Review of ‘The Narrow Corner’ by Somerset Maugham

Tropical Island!
Tropical Island!
“Image courtesy of anekoho /”.

“If the richest dreams the imagination offered came true, in the end it [life] remained nothing but illusion.”

That is the final and rather depressing note on which Maugham ends his novel, ‘The Narrow Corner’, sounding more like a Buddhist monk who has renounced worldly charms, very unlike the cool and composed writer who shows such skill in depicting the frailties of mankind.

It is a weak end to a book that is otherwise so very entertaining – in fact the book fetched far less recognition than it merited. It had its flaws, the biggest one being that the two women characters in the story are just used as a prop to take the narrative forward and have not been dealt with any sympathy or even detailed characterization. But that aside, Maugham is a master reeling in the casual reader into exploring the stormy south sea waters.

Dr. Saunders is Maugham personified in the story. He represents the collective wisdom that Maugham reposes on his understanding of the human nature and their petty foibles. He remarks with full belief and conviction, “Life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous but … with a certain humor and a good deal of horse sense one can make a fairly good job of what is after all a matter of very small consequence.” He reminds me of an enlarged version of George Moon whom we encounter as a wise and sage Resident in Maugham’s short story, ‘The Back of Beyond’ from the collection of short stories titled, ‘Ah King’.

The kindly doctor encounters a couple of ‘mismatched Australians’ on an aimless joy trip in Captain Nichols and Fred Blake.  You can feel the tension between them and quickly become aware that there is nice yarn to be spun from the situation. Maugham easily establishes that the sea-captain is the rogue of the first order.But he does not repel Dr Saunders who seems to take the view that Maugham propagated in The Moon and Sixpence –“It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogether dislike anyone who makes me laugh.” Again Captain Nichols reminds me of another sea-captain, Captain Butler, from another story that Maugham wrote in the Far East titled ‘Honolulu’ in his collection ‘The Trembling of a Leaf’.

Fred Blake is shown to be a troubled character who has a tough time with the Captain. While his father is footing the bill of the passage and he is winning back a lot of money from the Captain by beating him hands down at cribbage, he cannot quite get him to abide by his whims and fancies. Maugham generates sufficient interest about an intrigue being afoot without getting into anything specific.

The trio land up in the exotic island Kanda. They come across a Dutchman, Erik who seems to be too good to be true. An idealistic youth he is in thrall of the Vedanta quoting Frith who has a beautiful daughter Louise. Talk about stock characters, Erik seems to a be a basic version of a man with good intentions. Along with Edward Barnard from the story ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’ and Thomas Wilson from the story ‘The Lotus Eater’, he represents Maugham’s ambition to depict a man who achieves nirvana. The closest he came to doing this with any real success was much later through the character of Larry Darrell in his novel ‘The Razor’s Edge’.

Fred and Erik become good friends.  Erik plans to marry Louise who sees him as her childhood hero and a close confidante of her late mother. In fact Erik helped her cope with the tragedy when her mother passed away. The story seems to be headed nowhere when Maugham produces the neat twist. Louise falls for Fred and that causes a tragedy. But this is not the first tragedy for Fred for Maugham now unveils his sordid past in Australia and the reason for his aimless drift on the high seas. The couple flees again and we are not quite sure where is the final story headed.

To add a final twist some time later, Dr. Saunders meets Captain Nichols on the dusty terrace of Singapore hotel. The seaman casually mentions an unfortunate accident on the high seas wherein Fred Blake fell overboard and perished. The doctor finds this fishy and tries to probe the Captain on the story. We are led to believe that there is a distinct possibility of foul play – we cannot know for sure since the Captain’s reaction gets masked by his sudden encounter of his dreaded wife. Maugham leaves much of the implications pregnant in the rather cursory exchange he occasions to draw curtains on a rocky voyage in a stormy sea.

In some ways one begins to understand now why he concluded the tale on such a philosophical note … and yet it is such a rich novel abounding with such wonderful characters that you want to re-read it many times for sure.


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