a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham
When it comes to books, my wife is an ultimate scavenger. A few years back, she went to visit a friend in Gallup, New Mexico, and came back with a boxed, two-volume, hardbound set of W. Somerset Maugham's complete short stories, published by Doubleday in 1953, which she picked up at a yard sale for the stunning price of one Yankee dollar. Since the two volumes together weigh in at nearly 1600 pages, I figure she got quite a deal -- for the bulk alone, if not the literature.
many other deals found at yard sales, the books sat unread for quite
some time. Because of their sheer heft, we used them for several years
to prop up a bedside lamp that wasn't
Maugham's most famous story is "Rain," which is often encountered in high school English classes, a tale of a fatal encounter between a self-righteous missionary and a gutsy prostitute in the South Seas that was made into a Hollywood movie. Maugham wrote these stories between 1919 and 1931, after he had begun his extensive travels throughout the South Pacific and Asia, following the spirit (and to some extent the route) of Robert Louis Stevenson, another literary adventurer. The majority of the tales take the reader to rain-drenched islands in distant archipelagoes where we learn of misplaced Europeans who either lose or find their way in the steamy tropics -- marrying native women, working as obscure colonial functionaries, falling in love, becoming drunkards, and sometimes discovering the very core of human happiness.
number of the best stories concern a suave though brooding "secret
agent" in World War 1 named Ashenden -- his first name, to my recollection,
is never given, which adds to his mystique. Ashenden is a successful
novelist, clearly created in Maugham's own image, who is tapped by the
War Department to make mysterious forays from Switzerland into Germany
or France, meeting interesting characters along the way, complex men
and women who often have tragic anecdotes to tell us of their lives
in a war that seems oddly civilized by today's standard of brutality,
almost endearing in Maugham's lucid prose. The collection also
was a writer of the highest literary mark who also happened to be superbly
entertaining. These tales are old-fashioned in tone and seem today more
19th century than early 20th century -- it doesn't seem possible that
he was writing at the same time as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
"The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham" are a real treat, a kind of ultimate beach read -- whether you happen to be on Bongo-Bongo or Malibu. The two-volume set my wife found is out of print, but there is a new four-volume set of these stories in paperback, published by Viking Penguin.
Happy sailing! You may never return.
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