Thursday, 2 September 2010

Somerset Maugham in Short

Somerset Maugham’s short stories were chosen as summer reading for our Book Group. Now, I previously have read all these, but so many years ago that it was good to be reminded to read them again. How glad I was to still find a Penguin paperback copy of the Collected Short Stores, Volume I, on my bookshelves. But Oh! the print size of these old Penguins! Tiny. And I mean eye squintingly miniscule.

I could have read it in hardback but these are just as difficult to cope with because you can’t tuck a hardback book into your handbag. Never mind, I soldiered on, taking it on the plane when I went on holiday. And short stories are perfect for travel, when time available is often in short chunks. And they are equally good for bedtime reading – just long enough to be interesting, just short enough to finish before the eyelids droop.

But, along with most of the groupies, I don’t think that Maugham’s short stories are best appreciated when read in one go. They are just too dense, too meaty. And maybe too samey at one sitting. But extremely good they are, no doubt at all.

We were all agreed that his plain style, good dialogue and use of the vernacular, wonderfully succinct descriptions and humour all combined to produce superb writing. And his skilled timing – especially the twists at the climax of each tale – is nothing short of brilliant. We found some of the writing dated, and his use of words sometimes unusual, but none of it detracted from the quality of the work.

Maugham’s output was nothing short of exhausting. Churning them out at an amazing rate he still managed to maintain the quality. Travelling widely across the globe stimulated him and provided ideas for stories. Many of those set in exotic places are colourful but I particularly like a less exotic short one set in England - The Luncheon - possibly because I know a few people like the lady in it! The tale is an excellent example of his ability to capture people and their idiosyncratic behaviour and the clever way he manages to make such a story amusing.

Our host was reading the biography of William Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings and quoted passages to us. She thought it extremely good and it certainly informed her presentation. But I suspect one would have to like the writer as a man a great deal to read and enjoy such a tome. And most of us did not.

Knowing about Maugham’s miserable childhood explains a lot about him, but it does not explain his snobbishness and intolerance, even racism. Perhaps he was just a man of his time; these attitudes are often apparent – in writers like Evelyn Waugh for example - in class attitudes of the time. Very thankfully, such attitudes are seldom found in writers today but, sadly, there are few authors today that can hold a candle to the writings of Somerset Maugham.


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