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Cosmopolitans

por W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham

Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories

Heinemann, Hardback, 1936.

12mo. xiii+302 pp. Preface by Maugham [vii-xiii].

First published by Doubleday, Doran, 21 February 1936.
First British edition by Heinemann, 30 March 1936.
Reprinted, April 1936.

Contents

Preface
Raw Material
Mayhew
German Harry
The Happy Man
The Dream
In a Strange Land
The Luncheon
Salvatore
Home
Mr Know-All
The Escape
A Friend in Need
The Portrait of a Gentleman
The End of the Flight
The Judgment Seat
The Ant and the Grasshopper
French Joe
The Man with the Scar
The Poet
Louise
The Closed Shop
The Promise
A String of Beads
The Bum
Straight Flush
The Verger
The Wash Tub
The Social Sense
The Four Dutchmen

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

My previous review, I’m a little shocked to note, is now more than ten years old. I will try to say the little I have to add without too many repetitions. Mr Maugham’s original Preface has made reviews unnecessary anyway. I will also try to avoid extensive quotes. If you’re interested, you can find plenty of them here.

Maugham concludes his Preface with a modest request to the reader to find these stories nothing more than “amusing”. It would be tedious, Maugham thinks, “to read them at a sitting”, but if the reader is kind enough to read “one or two now and then when he has nothing better to do”, they might give some pleasure. As usual, Maugham underestimated himself. Excessive modesty was one of his vices.

I have read most of these “cosmopolitans” a dozen times or so. Even the few disappointing ones, disappointing by Maugham’s own standards, are amusing. Most of them are much more than that. At least a dozen are among Maugham’s masterpieces, which is to say they are perfect fusions of form and content as well as among the finest short fiction in the English language. They may look odd in the collected editions, somewhat lost between Maugham’s much longer stories, but they fit perfectly in Cosmopolitans. Sadly, Maugham’s stories are little read today in any editions, and virtually never in the original ones which remain by far the best.

This time I have read Cosmopolitans in several long sittings over two days (“one or two now and then”, indeed!), in the order of printing and as slowly as possible to savour Maugham’s deceptively simple prose. A more perfect weekend of stimulating entertainment I cannot imagine. This was indeed one of my therapeutic readings, and it worked like charm. Having recently immersed myself in the short stories of Rudyard Kipling, not to mention his “masterpiece”, I needed a reminder what a truly great writer can do with a short story, even one but a few pages long designed for light entertainment.

Re-reading has many virtues, but one of the most important is to appreciate, if possible, what on previous readings seemed lacklustre. I couldn’t do it, again, with “The Man with the Scar” (a gruesome tale that makes no sense), “The End of the Flight” (sort of ghost story), “The Escape” (trite marital situation), “Home” (sentimental reflection on the past) and “Straight Flush” (the same). “German Harry”, “French Joe” and “The Four Dutchmen” remain trifles as well, character sketches of colourful chaps, vividly drawn but not terribly interesting.

I still think “The Portrait of a Gentleman” is the weakest story Maugham ever wrote, including his immature pre-WWI efforts which he refused to reprint later in his life. It’s not a story at all, nor is it a character sketch. It is merely a bunch of reflections on a book called The Complete Poker Player by one John Blackbridge. Both the author and the title are real, if totally obscure, and I guess Maugham’s quotes are accurate too. But even this lame excuse for a story is readable and charming. It is really a book review, and it does what every book review should but so few do. It makes you, or any rate me, eager to read the book in question.

These stories are far from Maugham’s best efforts. If you find them isolated in some anthology, they may give you quite an erroneous idea about his powers as a short story writer. But that is missing the point. Here, in the context of the other “cosmopolitans”, they detract nothing from the collection as a whole. Even separately, none of them is unreadable or tedious. All have their moments of beauty. For instance, the passages on the Van Dorth Hotel in Singapore and the life of the landed gentry in the beginning of “The Four Dutchmen” and “Home”, respectively, are worth the price of admission.

On the other hand, I did come up with new appreciation of some stories I didn’t think much of before. “In a Strange Land” is one of them. It’s a character study of one of those remarkable Englishwomen who, according to Maugham, can be found living in happy seclusion all over the world, in this case Asia Minor. She had married an Italian, “a very full-blooded man”, and left England thirty years ago and couldn’t care less about it. The naughty twist in the end is one of Maugham’s deadliest shots straight through the heart of Victorian prudery. “The Dream” is another example. It’s about a fat Russian who confides to our narrator over lunch the story of his hysterical wife who had a horrible dream about her husband murdering her. Not much of a story this one, but atmospherically told with a sinister touch and rather thought-provoking about the relationship between dreams and reality. The ending is unresolved and all the more chilling for that.

It is funny how “a little collection” (as Maugham calls it in his Preface) of “very short stories” (as the subtitle rightly calls them) can demolish prejudice and misconception. If only people would read it with an open mind. But would they? Could they? Ironically, despite his impeccable clarity, Maugham continues to be misunderstood by some particularly obtuse readers.

Consider the accusations of racism, or anti-Semitism, or whatever –ism one cares to name, usually levelled at “Mr Know-All”. I suppose the reason is the claim of the first-person narrator that the Union Jack “is an impressive piece of drapery, but when it is flourished by a gentleman from Alexandria or Beirut, I cannot but feel that it loses somewhat in dignity.” Whether Maugham shared this sentiment is irrelevant. The whole point of the story is that one mustn’t prejudge people on any ground. This is clear from the first sentence: “I was prepared to dislike Max Kelada even before I knew him.” So he does with growing intensity. Mr Kelada is indeed quite an obnoxious chatterbox and something of a “Levantine”. But in the end he shows unexpected nobility and quite a remarkable ability (so rare in human beings!) to take a joke at his expense. And the narrator freely admits the change in his attitude: “At that moment I did not entirely dislike Mr Kelada.”

One often hears Maugham accused of misogyny and cynicism. The former is a complete myth. I have dealt with it elsewhere, and enough is enough. Cynicism is, of course, part of Maugham’s outlook, but it’s no more the whole of it than the visible light is the whole of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Louise” is one of the most cynical stories Maugham ever wrote, and the misogynist party may also find in it some ammunition for their learned salvos. Personally, I think the title character, a selfish and manipulative monster if there ever was one, is portrayed with humour and tolerance. Let’s look at some other stories. Consider “Salvatore”, a fairy tale written with lyrical tenderness more common in Maugham than generally realised. It’s a portrait of an ordinary Italian fisherman and a tribute to human goodness. You won’t see the cynical brigade giving this story as an example. It doesn’t fit their petty concept. Neither does chapter 77 from The Summing Up (1938), or chapter 17, for that matter, in which Maugham gives the best possible answer to his cynical critics.

Maugham is seldom given credit for creativity. He is generally regarded as little more than a hack who merely copied what he saw and heard into his writings. This is another vexing subject I have spent too much time on elsewhere. Well, here it is, in this of bunch “cosmopolitans” there is creativity of the highest order, staring in the faces of all who can read and think.

Compare “Mayhew” with “The Lotus Eater” from Maugham’s next collection, The Mixture as Before (1940). They obviously share the same “theme”, a guy takes his life in his own hands by leaving a busy city life for a reclusive one on Capri. Lest anybody miss the point, the opening paragraphs are strikingly similar. But look at the characters! They have nothing in common. One is a modest English clerk from London, the other is a prosperous American lawyer from Detroit. One leaves a life of drudgery for a life of complete idleness and pleasure, the other leaves a promising legal and political career to work hard on a massive Roman history. Besides, “The Lotus Eater” is a much longer and more complex story in which the narrator is an important character. The other one is shorter, simpler and more detached, yet in its own way just as perfect.

I used to consider “Mayhew” one of Maugham’s lesser stories. I am happy to say I have long since rectified this critical blunder. “Mayhew” is actually one of Maugham’s most poignant and profound stories. No matter how many times I read it, I am always deeply moved by the beautiful final lines.

The plots may be as hackneyed as anything, but they are told with pointed humour, narrative gusto and, last but certainly not least, substance below the surface. Even a piece of pure fun like “The Luncheon”, a highly creative reworking of “Cousin Amy” (1908) by the way, is by no means without some disturbing undertones about, for instance, the years of struggle of the young artist or the parasitic relationship between the celebrated few and the obscure many so-called “fans” (comes from “fanatic”, let us remember). Points like these would be lost on people who consider Maugham “just a storyteller”, but Maugham fans (it’s a compliment this time, i.e. serious and thoughtful readers of Maugham’s works) would know better than that.

The story doesn’t really matter. Dr Johnson famously said that if a story is new it’s unlikely to be good, and if it’s good it’s unlikely to be new. He was right. It’s the storytelling that makes the difference. “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is a famous fable. “The Verger” is a well-known piece of Jewish folklore. Maugham makes them entirely his own. Both stories are among his most hilarious creations, yet neither is devoid of deeper meaning. Maugham’s sympathies are firmly with the frivolous grasshopper and the illiterate verger, much to the dismay, no doubt, of his priggish readers and critics. But he passes no judgements on society and its values. He merely points out that education and industry are not as important as they are made out if – if – one has the charm of Tom Ramsay or the courage of Albert Foreman. “You can do anything in this world”, as Maugham said through the mouth of Lord Porteous in The Circle (1921), “if you’re prepared to take the consequences, and the consequences depend on character.”

Themes and motifs may recur, but there is nothing formulaic about these stories. Maugham wasn’t fond of repeating himself – or others. “Mr Know-All” and “A String of Beads” are stories about false and genuine pearls, but they share nothing else, nor are they similar to Maupassant’s “The Necklace” (1884). By the way, the ending of “A String of Beads” contains another sharp punch in the nose of common(place) morality that I never properly appreciated before. “The Escape” is a farcical tale of marital flight very similar to “Mabel” (1930), but the characters are different and so are the endings. “Raw Material” and “The Poet” are ostensibly tales of mistaken identity with twist endings, but both really are wickedly funny, self-mocking examinations of the writer’s imagination gone wild. This is surely a subject important enough to be treated more than once, but note how different are the settings (a ship in the Pacific vs a house in Andalusia) and the characters (wealthy American businessmen vs an old grandee who has led a Byronic life).

Most of these stories are very much on the humorous side, but this is not to say they are flippant. Far from it! Indeed, Maugham often mixes comedy and tragedy with a flair in which there is something positively Shakespearean. “A Friend in Need” is a perfect example of this. It contains one Maugham’s most shocking final twists. It never fails to give me the creeps, no matter how prepared I am. The story is dedicated to the unpredictability of human nature, a subject Maugham explored relentlessly all his life, but he seldom achieved so perfect expression of it in so short a story.

Quite a few stories are nothing if not subversive. They almost blow up the very fabric of social order. There is nothing surprising in this. Maugham dedicated his whole life to fighting the absurdities he was surrounded with from childhood. As he wrote in 1896, aged only 22 but already thinking far ahead, destroying sacred cows is a profession, and an amusing one at that:

Life cannot fail to be amusing to me when there are so many errors and misconceptions in which I’m enmeshed and which I can tear away. To destroy the prejudices which from my youth have been instilled into me is in itself an occupation and an entertainment.

“The Wash Tub” has made me laugh for a dozen readings already and I expect it would do the same for at least a dozen more in the years to come. But it’s a very serious story all the same, on the one hand addressing the deeply seated passion for romance in all of us (hence escapist fiction and conspiracy theories), on the other hand presenting a devastating picture of social success in London as a complete sham. “The Happy Man” seems to be a light story about a strange chap who abandons his secure livelihood in England for an insecure one in Spain. But it’s actually an inspiring tale about one of those very, very few people who know where, and how, to look for happiness, ostensibly the same “theme” as in “Mayhew” and “The Lotus Eater” but treated differently and, just by the way, making short work of the conventional ideas of social respectability. “The Closed Shop” is arguably not among the finest stories here: the storytelling is not Maugham’s most incisive. But what a withering satire of marriage! And what an admirable defence of prostitution! Maupassant would have been pleased with it.

Anatomising stories like that is a dangerous business. One is forced to do it for the sake of the review, but one must be very careful. The method certainly does no justice to Maugham’s stories. They are much more subtle, more complex and more ambiguous than that. You might think 10-15 pages – small pages with wide margins printed in fairly big font – are quite insufficient to tell a story or reveal a character – or even both at the same time. In most cases, you’d be right. In Maugham’s case, you’d be wrong. “Louise”, “The Verger” and “Mr Know-All” are enough to prove that.

To take two other examples, consider “The Social Sense” and “The Promise”. Two of the most perfect “cosmopolitans”, both may boast some of Maugham’s most enchanting women. One is the classic “woman with a past” and a lady of noble birth, the other is a former singer and rather a highbrow aesthete, both are portrayed with understanding and compassion that must be obvious to anybody but the most warped Maugham hater. Both ladies are candid about love affairs that approach tragic heights without ever so much as hinting at melodrama. Both stories include some criticism on a society which makes so much of appearances and thus forces hypocrisy even on people who otherwise are uncommonly honest.

Some of the stories are grim indeed. “The Judgment Seat” is the only one that was not published in the Cosmopolitan. I suppose this humanistic fable with atheistic overtones was far too racy for its pages. Maugham has seldom mounted a harsher attack in fewer pages on everything from the pathological prudishness that deifies “duty” to the eternal logical contraction between an all-powerful and all-good god. “The Bum”, evocatively set in sultry Mexico, is another absolute masterpiece. It’s a brutal story about dashed hopes and wasted lives, written with visceral power which even Maugham seldom achieved. It’s always a shattering experience, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. But this is really the kind of story that even more than usual defies reviewing. You have to read it yourself, and then see it through your own personality and experience.

Quite a range for “a little collection of very short stories”, isn’t it? I don’t know about casual readers, but students of Maugham will find his “cosmopolitans” a rich field for study, not to mention (and indeed much more important) an endless source of intelligent entertainment.

Last and least, these stories are marvellous time machine. They transport you back to a past that has vanished so completely, it’s hard to believe it existed just over a century ago. It is a past in which people go “into service” at the age of twelve, you can have Positano “to yourself” in the summer, the word “gentleman” actually means something and travelling long distance takes weeks by ship. Here is romance at hand, ready to seduce you; romance, I mean, in the Maughamian sense of the word, as the author sensed it while he was staying in Yokohama:

One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge of the Grand Hotel. This was before the earthquake and they had leather armchairs there. From the windows you had a spacious view of the harbour with its crowded traffic. There were great liners on their way to Vancouver and San Francisco or to Europe by way of Shanghai, Hong-Kong and Singapore; there were tramps of all nations, battered and sea worn, junks with their high sterns and great coloured sails, and innumerable sampans. It was a busy, exhilarating scene, and yet, I know not why, restful to the spirit. Here was romance and it seemed that you had but to stretch out your hand to touch it.

I conclude with some statistics about the obvious wordplay of the title. Maugham’s writings are famously, or notoriously if you like, cosmopolitan. Like the narrator from “In a Strange Land”, Maugham was “of a roving disposition”. The 29 “cosmopolitans” cover quite a few lands and seas. Here is the list of stories again, but this time with a list of the places where they take place (the locations are deliberately detailed to accommodate even the greatest geographical ignorance):

Raw Material: on a ship between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Peking.
Mayhew: the island of Capri, Bay of Naples, Italy.
German Harry: Trebucket, fictional island in the Arafura Sea (between Australia and New Guinea).
The Happy Man: London, England, and Seville, Spain.
The Dream: Vladivostok, Russia, the restaurant at the train station.
In a Strange Land: Turkey, a hotel in the middle of nowhere.
The Luncheon: Paris, France, the Foyot restaurant.
Salvatore: the island of Capri, Bay of Naples, Italy.
Home: Somersetshire, England.
Mr Know-All: on a ship in the Pacific.
The Escape: England.
A Friend in Need: Yokohama, Japan.
The Portrait of a Gentleman: Seoul, South Korea.
The End of the Flight: Borneo.
The Judgment Seat: Heaven.
The Ant and the Grasshopper: England.
French Joe: Thursday Island, Torres Strait (between Australia and New Guinea).
The Man with the Scar: Guatemala City, Guatemala.
The Poet: Ecija, Andalusia, Spain.
Louise: England, presumably.
The Closed Shop: mythical country in Central America.
The Promise: London, England, restaurant at Claridge’s.
A String of Beads: England.
The Bum: Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Straight Flush: on a ship in the Pacific.
The Verger: London, England.
The Wash-Tub: Positano, Italy.
The Social Sense: London, England.
The Four Dutchmen: Singapore and Indonesia (journey from Merauke to Macassar). ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 1, 2020 |
[Preface to Cosmopolitans, Heinemann/Doubleday, 1936:]

The little stories in this volume were written on commission. The first was written in 1924; the last, I think, in 1929. When I was in China I took notes of whatever I saw that excited my interest; but when I came home and read them it seemed to me that they had a vividness that I might easily lose if I tried to elaborate them into a connected narrative. So I changed my mind and decided to publish them as they stood under the title: On a Chinese Screen. Ray Long, who was then editor of the Cosmopolitan Magazine chanced to read this and it occurred to him that some of my notes might very well be taken for short stories. If you are a story-teller any curious person you meet has a way of suggesting a story, and incidents that to others will seem quite haphazard have a way of presenting themselves to you with the pattern your natural instinct has imposed on them.

Magazine readers do not like starting a story and, after reading for a while, being told to turn to page a hundred and something. Writers do not like it either, for they think the interruption disturbs the reader and they have an uneasy fear that sometimes he will not take the trouble and so leaves their story unfinished. There is no help for it. Everyone should know that a magazine costs more to produce than it is sold for, and it could not exist but for the advertisements. The advertisers think that their announcements are more likely to be read if they are on the same page as matter which they modestly, but often mistakenly, think of greater interest. So in the illustrated periodicals it has been found advisable to put the beginning of a story or an article, with the picture that purports to illustrate it, at the beginning and the continuation with the advertisements later on.

Neither readers nor writers should complain. Readers get something for far less than cost price and writers are paid sums for their productions which only the advertisements render possible. They should remember that they are there only as baits. Their office is to fill blank spaces and indirectly induce their readers to buy motor accessories, bust bodices and join correspondence courses. Fortunately this need not affect them. The best story from the advertisers' standpoint (and they make their views felt on this question) is the story that gives readers most delight. Ray Long conceived the notion that the readers of Cosmopolitan would like it if they were given at least one story that they could read without having to hunt for the continuation among the advertisements, and he commissioned me to write half a dozen sketches of the same sort as those in On a Chinese Screen. They were to be short enough to print on opposite pages of the magazine and leave plenty of room for the illustration.

The sketches I wrote pleased and the commission was renewed. I went on writing them till my natural verbosity got the better of me and I found myself no longer able to keep my stories within the limits imposed upon me. Then I had to stop.

But I think I learned a good deal from the writing of them and I am glad I wrote them. My difficulty was to compress what I had to tell into a number of words which must not be exceeded and yet leave the reader with the impression that I had told all there was to tell. It was this that made the enterprise amusing. It was also salutary. I could not afford to waste a word. I had to be succinct. I was surprised to find how many adverbs and adjectives I could leave out without any harm to the matter or the manner. One often writes needless words because they give the phrase a little ring. It was very good practice to try to get balance into a sentence without using a word that was not necessary to the sense.

The matter of course had to be chosen with discretion; it would have been futile to take a theme that demanded elaborate development; and I have a natural predilection for completeness, so that even in the little space at my disposal I wanted my story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not for my own part much care for the shapeless story. To my mind it is not enough when the writer gives you the plain facts seen through his own eyes (which means of course that they are not plain facts, but facts distorted by his own idiosyncrasy); I think he should impose upon them a design. Naturally these stories are anecdotes. […] The anecdote is the basis of fiction. The restlessness of writers forces upon fiction from time to time forms that are foreign to it, but when it has been oppressed for a period by obscurity, propaganda or affectation, it reverts and returns inevitably to the anecdote.

The University of Columbia a little while ago very kindly sent me a little book entitled Modern Fiction written by two of its professors. I read it with interest and edification. It offers the best guide I have ever met across the fog-bound swamps, shining mountains, pleasant oases and dreary deserts of Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses. It treats of no book that it does not make one wish to read again. It is tolerant, perspicacious and stimulating. But there is one thing about it that very much surprised me. The books of which it treats are discussed in the most improving way. Their technique is acutely analysed. Their value as psychological, sociological or ethical documents is estimated. But I can find nowhere a reference to their entertainment. So far as I can make out these two professors in all the years during which they have taught the ardent young who have attended their lectures never even hinted to them that a novel should be read for fun. The novel may stimulate you to think. It may satisfy your aesthetic sense. It may arouse your moral emotions. But if it does not entertain you it is a bad novel. It is merely laziness that induces people to go to novels for instruction on subjects that are the province of experts. There is no short road to knowledge and you will only waste your time if you seek it in a work of fiction. If you are interested in psychology, you had much better read a book on the subject. If you are interested in sociology, you had much better go to a sociologist. The technical devices that an author uses to capture your interest are his own affair. Such a one as the “stream of thought” Is an amusing trick, but it is of no more real importance than the epistolary style which was in vogue during the eighteenth century. Like that, it is an ingenious expedient to give verisimilitude. To suppose that it can have a scientific value, as some critics have done, is ridiculous. The novelist deals with individual cases which he has chosen to suit his own purpose. They may exemplify a rule; they cannot serve to formulate one. The novelist gives you his private view of the universe. He offers you intelligent entertainment; and the first thing you should ask of an entertainment is that it should entertain.

I hope the reader will not think it presumptuous on my part to have touched on these matters of theory in a preface written to introduce a little collection of very short stories. I wish merely to warn him that I ask nothing from him but that he should find them amusing. I think it would be very tiresome to read them at a sitting, but I have a hope that if he reads one or two now and then when he has nothing better to do he will take the same pleasure in them that was taken by the readers of the Cosmopolitan Magazine when they appeared once every month or so in its pages.
  WSMaugham | Jun 15, 2015 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Cosmopolitans
Very Short Stories*

Preface

Raw Material [1923, as The Imposters]
Mayhew [1923]
German Harry [1924]
The Happy Man [1924]
The Dream [1924]
In a Strange Land [1924]
The Luncheon** [1924]
Salvatore [1924, as Salvatore the Fisherman]
Home [1924, as Home from the Sea]
Mr. Know-All [1925]
The Escape [1925, as The Widow's Might]
A Friend in Need [1925, as The Man Who Wouldn't Hurt a Fly]
The Portrait of a Gentleman [1925, as The Code of a Gentleman]
The End of the Flight [1926]
The Judgement Seat [never published in magazine***]
The Ant and the Grasshopper [1924]
French Joe [1926, as Another Man Without a Country]
The Man with the Scar [1925]
The Poet [1925, as The Great Man]
Louise [1925, as The Most Selfish Woman I Ever Knew]
The Closed Shop [1926]
The Promise [1925, as An Honest Woman]
A String of Beads [1927, as Pearls]
The Bum [1929, as A Derelict]
Straight Flush [1929]
The Verger [1929, as The Man Who Made His Mark]
The Wash Tub [1929, as In Hiding]
The Social Sense [1929, as The Extraordinary Sex]
The Four Dutchmen [1928]

Heinemann, Hardback, 1938.
12mo. xiii+302 pp. The Collected edition. Original Preface, 1936 [vii-xiii].

First published by Doubleday, Doran, 1936.
First published by Heinemann in The Collected edition, 1938.

* In the square brackets: the year of the first publication in a magazine and the alternative title, if any.

** Significantly rewritten version of Cousin Amy which was first published in a magazine in 1908 but had to wait more than 60 years to appear in book form: Seventeen Lost Stories (1969).

*** But it was published in pamphlet form in 1934.

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

The first thing about Cosmopolitans by Somerset Maugham that must be stressed firmly is that this short story collection is quite different than all others he ever published. Hence any comparisons between them are, to put it mildly, ridiculous. I wonder why this escapes some biographers of Maugham, most notably Jeffrey Meyers who insists on such comparison in his somewhat pathetic attempt Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004).

Let's look at the numbers first: all previous short story collections by Maugham, published between 1920 and 1933, contained no more than 6 stories each (except Ashenden of course; but its 16 chapters were later merged into six short stories anyway). Cosmopolitans contains exactly 29 pieces and has the telling subtitle "Very Short Stories". It is therefore quite obvious that these stories are expected to be much shorter and much less complex in terms of both plot and character development than Maugham's previous works in the genre. Indeed, they are. That's why any comparisons with Maugham's other collections are simply preposterous. Mr. Meyers also tells us that there is only one outstanding story in this collection and that is "Mr. Know-All". This too is a perfect nonsense.

The name of the collection comes, of course, from the famous magazine Cosmopolitan in which all these short stories save one appeared between 1923 and 1929. Indeed, they were written on a commission from that magazine whose editor, Ray Long, happened to read Maugham's travel book On A Chinese Screen (1922) and thinking that some of the 58 short sketches included in it might well serve as short stories commissioned a dozen or so new ones to Maugham. Later most of these very short stories were revised a great deal, acquired new titles and were published in a single volume by Doubleday in 1936.

To this book Maugham wrote one of his most charming prefaces, extremely amusing to read and containing a lot of serious thoughts about the art of fiction. He states that the stories for Cosmopolitan were to be short enough to be printed on two opposite pages of the magazine and leave enough space for an illustration. Maugham describes his difficulties to compress all he had to say in so limited a space and points out that these stories, naturally, are anecdotes. But I couldn't say it better than he did:

My difficulty was to compress what I had to tell into a number of words which must not be exceeded and yet leave the reader with the impression that I had told all there was to tell. It was this that made the enterprise amusing. It was also salutary. I could not afford to waste a word. I had to be succinct. I was surprised to find how many adverbs and adjectives I could leave out without any harm to the matter or the manner. One often writes needless words because they give the phrase a better ring. It was very good practice to try to get balance into a sentence without using a word that was not necessary to the sense.

The matter of course had to be chosen with discretion; it would have been futile to take a theme that demanded elaborate development; and I have a natural predilection for completeness, so that even in the little space at my disposal I wanted my story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not for my own part much care for the shapeless story.

The anecdote is the basis of fiction. The restlessness of writers forces upon fiction from time to time forms that are foreign to it, but when it has been oppressed for a period by obscurity, propaganda or affectation, it reverts, and returns inevitably to the anecdote.


After that Maugham makes a very shrewd remark about novels in general that is pretty much true for all fiction:

The novel may stimulate you to think. It may satisfy your aesthetic sense. It may arouse your moral emotions. But if it does not entertain you it is a bad novel. It is merely laziness that induces people to go to novels for instruction on subjects that are the province of experts. There is no short road to knowledge and you will only waste your time if you seek it in a work of fiction.

Maugham's aim with these very short stories was to amuse and to entertain. Nothing more. To my mind he succeeds completely. And gives much more besides as well.

The most amazing thing about all short stories in this collection is that even in this very limited space Maugham manages to achieve a perfect structure. His stories always have "a beginning, a middle and an end" although the "cosmopolitans" (by design!) are much shorter than his other stories and do not make any pretensions for plot plausibility or character complexity. For my own part, I can hardly imagine something more enjoyable to read than these charming little pieces. Most of them are simply hilarious and I always laugh my head off while reading them, "Mr. Know-All", "The Ant and the Grasshopper", "The Poet" and "The Wash Tub" being the perfect examples.

The short story "Louise", on the other hand, is a very apt example of something that is both hilarious and, if you look at it under a slightly different angle, quite serious at the same time. It is also one of the most cynical works Maugham ever wrote and one that can always be counted to win him more accusations of misogyny. Personally, I consider it a masterpiece.

The emotional range of Maugham's writing is as exceptional here as it is everywhere else in his works; only the different themes are explored in different stories because of the limited space. Among the many wonderful experiences while reading Cosmopolitans you can touch for a moment pure human goodness ("Salvatore"), be enchanted by some extremely honest women ("The Promise" and "The Social Sense"; misogyny be damned!), convince yourself that the illiteracy is not something so bad after all ("The Verger"), be shocked by how unexpected a thing somebody could do ("A Friend in Need"), or be deeply moved by the heart-rending story of "The Bum".

I have not the slightest hesitation to put all these stories in an imaginary volume of mine called The Best Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Indeed, the first lines of "A Friend in Need" may very well serve as an introduction to Maugham's complete works:

For thirty years now I have been studying my fellow-men. I do not know very much about them. I should certainly hesitate to engage a servant on his face, and yet I suppose it is on the face that for the most part we judge the persons we meet. We draw our conclusions from the shape of the jaw, the look in the eyes, the contour of the mouth. I wonder if we are more often right than wrong. Why novels and plays are so often untrue to life is because their authors, perhaps of necessity, make their characters all of a piece. They cannot afford to make them self-contradictory, for then they become incomprehensible, and yet self-contradictory is what most of us are. We are a haphazard bundle of inconsistent qualities. In books on logic they will tell you that it is absurd to say that yellow is tubular or gratitude heavier than air; but in that mixture of incongruities that makes up the self yellow may very well be a horse and cart and gratitude the middle of the week. I shrug my shoulders when people tell me that their first impressions of a person are always right. I think they must have small insight or great vanity. For my own part I find that the longer I know people the more they puzzled me: my oldest friends are just these of whom I can say that I don't know the first thing about them.

Of course, as every extremely productive writer, Maugham is not always at his best (only the mediocre is, as he used to say). His finest achievements in the genre were generally his much longer and much more complex short stories where he had much greater chances to explore the human nature and all its singularities. Yet, the aforementioned very short stories prove conclusively that Maugham could well reach the same degree of perfection in much shorter and essentially different in character works. This shows his considerable versatility as a writer which is often, and grossly, underestimated.

Even not quite at his very best Maugham can be amusing ("Raw Material"), thought-provoking ("Mayhew"), moving ("Home") or hilarious ("The Closed Shop"). Even at his worst Maugham remains highly readable and not at all boring. I certainly think some of the stories here - "The Portrait of a Gentleman", "The Man with the Scar", "German Harry" and "French Joe" for instance - are the worst of all 115 Maugham ever wrote. Yet they make a diverting if not altogether absorbing read.

Even in these short stories Maugham could always surprise you with something deep and profound. Take for example the introductory paragraph of the otherwise indifferent story "The Happy Man". I certainly consider these few lines to be some of the greatest Maugham ever wrote:

It is a dangerous thing to order the lives of others and I have often wondered at the self-confidence of politicians, reformers and such like who are prepared to force upon their fellows measures that must alter their manners, habits and points of view. I have always hesitated to give advice, for how can one advise another how to act unless one knows that other as well as one knows oneself? Heaven knows, I know little enough of myself: I know nothing of others. We can only guess at the thoughts and emotions of our neighbours. Each one of us is a prisoner in a solitary tower and he communicates with the other prisoners, who form mankind, by conventional signs that have not quite the same meaning for them as for himself. And life, unfortunately, is something that you can lead but once; mistakes are often irreparable, and who am I that should tell this one and that how he should lead it? Life is a difficult business and I have found it hard enough to make my own a complete and rounded thing; I have not been tempted to teach my neighbour what he should do with his.

Two short stories in Cosmopolitans require special attention.

"The Luncheon" is actually a significantly rewritten version of the short story "Cousin Amy" published in the Pall Mall Magazine in March 1908. Maugham was adamant that none of his early stories, which he thought very immature and preposterously supercilious, should be reprinted in his later collections (unless he revised and approved of it). So "Cousin Amy" had to wait more than 60 years for its first appearance in book form: Seventeen Lost Stories (1969), compiled and with an introduction by Craig Showalter, first published just four years after Maugham's death. It is extremely fascinating to compare both versions for such comparison offers an unparalleled insight into Maugham's development as a writer, marked by his constant striving to improve his style. Much as "Cousin Amy" is amusing to read, its later version is much subtler and much funnier. Maugham actually discarded the gluttonous cousin for an ardent admirer of a young writer. And to a great effect I would say.

The short story "The Judgement Seat" is unique in both this volume and Maugham's oeuvre. To the best of my belief it is the only one of all 29 short stories here that was never published in a magazine form. Moreover, it certainly is the only case in all of Maugham's works when he wrote pure fantasy (just like the "The Closed Shop" is the only case when he enjoyed playing with utopia). "The Judgement Seat" is set where nobody has ever come back from to tell us what it really is and one of the main characters is He whom half the mankind passionately believe in and the other half, with equal vehemence, deny existence. It gives an excellent opportunity for Maugham to mention, and even to explore a bit, one of his favorite themes, one of the greatest controversies that is there:

“No one can deny the fact of Evil,” said the philosopher, sententiously. “Now, if God cannot prevent Evil he is not all-powerful, and if he can prevent it and will not, he is not all-good.” ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Oct 18, 2009 |
short stories
  ReadinginSarasota | Jul 21, 2007 |
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