I’ve been reading a great deal of W. Somerset Maugham lately; and I daresay it will continue. His tales of the human condition – of heartfelt mistakes and foolish blunders – juxtaposed against the matter-of-factness of imperialism in turn of the century Victorian England make for charming stories. They are so naturally international – about a time when Englanders thought of the world as their own and acted accordingly – that they teem with an unpretentious multi-culturalism.
These days we are accustomed to reading political thrillers or crime stories set against the backdrop of this-or-that exotic location; authors attempting to prove their grandiloquence through expert, almost surgical use of the foreign. As if to show that simply through their ability to write about a dark corner of the world, the significance of their book is proven; and their use of these locations as the backdrop for grand moments of imperial import – this time American – confirm the multi-culturalism of the American artist in the new world. Yet somehow they do not ring true; they seem contrived, thereby losing their worth.
Maugham’s novels shine because they do not emphasize the exotic in far-away places and try and shock with bizarre cultural rituals or the important geopolitical realities of life lived in significance in faraway places. His novels are in fact the opposite, as they emphasize the constancy of British civilization which was effortlessly employed even in the furthest corners of her empire.
His stories are those of everyday British citizens who live ordinary lives – fraught with mischief and mistakes – as they carry out their business, live and love. In Up at the Villa, Maugham tells a story about a woman widowed from an unsatisfying marriage and who makes a careless mistake while on holiday in Florence that upends her life entirely. Rain is the story of a British missionary returning from furlough to his mission in the South Sea Islands when he confronts a worthy adversary in the form of a harlot from Hawaii and is bested in his attempts to convert her. Mackintosh is the tale of a colonial administrator of a small island in the pacific who misinterprets the changing times, and loses his life in the process.
And there are many, many others.
Each of these stories is so full of humanity, abounding in emotion and passion for life lived more abundantly; of the richness offered by the world around us; lives a spirit occasionally sweet but more often with a bitter bouquet, served indiscriminately in chalices both simple and majestic. Of the potential for great opportunity and of failure; of the ecstasy of forbidden and sometimes sordid love and the promise of redemption or at least the gentle salve of forgetting. These are Maugham’s stories, upon a canvas as vast as the world around us.
I hope you pick up a book by W. Somerset Maugham, to find as I often do a new perspective or a refreshing moment. You will find yourself better for it.