The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham
When it comes to books, my wife is an ultimate scavenger. A few years back, she went to visit a friend in Gallup, New Mexico, and came back with a boxed, two-volume, hardbound set of W. Somerset Maugham’s complete short stories, published by Doubleday in 1953, which she picked up at a yard sale for the stunning price of one Yankee dollar. Since the two volumes together weigh in at nearly 1600 pages, I figure she got quite a deal — for the bulk alone, if not the literature.
Like many other deals found at yard sales, the books sat unread for quite some time. Because of their sheer heft, we used them for several years to prop up a bedside lamp that wasn’t
quite high enough without the elevation of Maugham’s prose. (Sorry, Somerset, but literature isn’t always used as the author intends!) Then one day traveling in Egypt, I read “The Moon and Sixpence,” a fictionalized account of Gaughin’s escape to Tahiti; this was so good, I dove into “Of Human Bondage,” and finally —
more and more taken with Maugham’s writing — I took the bedside lamp off the two-volume set of short stories, and discovered what my wife had found: a treasure.
Maugham’s most famous story is “Rain,” which is often encountered in high school English classes, a tale of a fatal encounter between a self-righteous missionary and a gutsy prostitute in the South Seas that was made into a Hollywood movie. Maugham wrote these stories between 1919 and 1931, after he had begun his extensive travels throughout the South Pacific and Asia, following the spirit (and to some extent the route) of Robert Louis Stevenson, another literary adventurer. The majority of the tales take the reader to rain-drenched islands in distant archipelagoes where we learn of misplaced Europeans who either lose or find their way in the steamy tropics — marrying native women, working as obscure colonial functionaries, falling in love, becoming drunkards, and sometimes discovering the very core of human happiness.
A number of the best stories concern a suave though brooding “secret agent” in World War 1 named Ashenden — his first name, to my recollection, is never given, which adds to his mystique. Ashenden is a successful novelist, clearly created in Maugham’s own image, who is tapped by the War Department to make mysterious forays from Switzerland into Germany or France, meeting interesting characters along the way, complex men and women who often have tragic anecdotes to tell us of their lives in a war that seems oddly civilized by today’s standard of brutality, almost endearing in Maugham’s lucid prose. The collection also
includes a preface from Maugham in which he examines the craft of short story writing, making some fascinating comments about the narrative versus non-narrative approach of Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov.
Maugham was a writer of the highest literary mark who also happened to be superbly entertaining. These tales are old-fashioned in tone and seem today more 19th century than early 20th century — it doesn’t seem possible that he was writing at the same time as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Still, the
old-fashioned quality is part of joy here, transporting us to a planet that once existed before air travel shrank the world. My wife and I ended up reading these stories aloud to each other around outdoor fires on summer camping trips, caught up in the magic of story-telling.
“The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham” are a real treat, a kind of ultimate beach read — whether you happen to be on Bongo-Bongo or Malibu. The two-volume set my wife found is out of print, but there is a new four-volume set of these stories in paperback, published by Viking Penguin.