One of the many inconveniences of real life is that it seldom gives you the complete story, wrote British writer Somerset Maugham in the story The Romantic Young Lady. Yet, out of an inconvenience such as this, or perhaps because of it, he created a marvelous oeuvre of short fiction. Maugham, a writer with many hats – novelist, playwright, literary critic, travel writer – wore them all with élan. Even those who have read none of his longer works (The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence), would, most likely, have read a short story or two.
Maugham’s skill as a writer came from his acute powers of observation. As a child he stammered and was teased for it. Shyness made of him a passive participant but an active spectator. He started writing short stories after his moderately successful first novel, Liza of Lambeth, written when he was a medical student in London, was published in 1897. These early works came out in the best literary magazines of the day, The Strand Magazine, Punch, The Pall Mall magazine, The Illustrated London News. However, it was only after the First World War – in which he served in France as an ambulance driver – that he wrote some of his finest tales.
In 1917, Maugham travelled to the Pacific Islands and the Far East, visiting the British colonies: India, Burma, Siam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong. The good traveler has the gift of surprise, he wrote. Though his travel writing compares with that of Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark, Maugham was always more interested in people than places. On a Chinese screen, his account of a journey up the Yangtze river in 1919, is replete with detailed pen pictures titled My Lady’s Parlour, Dinner Parties, The Nun, that were probably meant as preliminary notes for his stories. On his travels he interacted with the whole gamut of expats who ran the empire – bureaucrats, planters, company managers, army officers, missionaries – and built up a storehouse of raw material in the form of vignettes, anecdotes, sketches which later gave shape to some truly memorable pieces of short fiction, rich in period detail.
It was a time when the world was in a flux and the sun was gradually beginning to set on the Raj. In The Outstation, a character who lives on a remote administrative outpost in the Borneo jungle insists on dressing up for dinner every evening: ‘When a white man surrenders in the slightest degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self- respect, and when he loses his self- respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.’ In Maugham’s writing it is hard to distinguish between reality and imagination; fact is sometimes barely disguised as fiction, and the usual caveat about characters being imaginary seems like the only invented part. Naturally, some of the stories created controversy and invited lawsuits. For instance, The Painted Veil, a novella set in Hong Kong, about an adulterous affair and its unusual aftermath, had to be revised twice to avoid hurting the sentiments of British folks living on the island. The stories Maugham wrote give us an insight into the class structure of colonial life, the attitudes of those who administered the colonies and were caught between two cultures. They capture the dilemmas of the rulers –isolation, boredom, homesickness – while telling us very little about the ruled.
The colonial’s existence was lonely and monotonous. Driven by the conflicting needs, to cling on to what he had left while distancing himself from where he found himself, it took an emotional toll. The imperative to maintain cultural boundaries both within and without the world of the White Man is a frequently explored theme in the stories. Class, religion and sex were typical subjects. As was adultery. Notwithstanding the gin pahits served by the deferential houseboys on the bungalow’s verandah, against a backdrop of prahus sailing down the river that ran through the dark forest under a buttery yellow moon, there was, it seems, nothing for the English mem and the sahib to do in those remote rubber plantations – except have an affair. With whom? For her, it was usually a neighbor from the estate next door, always a fellow white man. The sahib, however, had no such qualms; he could, and often did, make the crossover by choosing a native Malay or Chinese woman as his mistress and even having half a dozen half -caste kids.
While these yarns were clearly inspired by tidbits of salacious gossip, probably gathered from shamelessly eavesdropping at watering holes such as the bar at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, in Maugham’s deft hands they became stories, written in plain prose, with plots and twists, but about real people and all the subtle touches of irony that make up real life. Of this ilk are The Letter, Flotsam and Jetsam, Force of Circumstance, all considered Maugham classics.
What was the response? Well, Western critics who were getting accustomed to more cerebral stuff such as the new styles of short story writers like John Cheever, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, tended to look down their noses calling his writing a ‘tissue of clichés’. The public, however loved his work – probably for the same reason that the critics despised it. He was, reputedly, the highest paid author in the 1930s, outselling brilliant contemporaries like Joseph Conrad.