Classics Challengers: Get to know W. Somerset Maugham

Too many things have been going on, which is why I haven’t posted since April 1 (yikes!). I hope I still have some of you with me.

This latest category was short stories, and though I chose it because I thought I could knock it out in an afternoon, it took much longer than I thought. Who would have thought that six short stories would have taken this long to read?

Stout or not, Somerset? What's the verdict?
Stout or not, Somerset? What’s the verdict?

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to read. I’m moody and if I’m not feeling something, I’ll set it aside. Sometimes, I even throw it aside. I started with Fitzgerald, about whom I’d recently read a novel. But his short stories were not, um, short so, irritated, I gave up on him. Then I decided to try someone I’d never read before: Saki is the pen name of Hector Hugh Monroe (I’d go by Saki, too) a British author born in 1870 who many claim is the greatest short story writer of all time. I found myself irritated with him, too, in large part because he was killed in World War I, in which he enlisted at the ripe old age of 43. Silly old git. His last words, reportedly, were, “For God’s sake, put that bloody cigarette out.” He has no known grave. I didn’t feel the pieces I read, one of which focused on a werewolf. I’m not a teenage girl, so I moved on.

Edith Wharton was my next stop. This satirist of the Gilded Age wrote “Roman Fever,” one of my favorite short stories, but again, her stories were too long. Chapters? In short stories? Really? (I have to say, though, that her story “Xingu,” about a woman’s book club, was something of a zinger.) But I was simultaneously editing someone’s dissertation and I was badly in need of a simple, declarative sentence. That should have led me to Hemingway, but I wasn’t that bad off.

That’s when I stumbled across “East and West: The Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham.” It turned out to be just what I was looking for.

Now I have loved Maugham since I came across “The Painted Veil” years ago. I could not put that book down. The opening scenes, in which a woman and her lover think her husband has come home early and is in the other room are so tense I couldn’t stop reading. And I didn’t know whose side I was on, the husband’s or the wife’s. It was like that all the way through the novel and it left so much to talk about that I still recall scenes more than 20 years after I first read it.

Most fascinating about “East and West” is Maugham’s preface, in which he talks about Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov, two masters of the short story. While Maugham is inspired by both, he sees each of their faults: Maupassant writes fascinating stories with little character development and Chekhov creates fascinating characters, but puts them in plotless stories.

Implicitly, Maugham says: “I set out to find the middle ground and create great stories peopled by fascinating characters” and he mostly does. Add to that some serious social criticism and you’ve got near-perfect short stories.

Take this passage, for example. The story is “The Alien Corn,” and is about a young British aristocrat on the fast track to high society. Trouble is, he doesn’t want the peerage, the title or the land: He wants to play piano. His family is aghast, but makes a deal with him — study for two years, then play for an unbiased judge and let that person decide his future. Add to that the family secret that hangs over everything — they are Jews in an anti-Semitic England — and you’ve got a hell of a story. Then, you must layer in Maugham’s sardonic wit. In this scene, the narrator is talking to the pianist’s mother, Muriel: “‘Life is full of disappointments,’ said Muriel crisply. ‘But one learns to put up with them.’ I gave her a smile of amusement. We were sitting in a Rolls, and there was a footman as well as a chauffeur on the box. She wore a string of pearls that had probably cost forty thousand pounds.” Nice.

I also read “The Letter” and “Rain,” two stories about the British occupation of the East. I chose them because I had seen movies inspired by them, “Rain” starring Joan Crawford and “The Letter” with Bette Davis. “The Letter” is an interesting movie but a more interesting short story. Maugham clearly wasn’t afraid of ambiguity, though Hollywood must have been. That’s why the duplicitous wife pays for her crime in the movie of “The Letter,” but not in the story.

To echo Maugham’s theme of his preface, I’ll do some nit-picking. There were lots of people described as “stout,” which I found interesting. They were “tall but stout,” and “stout but not leaning toward fat” and “stout and obese.” I kept wondering what that was all about. And in the six stories I read, four of them had suicide as part of the plot. In addition, Maugham’s short stories are not short, but they sure feel that way. They are often predictable, but it’s not about where he’s going, it’s about the points he makes after he gets there.

His stories about the culture clash of proper, Victorian Brits in the wild, wild East explore the solitude of people who don’t understand others. They could be read as a metaphor for Maugham’s homosexuality, which set him apart from society. Or maybe not. This is a lost world, Maugham’s England and his East. They look so beautiful from here, even with Maugham showing us all the ugly underbelly.

I’m so pleased I stumbled across this book on my shelf. Maugham’s stories are, like Maupassant’s, page turners and, like Chekhov’s, fascinating character studies. A reader won’t always like the characters, and may not like the endings, but they will like that they are made to feel and to think.

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