33 thoughts on “Short Stories – W. Somerset Maugham

  1. I don’t think I have ever replicated the whole of a work as a real-time review of itself!
    Well, I have done so, now. It seems a real-time review or template of the world as we know it –

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  2. MACKINTOSH

    “Her monstrous obesity was an offence, but she managed to convey an impression of dignity.”

    To the Pacific again, one of the Samoan islands, the above description of the native chiefess is a template for Walker the oppressive colonial administrator of the island, who is ageing and obese like Mr Pickwick and arrogant and often ruthless, but is his heart in the right place? He has instinct, particularly instinct for road-building on the island, and getting things done, a bit like our Boris. He enjoyed girls swimming under him and teasing him in the pool. Should we thus give him some slack? Not if we are like the eyes of this story: the eyes of a regular guy Mackintosh as old Walker’s assistant. A young man with ideals. Against Walker’s means as ends. Ends tragically for whom? Each or both or all? Another template for our once pacific world of nature.

    “A ghost of a chuckle came out of his throat. It was astonishingly weird and ghastly.”

  3. THE FALL OF EDWARD BARNARD

    Means and ends, again. The Pacific again. The South Seas versus Chicago. Whereby a Fall could be a Rise, and vice versa. Depends what you want from life, not what you THINK you want from life! Just a brief swimming cossie to cover or subtly reveal what is important?

  4. RAIN

    “Desire is sad.”

    Volcanic material. Wearing, half-mast, half-cast, the lava-lava, as the makeshift swimming cossie in the previous story, now here like a crude genitals’ covering as a matter of careless course! And you probably know already how this famous ultra-powerful novelette pans out, the merciless, pitiless torrents of relentless rain (“with a fierce malignity that was all too human”) in an enforced Pacific stopover, such rain upon a makeshift hostel with a corrugated roof. Inside, two couples, an overtly and strictly pious Missionary beset by the magnet of sin accompanied by his wife and a relatively common-sensical Doctor also with his wife. Plus a good-time girl whose fat legs puffed out above her boots. And her gramophone. And her visitors. In the previous story, don’t forget the description of someone’s scorn at half-castes mixing with whites. The white standards broken. Now the Biblical commandants are threatened. Here, too, we have temptation as well as merciless madness like the rain the rain the rain, it seems. And what is too obvious remains subtle, and vice versa. We need to wear this story like a hair shirt. Or a hair-cossie, more like! “…one does look at distances differently in the South Seas” — not forgetting the missionary’s memories of the mountains of Nebraska!

  5. ENVOI

    Ships leaving Honolulu break coloured streamers between ship and shore…eventually dividing those of us at either end of such streamers.
    “…fragments trail down the hull…” and then fly away. Like life’s gestalt or garland?

  6. THE CASUARINA TREE

    A touching account of how a WSM story collection was thus entitled. Based on myths attaching to the tree and missionaries’ exile in climes now bested by life’s end corona. Though that last bit was my embellishment just as WSM embellished his own casualty of a tree with more of those word streamers…

  7. BEFORE THE PARTY

    “Mrs Skinner has an uneasy impression that she looked at them as though they were mannequins at a dressmaker’s. She seemed to live in a different world from theirs and to have no connexion with them.”

    Mrs Skinner’s daughter Millicent, that is. This work evolves Millicent’s fraught tale, prior to inevitable revelation at a forthcoming social dinner party, of Millicent’s troubled marriage of convenience or of temperamental mercenariness, to a man who worked in Borneo. Not a childless marriage, though. A man with drink problems leading to tragic results and how all this affects Millicent’s otherwise respectable family, with an added philosophical dilemma of her telling the COMPLETE story at all. The smell of Mrs Skinner’s gloves or the dead man’s ospreys in her toque, notwithstanding.

  8. P & O

    “And she knew, if anyone did, that the hearts of men, whether their skins are yellow or white or brown, are incalculable.”

    From the point of view of a woman whose husband has left her loose….
    Purity & Otherness, this is the insular world – harbouring flirtations with love and death – on a ship travelling from Singapore westward, bringing home those who are halfway through their lives at Christmas, a crossover time in more ways than one, with superstition of non-white magic spells to deal with deadly hiccups, a case of a curse as native punishment for the flirt and disingenuousness of the genders, the stereotypes, the interracial prejudices, the first and second class passengers cordoned from each other, too, whatever their colour – and man to man loyalties, where a cockney from 2nd class is represented by elisions in his speech! P & O if said quickly may be the sound of a posh articulate hiccup rather than a guttural one? And a cock that’s de-wattled…
    The protagonist woman learns that harbouring grievances is a voyage to nowhere.

  9. THE LETTER

    “Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones.”

    A truly page-turning story of a crime of self defence, or was it involving duplicity? And the Singaporean ambiance of where we are with it, from ‘more better’ and ‘fliend’ to ‘fiendish passion’. And financial chicanery or Chinkanery? The character of the accused woman called Leslie Crosbie is an unforgettable literary classic character, up for trial, viewed by various men … her husband, her lawyer, and her now murdered or manslaughtered male friend not fliend – and then there is her lawyer’s overtly honest assistant clerk Chink, all of us underestimating a fiendish passion in her or in someone else, for the sake of suspense or mystery? Until we know. The shocking calmness, too.

    “…and once more placed the tips of his ten fingers together. The little construction he formed looked like the skeleton of a roof. He was silent for a moment.”

  10. MR HARRINGTON’S WASHING

    “There is much cry but little wool.”

    “He read pencil in hand, underlining passages that attracted his attention, and on the margin making in his neat writing comments on what he read.”

    …which has also helped me. I seem to already know this British man Ashenden (a bit of a love rat and intellectual, by the sound of it, vis a vis the ladies and the new craze for Russian literature), know him by dint of a Jungian Collective Consciousness, as we follow him on a long train journey into Russia in the lead-up to a convulsive 1917, with world history milling about us, and the American man he meets called Harrington, Harrington who is a talkative but loveable bore, intent on having a clean change of clothes each day, writing every day to his wife. There are many catalysts for chaos in this story … and turning- and tipping- points, such as the Russian lady whom Ashenden once nearly married after a trial fling in Paris, the utter importance of scrambled eggs, and using her knickers as bandage, and, of course, Harrington’s laundry in war-torn Petrograd, the latter creating a most poignantly tragic scene in the whole of literature, I guess, at the end of this story. Harrington also enjoyed reading aloud. But who is W. D. Howells? And why did Harrington call the Russian lady Delilah and she he Samson? And do you recall that her ex husband had a long head like stretched liquorice?

    “I said that was Russia and Mr Harrington said he preferred coloured people.”
    (I wonder if he ever forgot not to mix his coloureds in with his whites!)

  11. SANATORIUM

    “‘That’s touch luck, old man,’ said Templeton in his hearty way.”

    Templeton, not the sort of chap “to play bumble-puppy bridge with a girl like that…” and Ashenden, the same lively lad as the one in the previous story, now beset with TB. This sanatorium, where various well-characterised characters turn up, makes me think of the one in Mann’s Magic Mountain or Aickman’s Into The Wood, but they all go into some magical alchemy of hope or indeed into a wood of death’s despair, along with a tontine of petty rivalries, and competition over best rooms, and struck up romances, and difficult marriages outside the place, until the marriage of two of them within the place (marriage being deemed by the doctor dangerous for the TB prognosis it seems!) shows genuine love rather than a continuing hope in durability beyond the TB. To Be or not To Be.

  12. THE PRINCESS AND THE NIGHTINGALE

    “‘It’s not the same thing,’ said the little bird. ‘The rice fields and the lake and the willow-trees look quite different when you see them through the bars of a cage.’”

    And, similarly, reading between the lines of print in a story, I wonder?

    • ‘Under Current’ by DF Lewis

      Why two words? I often wonder whether the second word is misspelt. Currant not current. Still, if you are listening to this, you might wonder what the hell I am talking about. If you listen to everything people say, you might wonder if their intentions are to confuse rather than to clarify.

      Even in writing, there is always an undercurrent of being taken for a ride, and you often need to read between the lines to garner the real meaning. Somerset Maugham once wrote about the Princess and the Nightingale, where the nightingale itself spoke to her. To quote Maugham’s story: “‘It’s not the same thing,’ said the little bird. ‘The rice fields and the lake and the willow-trees look quite different when you see them through the bars of a cage.’”

      So why two words? I ask this again as I have just thought of something preferable to ‘under current’, a whole, single word with no gap in it, even better than undercurrent itselfwith no gap in it. That is the normal mediocre way. Undercurrent. Nothing to do with raisins or currants. But, then again, as I have already confirmed, I suddenly thought of another word: UNDERTOW. Spelt thus. Nothing to do with feet or their digits!

      Then again.

      Then again.

      The current under our feet is sensed as becoming deeper and deeper, almost like an earth rumour. That was an autocorrect for my clumsy typing of tremor. The throbbing beyond the toes of my feet, a shuddering entrenched within the soul of the support I always try to find in the shaky planet upon which we live. Who knows what waits for us beyond the terror of the terrain?

      Take a moment, please, to think, to ponder, yes, to wonder. The earth has its own undercurrent and we should listen to it more than we do.

      Towing us through space to our final harbour. Death is above and below everything. A swish and swash of tides nobody can truly ponder – or plunder. The bars of Maugham’s birdcage factored into… into what?

      Into ourselves.

      Not the digitally manipulative illusion of words and sound, nor any ebb and flow of life as fostered by a nuisance of nuance.

  13. THE ROUND DOZEN

    “One November, two or three years after the war, having had a bad attack of influenza, I went down to Elsom to regain my strength.”

    And Elsom is of course part of Brighton (well, according to this story), where something slightly worse than flu is centred in the news today. And the narrator here meets someone boring (who had nevertheless met some famous authors of the day like Wilkie Collins and even some of the Pre-Raphaelite painters) and who had also spent his life as a tea merchant trying to persuade people to drink China tea rather than Ceylon. The main thrust of this story, though, is the narrator meeting by chance with a cigarette-cadging man who had been famous for bigamy, a con man marrying women for their money, up to eleven marriages already… regretting he never made it to a round dozen, not that 12 is really round, I’d say! Another chance or coincidence relates to his now fulfilling this ambition by already sniffing around the attractive middle-aged spinster niece of the tea merchant! Sorry about the spoiler, but can an old classic work like this have plot spoilers! You would have thought she was acting quite out of character here, if you did not remember earlier in the story that she had enjoyed reading a racy novel by Ouida! You will not appreciate the coincidences in this work nor its charming descriptions of the social mœurs of seaside life in Brighton, without reading it, though.

    “And I give them love. Why, many of them had never known what it was to have a man do them up behind.”

    ***
    My own contribution to this experience –

    “Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.”
    – Ovid, Heroides

    Covid-19 was Christened today.
    And so I’m keeping my own hook clear of the water in more ways than one!

  14. JANE

    “They saw that Jane was a woman with whom age did not count.”

    Amid social manners as an undercurrent of a world we no longer know. Jane is a major figure in literature, it seems, someone I had not met before. An older woman considered by her sister in law as boring and dowdy – and the latter cannot believe when Jane is taken up by a man 27 years her younger. He dresses her artfully in an eyeglass and clothes he designs. They marry. And things pan out perfectly, a divorce where the normal order can continue as an optimum, an optimum that never would have existed without the earlier miraculous transgression of expectations. All through the eyes of another man as independent sounding-board for this story, a story that easily flows with a wonderful rhythm of textured prose and dialogue, and social manners, where disparate age meets disparate age, both beyond and with the grain of a tipping-point.

  15. ALIEN CORN

    “Art is is the only thing that matters. In comparison with art, wealth and rank and power are not worth a straw.”

    The longest story so far, one that delightfully flows with the usual Maugham narrative synchromesh, with a startling, almost gratuitous, ending to boot. With the Death in Venice sacrifice-everything-for-musical perfection as goal. But something lacking compared to the previous stories, I feel the social mix of Jews and Jewishness hidden amid the Britons, Germans and Gentiles working through the Victorian era into the 1920s. And the fine characterisation of father and the “scapegrace” son, the making of one’s way in life, and the novelist himself as the narrator bringing us towards the ultimate Chopin Test. The crux of art and life. And the wonderful woman who judges this Test..
    Today seems to have been Chopin Day. See my review HERE earlier today of this SKLEP story.

  16. THE DOOR OF OPPORTUNITY

    “I’ve never seen such a large powder-puff in my life.”

    A Marie Laurencin painting, Gauguin also mentioned (that Gauguin Yellow Christ painting comes to my mind, yellow as coward? that King in Yellow?), Debussy, that is played on the piano by someone called Alban. Alban Berg? (that iceberg that is nine tenths hidden?) Alban is the Colonial District Officer in the Far East, married to a monkey-ugly wife Anne, white supremacy both, no, they respect, or at least Anne does, the local white man Prynne who lives with a native girl and had children with her, both Alban and Anne into art and literature, Alban looked at as a snob by the staff and servants, one day he should make Governor, when priggishness is no matter because most of the other white staff already see him as high and mighty, and then THAT will suit the job of Governor! Yet Alban’s Achilles’ heel is as huge as the hidden iceberg, I guess. Seemingly too scared to face the ‘“chinks’” or Chinamen who kill that man who married the native woman. And Alban procrastinates on sorting out the situation, till reinforcements arrive. Atonal notes of equivocation and ambivalence, elements of the dubious double-meaning, a grey area of risk between cowardly caution and bravery. …. what are the eventual repercussions to his job and to his marriage? This story tells you. A story of its time that seems to know more than it should, with undercurrents that only modern people like me can see, while offering up a story to Alban’s contemporary people – who read it THEN – would have expected? Literature holds secrets even from itself! Every sun has a corona, whether invisible or not? The Intentional Fallacy of Colonialism as well as of literary aesthetics.

  17. THE VESSEL OF WRATH

    “…it was a comfort to know that if you fell ill you need not rely only on a Chinese practitioner,… […] On the occasion of an epidemic of influenza the missionary had done the work of ten men…”

    This sometimes amusing story of a fat Contrôleur of the Alas Islands, and the pious missionary cum doctor Reverend Owen Jones and his feisty spinsterly seemingly equally pious sister Martha (“She reminded him strangely of wet linen hung on a clothes-line”) and her eventually succumbing to the lslands’ drunken white womaniser called Ginger Ted, her having been marooned with him after a boat’s broken propeller — this otherwise amusing story, yes, takes a backseat today, in our world’s predicament, to other elements of its plot, here metaphorised as an epidemic of ‘cholera’ upon the Alas Islands (in phonetic assonance with ‘corona’?)…

    “Hospital sites would have to be erected and quarantine stations. The inhabitants of the various villages on the islands must be forced to take proper precautions…”

  18. THE BOOK-BAG

    “From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousand books than to have ploughed a million furrows? Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without —“

    “Once, imprisoned by illness for three weeks in a hill-town in Java, I came to the end of all the books I had brought with me,…”

    This is another utterly compelling read in itself, one with a first half containing descriptions of the narrator Mark’s huge book-bag, and how he unloads it by dragging the bag from the books, thus making them a veritable bookriver! He lugs this bag around the world, and one cannot help think his luggage would be less unwieldy if he had a Kindle. But, no, this takes place in the old days of colonies in the East where Englishmen set up their own social communities amid the planters.
    The second half of this story is told by one such Englishman to Mark, Mark being a confidence-magnet for personal secrets by, it seems, his role as a writer himself…and this man tells him a story about a brother and sister. The man telling this story to Mark had fallen in love with the sister. And if I tell you more you will know too much. Hope you packed this book at least!
    The connection between the story’s thoughts on books and the story of the brother and sister? A connection of pure gratuitousness? Or a connection with a book called ‘The Life of Byron’?
    I wonder about books that create stories rather than contain them. Or books that do both of these things at once. Or books with variations of direction inside the relationship with a reader. Synchronicity or cause and effect? A love too close for comfort or a freewheeling emotion of ineluctable truth.
    All things are in my book-bag, a bag containing books I often take direct into my veins.

  19. SALVATORE

    “He was sent here and there, to Spezzia, to Venice, to Bari, and finally to China. Here he fell ill of some mysterious ailment…”

    A moving tale of this once thrustingly healthy young man, and an essence of self-goodness that outweighs whatever is brought against him, especially if distilled in ‘story’, as here, forever and ever, even beyond the time when there is anyone left to read it. That balance of a “naked baby” in one hand with empty death in the other, I guess.
    Somerset Maugham, do not worry, you managed to do it.

  20. I am reading the next story slightly out of order because it was flown here earlier today in SOLITUDE by William Trevor

    THE KITE

    “As we know, there is often a great difference between the man and the writer.”

    The man or the writer who the same man also is as kite and kite-flyer? But which is which? (‘Man’ here as generic for man or woman, I suggest.) Freud, incidentally, indeed may be the key to all such kite-flyings of life. Meanwhile, this is a truly blessed page-turning story, each page threatening to become a kite, even eventually the special box-kite featured here that is invented by Herbert from, I guess, the wells of his feet upward. To be flown on the common with his parents, Herbert’s mother (who keeps herself to herself), with his father in meek tow, coming between her son and Betty his wife, a wife whom his mother never wanted Herbert to marry in the first place, a wife who despises kite-flying.
    Who flies the kite? Either the man who is seen as flying it or the kite itself autonomously inducing such control of the retrocausal thermals for such a flight to be given it from some lower or upper flight of life’s tier of stories?
    The imaginary friend in Solitude or the friend who imagined such a friend?
    The sun himself or his corona?

    “And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it.”

  21. THE JUDGEMENT SEAT

    “; but the philosopher, taking perhaps an unfair advantage of the regrettable happenings just then upon Earth, had asked him how, considering them dispassionately, it was possible to reconcile his All-Power with his All-Goodness.”

    God in reply uses the example of three people come to the Judgement Seat, John, Mary and Ruth, a love triangle whereby the standard interpretation of this famous fable is that God punishes them for their lack of sincerity and honesty to themselves and for their perseverance of selfish do-gooding that they hoped would get them into Heaven.
    Yet, God does not seem to send them to Hell, but expunges all three AB INITIO? As if they are airbrushed from having ever existed. As if, too, God is now finally convinced by the philosopher’s impossible conundrum of His contradictory Nature as God.
    God becomes a Ligottian Anti-Natalist with that one fell stroke, and the consequent virus of a happy non-existence spreads therefrom — up and down in space, back and forth in time.
    Until eventually its annihilating reach of contagion reaches towards even the author who wrote this fable containing God.

  22. Pingback: For the Mad and the Made | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS — A golden sphere in fey balance between clarity and confusion

  23. 65474CC6-2C6B-4272-9C1F-92EADF2BD642
    GIGOLO AND GIGOLETTE

    “It was certainly an odd pair. They were sitting by themselves
    at a small table. They were very old. The man was big and stout
    with a mass of white hair, great bushy white eyebrows and an
    enormous white mustache. He looked like the late King Humbert
    of Italy, but much more like a king. He sat bolt upright. He wore
    full evening dress, with a white tie and a collar that has been out
    of fashion for hard on thirty years. His companion was a little old
    lady in a black satin ball dress, cut very low and tight at the waist.
    Round her neck were several chains of colored beads. She wore
    what was obviously a wig, and a very ill-fitting one at that; it was
    very elaborate, all curls and sausages, and raven black. She was
    outrageously made up, bright blue under the eyes and on the eye-
    lids, the eyebrows heavily black, a great patch of very pink rouge
    on each cheek and the lips a livid scarlet. The skin hung loosely on
    her face in deep wrinkles. She had large bold eyes, and they darted
    eagerly from table to table. She was taking everything in, and
    every other minute called the old man’s attention to someone or
    other. The appearance of the couple was so fantastic in that fash-
    ionable crowd, the men in dinner jackets, the women in thin, pale-
    colored frocks, that many eyes were turned on them. The staring
    did not seem to incommode the old lady. When she felt certain
    persons were looking at her she raised her eyebrows archly, smiled
    and rolled her eyes. She seemed on the point of acknowledging
    applause.”

    That is the core of this story, but a story that is otherwise not about them; the story itself is actually about a different couple, the eponymous couple, in a Casino on the French Riviera, many many years before Coronavirus hit the planet, she, to attract diners and gamblers, by diving from a great height into a shallow petrol-lit tank. Twice a night. Daredevil stunt. Tempting at least a broken back by this personal closing of the distance between her and death, in each of her sudden spurts downward. Yes, twice a night. She suddenly loses her nerve between the two dives. Threatening a return to the more lowly paid job, for the couple, of physically attritional marathon-dancing…
    And that’s where we must leave this story, before it ends. Between one dive and the next.

    ***
    Artwork above by Camille Gabrielle for the chapbook ‘The Weirdmonger’s Tales’ (Wyrd Press 1994

  24. Pingback: Between Two Dives | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS — A golden sphere in fey balance between clarity and confusion

  25. THE COLONEL’S LADY

    “It was as inconceivable that Evie should have had a love affair, and a wildly passionate one at that, as that the trout in a glass case over the chimney piece in his study, the finest he had ever caught, should suddenly wag its tail.”

    Or was it a tench, not a trout? There is an undercurrent here, one I am unsure was intended. The shallow-minded colonel probably thought of his barren wife Evie as a bit of a dried fish. He had a fancy piece in London, after all, called Daphne. But when Evie publishes a book (‘When Pyramids Decay’) of modern ground-breaking poetry that takes off as a book telling of what appears to be the poet’s passionate, eventually tragic love affair, his pride is hurt and is embarrassed socially. He cannot actually comprehend all the implications of there being any young man who could possibly have seen anything in her!
    I think the story’s tail actually does wag — in this short section where a critic says to him of Evie’s poetry… “You know, now and then, as I read and re-read those heart-rending pages I thought of Sappho.”

  26. DAISY

    “The Griffith family were sitting in their pew well in view of the congregation; and, losing even the shadow of decency, the people turned round and stared at them, ghoul-like . . .”

    For me, a rather lightweight story aping Austen, with a girl (Daisy) eloping scandalously, here with shame brought on the family. A melodramatic satire on social mœurs and a family’s, a township’s and a religious community’s hypocritical stances upon such a situation. Culminating in a Dick Whittington pantomime where the cat’s jokes compensated Daisy’s brother for much else. For me, such compensation was provided by the thoughtfully described genius loci of the seaside resort where it happens and Daisy’s own subtle mixed feelings about her lost roots and social status at the end.

    end

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