William Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965)

Having decided, in describing 20th Century Classics of English Literature, to write about writers whose output as a whole was not very distinguished, but who produced individual works of brilliance, I realize that I should deal with the other side of the coin too. Certainly there come to mind many writers of the inter war period who are memorable for their entire output even though one would be hard pressed to identify any particularly outstanding work.

The best known of these is probably Somerset Maugham, perhaps the most popular writer ever of short stories. And, even though most literary critics look down on his work, as being simplistic and superficial, it could certainly be argued that he deals with life and character in an interesting and illuminating way, instead of just aiming at thrilling or entertaining us. This is evident not only in his novels, of which he produced some that go well beyond being pot boilers, but also in many of his short stories.

I first came across him in one of the compendiums I bought one year for my prize books, in an attempt to get lots of value for the money given. This was a collection of stories of horror and mystery, and included Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, which has I think rightly been described as one of the most chilling of its sort. I believe there was also a Sherlock Holmes story about a snake, but I can remember nothing else about the book except the story by Somerset Maugham.

It was called ‘The Hairless Mexican’, and was said to be one of the Ashenden stories, though I have never since come across any others featuring this particular narrator. Ashenden was a member of the British Secret Service, and the story was about his being entrusted with the assassination of a foreign gentleman who was inimical to British interests. Being an Englishman, he was not of course expected to do the dirty deed himself, but was given an agent, a bald Mexican who was supposed to be one of the best hired guns available for deeds of this sort.

The story was wonderfully suspenseful, in part because initially Ashenden was not sure if he had correctly identified the man who was to work with him, and then he was not sure whether the Hairless Mexican would prove reliable. The fact that he found the man uncongenial did not help. Still, despite the pervasive distrust, they track the intended victim, develop an elaborate scheme to kill him, and finally succeed in this.

Almost immediately after however, Ashenden gets another message from his handlers, a message that seems to hit him hard, and there are a few sentences of sheer suspense until we find out what has happened. The explanation, when it comes, is laconic – it seems the Mexican, with his elaborate preparations, has killed the wrong man.

Perhaps unfairly, despite the joys of John Buchan and Ian Fleming (and perhaps helped by the brilliant satires of Graham Greene), my view of British skullduggery in the cause of foreign policy has been coloured by this story. And I was reminded of it again recently, with the unfolding of the whole GSP+ saga, and the triumphant claims of a few Labour MPs that their government had been responsible for depriving Sri Lanka of the concession. I am not sure whether Keith Vaz or some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels would make a better hairless Mexican, and one cannot push the parallels too far, but Maugham does make one think about the consequences of self righteousness without proper understanding of the facts.

Excessive self righteousness is one of Maugham’s favourite butts, and it is given its comeuppance from very different angles. ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ is a light spoof based on the fable of the ant who survived the winter having worked hard and stored food, whereas the grasshopper danced through the summer and then perished when times were hard. Maugham turns the message on its head in the story of two brothers, one of whom plods through life while the other enjoys himself with wine and women and song and squanders all he has, and then marries a rich woman whose wealth is more than enough to keep him going for the rest of his life.

A longer and darker critique of self righteousness is Maugham’s most anthologized story, ‘Rain’, about a missionary who goes to a South Sea Island to teach the natives Christianity and Chastity and ends up discovering the joys of sex. The story is brilliantly built up with the image of excessive rain conveying the bursting out of pent up feeling.

A very different command of atmospherics is achieved in ‘Before the Party’, the story of a woman who comes back home to the English countryside after her husband had died on their plantation in Malaya. I think I read the story shortly after I had read Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Garden Party’, with its portrayal of middle class gentility, and I thought of the Maugham story as being on the same lines, as the widow described her life in Malaya to her parents before they set off for an elegant English country celebration. But as the description of the torrid Malayan landscape progressed, one realized there was more to this story, and one read on breathless as it reached the by then predictable but nevertheless startling revelation that the lady had killed her debauched husband. And after the matter of fact statement, she pulled on her gloves, assuming her parents would take her to the party as though nothing untoward had happened.

Maugham’s work is full of irony, as in the story of the selfish woman who claims to be ill whenever her daughter, who looks after her, seems to have a chance of happiness through love. Finally the narrator tells the woman off and insists that she allows the daughter to marry, instead of continually claiming that she herself is very ill and would die without the daughter’s care. Louisa, I think her name was, finally gives in, but claims that the narrator would realize her needs were genuine – as he does, when she dies on the day of her daughter’s wedding.

And my own favourite, so subtle that sometimes I found students missed the point, involved yet another self righteous narrator, on a ship with an obnoxious foreigner who claimed to know everything. The rest of the group at the same table are delighted when Mr Know-All is challenged when he declared that the jewels a woman at the table was wearing were superb. The husband says they are only imitation and challenges him to look at them carefully, after which Mr Know-All admits he was wrong.

The narrator however notes that something is amiss, and later realizes that the woman had indeed been wearing expensive pearls, obviously given her by another admirer. As Mr Know-All says laconically, tucking into his wallet the notes the lady had sent him secretly, to repay him for the money he had lost on his bet with the husband, it was not sensible of the man to have left his wife alone when he travelled.

The story is simple, the treatment of the characters superficial. But it captures a whole range of human experience and emotion. The manner in which it opens out, from description of the narrator’s irritation with a pompous bore, to capture basic human feelings in a range of characters, exemplifies both Maugham’s skill as a story teller and his lasting appeal to serious readers.

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