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The Trembling of a Leaf (1921)

por W. Somerset Maugham

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When noted English writer William Somerset Maugham set off for the South Seas to regain his health, he gathered the materials and wrote the stories represented here. These are among Maugham's best, and the best stories ever written about the exotic South Seas.
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W. Somerset Maugham is unsurpassed as a chronicler of broken and wasted lives. He only flounders when he tries to redeem someone, such as the unbearable Larry Darrell in The Razor's Edge. Nothing of the sort is at work in this collection of short stories, which includes one of Maugham's most famous and influential works, "Rain," the story of an on the run prostitute, Sadie Thompson, who is vehicle for revealing the base corruption in men's souls. Although set mostly in the Samoan Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti, the locale is not all that important, here. Yes, Maugham's reputation for depicting exotic places is in play, but as with most of his best work, it's the psychological portraits and the examination of human interplay that dominates. These stories could take place anywhere and still beguile the reader with their intensity. Locale actually has little to do with things, which are mostly viewed in close-up. Aside from "Rain," perhaps the most memorable of the bunch is "Mackintosh," where two rival colonial administrators plot to damage each other, only to find themselves in a mutual death grip. Meanwhile, the stories are full of Maugham's usual skewering of human vanity, pride, sloth, and capacity for self deception. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
W. Somerset Maugham

The Trembling of a Leaf:
Little Stories of the South Sea Islands

Heinemann, Hardback, 1921.

12mo. 302 pp. First British edition.

First published by George H. Doran, 17 September 1921.

Contents

I. The Pacific
II. Mackintosh [Nov 1920, Cosmopolitan]*
III. The Fall of Edward Barnard
IV. Red [Apr 1921, Asia]
V. The Pool [Sep 1921, Cosmopolitan]
VI. Honolulu
VII. Rain [Apr 1921, The Smart Set, as “Miss Thompson”]
VIII. Envoi

*Date and place of first publication. The opening and the concluding pieces, together with “The Fall of Edward Barnard”, were apparently first published in book form. The magazine publication of “The Pool” was more or less simultaneous with the book. “Honolulu” appeared in Everybody’s for October 1921, on the next month after the book.

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

Almost nine years have passed since my last review of this book. I have meanwhile read all six stories again several times. They get better and better with every re-reading. They always feel like coming home, but since you cannot come home again (who said that? Tom Wolfe?), they always feel fresh. The more I read them with the passing years, the more I get from them. The more I read other alleged masters of the short story, from Kipling, Chekov and Maupassant to Mansfield, Hemingway and V. S. Pritchett, the more I appreciate Maugham as the supreme master of the form. Whatever competition he might have in novels, plays and essays, in the short story he stands alone.

With the possible exception of “The Pool” and “Honolulu”, all of these stories – but especially “Rain” and “Red” – are among Maugham’s most famous. They have been reprinted in countless anthologies, collected editions and random selections. Beware of reading these. Always choose the original collection; the first edition is available even on Project Gutenberg, plenty of other old editions can be found online at very affordable prices.[1] The common locale (never mind a few thousand miles of water) and the two extra pieces give it a special unity. My only quibble is the order. I would move “The Fall of Edward Barnard” to the end, right before “Envoi”. That aside, this is a perfect book.

The critical response to this collection has been mostly hilarious. Some online reviewers seem completely unable to see anything in these stories except racism and sexism. They are not impressed with the language, either: “queer turns of phrase” such as “violent deeds diapered the monotony of life” rob them of their sleep for weeks.[2] Others – such as Graham Greene, no less[3] – found some passages “which Mr Maugham must find acutely embarrassing to remember”. Must he? Pity Mr Greene didn’t deign to give some examples. Rebecca West, nowadays much better forgotten than Maugham, was outraged by the Sainte-Beuve epigraph, “one of the generalisations which make one hate and despise French literature”, she screamed in print[4].

All I have to say to such readers is a friendly piece of free advice. Maugham is obviously not your writer, so there is no reason why you should waste your time reading him. Simple as that. But it must be admitted the world would be less amusing without such readers and reviewers. And it must be admitted, too, that most positive reviews are even more superficial...

Somerset Maugham was born to write short stories. It was quite a blessing that he discovered his real vocation only in his middle forties. He was then at the absolute height of his creative powers. For the next about thirty years, between 1917 and 1947, he wrote almost four times as many stories (91) as he had done for the previous twenty (24). These bald figures tell nothing about the quality and the consistency of Maugham’s mature stories. The funny thing is, this spectacular renaissance was caused by a journey to the South Seas which was more or less incidental.

Maugham claims he was eager to visit these magical islands ever since, as a youth, he read Robert Louis Stevenson and because he wanted to collect some material for a novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin[5]. But I suspect the most important reason was to get as far as possible from his newly born daughter out of wedlock and her mother whom he had no wish to marry. In The Summing Up, the most personal of all his books, Maugham says only that he “wanted to recover my peace of mind shattered through my own foolishness and vanity by occurrences upon which I need not dwell”. He was right to be reticent about private matters that were nobody’s business but his own. Much more importantly, in the same chapter he left an unforgettable description of the impact the South Seas had on him when he went there in 1916/17. Since no paraphrase can improve on Maugham’s prose, here is the original:

I went, looking for beauty and romance and glad to put a great ocean between me and the trouble that harassed me. I found beauty and romance, but I found also something I had never expected. I found a new self. Ever since I left St. Thomas’s Hospital I had lived with people who attached value to culture. I had come to think that there was nothing in the world more important than art. I looked for a meaning in the universe and the only one I could find was the beauty that men here and there produced. On the surface my life was varied and exciting; but beneath it was narrow. Now I entered a new world, and all the instinct in me of a novelist went out with exhilaration to absorb the novelty. It was not only the beauty of the islands that took me, Herman Melville and Pierre Loti had prepared me for that, and though it is a different beauty it is not a greater beauty than that of Greece or Southern Italy; nor was it their ramshackle, slightly adventurous, easy life; what excited me was to meet one person after another who was new to me. I was like a naturalist who comes into a country where the fauna are of an unimaginable variety. Some I recognized; they were old types that I had read of and they gave me just the same feeling of delighted surprise that I had once in the Malayan Archipelago when I saw sitting on the branch of a tree a bird that I had never seen before but in a zoo. For the first moment I thought it must have escaped from a cage. Others were strange to me and they thrilled me as Wallace was thrilled when he came upon a new species. I found them easy to get on with. They were of all sorts; indeed, the variety would have been bewildering but that my powers of observation were by now well trained and I found it possible without conscious effort to pigeon-hole each one in my awareness. Few of them had culture. They had learnt life in a different school from mine and had come to different conclusions. They led it on a different plane; I could not, with my sense of humour, go on thinking mine a higher one. It was different. Their lives too formed themselves to the discerning eye into a pattern that had order and finally coherence.

I stepped off my pedestal. It seemed to me that these men had more vitality than those I had known hitherto. They did not burn with a hard, gem-like flame, but with a hot, smoky, consuming fire. They had their own narrownesses. They had their prejudices. They were often dull and stupid. I did not care. They were different. In civilized communities men’s idiosyncrasies are mitigated by the necessity of conforming to certain rules of behaviour. Culture is a mask that hides their faces. Here people showed themselves bare. These heterogeneous creatures thrown into a life that had preserved a great deal of its primitiveness had never felt the need to adapt themselves to conventional standards. Their peculiarities had been given opportunity to develop unchecked. In great cities men are like a lot of stones thrown together in a bag; their jagged corners are rubbed off till in the end they are as smooth as marbles. These men had never had their jagged corners rubbed away. They seemed to me nearer to the elementals of human nature than any of the people I had been living with for so long and my heart leapt towards them as it had done years before to the people who filed into the outpatients’ room at St. Thomas’s. I filled my notebook with brief descriptions of their appearance and their character, and presently, my imagination excited by these multitudinous impressions, from a hint or an incident or a happy invention, stories began to form themselves round certain of the most vivid of them.
[6]

Maugham’s notebooks were published in 1949, on the next year after his last work of fiction, under the title A Writer’s Notebook. “1916” is indeed one of the longest sections in this book. It contains raw material for at least a dozen stories more as well as some parts that went into at least five of these six. The student of Maugham is well advised to study his notes and compare them to the plots, places and people in his stories. I have extracted elsewhere some relevant passages. Only a few general points may be mentioned here.

Many stray phrases and similes from the notes found their perfect place in the stories. Two of my favourite examples are “the frivolous elegance of palm trees” and their resemblance to “a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, who stood with a simpering grace in affected attitudes”. The Cathedral in Apia is memorable, too: “all white, stands out not without impressiveness; and beside it the Protestant chapels look like meeting-houses.” You may like or dislike such descriptions; that is your own business. Only Maugham could have written them anyway. So much for his “hackneyed” and “cliché-ridden” style! “The Pacific” enjoys a note that clearly served as a starting point, but the stirring opening was added later (the reference to Beachy Head is somewhat chilling considering the prevalence of suicides in the stories).

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell, and sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests, and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant.

Places are treated in the same imaginative way. The Union Saloon in Honolulu is a case in point. The physical description was copied from the notes into the story with hardly a word changed. But the paragraph about the atmosphere was changed significantly. Here is the version from A Writer’s Notebook:

Here gather American men of business, sailors, not able seamen, but captains, engineers and first mates, storekeepers and kanakas. Business of all sorts is done here. The place has a vaguely mysterious air and you can imagine that it would be a fit scene for shady transactions. In the daytime the light is dim and at night the electric light is cold and sinister.

This is a fine description, evocative and provocative. But it was transformed into something much better in the story:

The place seemed to belong not to the modern, hustling world that I had left in the bright street outside, but to one that was dying. It had the savour of the day before yesterday. Dingy and dimly lit, it had a vaguely mysterious air and you could imagine that it would be a fit scene for shady transactions. It suggested a more lurid time, when ruthless men carried their lives in their hands, and violent deeds diapered the monotony of life.

Iwelei, the red-light district of Honolulu, is a good example of the opposite case. The version in the notes is longer and better. Ever the painstaking craftsman, Maugham knew it had to be shortened in the story; it is only a small part of the background there. He did the abridgement with a deft hand, so in a single paragraph you get a vivid impression of the “sardonic horror; for never can the search for love have been so systematised and ordered. [...] Desire is sad.” Indeed! But one must regret the omission of such passages:

When you go in the blinds are drawn down and if someone knocks the answer is: Busy. You are at once invited to drink beer and the woman tells you how many glasses she has had that day. She asks you where you come from. The gramophone is turned on. The price is a dollar.

As far as the characters are concerned, you can find in the notes only the physical appearance and the background of some of them. The bare bones of Lawson, Brevald, Miller and Chaplin from “The Pool” appear as “L.”, “Swan”, “Gardner” and “the owner of the hotel”, respectively. But the characters, even minor ones like Chaplin and Miller, are much more effective in the context of the story. There is one “Red”, but he bears no resemblance to the eponymous character. He is a sullen and stupid man, his most cherished possession being “a collection of dirty postcards”. He was probably the model for “German Harry” (1924)[7]. One “administrator” and one “skipper” vaguely resemble Walker from “Mackintosh” and Captain Butler from “Honolulu”, respectively. But how much more exciting and vigorous, how much more alive are the finished characters!

You will find even less of the plots. This is to be expected. They are the least important part. The first half of “The Pool” is the only plot element I could find in the notes. Characters were Maugham’s starting point as well as his forte. Of course, it is quite possible that he omitted some notes; he admitted as much in the Preface about lots of dialogues for early plays and everything that was already published separately as On a Chinese Screen (1922). Even so, even if Maugham skipped some notes to boost his creative powers, this hardly changes the whole situation. The best in his stories could have come only out of his own head. Gossip and observation are only the raw material.

Certainly, it is no ordinary creative gift to make long stories, finished and polished like no other stories, from short and brusque notes like Maugham’s. As he put it himself:

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.[8]

If you have read thus far, you will have noticed how little I’ve said about the stories themselves. This is quite deliberate. There’s not much to say. I have said more than enough in my old review. But I suppose I have to say something again. Otherwise the Knights of the Blue Flag will mark this as a non-review, and that is a humiliation I would not be able to bear.

“Mackintosh” is often given as a classic example of an ending that sacrifices plausibility for effect.[9] But this ending is anticipated in the second paragraph, just about fifty pages before it happens. The title character is vividly described as a man on the edge of mental breakdown from the very beginning.

It was so hot that he lay naked. He turned from side to side. And gradually the dull roar of the breakers on the reef, so unceasing and so regular that generally you did not hear it, grew distinct on his consciousness, its rhythm hammered on his tired nerves and he held himself with clenched hands in the effort to bear it. The thought that nothing could stop that sound, for it would continue to all eternity, was almost impossible to bear, and, as though his strength were a match for the ruthless forces of nature, he had an insane impulse to do some violent thing. He felt he must cling to his self-control or he would go mad. And now, looking out of the window at the lagoon and the strip of foam which marked the reef, he shuddered with hatred of the brilliant scene.

The breakdown predictably happens, but it’s carefully prepared and executed with all of Maugham’s narrative genius. The fatal ending predictably comes, but the reasons for it are complex. Walker’s death – surely one of the greatest scenes Maugham ever penned – is a shattering experience for Mackintosh, not least because he has more than a little to do with it. The hatred he harbours in him “was not blind; on the contrary, it was peculiarly clear-sighted, and he judged Walker’s capabilities with precision.” Mackintosh knows only too well he would never be half as capable administrator as Walker, nor would he be able to match his predecessor’s love for the natives. The short scene with Jervis, the half-caste trader with a native wife, makes both of these points with subtle clarity that only a great writer can achieve. Both Walker and Mackintosh are tragic characters.

Some readers, sensitive souls no doubt, may consider rather patronising, or racist if they like, Walker’s calling himself “father” of the natives and regarding them as his “children”. But it’s really no more patronising than the attitude of many parents to their children. It doesn’t necessarily include lack of affection or unjust punishment. Walker can be justly blamed with the latter. He goes too far. He must. All tragic characters do. But there can be no doubt about Walker’s love for the natives. This is most emphatically confirmed shortly before his death when he implores Mackintosh to present the whole thing as an accident for which no one is to blame. Otherwise the “damned fools” in Apia (Samoa’s capital) will send the fleet, as they did in 1895, and many innocent people will be punished. “I don’t want anyone punished. [...] They’re children. I’m their father. A father don’t let his children get into trouble if he can help it.”

Walker shares this fatherly feeling, especially rare for a white man at the time, with Mr Warburton from “The Outstation”. Otherwise the characters – and the stories, even though both deal with conflicts between colonial officials – are completely different. But I have dealt with this matter elsewhere.

The online reviewer mentioned above, in his infinite wisdom, calls the second story “so very amateurish, tin-eared and under-baked, and as genuine as a three dollar bill”. One must applaud such rhetorical virtuosity and memorable imagery. I only wish this sage booklover had given us some reasons as well. For I find it difficult to imagine a more perfect story than “The Fall of Edward Barnard”. Here are my reasons.

First of all, it is beautifully told. This is what you would expect from a supreme storyteller like Maugham, of course. But even he didn’t always achieve that kind of absolute perfection. The story opens near the end and is told in a flashback with the right dose of exotic detail and a leisurely but firm pace. The very opening paragraph is gripping and full of promising tensions. I don’t know about your book, but in mine this is called an arresting opening:

Bateman Hunter slept badly. For a fortnight on the boat that brought him from Tahiti to San Francisco he had been thinking of the story he had to tell, and for three days on the train he had repeated to himself the words in which he meant to tell it. But in a few hours now he would be in Chicago, and doubts assailed him. His conscience, always very sensitive, was not at ease. He was uncertain that he had done all that was possible, it was on his honour to do much more than the possible, and the thought was disturbing that, in a matter which so nearly touched his own interest, he had allowed his interest to prevail over his quixotry. Self-sacrifice appealed so keenly to his imagination that the inability to exercise it gave him a sense of disillusion. He was like the philanthropist who with altruistic motives builds model dwellings for the poor and finds that he has made a lucrative investment. He cannot prevent the satisfaction he feels in the ten per cent which rewards the bread he had cast upon the waters, but he has an awkward feeling that it detracts somewhat from the savour of his virtue. Bateman Hunter knew that his heart was pure, but he was not quite sure how steadfastly, when he told her his story, he would endure the scrutiny of Isabel Longstaffe’s cool grey eyes. [...] A pang seized him when he remembered that he must deal so bitter a blow to her pride, and anger flamed up in his heart when he thought of Edward Barnard.[10]

(The second sentence above is full of the revealing details Maugham specialised in. They bring to life those ancient times, less than a century in the past yet unimaginably different, with stark realism. Seventeen days from Tahiti to Chicago! Today you can fly the distance for something like 13-14 hours. It is not exactly cheap, but it can be done.)

The characters of Edward and Bateman are as fully realised as the limitations of the short story allows. More than that, they are used for a serious discussion of one philosophical question that becomes more and more relevant as our civilisation becomes more and more hectic, industrial, artificial and dangerous to ourselves and to the planet. It is a question worth asking and very much worth answering. No wonder it has proved attractive to writers.[11] It might be described as the conflict between the contemplative and the industrious life, but this is surely an oversimplification. Few people can lead a life of contemplation; still fewer can endure lifelong idleness or hedonism. Edward Barnard is not one of them. He simply wants to have “enough work to keep me busy and not enough to make me dull”.

The really beautiful thing is the authorial balance. Maugham is not impartial; that would have been dull. But he is not too partial, either; that would have been duller. He does have some fun at the expense of Bateman and Isabel. But not too much! The title is certainly ironic, and so is Isabel’s condescending “Poor Edward” in the end. But Isabel, so far as she appears at all, is a smart and honest creature, all in all rather a credit to “the best blood in Chicago”. Bateman is a priggish fellow, humourless and, yes, quite quixotic (sorry about that, but the word is really apposite). He is not just an American; he is a Chicagoan: “San Francisco was provincial, New York was effete; the future of America lay in the development of its economic possibilities, and Chicago, by its position and by the energy of its citizens, was destined to become the real capital of the country.” But Bateman, too, has his redeeming qualities, not least of which is his capacity for self-sacrifice.

Maugham’s affection is reserved for Edward who throws away money and power in modern Chicago for a little garden, native wife and kids in the Pacific wilderness. But it is not unqualified affection for the simple reason that Maugham could never have led a life that simple. He was not unlike his great colleague and predecessor, Guy de Maupassant, in that sometimes he wanted to “raise anchor and tell the entire world to bugger off” (in the immortal words of, reportedly, Aristotle Onassis) only to find out soon enough that nature, however lovely or peaceful, is not enough and he needs the bustle and hustle, the intrigue and gossip, of social life in the great cities.[12] Edward’s life may seem simplistic, but the man’s happy. And he knows it. We can all remember times when we were happy. But how many of us can say, honestly, that they are happy?

“Red” has the most predictable twist in the end ever put on paper. That goes without saying. If you are looking for exciting plots and surprise endings, Maugham is not your writer. The characters are the thing.

The title character is not important. He is more like a plot convention. But Neilson, a Swedish professor of philosophy who came to the islands for his health only to find his heaven and hell, is a fascinating creature. Maugham does use the fellow to have a good laugh at bookish aesthetes showing off their useless knowledge, including his younger self, but he has a different agenda. Neilson is “a sentimentalist” by his own admission and a fine proof that “when sentimentality is joined with scepticism there is often the devil to pay”. The story, in fact, is a subtle but devastating study of the clash between sentimentality and reality. The study is apparently too subtle for many readers who tend to consider the story as an ordinary romance.

There are, as a matter of fact, two love stories here, both told in flashback and as different from one another as day and night. The first is a blissful tale of simple, sexual and mutual love. The second is a one-sided affair in which love and hate are barely separated by the trembling of a leaf. It is perhaps significant that the first story is told by Neilson and is very much a product of his feverish imagination. The second is told by an impersonal narrator and is much more objective. The contrast between the stories, like the one between Neilson and Red, is dramatically very effective and much too bright for comfort, yet never overdone.

The very ending, after the obvious twist, is rather tragic. You can say that this story, too, like three others in the same book, ends with a suicide. This is what Neilson’s going home amounts to.

“The Pool” has been the victim of many misguided accusations of racism by superficial, or simply stupid, folk. Many readers seem unable to distinguish between the racism of the characters and the racism of the author. There is little of the former and none of the latter in Maugham. Remember Bateman Hunter? “A touch of hauteur involuntarily entered into his manner” when he discovered he was talking to a half-caste, and he did use the awful word “nigger”. Yes, he is a bit of a racist. But the story he is part of is not.

Maugham explored mixed marriages, or at least sexual relationships, between white men and native women is several of his finest pieces of short fiction. Racism my foot!

“Masterson” (1929)[13] is indeed an anti-racist story. The title character is a very unhappy man. He has met the perfect woman for him, but he cannot bring her to England as his wife. Why? Well, because smart, gracious and charming though she is, her skin is a little darker than usual. Maugham never says that, of course. He is subtle rather than blunt. But he makes his point with precision all the same. Masterson is a sentimental Englishman who wants to spend his retirement under the grey English skies rather than the oppressively bright blue of the tropics. But if he does marry his Burmese mistress, whom he treats as a wife in all respects except the legal one, he would have to stay in Burma all his life. If this is not an attack on British racism, I don’t know what it is.

In “The Force of Circumstance” (1923)[14], one of his most powerful and heart-rending stories, Maugham concentrates on the disintegration of a happy white marriage under native duress. Sufficiently prejudiced readers will find it racist, of course. But I don’t. The natives are by no means unkindly portrayed. They are mysterious and even sinister figures, but hardly harbingers of evil. And in the end they actually win. The white wife’s instinctive revulsion may be accepted as racist (the character’s racism, not the author’s), but I think pure jealousy plays a much greater part in her reaction. Many wives would have reacted quite in the same way regardless of race.

“The Pool” is longer and more complex than either of these. It is one of the two stories in the book (the other one is “Honolulu”) written in the first person singular from the standpoint of a detached observer, a wise man of the world willing to shrug his shoulders at much that would horrify the fainthearted. This is the method which Maugham later brought to unsurpassed perfection in “Footprints in the Jungle”, “The Book-Bag”[15] and all stories from the collection tellingly titled First Person Singular (1931), not to mention some of his finest novels such as Cakes and Ale (1930) and The Razor’s Edge (1944). As “The Pool” shows, he was already a master in 1921. The narrative is flawless, again opening near the end and working mostly in flashback, but coming back to the present for the tragic end preceded by one of those haunting scenes in which Maugham excelled. The narrator’s comments are few but always worth your attention. For example:

I held my breath, for to me there is nothing more awe-inspiring than when a man discovers to you the nakedness of his soul. Then you see that no one is so trivial or debased but that in him is a spark of something to excite compassion.

Who would have thought that this wretched object was in his way a romantic figure or that his life had in it those elements of pity and terror which the theorist tells us are necessary to achieve the effect of tragedy?

This “wretched object” is Lawson. In the beginning, he is merely a sozzled good-for-nothing with a shifty and cunning look, more or less word for word copied from Maugham’s notebooks. In the end, he acquires depth, complexity and very definite tragic dimensions.

Lawson is not untainted by racism. When his first child is born, he is dismayed that the baby, with only one fourth of native blood, is so dark. He also used once that horrible word “nigger” (the modern apostles of political correctness call it “the n-word”). But the words you use don’t matter so much as the meaning you attach to them. People constantly use words and phrases without meaning anything whatsoever. “Sorry”, “Thank you” and “I love you” are the most common examples. Whatever his racial prejudices might be, Lawson marries Ethel, a half-caste, or a woman of mixed race if you prefer. And he marries her because he loves her.

This is his undoing, partly because of his own lack of courage, partly because of the native strangeness of his wife, and partly because of racial ostracism. The last point is possibly the least important, but it does afford a fine example of different types of racism. Lawson’s personal racism is negligible compared to the social racism of the white community in Samoa. The women ignore him and give at most a patronising nod to his wife, while the men are self-conscious and embarrassed. Lawson pretends not to care, but he is affected. This is one of the reasons, together with his desire to give his son a better future, for the disastrous decision to move to Scotland where his wife is terribly homesick – but no subject to racial abuse, interestingly. When he returns to Samoa, Lawson is forced to work for a half-caste. This ultimate humiliation makes the white people despise him even more. He has to live among the natives now, but he has lost his white man’s prestige there. In the end, he is a wreck:

“It wouldn’t be so rotten if I could see that it was all my own fault. It’s true I drink, but I shouldn’t have taken to that if things had gone differently. I wasn’t really fond of liquor. I suppose I ought not to have married Ethel. If I’d kept her it would be all right. But I did love her so.”

“Are you still in love with your wife?”
“Not now. Not now." He repeated the two words with a kind of horror in his voice. “I haven’t even got that now. I’m down and out.”


Ethel is just about the only character from “The Pool” without precursor in Maugham’s notes. She did exist in real life according to one South Sea traveller. “Well, now that you’ve met and talked with me,” she reportedly said to him, “do you really think that I ever could have been the horrible bitch from The Pool?”[16]

But I don’t think Ethel is a “bitch” at all, much less a “horrible” one. The worst that can be said about her is that she loves her husband most when he beats her and least when he grovels to her. Militant feminists may foam at the mouth about these things, but I think the latter is commendable and the former, alas, not that uncommon even today. Quite a few women are still prepared to endure various assaults, mental and physical, from their partners for all sorts of poor reasons, chiefly from fear to remain alone. Maugham gives Ethel a different motivation, but he still shows, unwittingly, sharper and less dated insight into human nature than he is given credit for. The narrator’s evaluation of Ethel is candid but fair, even generous:

I could not help looking at her with curiosity. I tried to see what there was in her to have excited in Lawson such a devastating passion. But who can explain these things? It was true that she was lovely; she reminded one of the red hibiscus, the common flower of the hedgerow in Samoa, with its grace and its languor and its passion; but what surprised me most, taking into consideration the story I knew even then a good deal of, was her freshness and simplicity. She was quiet and a little shy. There was nothing coarse or loud about her; she had not the exuberance common to the half-caste; and it was almost impossible to believe that she could be the virago that the horrible scenes between husband and wife, which were now common knowledge, indicated. In her pretty pink frock and high-heeled shoes she looked quite European. You could hardly have guessed at that dark background of native life in which she felt herself so much more at home. I did not imagine that she was at all intelligent, and I should not have been surprised if a man, after living with her for some time, had found the passion which had drawn him to her sink into boredom. It suggested itself to me that in her elusiveness, like a thought that presents itself to consciousness and vanishes before it can be captured by words, lay her peculiar charm; but perhaps that was merely fancy, and if I had known nothing about her I should have seen in her only a pretty little half-caste like another.

Ethel’s “dark background of native life” is the chief reason, I think, for her failure as a wife. That she fails to adapt herself to life in Scotland she can hardly be blamed for: the climate’s a little different than Samoa. She is, in a way, even more racist than Lawson. But I think to call her that requires stretching the definition of racism beyond the breaking point. Many people seem to have no problem with that. Just as they call every male friendship homosexual regardless of its nature, they are quick to label racist every claim about racial differences. This is nonsense, of course. It is not racism to say that two races are different. It is racism to say that one is better than the other. Maugham does say the first, but he doesn’t even imply the second.

In the end, Lawson may be right that it was just his “rotten luck”. He fell in love with the wrong girl. Ethel proved to be a little too native for comfort. Maugham uses even the “title character”, be it in Scotland or Samoa, to make this point. “The Pool” becomes a powerful symbol of the insurmountable gulf between Ethel and Lawson, a gulf that is more fundamental than culture or even race:

He wondered what strangeness it was in her nature that urged her to go down to this hidden pool when there was no likelihood that anyone should be there. The natives of the islands are devoted to the water. They bathe, somewhere or other, every day, once always, and often twice; but they bathe in bands, laughing and joyous, a whole family together; and you often saw a group of girls, dappled by the sun shining through the trees, with the half-castes among them, splashing about the shallows of the stream. It looked as though there were in this pool some secret which attracted Ethel against her will.

She came to the water’s edge, and softly, without a splash, let herself down. She swam about quietly, and there was something not quite of a human being in the way she swam. He did not know why it affected him so queerly. He waited till she clambered out. She stood for a moment with the wet folds of her dress clinging to her body, so that its shape was outlined, and then, passing her hands slowly over her breasts, gave a little sigh of delight. Then she disappeared. Lawson turned away and walked back to the village. He had a bitter pain in his heart, for he knew that she was still a stranger to him and his hungry love was destined ever to remain unsatisfied.


“Honolulu” is my least favourite of the six stories. Yet I find a lot to enjoy in it.

On a purely technical level, this is the only story here that begins with a substantial introduction which is more or less separate. This is another trick which Maugham would later develop into an art. In the early 1930s, he could begin stories with reflections on the infinite pleasure of smoking a good Havana (“Virtue”) or (of all books!) the Sailing Directions published by the Hydrographic Department (“The Vessel of Wrath”) – and get away with it. The introduction of “Honolulu” is less ambitious than that. But it still makes some shrewd points about travelling and human nature:

Those are the best journeys, the journeys that you take at your own fireside, for then you lose none of your illusions.

But there are people who take salt in their coffee. They say it gives it a tang, a savour, which is peculiar and fascinating. In the same way there are certain places, surrounded by a halo of romance, to which the inevitable disillusionment which you must experience on seeing them gives a singular spice. You had expected something wholly beautiful and you get an impression which is infinitely more complicated than any that beauty can give you. It is like the weakness in the character of a great man which may make him less admirable but certainly makes him more interesting.


“Honolulu” is the second least successful of Maugham’s spooky stories. To the best of my knowledge, he wrote only three more: the lame “A Man from Glasgow” (1905, 1947)[17], the excellent “Lord Mountdrago” (1939)[18], and the absolute masterpiece “P. & Q.” (1923)[19]. The last of these deals with native witchcraft and so does “Honolulu”. But here the plot itself is much less interesting and, towards the end, somewhat rushed; and there is a twist in the end much more contrived than the one in “Red”.

The story’s peculiar charm, apart from the thought-provoking introduction and the atmospheric description of the Union Saloon, is Captain Butler. He is one of Maugham’s masterpieces. Once captain of a passenger boat along the coast of California, he has lost his ship, not to mention his certificate and many of his passengers, and now works for a Chinese who pays little. He is also a drunkard, a libertine, a raconteur and a jovial creature to have a drink, if not to sail, with. Our narrator is at first puzzled, then fascinated, and in the end enchanted by this strange skipper:

It is very curious to observe the differences of emotional response that you find in different people. Some can go through terrific battles, the fear of imminent death and unimaginable horrors, and preserve their soul unscathed, while with others the trembling of the moon on a solitary sea or the song of a bird in a thicket will cause a convulsion great enough to transform their entire being. Is it due to strength or weakness, want of imagination or instability of character? I do not know. When I called up in my fancy that scene of shipwreck, with the shrieks of the drowning and the terror, and then later, the ordeal of the enquiry, the bitter grief of those who sorrowed for the lost, and the harsh things he must have read of himself in the papers, the shame and the disgrace, it came to me with a shock to remember that Captain Butler had talked with the frank obscenity of a schoolboy of the Hawaiian girls and of Ewelei [sic], the Red Light district, and of his successful adventures. He laughed readily, and one would have thought he could never laugh again. I remembered his shining, white teeth; they were his best feature. He began to interest me, and thinking of him and of his gay insouciance I forgot the particular story, to hear which I was to see him again. I wanted to see him rather to find out if I could a little more what sort of man he was.

And yet Butler was the last man in the world with whom you would have associated romance, and it was hard to see what there was in him to arouse love. In the clothes he wore now he looked podgier than ever, and his round spectacles gave his round face the look of a prim cherub. He suggested rather a curate who had gone to the dogs. His conversation was peppered with the quaintest Americanisms, and it is because I despair of reproducing these that, at whatever loss of vividness, I mean to narrate the story he told me a little later in my own words. Moreover he was unable to frame a sentence without an oath, though a good-natured one, and his speech, albeit offensive only to prudish ears, in print would seem coarse. He was a mirth-loving man, and perhaps that accounted not a little for his successful amours; since women, for the most part frivolous creatures, are excessively bored by the seriousness with which men treat them, and they can seldom resist the buffoon who makes them laugh. Their sense of humour is crude. Diana of Ephesus is always prepared to fling prudence to the winds for the red-nosed comedian who sits on his hat. I realised that Captain Butler had charm. If I had not known the tragic story of the shipwreck I should have thought he had never had a care in his life.


“Rain” is, of course, the single most famous Maugham story. It is justly famous. A greater masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation you are not likely to find anywhere. Even the sentimental dilution on stage and screen couldn’t ruin it completely. Heaven knows, they have tried!

What a bunch of unforgettable characters to get together at Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa and just “about the rainiest place in the Pacific”! The piously cruel Reverend Davidson is surely one of the greatest sadists in fiction. So is his wife, albeit in a somewhat more passive way. Poor Sadie! She has no chance against those servants of the Lord. It is instructive to consider the descriptions of the main characters from A Writer’s Notebook:

The missionary. He was a tall thin man, with long limbs loosely jointed, hollow cheeks and high cheekbones; his fine, large dark eyes were deep in their sockets, and he had full sensual lips; he wore his hair rather long. He had a cadaverous look, and a look of suppressed fire. His hands were large, rather finely shaped, with long fingers, and his naturally pale skin was deeply burned by the Pacific sun.

Mrs W., his wife, was a little woman with her hair very elaborately done, with prominent blue eyes behind gold-rimmed pince-nez; her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness. She had the quick movements of a bird. The most noticeable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating the nerves like the clamour of a pneumatic drill. She was dressed in black, and wore round her neck a thin gold chain from which hung a small cross. She was a New Englander.

Mrs W. told me that her husband was a medical missionary, and as his district (Gilberts) consisted of widely separated islands, he frequently had to go long distances by canoe. The sea was often rough and his journeys were not without danger. During his absence she remained in their headquarters and managed the mission. She spoke of the depravity of the natives in a voice nothing could hush, but with a vehement, unctuous horror; she described their marriage customs as obscene beyond description. She said that when they first went to the Gilberts it was impossible to find a single ‘good’ girl in any of the villages. She was very bitter about the dancing.

Miss Thompson. Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion, perhaps not more than twenty-seven: she wore a white dress and a large white hat, and long white boots from which her calves, in white cotton stockings, bulged. She had left Iwelei after the raid and was on her way to Apia, where she hoped to get a job in the bar of a hotel. She was brought to the house by the quartermaster, a little, very wrinkled man, indescribably dirty.


Beautiful descriptions by the practised hand of a great writer. No wonder Maugham copied them almost word for word in the story. But characters are not revealed by description. They are revealed by action, including dialogue.

Note that only in the case of Mrs Davidson there is something about her conversation and personality. All of it is used in the story to a great effect. But how much more telling that she should consider the marriage customs of the natives “so shocking” that she “couldn’t possibly” describe them even to Dr Macphail. So she tells Mrs Macphail who then tells her husband. This is missionary tact for you: “Did you ever hear anything more dreadful? You don’t wonder that I couldn’t tell you myself, do you? Even though you are a doctor.” There is also one charming moment, when the Macphails are dismayed by the miserable rooms they have rented, which shows Mrs Davidson in her element:

She looked from Macphail to his wife, standing helplessly in different parts of the room, like lost souls, and she pursed her lips. She saw that she must take them in hand. Feckless people like that made her impatient, but her hands itched to put everything in the order which came so naturally to her.

“Here, you give me a needle and cotton and I’ll mend that net of yours, while you go on with your unpacking. Dinner’s at one. Dr Macphail, you’d better go down to the wharf and see that your heavy luggage has been put in a dry place. You know what these natives are, they’re quite capable of storing it where the rain will beat in on it all the time.”


The Reverend’s “sensual lips” and “suppressed fire” already foreshadow his richly deserved and far from tragic end. But his praying night after night – not for Sadie’s soul, mind you, but for his deliverance from sexual bondage – is a far more effective picture of his personality. It is frightening to read, in his own words, how he instilled a “sense of sin” in the natives with a system of fines and emotional blackmail. “It would be a brave man who tried to stand up against Mr Davidson”, his wife remarks, smugly. True enough, as the case of Fred Ohlson proves, not to mention the governor whom Davidson ruthlessly threatens with his mission’s influence in Washington. But the Reverend has never been confronted by a brave woman.

Sadie Thompson is a very likable prostitute. She is forward and flirtatious, but much less coarse and vulgar than many “respectable women”. She likes to have fun with the sailors and the gramophone, but she is willing to mend her ways if she has to. Maugham shared with Maupassant the compassionate interest in a wide range of humanity necessary to create a character like that, although he was rather less fond of the oldest profession than his French colleague.

The most important point about Sadie that must be stressed is the fake repentance. Whatever you might have seen on the stage or the screen, there is no doubt on the page. Sadie sets out quite deliberately to seduce Davidson. Well, he had it coming. Note her averted gaze at the crucial moment:

“Excuse me for asking you to come here,” she said, looking at him sombrely.
“I was expecting you to send for me. I knew the Lord would answer my prayer.”
They stared at one another for a moment and then she looked away. She kept her eyes averted when she spoke.
“I’ve been a bad woman. I want to repent.”
“Thank God! thank God! He has heard our prayers.”


Dr Macphail, a timid and moody man, obviously based on the author and not surprisingly missing from his notes, is more real than a secondary character has a right to be. Note the moment when he offers Sadie to speak with the governor on her behalf; it’s one of those impulsive acts, motivated by the mysterious ways of the subconscious (cf. Neilson’s loquacity and Mackintosh with the gun) that occur more often in Maugham than generally recognised. Even Mrs Macphail, prim and snobbish if not a little foolish, and Horn, the glib and calculating trader, are granted some individuality. Even the rain, “the pitiless rain fell, fell steadily, with a fierce malignity that was all too human” is almost a character on its own. Maugham is just as lavish with his powers of characterisation as Verdi and Mozart are in their operas.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Rain” is how much is left unsaid. A lesser writer would never get away with this. But Maugham does. He provides more than enough material to fill the gaps. We are never in the room with Sadie and Davidson alone. But we can make a pretty sure guess how Sadie proceeds, little by little in the course of three days, to play havoc with Davidson’s hormonal balance. We don’t enter the mortuary together with Mrs Davidson. But her “unnaturally composed” face before and her “hard and steady” voice after tell us all we need to know. If she merely suspected the truth before, now she knows. Most of Davidson’s deeds are described only aurally (his first intrusion on Sadie) or hardly even mentioned (his visits to the governor). But the reader who cannot imagine them must be a woefully unimaginative creature.

All that said, “Rain” has been praised a little too much. Some people seem to think that Maugham never wrote another story half as good, or any other story at all. As a matter of fact, four of the other five stories in this book are every bit as good. Only “Honolulu” is inferior, and not much at that.

One thing that continues to puzzle me about these stories is their meagre offspring on the screen. “Rain” has been famously filmed three times, of course. Why nobody has ever filmed “Mackintosh”, “The Pool” or “The Fall of Edward Barnard”, I wonder?[20] These would make terrific movies. Perhaps it’s better that way. The book’s the thing. Even Maugham’s masterful storytelling is difficult to be translated on the screen; it would require an outstanding director. The subtlety and the complexity of his characters, both so often overlooked, are next to impossible to be preserved on the screen.

______________________________________________________________
[1] Heinemann reprinted the collection at least six times until 1953, including The Collected Edition (1935) and the Pocket Edition (1936); Maugham wrote a new preface for the former which is reprinted in the latter. The 1968 Heron edition is handsome, complete preface-wise, and still widely available. The cheap Collins edition from 1932 is another good choice.
[2] I needed a dictionary for this one too, although my sleep was not disturbed. OED gives three meanings of “diaper” as a verb. The second one – “to adorn with diversely coloured details; to variegate” – is obviously what Maugham meant. OED’s last example is from Carlyle in 1865, so the word might have been already dated in 1921.
[3] Review of Don Fernando, Spectator, 21 June 1935. Reprinted in The Critical Heritage, eds. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge, 1987, pp. 290-2.
[4] Review in the New Statesman, 5 November 1921. Reprinted in The Critical Heritage, pp. 152-4.
[5] The Gauguin novel was quite real, of course. The Moon and Sixpence (1919) was written rather quickly in 1918 after Maugham returned from the South Seas and finished his spy adventures in Petrograd (1917) and his stay in a Scottish sanatorium because of TB (1917/18). Until his next novel, The Painted Veil (March 1925), he wrote mostly short stories. The six South Sea tales were followed by five set in the Far East and later collected in The Casuarina Tree (1926) together with “The Yellow Streak” (August 1925). In 1924 alone, Maugham published 13 stories, mostly short “Cosmopolitans” but also much longer masterpieces like “The Letter”, “The Outstation”, “The Round Dozen” and “The Force of Circumstance”.
[6] The Summing Up (1938), Chapter 53.
[7] First published in the Cosmopolitan, January 1924. Collected in Cosmopolitans (1936).
[8] Preface to Cosmopolitans (1936).
[9] This was the opinion of one of the first reviewers in an unsigned and otherwise positive review published in the Saturday Review on 5 November 1921. See The Critical Heritage, p. 152.
[10] I suppose the word “quixotry” must have disturbed our erudite reviewer online. According to OED, it means the same as “quixotism”, which in turn means “quixotic principles, character, or practice”. The adjective “quixotic” is defined as “resembling Don Quixote; hence, striving with lofty enthusiasm for visionary ideals”, which is more than relevant to Bateman Hunter. Such occasional slips into obscure vocabulary do not detract from the strong rhythm and beautiful simplicity of Maugham’s prose.
[11] For example, Arthur Clarke has explored this question, among many others, in The Songs of Distant Earth (short story, 1958; novel, 1986).
[12] See Maupassant’s unique Afloat (1888).
[13] First published in the Cosmopolitan under the title “On the Road to Mandalay”, December 1929. Reprinted as Chapter 10 in The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) and, under the title “Masterson”, in vol. 3 of The Complete Short Stories (Heinemann, 1951) and The World Over (Doubleday, 1952).
[14] First published in the International Magazine, January 1923. Reprinted in The Casuarina Tree (1926).
[15] Both collected in Ah King (1933). “Footprints in the Jungle” was first published in the Cosmopolitan, January 1927. “The Book-Bag”, famously rejected by Ray Long because of its scandalous subject, was never published in a magazine. Long himself, however, was responsible for the story’s first publication in book form. This happened in April 1932 as part of 20 Best Short Stories in Ray Long’s 20 Years as an Editor. In July of the same year, the story was also published separately by Orioli in Florence. See Raymond Toole Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Revised and Extended Edition, Kaye and Ward, 1973, pp. 106-8.
[16] If Wilmon Menard is to be believed. See The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham, Sherbourne Press, 1965, p. 317.
[17] First published in The Woman at Home as “Told in the Inn at Algeciras”, February 1905. Revised and collected in Creatures of Circumstance (1947).
[18] First published in the Cosmopolitan as “Doctor and Patient”, February 1939. Collected in The Mixture as Before (1940).
[19] First published in the International Magazine as “Bewitched”, February 1923. Collected in The Casuarina Tree (1926).
[20] Not quite true, to be exact. “The Fall of Edward Barnard” was filmed as one of 26 profoundly obscure episodes made for TV in 1969-70 and based on Maugham’s stories. “Mackintosh” and “The Pool” are not among them, nor do I know about any screen adaptations of them. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Sep 28, 2018 |
The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham is a collection of stories set in the South Seas. The first and longest, The Trembling of a Leaf was too soapy for me. And I am a devotee of Maugham and this is his only work that I didn't like. Try Rain or Macintosh, both of which are fantastic stories. Maugham at his best.
  SigmundFraud | Aug 17, 2017 |
This collection of short stories, mainly set in Samoa, was my introduction to the works of W. Somerset Maugham. If this is representative of the quality of his writing, I have much to look forward to. Although the stories are almost a century old, the issues and emotions they explore are timeless. They explore clashes of culture, social conventions, religion, and race. Maugham's descriptive prose is refreshingly original, as a couple of my favorite passages illustrate:

Self-sacrifice appealed so keenly to his imagination that the inability to exercise it gave him a sense of disillusion. He was like the philanthropist who with altruistic motives builds model dwellings for the poor and finds that he has made a lucrative investment. He cannot prevent the satisfaction he feels in the ten per cent which rewards the bread he had cast upon the waters, but he has an awkward feeling that it detracts somewhat from the savour of his virtue. (From “The Fall of Edward Barnard”)

The place seemed to belong not to the modern, bustling world that I had left in the bright street outside, but to one that was dying. It had the savour of the day before yesterday. Dingy and dimly lit, it had a vaguely mysterious air and you could imagine that it would be a fit scene for shady transactions. It suggested a more lurid time, when ruthless men carried their lives in their hands, and violent deeds diapered the monotony of life. (From “Honolulu”)

Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote cbl_tn | Apr 18, 2015 |
Very good short stories, mostly set in Samoa. They vary in length from long (almost the length of a novella) to one less than a page. ( )
  leslie.98 | Jan 8, 2015 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 10 (seguinte | mostrar todos)
Finally, "Rain" is an excellent and fairly well-known story, in which Maugham takes us to Pago-pago where he ravishes the notion of the holy missionary (a figure prevalent in the history of South Pacific islands). The story (also entitled "Miss Thompson" or "Sadie Thompson") springs from actual events he witnessed, and has been made into no fewer than three movies. It is disturbing, and wonderfully evokes the wet sultry nights in the islands.
adicionada por John_Vaughan | editarBerkeley U, John Q McDonald (May 17, 2012)
 

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When noted English writer William Somerset Maugham set off for the South Seas to regain his health, he gathered the materials and wrote the stories represented here. These are among Maugham's best, and the best stories ever written about the exotic South Seas.

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