Edited by Aneesha Chandra
Reading Maugham is the simplest of pleasures. His slow but deliberate writing matches the pace at which most of his short fiction progresses. His infatuation with the literary colonial atmosphere, which the administered colonies of Apia and Malay offered in profusion, became my introduction to the anti-imperialist critique Said and other writers of the early twentieth century engaged avidly in. It surprised me to learn, however, that early critics had dismissed Maugham’s work as merely “competent”; I had grown up loving so many of his short stories, including ‘Before the Party’ and ‘The Force of Circumstance’ — the latter being a particularly vigorous exercise in the mechanics of orientalist landscape and perspective. Maugham himself claims in his autobiography, The Summing Up, that he is not particularly inventive, lacking what he calls the “powers of imagination”. He has also openly admitted that his motive was simply to entertain his audience, an assertion that turned critics against him but won over the general public. Today he is remembered not for his experiments with narrative or mastery of form, but as a skilful anecdotalist, an engaging teller of tales. What more, it seems fair to ask, could the critic ask for?
Take ‘The Pool’, for instance: a story about the tumultuous relationship between a white banker, Lawson, and his younger biracial wife, Ethel. It begins circuitously, with the narrator — who has just arrived in Apia and with whom Lawson forges a connection on the basis of their shared intellectual pursuits — offering the reader detailed portraits of several secondary characters (a recurring theme in Maugham’s writing). These winding, sometimes redundant, character portraits read like the unedited notes of an amateur writer making lengthy observations of people in the local coffee shop. Upon introspection, however, one realises that these descriptions carry a peculiar veracity to them, a beguiling truth. This is not because of the abundance of detail, but Maugham’s choice of the former. The narrator of ‘The Pool’ does not know why he feels, despite Lawson being thought a good sport and “hail-fellow-well-met” (one of my favourite archaic phrases), that Lawson was “cunning and shifty”. Lawson himself does not only have a long sallow face or narrow, weak shoulders; they also give him a peculiar look. Maugham is at the height of his powers in this story, able simultaneously to establish larger-than-life characters drawn from lifetimes past in few words as well as allow the reader to occupy the spaces in his imagination via fond reminiscences.
The story shifts rather abruptly, and rather clumsily, to Lawson’s perspective (albeit in close third-person) when Ethel makes an appearance. It is almost as if Lawson is lost in a vivid daydream, and is narrating its contents; there is no coherence to its structure. This is punctuated by the original narrator’s own interruptions about life on the island and how it is “pleasant and easy”, confusing the reader even more.
These stories, simple yet enthralling as they are, fail to extend fresh commentary on the human condition or amount to a fruitful critique of Britain’s imperialist regime. As Theodore Spencer puts it, his work is like “easel pictures”, indicating in full the philosophy of “the present and the practical…for him (Maugham) there are no eternal silences.” What critical value does literature extend beyond its function to entertain, then? What comes after craftsmanship and mastery of form and aesthetic purpose? After moralistic traipsing and immoral gamble? What of the “eternal silences” Spencer speaks of? If Maugham paved the way for his post-colonial contemporaries, why did he refuse to take a stand in his short fiction? Was he simply apolitical? We can call Maugham’s work many things, but it would be a disservice to strip it of its ability to be political; his stories cannot afford to be confined to the commonplace. Literature is about immediate readability, but much of it also comes from a resistance to meaning; it precipitates subtext. The question then becomes: did Maugham underestimate his own capabilities? Does his writing reveal more than he claimed it does? Is his fiction, especially his short stories set in the luscious Malay and Apian islands, barely competent or does it apprehend human nature in ways we may never have thought of? Perhaps, perhaps not. Meanwhile, I will still be reading Maugham on sticky summer afternoons in June, before the rains absolve his writing of its searing acuity.