Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I put aside my Nebula reading for some stories by W. Somerset Maugham, his collection The Trembling of a Leaf. These are stories set in Samoa or Honolulu or on the long passage somewhere between, and include "Rain," the story that introduced the world to Miss Sadie Thompson, the hooker with a heart of sulfuric acid played variously on the screen by Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth.
I like Maugham. He was a physician, a spy, a sophisticate, and one of nature's expatriates. The Razor's Edge is the only novel I know of that convincingly portrays metaphysics. Ashenden is the first of a long line of worldly espionage agents. (James Bond is his natural son.) Cakes and Ale is more fun than you'd ever expect in a fictionalized biography of Thomas Hardy.
Maugham traveled the world in search of story material (or for reasons of espionage) and ended up documenting the lifestyles of imperial expatriates, white men who lived with, and sometimes ruled over, the subject races of the empire. He did not glamorize these people at all, and apparently his stories left a lot of angry people in their wake, people who felt Maugham had told their stories in a degrading and tawdry manner.
Maugham doesn't glamorize the natives, either--- there are no noble savages in his work. He saves most of his venom, however, for the "half-breeds," of whose manners, and maybe existence, he disapproves.
Somewhere in the course of reading Trembling of a Leaf, I realized that these stories were a type that I'd never encountered before. No one would write a story like this today, and though I'm hardly an expert on 19th Century short fiction, I'm not sure they were a lot of stories like these in the past, either.
The stories are, mostly, condensed novels. They contain a novel's worth of story in a novelet's amount of words. Maugham accomplishes this feat by having one of the characters in the story--- often a character who seems to be Maugham himself--- simply narrate the story, as if he were telling us the plot of a novel without breaking it into scenes or giving us many details. Assuming that "show, don't tell" is an actual rule--- which it isn't--- Maugham violates it everywhere you look. Each of the stories then ends with a twist, and is then abruptly over. Maugham isn't interested in working up his conclusions into epiphanies--- when he's done, he's done, and you either get it or you don't.
("Rain," the collection's most famous story, is narrated more conventionally.)
The "tell, don't show" approach didn't quite work for me. I felt cheated out of what would probably have been a series of very good novels.
But I'm curious concerning how the original audience would have responded to these stories. Were they used to this sort of narrative? If they were, I imagine it was encountered in the stories of lesser talents whose work has not survived.
(Apropos film adaptations of Maugham works: the Tyrone Power version of Razor's Edge is terrific, and features the ever-suave Herbert Marshall as Maugham [without the stammer]. I never saw the Bill Murray version. Hitchcock's The Secret Agent is a nifty adaptation of Ashenden, never to be confused with Sabotage, his adaptation of The Secret Agent. I've been unable to deal with the bathos of Of Human Bondage in either the film or novel versions.)