowledge what they actually are, from the local restaurateur) and invites Josephine and Miss X. She tries to get them to make up, fails, goes and hides in the ladies loo (several times she reminisces about girl arguments at school, and the whole story is intertwined with memories of falling out with a friend when they went travelling when they were 19; it all has a slightly Fifth Formers of St Clare’s kind of feel – ‘Viktoria had a sudden impulse to scold them. Girls, girls! she wanted to say, but she held her tongue.’ p.131).

But when she returns to the dining room at the village cafe the girls have, in fact, sort of made up and they all go out onto the terrace to admire the spectacular view over the hills at sunset.

Shopping is an astonishingly bleak little vignette about two people who have survived a surprise nuclear war and are living in the ruins of a city. Kristian went outside just as the bombs exploded (‘typical male pride’) and half the building fell on him, so he’s laid up on a mattress in the kitchen, the only room which survived. Emily goes scavenging for tinned food in the ruined city. Occasionally she spots ‘others’ but hides or runs away. Finally, Kristian cracks up after spending so long in a darkened room and smashes open the barricade Emily had built over the one window. Daylight reveals their squalid useless shelter. They go out into the light. And the ‘others’ are there, and they start walking towards each other.

In four pages the shortest story – The Jungle – describes how two small boys, in a holiday home looked after by a maid, paid for by their mother in the city, spend the summer pretending to be Tarzan (and his son), until they become genuinely afraid of the jungle creatures roaming outside their (quiet peaceful Finnish holiday) cottage.

The death of the PE Teacher He hangs himself, much to the school’s shock. But the story is about a bourgeois couple (Henri and Flo) who go to dinner at the very swanky house of his business associate who is, in fact, working late at some kind of conference. Flo makes an ass of herself, causing several scenes as she gets drunker. She is obsessed by the suicide and the way the teacher talked, just before his death, the petition he was trying to get signed to prevent the demolition of some woods to make way for modern dwellings (of the kind her husband and business associate build).

The Gulls A schoolteacher, Arne, has had a sort of nervous breakdown. The children have driven him mad and he’s resigned. But the school appreciate his condition and promise to keep the post open while his wife, Else, takes him out to the remote island in the Gulf of Finland where she used to holiday with her parents. Predictably, he gets on the wrong side of the gulls which are nesting and hatching their chicks. Going out one sunny day he blunders into an intensive nestery and is dive-bombed by screaming gulls, runs back to the house face streaming with blood, shaking, and won’t go out of the cottage for three days. This story of high anxiety on a remote island builds up to a typically hard, unsentimental climax.

The Hothouse is the most loveable, charming story in the set. Old Uncle goes to the Botanical Gardens, specifically the hothouse, to sit on a bench in silent contemplation of the lily pond. One day there is an interloper, another man sitting in his spot. A battle of nerves commences. But eventually they break their silence, speak to each other and discover they share a mutual wish to get away from people and sit in silence. So they meet every day, on the same bench, nod, don’t speak and open their books, reading in companionable silence.

But this preamble is just the frame, so to speak, for the telling of two other events. One day the other man (Vesterberg) doesn’t show up. Uncle and the sympathetic caretaker of the hothouse look up the address of the old people’s home where Vesterberg has mentioned he lives, and Uncle goes to visit him. That’s a chastening experience, described rather harrowingly.

But the core of the story is the second event: Uncle’s memory of being taken by his family to a remote island where the family stayed one summer in a cabin. There was a rough bridge over a ravine which led out to a flower meadow. Uncle fell in love with the meadow. The family decide to build a ‘tent sauna’ on the island and want to erect it on the meadow but Uncle insists otherwise. So, reluctantly, they build the sauna in the ravine, beneath the supports of the bridge. To his surprise, when Uncle goes to check it out, he discovers the tent door opens onto a splendid view of the meadow – and decides he wants to sleep there from now on.

One night a big storm blows up and floods the ravine, flooding his tent and mattress, floating belongings away, but also floating his beloved flower meadow. Uncle wades out across the storm-tossed, seawater-flooded flowers and feels their… their essence, their experience. the storm wrecks the bridge and carries its fragments off as driftwood. Later Uncle finds some of it and sets about making a perfect model of the bridge.

This memory burns in Uncle’s mind and he wants to share it with Vesterberg but, of course, both men have sworn to silence. After months, they are sitting in the hothouse when there is a sudden storm. The sky goes black, rain lashes on the glass, the doors blow open in a gust and Uncle, elated, breaks all the rules and steps into the big lily-pond walking through the warm water feeling the big strong plants and their roots brushing against his trousered legs.

Vesterberg eggs him on, two old men behaving badly. And when he finally calms down, Uncle climbs out and at last shows Vesterberg his model of the bridge. This leads to a little argument about whether the model has any purpose or ‘meaning’ or just ‘is’ a thing in itself. They agree to differ, bow to each other as they walk through the shattered greenhouse doors and happily make their ways to their separate homes.

Tiredness and rest

As pointed out in all my previous reviews of Jansson, her fiction oscillates – operates – along a spectrum between tiredness/anxiety and safety/sleep.

  • I tried to shake off my fatigue. When I get tired, everything slips away from me… I was dreadfully tired (A Foreign City)
  • ‘Are you maybe a little tired?’ said Wanda… ‘I’m tired. You talk too much.’… Stella felt a great urge to sleep; the room disappeared… (The Woman who Borrowed Memories)
  • The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy… Sleeping on my own has become very important to me… One’s opportunities for feeling ill at ease in life are countless… When eventually I stopped, utterly exhausted, I was almost alone… Wonderful! To be able to sleep and sink into silence, oblivious of everything… (Travelling Light)
  • It had been a long tiring journey… That night Viktoria lulled herself to sleep by imagining she was an independent Spanish cat… (The Garden of Eden)
  • Big beautiful Nicole wished passionately that the world of calm and charm she’d created might be left in peace, that her life might as far as possible be left undisturbed by all the ugliness and chaos that crowded the world outside… The phone rang. Henri waited: he was very tired… ‘Let her sleep’… In the car Flo fell asleep…  (The PE Teacher’s Death)
  • She took his hand in hers and fell asleep again at once. The birds went on screeching. He tried to ignore it, but he could feel his old fear creeping closer, his horror of noise, of anything out of control… ‘You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before. With every new skerry you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon. And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent… (The Gulls)
  • Uncle liked to rest his legs and lose himself in a kind of contemplation and reflection that gradually freed him from all the concerns of the world outside. (The Hothouse)

Lyricism

Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Lyrical descriptions.

Up in the spring sky the dome of the cathedral rested like a white dream over the empty square. Helsinki was indescribably beautiful, I’d never realised before how beautiful it was. (p.29)

Out of doors all was completely at peace. It was a time of light breezes and soft summer rain; down in the meadow the apple trees were in bloom, and all of nature was at its loveliest. (p.43)

At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden, beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. (p.117)


Credit

Resa med lätt bagage by Tove Jansson was published in 1987. It was translated as Travelling Light by Silvester Mazzarella and first published by Sort of Books in 2010.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson (1978)

Eleven short stories:

  1. Art in Nature
  2. The Monkey
  3. The Cartoonist
  4. White Lady
  5. The Doll’s House
  6. A Sense of Time
  7. A Leading Role
  8. The Locomotive
  9. Flower Child
  10. A Memory from the New World
  11. The Great Journey

After reading The Summer Book and The Winter Book, which are mostly stories about, or told from the point of view of, a small girl, stories set in the autobiographical settings of either the Jannson family’s house in Helsinki or on the island in the Gulf of Finland where the Jansson’s owned a cabin – it was a relief to turn to a set of stories about adults, where each of them is set in a different location with different characters. I.e. this is much more like a traditional short story collection, than her first two collections.

The characters argue, fight, swear, get drunk, make fools of themselves, cheer each other up, seethe with resentment. They are, in other words, people like us.

Except that they almost all possess the same central attribute of people in Jansson’s fiction – which is that they are disquieting. It’s not science fiction or violent, they’re tales of very ordinary people. But all the stories have a consistently disquieting and oblique, unexpected slant on human nature.

Part of the effect stems from the prose. It is very simple. Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Things are described, or reported. But that only makes the sometimes disquieting feelings all the more disturbing. The obsessive-compulsive thinking. The absolute necessity of routine and order. The constant nagging sense of failure or embarrassment, the continual sense that you are making a fool of yourself. These are all the more unnerving for being reported so matter-of-factly, as if everyone was this anxious, as if anxiety is the normal state.

And, on reflection, maybe they haven’t strayed that far away from Jansson’s personal experience.

In Art in Nature the old curator of an art exhibition at a gallery which has outdoor grounds and a jetty onto the sea, first of all chats to an old lady who comes and sits next to him then, on his late night walk round the ground comes across a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they’ve bought. The title couldn’t be plainer. It is about art in an outdoors space, art in nature.

The Monkey seems like a straight portrait of Jansson’s father, the frustrated sculptor, and his guanon monkey, which we had met in a story in her first collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter. So many of her stories rotate around characters going through very humdrum routines, permanently looking for mental peace and rest and never finding it. Her father tidies up the studio then takes the monkey bundled in  his coat to the nearby bar where his arty mates are rude and they get into a bitter argument. On the way home the monkey escapes and flees up a tree, even though it’s bitterly cold and the sculptor reflects, bitterly:

You poor little bastard. It’s freezing but you’ve got to climb. (p.27)

The Cartoonist is a long and mesmerising account of the way a seasoned old cartoonist, Allington, who has created the smash hit ‘Blubby’ cartoon, and written it day in day out for twenty years for a Finnish newspaper which syndicates it around the world, suddenly disappears, no one knows where. The story focuses on his replacement, Samuel Stein, who is buttered up by the paper’s management, eased into the new job, and finds himself effectively abandoned in the cartoonist’s old room, drawers full of his old bric-a-brac. At first he’s too busy in a panic sweat trying to replicate the great man’s style and mapping out storylines which will last for months into the future to care. But slowly he rummages through the drawers, gets poignant hints of the cartoonist’s life and… realises he has to set out to find him. — Well, this is Jansson’s own plight, spectacularly successful creator of the Moomin strip cartoon who found herself shackled to her creation.

White Lady is named after the revolting cocktail and describes an outing of three middle-aged ladies, one of whom is a successful artist, Ellinor, (the Jansson figure) who catch a ferry from the island to a bar on the mainland where they chat about the old times, seem to spend a lot of time in the ladies loo, order strong cocktails, reminisce about some Italian count and then get caught up with a group of young people who are polite enough but are, well, young, dance to their incredibly loud blaring music, until the three ladies stumble back into the night, towards the jetty and the ferry home.

In The Doll’s House two gay men retire, Erik an old-fashioned upholsterer and Alexander a banker, but discover they can’t really bear being stuck at home all day in each other’s company. Then the upholsterer has the bright idea to make a large doll’s house, an exact replica of a house and the project becomes an all-consuming passion, at first on the kitchen table, then taking over half the kitchen but emitting so much glue and paint fumes the banker asks him to build a partition across the kitchen, then spreading into the living room and so on. When the upholsterer stumbles across an electrician who can help with the tiny wiring needed to light the house, the two become close collaborators, excluding the gay banker more and more. Eventually the story explodes in an unusually violent climax but with a typically Janssonesque twist or quirk.

In A Leading Role Maria, a so-so actress, is offered her first leading role and worries about how to become the mousy put-upon character required. Until she remembers a cousin, the mousy little Frida. She invited Frida to come and stay in her big house by the sea and we, the readers, know she’s only done it so she can observe every aspect of Frida’s personality and facial expressions and movements in order to steal them for her performance. Except that even the mousy Frida realises something is up, and it dawns on her that she’s being exploited.

Themes

Allington quit drawing cartoons because he was ‘tired’, simple as that, a phrase which recurs throughout these stories like a bell. In the very last page of White lady Ellinor is ‘tired’. When the sculptor wakes up he feels ‘tired’. When the locomotive obsessive tries to explain his passion to a strange woman he is overcome by tiredness. Flora’s husband, in A Flower Child, looks tired at his own wedding! Johanna, who looks after her sisters after they’ve emigrated to America in A Memory from the New World, is tired by the responsibility.

Tiredness is a leitmotif. Jansson was 64 when these stories were published in 1978, though one can assume they were published over a scattered period before that. Tiredness and its opposite sleep. Sleep is escape from not only fatigue but anxiety and unease. Sleep and just a nip of madeira. Or champagne, as it is in The Flower Child. A nip of booze to help kick start the long day which is characterised by anxiety and tiredness until you can slip gratefully back into your bed.

This is the underlying feel of the stories, a longing for peace and quiet, the characters’ quest for a calm, ordered, safe place without any other people and where routine and regularity keep at bay all the bad thoughts, the incipient panic, which constantly threaten.

Identities

Once we’re well into the book there are two genuinely strange stories in which the narrator’s identity becomes radically unstable, in which the conventions of fiction are mixed up before our eyes.

In A sense of time Lennart is very concerned about his grandmother and her senile loss of time, waking him up at nighttime closing the curtains at dawn. But half way through the story the point of view switches to the grandmother and we realise that it may be Lennart who’s the odd one.

In the long text called The locomotive the possibly deranged narrator – a commercial draughtsman working for a train company who has secret fantasies about taking long train journeys all over the world – keeps changing points of view from narrating as ‘I’ to describing ‘him’. The text keeps breaking down as he describes and notates  his fleeting thoughts and uncertainties: Stop here. Start again. I need to revise. Delete this section. With the text sometimes breaking down in mid-sen

When the story reaches its rather gruesome climax that climax comes in three separate versions. In fact in a mini-welter of versions, and we realise we have no idea how much, if anything, of this fabrication is ‘real’.

These stories are in no way comforting or charming. Jansson practices tough love on herself and on her characters. Deceptively simple,fairy-tale prose conveys a gimlet-eyed perceptiveness, a constant anxiety, a completely dis-enchanted view of the world and people.

Disquieting.


Credit

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

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Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus (1957)

The deep, clear water, the hot sun, the girls, the physical life – there was no other form of happiness in this country. (page 49)

Camus’s later writings are more literary than logical. His biggest attempt at a philosophical work, L’Homme révolté, met with such harsh criticism on its publication in 1951 that he never again attempted a full philosophical work. Instead these later writings rotate around ‘ideas’, which are really more like symbols, complexes of meaning and emotion, with as much psychological or sociological as logical content.

For example, the early idea of the Absurd, which he developed in the 1930s/early 1940s drops away and is replaced by the more wide-ranging, richer idea of ‘exile’. ‘Exile’ can have several meanings:

1. The philosophical or maybe spiritual meaning of ‘exile’ is brought out in the section of The Rebel which deals with Nietzsche:

From the moment that man believes neither in God nor in immortal life, he becomes ‘responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life.’ It is he, and he alone, who must discover law and order. Then the time of exile begins, the endless search for justification, the aimless nostalgia, ‘the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself: where can I feel at home?’

In the godless universe, where on earth can the thoughtful man feel at home?

2. But ‘exile’ can also refer to literal exile from one’s homeland, legal banishment, expulsion from your community. Many of the revolutionaries who figure in The Rebel were unhappy exiles, in fact exile is often an intrinsic aspect of the life of l’homme révolté.

3. And there is a third sense of exile, biographically specific to Camus, whose life was stricken when his homeland, Algeria, rose up in revolt against French colonialism and the untroubled paradise of his boyhood memories ceased to exist, becoming instead a site of murder and torture, which it was now very dangerous to return to. He found himself exiled from this childhood.

‘Where can I feel at home?’

All these forms of exiles are looking, in their different ways, for ‘the kingdom’, real or imaginary, which they can return to, where they will finally feel ‘at home’, where exile will end, where values and meaning, love and security, will be found.

This polarity, this tension, this plight, is, as Camus himself might have put it, the climate in which the six short stories in Exile and the Kingdom were all written, the situation which, in different ways, they each explore.

  1. La Femme adultère (The Adulterous Woman)
  2. Le Renégat ou un esprit confus (The Renegade or a Confused Spirit)
  3. Les Muets (The Silent Men)
  4. L’Hôte (The Guest)
  5. Jonas ou l’artiste au travail (Jonas or the Artist at Work)
  6. La Pierre qui pousse (The Growing Stone)

1. The Adulterous Woman (La Femme adultère)

The woman is Janine, tall, middle-aged but still alluring. She married short, bug-eyed Marcel, not so much because she was attracted to him, but because he so obviously needed her. His love made her real. That was 25 years ago, when Marcel was an ambitious law student. Things have changed. When his parents gave up their dry goods business, Marcel decided to abandon the law in order to run it. Then the war came with its privations. Soon their joy rides in the car stopped, the outings to the seaside ceased. Marcel became obsessed by the business. She became a shop-keeper’s wife. They had no children. Her life became entombed in the shuttered apartment above the shop.

After the war Marcel wanted to expand his sales to ‘the villages of the Upper Plateaus and of the South’, and that is why she is sitting jammed up next to him on the hard seat of a filthy local bus bumping its way through a sandstorm on the edge of the desert in the freezing cold.

They get to a town and Janine tags along after Marcel as he tries to sell his wares to Arab merchants. They end up going up onto the parapet of the local fort and looking out over the cold stony desert. They go to bed, Marcel falls asleep. But Janine is tormented by the lost years and the vanished opportunities.

She sneaks out of bed along the hotel corridor, and then runs through the dark streets back to the fort and up the stairs to the parapet where she looks up into the billions of stars in the freezing black sky and has an epiphany.

Not a breath, not a sound – except at

intervals the muffled crackling of stones that the cold was reducing to sand – disturbed the solitude and silence surrounding Janine. After a moment, however, it seemed to her that the sky above her was moving in a sort of slow gyration. In the vast reaches of the dry, cold night, thousands of stars were constantly appearing, and their sparkling icicles, loosened at once, began to slip gradually toward the horizon. Janine could not tear herself away from contemplating those drifting flares. She was turning with them, and the apparently stationary progress little by little identified her with the core of her being, where cold and desire were now vying with each other. Before her the stars were falling one by one and being snuffed out among the stones of the desert, and each time Janine opened a little more to the night. Breathing deeply, she forgot the cold, the dead weight of others, the craziness or stuffiness of life, the long anguish of living and dying. After so many years of mad, aimless fleeing from fear, she had come to a stop at last. At the same time, she seemed to recover her roots and the sap again rose in her body, which had ceased trembling. Her whole belly pressed against the parapet as she strained toward the moving sky; she was merely waiting for her fluttering heart to calm down and establish silence within her. The last stars of the constellations dropped their clusters a little lower on the desert horizon and became still. Then, with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans. The next moment, the whole sky stretched out over her, fallen on her back on the cold earth. (Page 29)

What with the lying prone and the moans it would be easy to interpret this as some kind of sexual experience. And the title – the adulterous woman – suggests that she is being sexually unfaithful (somehow). But I think that’s too easy.

In the last few sentences Janine retraces her steps to the cheap hotel, slips back into bed beside Marcel, who wakes up to find her weeping inconsolably.

Camus had a kind of gift for making everything he wrote seem pregnant with meaning, with allegory or symbolism. But the obvious level of meaning is, here, also the most powerful. It is a story about loss – lost time, lost life, lost love, the loss which is somehow central to life.

2. The Renegade or a Confused Spirit (Le Renégat ou un esprit confus)

This is a weird one, a real oddity in the Camus I’ve read so far. It is the dramatic soliloquy of a man who’s gone mad. He was a not very bright student at a theological seminary. He came out to Algeria to preach the Word of God. He had a personal mission/obsession with suffering, with undergoing ‘the offence’ all the better to demonstrate to the heathen how superior his God was, how it enabled him to turn the other cheek, and so on. So he ran away from his seminary in Algeria heading south until he reached the region around Taghaza in the country to the south of Algeria, Mali.

Here he was captured by brutal, pagan ‘natives’ who tortured and beat him. He was imprisoned in their ‘House of the Fetish’, home of a primitive idol, and here he witnesses various holy ceremonies conducted by the Sorcerer, which include beating a number of native women and then choosing one to mate with, like an animal, in the face of the Fetish.

The narrator is imprisoned in this pitch black hut made of salt and mud and fed on grain thrown onto the floor, while defecating in a hole he gouges. He is reduced to a condition of complete animality. On one occasion a native woman enters and apparently offers herself to him sexually, which he is beginning to act on when the Sorcerer and other tribesmen enter, beat him up and then tear out his tongue, making him pass out with pain. He comes round to find his bloody mouth stuffed with grass.

As his brutal treatment continues the narrator makes the transition to becoming the willing slave of the Fetish, a wordless devotee of the tribe and its god.

All this is being narrated as flashbacks from a ‘present’ in which he is lying in wait for a missionary. He heard, from his prison inside the House of the Fetish, French voices, apparently two army officers explaining that they are going to garrison twenty men outside the village to guarantee the safety of a Christian missionary who is on his way. The slave narrator decides to escape the House of the Fetish and kill the missionary. He wants to spark an incident, to get the French to retaliate against the tribe in order to cause a Holy War, and (in his fantasies) prompt the tribe to invade and conquer Europe overthrowing the wretched God which he now curses and despises.

And so, through the slave’s garbled consciousness, we gather that he does indeed waylay the missionary and beat him to death, as he tells us how good it feels to strike ‘goodness’ in the face with a rifle butt.

I laugh, I laugh, the fellow is writhing in his detested habit, he is raising his head a little, he sees me – me his all-powerful shackled master, why does he smile at me, I’ll crush that smile! How pleasant is the sound of a rifle butt on the face of goodness…

But the tribe has noticed his absence and come looking for him, and start to beat him up. As they approach, knowing he’s going to be punished, beaten, humiliated again, the narrator experiences a confused longing to escape, to be free of his demented damaged mind, to go home.

Here, here who are you, torn, with bleeding mouth, is it you, Sorcerer, the soldiers defeated you, the salt is burning over there, it’s you my beloved master! Cast off that hate-ridden face, be good now, we were mistaken, we’ll begin all over again, we’ll rebuild the city of mercy, I want to go back home.

But here, right at the end of the ‘story’, there is one short throwaway last line, apparently spoken by a new, third-person, narrator, which brutally describes the demented man’s pitiful death.

A handful of salt fills the mouth of the garrulous slave.

***********

Wow. This is a strong story, a fierce imagining, told in a rambling, demented style completely different from Camus’s usual philosophical detachment (the gra gra describes the sound he makes with his tongueless mouth), with long disjointed sentences conveying the persona’s mad raving.

What a jumble, what a rage, gra gra, drunk with heat and wrath, lying prostrate on my gun. Who’s panting here? I can’t endure this endless heat, this waiting, I must kill him. Not a bird, not a blade of grass, stone, an arid desire, their screams, this tongue within me talking, and, since they mutilated me, the long, flat, deserted suffering deprived even of the water of night, the night of which I would dream, when locked in with the god, in my den of salt. (p.48)

Literary critics have gone to town with numerous interpretations and the ideas invoked – colonialism, Christianity, the death of God, his replacement by a savage idol, sexual submission maybe rape, the denying of language to the white man (his tongue being torn out), his Stockholm Syndrome identification with his tormentors, his mad nihilist desire to provoke a Holy War and the conquest of Europe by Muslims hordes – there’s plenty of dots here to join up more or less any way you want.

I choose a psychological interpretation. I think it is Camus letting off steam in what amounts to a really long cry of agony.

3. The Silent Men (Les Muets)

They are silent because these men, the handful who work at a small cask-manufacturing workshop in a city on the coast, had gone out on strike for twenty days but then, eventually, been forced back to work for the usual reasons – the need for money, the refusal of the boss to back down. And so they file one by one into the knackered old workshop and, in silence, start up the old routines of work.

One by one, they went to their posts without saying a word. Ballester went from one to another, briefly reminding them of the work to be begun or finished. No one answered. Soon the first hammer resounded against the iron-tipped wedge sinking a hoop over the convex part of a barrel, a plane groaned as it hit a knot, and one of the saws, started up by Esposito, got under way with a great whirring of blade. Saïd would bring staves on request or light fires of shavings on which the casks were placed to make them swell in their corset of iron hoops. When no one called for him, he stood at a workbench riveting the big rusty hoops with heavy hammer blows. The scent of burning shavings began to fill the shop. Yvars, who was planing and fitting the staves cut out by Esposito, recognized the old scent and his heart relaxed somewhat. All were working in silence, but a warmth, a life was gradually beginning to reawaken in the shop. Through the broad windows a clean, fresh light began to fill the shed. The smoke rose bluish in the golden sunlight; Yvars even heard an insect buzz close to him.

The owner, M. Lassalle, tries to be friendly with his workers but they all resolutely silent. He thinks they’re sulking, but as Yvars, the lead figure in the story, explains to himself, that:

they were not sulking, that their mouths had been closed, they had to take it or leave it, and that anger and helplessness sometimes hurt so much that you can’t even cry out. They were men, after all, and they weren’t going to begin smiling and simpering.

I liked this story very much because it’s about work and manual labour at that, and so, for once, Camus actually gives sustained descriptions of things, of the world around him, rather than his usual retreat into characters’ feelings which almost always become extreme meditations on death and God and meaninglessness and so on.

It’s an oddity that the man who made so many general statements about the joyful physicality of the body really devoted so few pages to its description. I’ve done scores of manual labouring jobs. I grew up in a village shop and gas station, working in the shop from age 11, working on the pumps from age 16 and then working in the dark, oily, noisy tyre bay, handling the long heavy wheel jacks and the pneumatic bolt remover to undo the bolts holding a wheel to the car axle, alongside other lads swapping banter, walking past the Pirelli calendar on the wall, washing your hands in the tub of swarfega, sitting outside sharing a fag in the sun between jobs.

Descriptions of work, real physical work, of manual labour, are so rare in polite and ‘serious’ fiction that I always relish them.

Again the hammers rang out, the big shed filled with the familiar din, with the smell of shavings and of old clothes damp with sweat. The big saw whined and bit into the fresh wood of the stave that Esposito was slowly pushing in front of him. Where the saw bit, a damp sawdust spurted out and covered with something like bread-crumbs the big hairy hands firmly gripping the wood on each side of the moaning blade. Once the stave was ripped, you could hear only the sound of the motor.

There is a story of sorts, more an incident. Half way through the afternoon the foreman, Ballester, rushes through to say the owner’s little girl has had a fit. He dashes off to fetch an ambulance, which arrives soon after. At the end of the day the owner returns to the workshop to say a very pale and listless goodbye. Now the workmen don’t know what to say because they are embarrassed by their emotions of pity and compassion which, being rough men, they can’t express.

And so the story contains two kinds of silent men, or men who are silent in two ways. Even in this slight text Camus can’t help being schematic.

Yvars cycles home, admiring the darkening sea. He is 40 now, married to Fernande and they have a school-age son. He wishes he was 20 again and could go swimming in the warm sea. More than that,

If only he were young again, and Fernande too, they would have gone away, across the sea.

Another man who lives where he has lived all his life, who has a job, a wife and child but… but… somehow is not at home.

4. The Guest (L’Hôte)

Daru is schoolteacher in a really remote part of southern Algeria, atop a barren plateau. This year has seen an appalling drought, with Daru becoming a distribution point for government food aid. Now it has suddenly and unexpectedly snowed, in the middle of October. He’s looking out the schoolroom window when he sees figures approaching. It’s the local gendarme, Balducci, riding a horse and leading an Arab on foot with his hands tied together.

They greet Daru who welcomes them inside. Balducci explains that the Arab (who is never named) is under arrest for murdering his cousin in a nearby village, apparently in an argument over grain, cutting his throat like a sheep. Now the Arab is docile, edgy, silent.

To Daru’s horror, Balducci announces that he’s handing over the prisoner to Daru, going back to his post, and it will be Daru’s responsibility to take the prisoner on to the police headquarters at Tinguit! Daru emphatically doesn’t want the responsibility. He doesn’t want to be involved. It’s not his business. Nonetheless, Balducci makes Daru sign a document accepting responsibility, then leaves, first giving Daru his spare revolver.

There follows an uneasy night. Daru behaves decently if gruffly. He undoes the rope binding the Arab’s hands and makes them both some food. The Arab appears puzzled by this kindness but, after some hesitation, eats. Then Daru makes up two camp beds in the schoolroom, but lies there awake. In the middle of the night there is the promise of some excitement when Daru becomes aware that the Arab is getting up, with infinite slowness and stealth.

You and I have seen a thousand Hollywood thrillers so we’re expecting the Arab to make a move on the apparently asleep Daru. So does Daru. He pretends to be asleep and watches the Arab, in the event, quietly leave the schoolroom. Daru breathes a long sigh of relief thinking his onerous responsibility is over. Except that a few moments later the Arab returns. He had gone to the loo. After this act of not attacking him or escaping, Daru is able to fall asleep.

Next morning he makes them both breakfast and then orders the Arab to get dressed and follow him. He leads him some way south of the school building but then stops the Arab and hands him a package of food and 1,000 French Francs. Darus is not going to take him anywhere.

Instead Daru shows the Arab two alternative routes: the track south leads to the nomads who will give him shelter. Then he shows the track heading east. A day’s travel in that direction is the police station at Tinguit. It’s the Arab’s free decision.

Daru turns and heads back towards the school. After a little way he turns and looks and sees the Arab still standing in the same spot. OK. Daru continues. Closer to the school he turns again and at first can see no-one in either direction. Then, straining his eyes, he realises he can make out the figure of the Arab amid the vast stony waste of the desert. He is on the path east to Tinguit, presumably to hand himself in.

Is this a comment on the docility, the lack of independent-mindedness, the village stupidity of the Arab? Or his sense of honour? Or his reluctance to hand himself over to the nomads?

Whatever the Arab’s motivation, Daru grunts and returns to his school building. But not to his former life. That is gone for good. For on the blackboard he finds a simple sentence has been scrawled, presumably by Algerian rebels: ‘You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.’ Daru thought he had behaved decently. He thought he had given the Arab the freedom to choose his destiny. He thought he’s managed not to get embroiled in the conflict between the Algerian rebels and the French authorities. Looks like he was wrong on all counts.

Daru looked at the sky, the plateau, and, beyond, the invisible lands stretching all the way to the sea. In this vast landscape he had loved so much, he was alone.

This story really sums up a lot of the qualities of Camus’s prose and fiction which you hear so much about. The setting is bleak and elemental. The prose is pared down and simple. It is factual, descriptive, minimal, and yet pregnant with meaning.

The schoolmaster was watching the two men climb toward him. One was on horseback, the other on foot. They had not yet tackled the abrupt rise leading to the schoolhouse built on the hillside. They were toiling onward, making slow progress in the snow, among the stones, on the vast expanse of the high, deserted plateau. From time to time the horse stumbled. Without hearing anything yet, he could see the breath issuing from the horse’s nostrils.

Interpretation

Like almost all Camus’s story it is a parable, designed to have higher meanings read into it.

1. Contemporary readers had no difficulty reading it as a comment on the by now three years-old Algerian War (which started in 1954). Daru is caught between two worlds. Not part of metropolitan French culture, but not part of the native Arab world. The French authorities try to drag him into the conflict. He refuses to take part, insists on treating the Arab decently, and even gives him his freedom to decide his fate. Although this could also be interpreted as trying to shirk his responsibilities. But, either way, his fine intentions are turned to dust by the last-page promise of revenge. He is caught up in the conflict whether he wants to or not, regardless of what he does.

2. There is also the ‘existentialist’ interpretation. (Camus insisted he wasn’t an existentialist – ‘I do not have much liking for the famous existential philosophy and, to tell the truth, I think its conclusions false’, Resistance, Rebellion and death, page 58 – and Sartre said he wasn’t an existentialist, and having looked at their respective philosophies I am perfectly clear why Camus wasn’t an existentialist – nonetheless, when you read essays about him many if not most commentators casually describe him as an existentialist.)

Anyway, the existentialist focuses on the image of a man alone in the vast desert, abandoned by God etc, thrown back on himself. According to Sartrean existentialism, he has to create himself by means of his actions, which are utterly free, for which he must assume complete responsibility. Thus he shrugs off the duty imposed by the state and acts out his independence. But according to Camus’s very different philosophy of the Absurd, Daru rebels not only against the duty imposed on him, but also against the world of blood and death which the Arab represents. He seeks – as the long argument of Camus’s philosophical work, The Rebel, requires, to revolt against the world of bloodshed and against the world of binary choices – France v. Algeria. He seeks to create a space for individual freedom and dignity. He gives the Arab his own choice and human dignity back.

In this reading, the final message on the blackboard asserts the primacy of Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd over Sartre’s philosophy of freedom because it highlights the limits of Daru’s freedom. We can only operate within the restraints of the society around us. We are not absolutely free, as Sartre claims.

3. A third interpretation simply picks up the theme of exile. A long passage describes the impact of the summer-long drought on the villagers of the region and Daru’s role in trying to help them. It is designed to show the primal experiences and human solidarity which tie Daru to this bleak barren landscape. And by extension suggest the huge tug Camus felt for the land where he grew up and where he felt tremendous solidarity with the poorest of the poor pieds noirs, the most impoverished of the European settlers in Algeria, and therefore the acute pain of his exile once the war began.

The little room was cluttered with bags of wheat that the administration left as a stock to distribute to those of his pupils whose families had suffered from the drought. Actually they had all been victims because they were all poor. Every day Daru would distribute a ration to the children. They had missed it, he knew, during these bad days [of the recent snowfall]. Possibly one of the fathers or big brothers would come this afternoon and he could supply them with grain. It was just a matter of carrying them over to the next harvest. Now shiploads of wheat were arriving from France and the worst was over. But it would be hard to forget that poverty, that army of ragged ghosts wandering in the sunlight, the plateaus burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shriveled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one’s foot. The sheep had died then by thousands and even a few men, here and there, sometimes without anyone’s knowing. In contrast with such poverty, he who lived almost like a monk in his remote schoolhouse, nonetheless satisfied with the little he had and with the rough life, had felt like a lord with his whitewashed walls, his narrow couch, his unpainted shelves, his well, and his weekly provision of water and food. And suddenly this snow, without warning, without the foretaste of rain. This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men – who didn’t help matters either. But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled.

5. Jonas or the Artist at Work (Jonas ou l’artiste au travail)

Astonishingly, this is a comedy. Yes, it’s funny. Many parts of it could come from Oscar Wilde or Saki, with their dry sardonic humour. Even the protagonist’s name is English – Gilbert Jonas is an artist. Usually Camus’s stories are set in real time: the previous four stories all take place in the course of a day, or 24 hours, or even a brief hour or so with flashbacks (as in The Renegade). But this story gives a bird’s eye view, so to speak, of Gilbert’s entire career, his appearance, his rise, his peak and his fall.

There are numerous incidents but the outline is simple: Gilbert casually takes up painting; to his surprise his work is popular, he acquires an agent who successfully sells it. He allows himself to be married to sweet Louise who loves him with a selfless devotion, and they move into a cramped apartment characterised by an enormous studio with high windows. But as word gets around fashionable Paris, critics and society ladies drop by his little apartment, followed by disciples asking his opinion of their work, the phone is ringing all the time with invitations to lunch or dinner, his wife produces one, two, three babies who are parked around the flat, bawling continuously, until Gilbert is living in a state of siege.

His friend, Rateau, sardonically observes his friend’s rise into fan-infested chaos, observing his productivity slowly drop off, and also his inspiration. Gilbert finds himself going out during the day to avoid the scrum of fans and socialites in his flat, at first to find ‘subjects’ in the streets and parks but quickly taking comfort in snug little cafés and then in the snug little arms of the complaisant women he encounters there.

Drunk and unfaithful, his output tails off, until a tear-stricken scene with the faithful Louise reveals all and he promises to reform. But the crowds continue to throng the studio and they are now joined by Louise’s sister and her daughter, come to help, so that eventually Gilbert constructs a kind of loft flat high up in the big studio room, climbing up there by a ladder each morning and not coming down. His fans, his disciples, the critics and the ladies who lunch decide he is being hoity-toity now he is famous and start to abandon him. Rateau hears the critics dismissing his work and a once-loyal disciple remarking that Jonas is now ‘finished’. His agent calls to say sales are falling off and he will have to reduce his monthly stipend to Gilbert. But Gilbert sits every day in his loft, oblivious to the world around him, his eyes glazed over, now reduced to complete inactivity, staring blankly at an empty canvas all day long.

**********

The story is an obvious satire on the perils of fame, and of the type of people who infest Paris’s intellectual world. But it’s actually quite a simple-minded portrait. In its simplicity it kept reminding me of Oscar Wilde’s elegant witty fairy tales for children. It has a tenderness, a gentleness and charm which are all the more surprising when set against the unremittingly harsh, bleak, bare desert world of the other stories. Here is Gilbert gently struggling to conceal from his wife that her stealthy creeping around the studio puts him off painting much more than loud bold interruptions would do. There is a sweet kindness in every sentence and in the entire sentiment which is missing from pretty much everything else Camus published.

But when the rooms were full of paintings and children, they had to think up a new arrangement.
Before the birth of the third child, in fact, Jonas worked in the big room, Louise knitted in the bedroom, while the two children occupied the last room, raised a great rumpus there, and also tumbled at will throughout the rest of the apartment. They agreed to put the newborn in a corner of the studio, which Jonas walled off by propping up his canvases like a screen; this offered the advantage of having the baby within earshot and being able to answer his calls. Besides, Jonas never needed to bestir himself, for Louise forestalled him. She wouldn’t wait until the baby cried before entering the studio, though with every possible precaution and always on tiptoe. Jonas, touched by such discretion, one day assured Louise that he was not so sensitive and could easily go on working despite the noise of her steps. Louise replied that she was also aiming not to waken the baby. Jonas, full of admiration for the workings of the maternal instinct, laughed heartily at his misunderstanding. As a result, he didn’t dare confess that Louise’s cautious entries bothered him more than an out-and-out invasion. First, because they lasted longer, and secondly because they followed a pantomime in which Louise – her arms outstretched, her shoulders thrown back, and her leg raised high – could not go unnoticed. This method even went against her avowed intentions, since Louise constantly ran the risk of bumping into one of the canvases with which the studio was cluttered. At such moments the noise would waken the baby, who would manifest his displeasure according to his capacities, which were considerable. The father, delighted by his son’s pulmonary prowess, would rush to cuddle him and soon be relieved in this by his wife.

The concern for his wife and his children; the comic observation of people’s foibles: it is all touching and sweet and gentle in a way you wouldn’t have thought Camus capable of.

6. The Growing Stone (La Pierre qui pousse)

‘I used to be proud; now I’m alone…  I never found my place. So I left.’

D’Arrast is a French engineer. He is driven by a black driver, Socrates, through the jungle of Brazil to Iguape, a remote settlement on the coast. Here the pompous Mayor and drunk Chief of Police make a fuss of this great man, honouring them with his presence, who has come to build a jetty to protect the town from the periodic floods of the vast river. D’Arrast for his part is a man adrift. He nods and shakes hands but his mind is elsewhere. He asks to be taken to the miserably impoverished Negro quarter and into a typically squalid hut.

Socrates introduces him to a black ship’s cook who tells him about the town’s precious stone statue of Jesus which is kept in the Garden of the Fountain. The story goes that one day it floated up the river and was found on the bank. Supposedly you can chip bits off the statue as relics, as good luck charms, and the stone regrows. The ship’s cook was in a ship which sank. He was going to drown and prayed to the stone Jesus, promising he would carry a 100 pound stone on his head in the annual procession, if he was spared. Jesus heard his prayer, the waters were stilled and he was able to swim to shore. Now he is going to carry his weight in the procession which takes place tomorrow. He asks D’Arrast if he ever made a promise, and asks him to help him keep his.

That night D’Arrast meets up with the cook and family, for a meal and then onto the hut where he witnesses, and takes part in, a prolonged pagan ceremony, involving frenzied dancing, howling and barking, supervised by a sorcerer. Although different in detail, it recalls the pagan sex ceremonies witnessed by the demented missionary in The Renegade.

The next morning D’Arrast is taken by the Mayor to watch the official Catholic celebration, consisting of a procession round the town with a statue of Jesus. This is the procession his friend the ship’s cook vowed to accompany bearing a heavy stone on his head. By the latter stages of the procession, though supported by his family, he is staggering. D’Arrast leaves the balcony where the mayor had taken him to run down and be with the cook. Suddenly his ordeal and his promise seem important to the Frenchman. When the stone falls off the cork mat which is protecting the cook’s head and falls to the ground, the Frenchman bends down, puts the mat on his head and the enormous stone on top of it.

And then staggers after the Christian procession into the main square. But he abruptly turns away from the church and heads off towards the poor black quarter he had visited the night before. Despite the yelling of the crowd to turn round he staggers on towards the poor hut of his friend and there throws the stone into the primitive fireplace where it comes to rest in the flickering flames and ashes.

Exhausted, D’Arrast slumps against the wall, and the shattered cook, his brother and the rest of their family join him.

No sound but the murmur of the river reached them through the heavy air. Standing in the darkness, D’Arrast listened without seeing anything, and the sound of the waters filled him with a tumultuous happiness. With eyes closed, he joyfully acclaimed his own strength; he acclaimed, once again, a fresh beginning in life. At that moment, a firecracker went off that seemed very close. The brother moved a little away from the cook and, half turning toward D’Arrast but without looking at him, pointed to the empty place and said: ‘Sit down with us.’

It would appear that in the last few sentences of the last story one, at least, of Camus’s characters does finally overcome their feeling of exile and in some way manages to ‘come home’.


The irrational in Camus

The book’s title and most of the commentary I’ve read about it foreground the cool rational concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘kingdom’, but in fact the stories also contain a lot of the irrational – the two descriptions of frenzied pagan rituals, the demented monologue of the mad missionary, the semi-sexual epiphany of Janine on the parapet of the fortress, even the brutal murder committed by the unnamed Arab in The Guest – all suggest that the book is just as much an exploration of the irrational, the animal and the bestial in human nature as of dry intellectual ideas.

There’s far more of the weird and strange, of the uncanny, in Camus than his critics usually bring out.

The night was full of fresh aromatic scents. Above the forest the few stars in the austral sky, blurred by an invisible haze, were shining dimly. The humid air was heavy. Yet it seemed delightfully cool on coming out of the hut. D’Arrast climbed the slippery slope, staggering like a drunken man in the potholes. The forest, near by, rumbled slightly. The sound of the river increased. The whole continent was emerging from the night, and loathing overcame D’Arrast. It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself. Yonder, in Europe, there was shame and wrath. Here, exile or solitude, among these listless and convulsive madmen who danced to die.


The translation

Like all the Penguin editions of Camus I’ve read, this one is clumsily translated. The clumsiness is demonstrated in at least two ways: word order and idiom; and the use of subordinate clauses.

As to word order, almost every paragraph contains sentences where the original French word order has been kept and sticks out in English.

By subordinate clauses, I mean that although Camus’s prose is regularly praised for its spare simplicity, the actual texts we have in English are very often characterised by the addition of subordinate clauses which make his sentences long and clunky.

Modern spare prose was pioneered in English by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. Rule one is for each sentence to contain only one declarative statement, with one main verb and no subordinate clauses. A quick search of the internet reveals that there is an online Hemingway app. The first thing it does for you is identify long complex sentences in your prose and show how they should be split up into shorter, simpler ones.

At its most characteristic, Camus’s prose is certainly like as simple as his fans describe:

The coffee was ready. They drank it seated together on the folding bed as they munched their pieces of the cake. Then Daru led the Arab under the shed and showed him the faucet where he washed. He went back into the room, folded the blankets and the bed, made his own bed and put the room in order.

But there are also numerous places where the translation literally follows the French way of describing things, including the tendency to dangle subordinate clauses qualifying the object of the sentence. This is contrary to Hemingway rules and also to good English style.

Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful [of nomads] wandering over the vast territory she could see, which however was but a paltry part of an even greater expanse whose dizzying course stopped only thousands of miles farther south, where the first river finally waters the forest. (The Adulterous Woman)

This sentence should be split in two after ‘see’, the next sentence starting ‘And this itself was…’

Struck by the change in his voice, D’Arrast looked at the cook, who, leaning forward with fists clenched and eyes staring, was mimicking the others’ measured stamping without moving from his place.

Again, the sentence should end at ‘cook’, and a new sentence start ‘He was leaning forward…’.

Sentences like this give you a continual, slightly uneasy sense that this is not English prose, make you aware that it is a translation from a foreign language with its own rhythms and rules. And from time to time the text crosses a border to become completely alien in style and voice.

She did know that Marcel needed her and that she needed that need, that she lived on it night and day, at night especially – every night, when he didn’t want to be alone, or to age or die, with that set expression he assumed which she occasionally recognized on other men’s faces, the only common expression of those madmen hiding under an appearance of wisdom until the madness seizes them and hurls them desperately toward a woman’s body to bury in it, without desire, everything terrifying that solitude and night reveals to them. (The Adulterous Woman)

Could be simpler, couldn’t it? The paragraph should probably be split up at ‘die’. The next sentence could begin something like: ‘On those occasions he had the set expression which she occasionally…’ To go full Hemingway this second sentence should stop at ‘faces’, the next sentence starting ‘It was the expression common to all those men who gave an appearance of wisdom until…’ But even with these surgical repairs, this sentence is still a mess.

In particular, the French obviously has a habit of qualifying the key noun in a sentence with a subordinate clause which can’t help but break up the flow.

When D’Arrast, his head in the vice of a crushing migraine, had awakened after a bad sleep, a humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

There is too much going on here. It should be two sentences:

D’Arrast awoke after a bad sleep to find his head in the vice of a crushing migraine. A humid heat was weighing upon the town and the still forest.

Even this could be phrased better, but it’s a start. From this and scores of other examples the reader learns that French obviously allows for, permits or encourages more convoluted sentences than English normally does, sentences made up of two or more clauses whose stitching together often leads to the inversion of traditional English word order. None of the Camus translations I’ve read are without plenty of these blemishes.

If I had my way I’d commission a new edition of Camus, rewriting all the prose to put it into English word order and rhythm, and properly introducing and annotating every text. Both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel are, at an absolute minimum, crying out for proper indexes. It is a scandal that Penguin are still republishing the same badly translated and unannotated editions which are 60, sometimes 70 years old.


Credit

L’Exil et le royaume by Albert Camus was published in France in 1957. This translation of Exile and the Kingdom by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. It was republished as a Penguin paperback in 1962. All quotes & references are to the 1974 reprint of this Penguin edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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