During the final decade of the Raj, when I lived with my Sialkoti family in Bombay [Mumbai], which attracted natives from all over the Subcontinent, my book-reading friends and I — all teenage boys who, at home, spoke Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil and Gujarati — were avid readers of literature in the one language we shared: English.
As a colonial power, England quietly went about conditioning the younger native population into believing that the most advanced culture that transformed a formerly primitive society into a sophisticated civilisation originated from the United Kingdom.
Our schoolbooks — from the prettily illustrated nursery books that had us imagining rosy-cheeked Jack and Jill tumbling down the hill, to volumes of Romantic poetry making us swoon over John Keats’s nightingale in our matriculation class — came from England. As for our elders, the English had them convinced that the best new novels were by Englishmen, the latest marvel among them called Somerset Maugham. He was so well promoted that they had us all talking about “Summerset Mogum.”
Those voices of people sitting in balconies, expressing their amazement with “Mogum’s crackters”, came back to me on a recent visit to Brazil, when I entered the ancestral library of a family I know, assembled there by immigrants from Europe a hundred years ago.
There, near the shelf displaying the novels of Charles Dickens, my eyes fell on East and West: The Collected Stories of Somerset Maugham — the American edition of Maugham’s 1934 collection of stories set in the South Sea Islands, first published in England as Altogether.
Well, here was an opportunity to look at examples of what was broadcast as literary genius for his contemporaries to applaud. Maugham opens with a 15-page ‘Preface’, that begins with stating how he was early influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s stories, that so impressed him in his youth that he was led to imitate him.
After the analysis of de Maupassant’s work, Maugham details his reading of his second early master, Anton Chekhov, and then writes a scathing criticism of both, after which he describes his own work as perfection itself. There is a passing reference to Gustave Flaubert that shows no understanding, only total ignorance, of Flaubert’s ideas on style. Tellingly, there is no mention at all of the two great writers in the English language among his contemporaries: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
In short, the ‘Preface’ seems to have been written to lodge the notion of his own eminence in the reader’s mind. And so, we turn the page to read the story called ‘Rain’, of which the principal characters are on board a ship from Hawaii that puts them ashore in Pago-Pago the next day.
Maugham quickly establishes the four main characters — Dr Macphail and his wife, and a missionary named Mr Davidson and his nosey, talkative wife — with a few deftly executed strokes, giving each a singular mannerism, and has the reader immediately absorbed in the action.
By halfway through his narrative, it’s clear that Maugham has mastered the traditional form of the story. The plot has the reader totally hooked. A measles outbreak obliges the characters to remain in isolation on the upper floor of a small house where their sober lives are suddenly disturbed by a riotous crowd of sailors having fun with a young woman who has come from Hawaii to escape criminal charges that have something to do with working in the red light district.
Thus, halfway in his narrative, Maugham has the elements of a story that could project a profound metaphysical level: the doctor as the scientific healer, pitched against the missionary as the spiritual healer. The woman selling her body so arouses the missionary’s outraged morality that he takes to spending hours long into each night in order to save her soul.
But this is where the narrative breaks down. The reader is obliged to guess what the missionary must be doing that he calls saving her soul, and the forced drama leading to the supposedly surprise ending is hurriedly stated, obliging readers to reconstruct the story. Other stories in the book, most notably ‘P.&O.’, use the same approach, as if the author were filling up a prescription following an inalterable formula.
Another of Maugham’s stories is ‘The Taipan’, a much-praised portrait of an Englishman who prefers to remain in the Orient as the powerful figure he has become in his gorgeous Chinese robes, the natives bowing to him as before a wealthy nobleman, rather than retire to England where his lower-class origins would deprive him of any social distinction.
Maugham begins by stating: “No one knew better than he that he was an important person.” It is a familiar formula opening aimed at catching the reader’s attention. No character is created, only a person is talked about, and when a writer falls for such a beginning he then proceeds to give more information about him, as here in Maugham’s first paragraph: “He had worked his way up through solid ability … he remembered the modest home he had come from … in Barnes, a suburb … which, aiming desperately at the genteel, achieves only a sordid melancholy … He had come a long way since then.”
Nothing but dully stated facts with that portentous and nonsensical observation about the suburb’s “sordid melancholy” to make the author appear a profound observer of reality. The English obsession with class no doubt made provincial middle-class readers think this was great writing, which accounts for the instant success of Maugham’s first novel, Liza of Lambeth, with its clichéd rendering of Cockney speech.
It’s not the first time that a commercially successful writer has been promoted as a leading figure of national significance to be noted by the world at large. Having contributed nothing to what becomes established as an important new advance in literature — as did the work of Virginia Woolf — Maugham is inevitably reduced to a footnote by passing time and succeeded by new claimants to his empty title.
The old British colonialism has now been substituted by American capitalism, which abhors any form that shows no profit. Ours is the Age of Reparations that reserves its rewards for socio-politically bereaved candidates, not for literary excellence.
The columnist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, a literary critic and fiction author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 26th, 2021