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Creatures of Circumstance

por W. Somerset Maugham

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Creatures of Circumstance begins with an explanation from the author telling how this collection came about. He states that he "has never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. I endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." The short stories in this extraordinary collection--with the exception of one--were written after the close of World War I. Maugham shrewdly and brilliantly exploited the public taste of his time to put on display the changing morality of the twentieth century. An expert storyteller, he was also a master of fictional technique. His fiction offers a synthesis of pleasures in the form of realism, exoticism, shrewd and ironic observation, careful craftsmanship, and characterization. Among the stories included in Creatures of Circumstance are "The Colonel's Lady," "Flotsam and Jetsam," "Sanatorium," "Appearance and Reality," "The Point of Honor," "A Woman of Fifty," "The Man from Glasgow," and "The Kite."… (mais)
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W. Somerset Maugham

Creatures of Circumstance

Heinemann, Hardback, 1947.

12mo. 310 pp. First Edition. Original preface titled “The Author Excuses Himself” [pp. 1-4].

Contents*

The Author Excuses Himself

The Colonel’s Lady [Mar 1946, Good Housekeeping (N.Y.)]
Flotsam and Jetsam [Jul 1940, Cosmopolitan]
Appearance and Reality [Nov 1934, International]
The Mother [Apr 1909, Story Teller; revised]
Sanatorium [Dec 1938, International, “The Sanatorium”]
A Woman of Fifty [May 1946, Good Housekeeping (N.Y.)]
The Romantic Young Lady [21 Jun 1947, New Yorker]
A Casual Affair [Nov 1934, Nash’s]
The Point of Honour [Mar 1947, Good Housekeeping (N.Y.)]
Winter Cruise [Jun 1943, International, “The Captain and Miss Reid”]
The Happy Couple [May 1908, Cassell’s; Feb 1943, Redbook, rewritten]
A Man from Glasgow [Feb 1905, The Woman At Home, “Told in the Inn at Algeciras”; revised]
The Unconquered [10 Apr 1943, Colliers’]
Episode [Mar 1947, Good Housekeeping (London)]
The Kite [never published in magazine]

*In square brackets: date and place of first publication, under alternative title if any; information about reworking and date of first publication for the reworked version. The difference between “revised” and “rewritten” is significant. Revised means small changes that result in a better but essentially the same story. Rewritten means a new story merely based on the old one. “The Kite” and the revised versions of “The Mother” and “A Man from Glasgow” are not known to have appeared in magazines.

==============================================

This was a therapeutic re-reading. Just like an especially poor performance of a favourite musical work haunts me until I hear a fine rendition to cleanse my ears, after reading a dreadful book I need to read a fine one to cleanse my mind. I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Maugham, and I was curious to compare this re-reading with my own, now almost eight years old, review. I am going to deal only with the stories below. For some quotes from the author’s wonderful preface, see Mr Maugham’s own review.

Years haven’t changed much my opinion. I still think this collection is a mighty good way to finish your career as a short story writer at the age of 73. I still think “A Man from Glasgow” is the only disappointing piece here. I wonder why Maugham dug out this indifferent and more than 40 years old ghost story for slight revision and inclusion in his last collection. That said, the piece is neither unreadable nor tedious. It falls short only of Maugham’s own standards.

The other 14 stories are not equal in merit, but it’s quite obvious they were never intended to be. For instance, the other three Spanish stories, all set in Seville, the Andalusian capital which Maugham adored, are relatively small-scale. Very similar early version of only one of them (“The Mother”) has turned up; this may explain its relative immaturity. The biggest problem with the other two (“The Romantic Young Lady”, “The Point of Honour”) are the pedestrian titles. They hardly give the impression of immature works. Of the rest 11 stories, only one (“A Woman of Fifty”) may be said to be slightly unsatisfactory because of its somewhat slipshod narrative.

In other words, altogether ten stories, two thirds of this collection, are among Maugham’s masterpieces. I didn’t always think so about some of them, but on this re-reading I came with new appreciation of the comedies. There are only three of them (four if you count “The Romantic Young Lady”). They all border on farce, yet deliver a lot more than farcical fun. For instance, “The Colonel’s Lady”, one of the most exquisite of all Maugham stories, deals with subjects that range from real life as raw material for fiction to the pretensions of dense English country gentlemen for whom women are little more than furniture (useful and comfortable, but not something to take seriously).

I used to think “Appearance and Reality” and “Winter Cruise” vulgar. That’s what happens when you read something at the wrong age. Now I consider both stories wickedly amusing – what fun Willie must have had writing them! – but also deeply serious and even profound. There is much more to them than naughty entertainment.

“Winter Cruise” makes a fine case that travelling is indeed a great education if you are brave enough to try new things and smart enough to know what to take seriously and what not. The loquacious Miss Reid, who “hit on the commonplace like a hammer driving a nail into the wall” and “plunged into the obvious like a clown in a circus jumping through a hoop”, ought to be insufferable, and in the hands of a lesser writer she would have been. But Maugham endows her with brains and goodness, and it must be a callous reader who is not at least a little impressed and moved. And it must be a heartless reader who doesn’t fall in love with Lisette from “Appearance and Reality”:

Though Lisette was a philosopher only in the sense in which we are all philosophers that she exercised thought in dealing with the problems of existence her feeling for reality was so strong and her sympathy for appearance so genuine that she might almost claim to have established that reconciliation of irreconcilables at which the philosophers have for so many centuries been aiming.

“Appearance and Reality” actually begins with a grand sketch of the French character. This, a professor of French literature reportedly told the author, consisted of three chief qualities represented in their most perfect form by three famous writers: Rabelais and his gauloiserie, La Fontaine and his bon sens, Corneille and his panache. Such was Maugham’s virtuosity in his mature years that he could start a story with a full page of something like that and actually get away with it. Then follows a short review of Bradley’s famous work from which the title comes. Both “digressions”, as you will see when you read the thing, are more than relevant. If this story does indeed represent accurately the French character, then the French must be the most civilised people on earth. This may explain why they lost so many wars.

Even today – 70 years after the collection was first published – these stories remain bold and provocative. It’s hard to imagine how they must have shocked when they were brand new, but we can get some idea from contemporary reactions. Four of them were filmed between 1948 and 1951, but only two (“Winter Cruise”, “Sanatorium”) were done justice. “The Kite” and especially “The Colonel’s Lady” were ruined by alternative endings so grossly sentimental that it’s safe to say they never passed through Maugham’s head while writing. Garson Kanin has narrated at tedious length how Rene Clair was outraged when it was suggested that he should direct a film version of “Appearance and Reality”. Presumably Monsieur Clair was not a real Frenchman. The case of P. G. (Priggish Goofball) Wodehouse is even more telling. He wrote to Evelyn Waugh about Maugham in general and “A Casual Affair” in particular:

I’ve been re-reading a lot of his stuff, and I’m wondering a bit about him. I mean, surely one simply can’t do that stuff about the district officer hearing there’s a white man dying in a Chinese slum and it turns out that it’s gay lighthearted Jack Almond, who disappeared and no-one knew what had become of [him] and he went right under, poor chap, because a woman in England had let him down.

This is, to say the least, inadequate criticism. The story is a lot more complex than that. Like several others (“The Kite”, “Episode”, “The Happy Couple”), it is told to the first-person narrator by somebody who was in position to know most of the facts but little of the motivations behind them. This allows for stimulating discussions, indeed dissections, from several different points of view. The endings are always speculative. It is up to the reader to provide the final touch. The downfall of Jack Almond, the “poor chap” from “A Casual Affair”, is not an exception. So Mr Wodehouse’s superficial response says more about him than about Maugham. Without wishing to spoil the story for the unfortunate readers who haven’t read it yet, let them consider this brief excerpt as an appetizer:

It was a long speech I had made and now I stopped.
“All that’s only fancy,” said Low.
“I know it is,” I answered, “but it seems to fit the circumstances.”
“There must have been a weak strain in him. Otherwise he could have fought and conquered.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps there is always a certain weakness attached to such great charm as he possessed. Perhaps few people love as wholeheartedly and as devotedly as he loved. Perhaps he didn’t want to fight and conquer. I can't bring myself to blame him.”


Apart from “A Man from Glasgow”, one thing all stories share is a love story. This makes for 14 love stories, yet no two of them are alike. Some are clandestine and carried against terrible odds (“Flotsam and Jetsam”, “A Casual Affair”), some are sadly one-sided (“The Unconquered”, “The Point of Honour”), some are more affection than love (“The Kite”, “Appearance and Reality”), some are just one-night (or one-week) stands (“Winter Cruise”), some are suggested rather than shown (“The Colonel’s Lady”, “A Woman of Fifty”), some are ridiculously chaste (“Episode”, “The Happy Couple”). All of them, including the last two, are cases of passionate love rooted in sexual desire, more than mere lust, certainly, yet nothing like the insipid romances from the Age of Chivalry. They inspired Maugham to write some of his most lyrical passages. Consider a few anonymous excerpts:

She wrote of the long, tremulous nights they passed together and the languor that lulled them to sleep in one another's arms. She wrote of the rapture of brief stolen moments when, braving all danger, their passion overwhelmed them and they surrendered to its call.

They were two very ordinary people, he a jolly, good-natured, commonplace planter, and she a small-part actress far from clever, not even very young, with nothing to recommend her but a neat figure and a prettyish face. What started as a casual affair turned without warning into a devastating passion and neither of them was of a texture to sustain its exorbitant compulsion. They longed to be with one another; they were restless and miserable apart.
[...] It was difficult for them to meet. They had to run awful risks. Perhaps the chances they had to take, the obstacles they had to surmount, were fuel to their love; a year passed and it was as overwhelming as at the beginning; it was a year of agony and bliss, of fear and thrill.

My fancy ran away with me. What is there more moving than young love? The walks together of that handsome pair in one of the parks in the warm evenings of early summer, the dances they went to where he held her in his arms, the enchantment of the secret they shared when they exchanged glances across a dinner-table, and the passionate encounters, hurried and dangerous, but worth a thousand risks, when at some clandestine meeting-place they could give themselves to the fulfilment of their desire. They drank the milk of Paradise.


Significantly, all but four of these love stories end in tragedy. Again, no two of them are alike either in their outcome or in their reasons. Love is most often killed by various forms of jealousy, maternal (“The Mother”), spousal (“Flotsam and Jetsam”) or both (“The Kite”), and sheer common sense (“A Casual Affair”). More tragically, love can be killed by idiotic social conventions (“The Point of Honour”) and, most tragically of all, by chastity (“Episode”). The author’s typically non-judgemental and all these reasons can count on his complete understanding. But I have a feeling he is a little more sympathetic towards common sense. The world may be well lost for love, Maugham seems to say, but it may also be worth winning at the expense of love. It may not be heroic to exchange love for comfort, but it’s only too human, perhaps even wise.

There is an old critical canard that Maugham was a jaundiced cynic fond of humanity’s vices and misery but blind to its virtues and happiness. This is complete tosh. I suppose it came from jaundiced critics with scant knowledge of Maugham’s works.

If the tragedy in “Flotsam and Jetsam”, “The Unconquered”, “The Point of Honour” and “Episode” is unrelieved, the one in “A Woman of Fifty” and “The Colonel’s Lady” certainly is not. Those middle-aged ladies, one from the American Midwest and one from the English countryside, seem as content, one might even say as happy, as can be expected in this life. “The Romantic Young Lady” and “Appearance and Reality” could easily have been turned into tragedies by the wrong hands (and minds), but in Maugham’s they are miraculously and humorously, or cynically if you like, transformed into sunny comedies. The ending of “The Kite” is left open and though only a fool can accept the melodramatic rubbish from the movie version, there is no reason to suppose that Herbert and Betty would spend their whole lives in perpetual unhappiness.

Two stories in particular stand out as thorough refutation of this myopic perception of Maugham. In “Sanatorium”, with its almost Shakespearean range of characters and seamless blend of comedy and tragedy, the love story, though morbidly short-lived, is anything but tragic. On the contrary, it is blissful and ecstatic. Moreover, it is used as a transfiguring force to bring new hope, fortitude and serenity to everyone else in the sanatorium. In “The Happy Couple”, a masterful rewriting of an immature early story, the title characters seem to have achieved the perfect happiness, even though it is based on the most irrevocable of all crimes. Maugham had explored this case at greater length in another of his masterpieces, “Footprints in the Jungle” from the collection Ah King (1933).

There is a great deal more in these stories, of course. They are brimming with scenes and characters that you never really forget once you have read them. Who, indeed, can forget the stupendously snobbish Mrs Sunbury or the dashing Major Templeton who accepted the inevitable with mocking unconcern “and you could choose whether you thought his levity unbecoming or his insouciance gallant”? Who can forget the aristocratic haughtiness of Lady Castellan or the bluff stupidity of George Peregine, both portrayed with empathy few writers are able to match? Who can forget the harrowing ending of “The Unconquered”, brutal yet carefully prepared, or the super-shocking three-word last sentence of “Episode”? Who can forget the hilarious climax of “Appearance and Reality” or the German crew setting naughty traps for Miss Reid in “Winter Cruise”? Who can forget the “enchanted garden” and the Moorish loggia in “The Point of Honour” or the bustle and hustle in that tenement house in La Macarena, “which is the roughest quarter of Seville” and where “The Mother” is consumed with jealousy? And so on and so forth, the list is endless.

Not to mention augmented by some thought-provoking reflections on human nature, that bizarre experiment of God (should He care to exist). The collection’s title is significant. It sums up a lifelong preoccupation with circumstances. More than twenty years earlier, in another significantly titled masterpiece of short fiction, “The Force of Circumstance” from the collection The Casuarina Tree (1926), Maugham had shown the complete disintegration of a happy marriage under circumstances beyond the control of either party. “The Unconquered”, evocatively set in occupied France during WWII, is perhaps the most forceful expression of the force of circumstances in this collection. Neither Hans nor Annette would have done their crimes in peaceful times. They know it only too well; the elation of the swift victory over the “invincible” French army went to his head, the hate for the conquerors went to hers. But they couldn’t help themselves. Annette’s father puts it simply and accurately: “I went through the last war and we all did things we wouldn’t have done in peacetime. Human nature is human nature.”

Maugham is far from reducing human nature to a bunch of unhealthy circumstances. That would not have been worth studying. Though he had a good deal of compassion, more than many superficial readers and critics suppose, for his characters, Maugham had no illusions about their inherent failings. These could take all possible forms. For instance, “Episode”, for my money the most heartrending tragedy here, is caused by both excessive chastity and insufficient imagination. “Imagination’s an odd thing, it dries up” indeed! But Maugham did make a point of upholding one illusion. “It may be that we have no such thing as free will,” he wrote in the short story “Mayhew” (1923), reprinted in Cosmopolitans (1936), “but at all events we have the illusion of it.” Now, that is an essential illusion. It makes life worth living and fiction worth writing. In the end, however, one is left as perplexed as the narrator and his guest the judge, no less, in the end of “The Happy Couple”:

“Human nature is very odd, isn’t it?”
“Very,” said Landon, helping himself to another glass of brandy.


But trying to describe, compare and analyse plots and characters like that is trying to put these stories in a straitjacket. It’s a rather crass thing to do. They are far subtler and more complex than any such treatment may suggest. You have to read them yourself with as open mind as possible and then relate them to your own personality and experience. If I must summarise in a single sentence, I would say that Somerset Maugham, a lifelong student of human nature, knew only too well that human beings are not only creatures of circumstance, but also prisoners of their own selves, be they reckless or prudent.

PS Extensive quotes from some of the stories may be consulted here. ( )
  Waldstein | Sep 23, 2017 |
[“The Author Excuses Himself”, preface to the first edition, Heinemann, 1947:]

I owe my readers an apology for the publication of this volume. At the beginning of the war I brought out a collection of short stories which I called The Mixture As Before and for which I wrote a short preface. I was occupied then with work that took all my time and so asked my friend Edward Marsh if he would correct the proofs. He wrote and told me that he was sorry to see by my preface that I had decided to write no more stories. I did not know what he meant, but was too busy to inquire. I saw no reviews and a copy of the book only when I returned to England some months later. Then I found out. I had written: “I shall not write many more stories,” and either the typist or the type-setter, thinking perhaps that I had written quite enough stories, had left out an m, so that the line ran: “I shall not write any more stories”. I have looked at my manuscript and I had in fact, as I intended, written many.

I had several stories written for which I could not find a place in The Mixture As Before and several in mind, and it was my plan even then in due course to publish a further volume. So my readers must not think that I wilfully misled them. I dare not even now promise them that I shall write no more; no writer can be sure than an idea will not one day occur to him that takes his fancy so that he is in the end driven to write it.

Some of these stories were written long ago, but I have left them as they were, for I did not think I could make them more readable by bringing them up to date; nor have I thought it necessary in one story, Winter Cruise, to change the nationality of various characters that take part in it to avoid affronting those who are persuaded that all the nationals of a country with which we have been at war are equally hateful; one story was written during the war and others since its close. They have all been published in magazines.*

I know that in admitting this I lay myself open to critical depreciation, for to describe a story as a magazine story is to dismiss it with contumely. But when the critics do this they show less acumen than may reasonably be expected of them. Nor do they show much knowledge of literary history. For ever since magazines became a popular form of publication authors have found them a useful medium to put their work before readers. All the greatest short story writers have published their stories in magazines, Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant; Chekov, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling. I do not think it is rash to say that the only short stories that have not been published in a magazine are the stories that no editor would accept. So to damn a story because it is a magazine story is absurd. The magazines doubtless publish a great many bad stories, but then more bad stories are written than good ones, and an editor, even of a magazine with literary pretensions, is often obliged to print a story of which he doesn’t think highly because he can get nothing better. Some editors of popular magazines think their readers demand a certain type of story and will take nothing else; and they manage to find writers who can turn out the sort of thing they want and often make a very good job of it. This is the machine-made article that has given the magazine story a bad name. But after all no one is obliged to read it. It gives satisfaction to many people since it allows them for a brief period to experience in fancy the romance and adventure which in the monotony of their lives they crave for.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published, where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick. Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression, or drawn a character. This is all very well, but it is not a story, and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered. There is also today a fear of incident. The result is a spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekov is perhaps responsible for this too; on one occasion he wrote: “People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives, and when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup then becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. To eat it may thus be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact is that Chekov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

I read some time ago an article on how to write a short story. Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong. She stated that the “focal point” of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to “liven” personality. Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written. I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves. They are in fact purely conventional types and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral. And that is about all the short story writer can do. He has not the room to describe and develop a character; he can only give the salient traits that bring the character to life and so make the story he has to tell plausible. Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of stories. The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune to me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia. I endeavour to bear my misfortune with fortitude.

_____________________________________________________
*This paragraph deserves at least an attempt for decoding. The publication history of the stories in Creatures of Circumstance is complicated. What is known so far is the following. The stories that “were written long ago” probably are “A Man from Glasgow”, “The Mother” and “The Happy Couple” as all of them appeared in magazines between 1905 and 1909. The first two underwent only minor revisions before their inclusion in this book, but the third was thoroughly rewritten and turned into a virtually different story. John Whitehead (Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987, pp. 61-2, p. 78 n. 9), apparently under the influence of the common Spanish setting, has speculated about the existence of early versions of “The Point of Honour” and “The Romantic Young Lady”, but these haven’t turned up so far. Several other stories were published in magazines before the war, namely “A Casual Affair” (1934), “Appearance and Reality” (1934) and “Sanatorium” (1938), but it is unlikely that Maugham would refer to these as “written long ago”. The story “written during the war” is probably “The Unconquered”, first published in 1943, although “Flotsam and Jetsam” (1940) and “Winter Cruise” (1940) may also have been written after the outbreak of the war. One story, “The Kite”, is not known – at least so far – to have been published in magazine at all. Last and least, though no early version of “The Colonel’s Lady” seems to exist, its origins date back to a note made in 1901; see A Writer’s Notebook (1949). Ed.
  WSMaugham | Apr 24, 2017 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Creatures of Circumstance

Doubleday, Hardback, 1947.

8vo. 314 pp. First American Edition. Original preface "The Author Excuses Himself" [pp. 3-6].

First published by Heinemann, 1947.

Contents

The Author Excuses Himself

The Colonel's Lady
Flotsam and Jetsam
Appearance and Reality
The Mother*
Sanatorium
A Woman of Fifty
The Romantic Young Lady
A Casual Affair
The Point of Honour
Winter Cruise
The Happy Couple**
A Man from Glasgow***
The Unconquered
Episode
The Kite

* First published in 1909. Later slightly revised and included here.

** Significantly rewritten version of a short story first published under the same title in a magazine in 1908. The original version was not published in book form until 1969 in Seventeen Lost Stories.

*** Different version of this story, titled ''Told in the Inn at Algeciras'', was published as early as 1905 in magazine. It is reprinted in The Ash-Tree Press Annual Macabre 1998, ed. Jack Adrian.

==============================================

This is Somerset Maugham's last short story collection: published 32 years after his first masterpiece, Of Human Bondage (1915), and one year before his last work of fiction, Catalina (1948). In the preface to the First American edition of his Complete Short Stories (1952) Maugham said flatly that he had written his last short story. As always, he was as good as his word. In 1933 he said farewell to the stage and never wrote another play; in 1948 he announced his retirement from writing fiction and for the rest of his life he wrote only essays.

Considering the level of excellence of Maugham's last works of fiction, I cannot but feel sorry that in the last 15 years or so from his career as a writer he did not write a single short story, let alone a novel. But then I reflect that Maugham was everything but stupid; he surely was a man who knew his own mind pretty well. If he had few illusions about his fellows, he had none about himself. He must have sensed that his creative powers were failing in the late 1940s, although I still can't sense that at all, to make such a grave decision. It is very much to his credit that he had the resolution to stop when he still was, to my mind completely, at the height of his creative powers.

I am often amazed not just by Maugham's longevity and productivity as a writer, but much more by his maintaining extraordinary high quality in his writing for more than quarter of a century. Speaking of short stories, Creatures of Circumstance was Maugham's eight short story collection published exactly 26 years after his first masterpiece in the genre, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921). These eight volumes contain exactly 84 short stories written during quarter of a century or so; not even one of them is unreadable or tedious; the worst of them can be counted on the fingers of two hands and even they are not unpleasant to read. The great majority of Maugham's short stories I have never hesitated to describe as brilliant masterpieces; their superb character and plot development as well as their eminent readability, and especially the combination of all these factors, can occasionally be equalled by others but it is simply impossible to be surpassed. Of course the fifteen stories in Creatures of Circumstance are totally different in character than the ones written 20 years or so earlier but they are hardly weaker in any aspect. Now, I really do find this amazing.

Creatures of Circumstance starts with a compelling preface which bears the charming title "The Author Excuses Himself". Maugham explains first that in the preface to his previous volume of short stories, The Mixture as Before (1940), he had written the line "I shall not write many more [stories]" but the editor, thinking perhaps that Maugham had already written quite enough stories, dropped the "m" and the line became "I shall not write any more [stories]". So he had had the intention of publishing another volume right back in 1940 and did not wish to mislead his readers deliberately by such a statement.

He then mentions that some of the stories were written a long time ago but he preferred to leave them unchanged (somewhat misleading statement as we shall see presently) and that the rest were new. This is not quite true, either, since some of the stories ("Appearance and Reality" and "A Casual Affair", for instance) were published in magazines as early as 1934, and "Sanatorium" appeared on the pages of Cosmopolitan in the end of 1938. Anyway, that is neither here nor there. Infinitely more important is the fact that there is a lot to enjoy here. The diversity of styles, settings and locations is rather appealing.

Surprisingly, since in 1936 for the preface of Ah King in The Collected Edition Maugham said he had written his last so called "exotic" stories, Creatures of Circumstance contains one such story. "Flotsam and Jetsam" is a rather harrowing tale but nonetheless compelling for that. It reminds of Maugham's finest achievements about planters in the Far East who are slaves of their darkest and most sinister passions. Less violent but hardly less memorable passions are the protagonists also in two other stories - the exquisite "A Woman of Fifty" and the heart-rending "A Casual Affair" in which, among other things, Maugham enjoys satirizing the upper classes of long passed times.

But Maugham's versatility is really something to marvel at. Along the aforementioned grim and lurid tales, there are a number of extremely amusing stories that can always make you laugh a good deal. The French or the English marital complications, respectively, in "Appearance and Reality" and "The Colonel's Lady", or the unforgettable Miss Reid in "Winter Cruise" are a perfect way to relax. It should be mentioned that "Winter Cruise" is also a perfect example how Maugham could write amusing and enjoyable thing to read using the stupidest and most banal plot in the world.

The three "Spanish" stories certainly are worth mentioning too. "The Romantic Young Lady" is rather funny and "The Point of Honour", showing some quite perverse sides of Spain and the Spaniards, is rather serious and disturbing, but both are equally absorbing. And "The Mother", quite lurid and shocking, is one of the very few examples when Maugham, who detested his early works, was more or less completely satisfied with something he had written almost 40 years ago. "The Mother" was first published in Storyteller Magazine in April 1909. This early version appeared in book form not earlier than 1958 in The Cassell Miscellany. Maugham did revise the story for its inclusion in Creatures of Circumstance but only slightly; on the whole he seemed content to leave it as it was which is somewhat contradictory to what he says in his preface but, on the other hand, he might have meant some of the stories that were published in magazines in the 1930s, a decade or so before, and not "The Mother".

It is interesting to note that John Whitehead, in the preface to the priceless A Traveller In Romance: Uncollected Writings of W. Somerset Maugham, 1901-1964 (1984), mentions something about an early version of "The Point of Honour" too, but I have not been able to find any evidence whatsoever that such version was ever published or existed at all; oddly, John Whitehead hints that Maugham rewrote the piece later and that his claim in the preface of Creatures of Circumstance is inaccurate, but he did not choose to reprint this putative early version although it does seem to fit his criteria.

The case with "The Happy Couple" is another matter. The two versions of this short story are quite different and they provide the real Maugham admirer with a fascinating opportunity to see how the great writer developed his style through the years. The early version was first published in the Cassell's Magazine in May 1908 and the later one in Redbook in February 1943 - they are separated by 35 years. It is worth while seeing how Maugham managed to improve significantly so early a story of his which, even in its 1908 version, is by no means bad.

First, he changed the narrative from third to first person singular. Maugham wrote a great deal about the art of fiction and the writing from first person. He often used the method to a great effect, invariably telling the story from a standpoint of an observer, never through the eyes of the protagonist. This is a very effective way to win the reader's confidence and make him live the whole story together with the author. That is exactly what Maugham achieved in the later version of "The Happy Couple". Moreover, he introduced a new character, the judge Landon, who is completely missing in the early version, so the story gained one point of view more. When you add to all this the greatly superior writing style that Maugham had in the early 1940s in comparison with the somewhat crude one in 1900s, it is hardly surprising that the rewritten version of "The Happy Couple" was the one included in Creatures of Circumstance.

"A Man from Glasgow" and "Sanatorium" deserve to be mentioned simply because the latter is one of the greatest short stories Maugham ever wrote and the former is one of the worst.

"A Man from Glasgow" certainly is the worst from all 15 stories in Creatures of Circumstance. It is one of Maugham's stories about mysterious phenomena, something of a ghost story actually, but rather unsuccessful and far from his brilliant earlier treatments of similar subjects like "Honolulu" (1921), "P. & O." (1926) and "Lord Mountdrago" (1940). The amazing thing is than an early version of this story, titled "Told in the Inn of Algeciras" and only slightly different than the late one, has recently come to light. So, in other words, this appears to be the second case, after "The Mother", when Maugham was sufficiently satisfied with an early story as to reprint it in his mature collections after only a slight revision. I am rather more surprised in this case, though.

As for "Sanatorium", it is the only short story that includes the charming spy and gentleman Ashenden, except of course all stories in Ashenden, or the British Agent (1928). "Sanatorium", however, is the only one written separately and as a short story by design, quite unlike Ashenden which consists of 16 chapters that were later merged into 6 short stories. The story was actually based on Maugham's own experience while he was recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Scotland during the First World War. The story is brilliantly executed and extremely poignant.

The last three stories that close the book, and Maugham's career as a short story writer, are as perfect as it is possible in so imperfect a world.

"The Unconquered" was first published in a magazine in 1943 and it is the only short story of Maugham set in occupied France during the Second World War. It is a haunting drama about a German soldier who raped a French girl and the multiple, and quite unexpected, consequences of that. It also contains one of the most horrifying surprise endings in all Maugham's stories.

"The Kite" and "Episode" are the only two short stories of all Maugham wrote in which the prison confidant Ned Preston appears. He is more or less the only thing they have in common.

"The Kite" has a highly original plot but very convincingly done, unbelievable as it may seem at first glance. It is rather amusing but it is by no means superficial. Together with the facetious satire of the middle class prejudices, Maugham offers a great deal of insight into the human nature with his usual acumen.

"Episode" is a story about love and passion between two young things. It has one of the most chilling ends I have ever read. Every time when I read the story, and I have read it at least five times, I gasp after the final sentence. Maugham's sixth sense for dramatic effect seldom failed him, but I do not believe there are many authors who can compel you so strongly to read them, yet who can shock you so profoundly with a last sentence of exactly three words. ( )
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Creatures of Circumstance begins with an explanation from the author telling how this collection came about. He states that he "has never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. I endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." The short stories in this extraordinary collection--with the exception of one--were written after the close of World War I. Maugham shrewdly and brilliantly exploited the public taste of his time to put on display the changing morality of the twentieth century. An expert storyteller, he was also a master of fictional technique. His fiction offers a synthesis of pleasures in the form of realism, exoticism, shrewd and ironic observation, careful craftsmanship, and characterization. Among the stories included in Creatures of Circumstance are "The Colonel's Lady," "Flotsam and Jetsam," "Sanatorium," "Appearance and Reality," "The Point of Honor," "A Woman of Fifty," "The Man from Glasgow," and "The Kite."

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