Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Summing Up’

Published in 1938 when Maugham was 64 years old, the title turned out to be a misnomer – it wasn’t really his autobiography. It was non-fiction for sure but more like a visit of writer’s workshop – the toolkits were on full display as he bared the essentials of what made him tick as a writer. And that is far more interesting than any routine toting up of one’s life minutiae. 

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Image Courtesy – Amazon com

Maugham gives us a glimpse of his tortured childhood. His parents were ill-suited for marriage as they had arrestingly different temperaments and an age gap of 20 years. He didn’t see much of them as his mother died when he was 8 and he lost his father when he was 10. Maugham’s early loss of his mother scarred him for life and the subsequent events were painful as well. He was thrust into the custody of an unsympathetic uncle who had no means or inclination to nurture him. He found little comfort at school as he was given to a ‘stammering’ problem and found English to be a challenge since French came naturally to him. Continue reading “Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Summing Up’”

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Maugham’s last play – Sheppey!

Somerset Maugham was a famous playwright who only eventually found further fame as a novelist and most importantly as a short story writer. His plays specialized a genre of social comedies with witty lines and a modern take on battle of sexes, cross cultural mores and the moral dilemmas faced by the average Joe.

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Good-hearted hero … John Ramm in Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey at Orange Tree theatre, Richmond in November 2016. Photograph: Helen Maybanks Image Courtesy – The Guardian

Sheppey was no morality play as it is made out to be – Maugham continued to be at his sardonic best as he made the viewers loyalty waver but the play lost out on the ending that was seen to be a ‘cop-out’ solution. Maugham was rather disillusioned with its failure but he also felt that it was time to move on. With Sheppey in 1933 he brought curtains to his career as a playwright but smartly continued to grow in stature as a writer and short story-teller.

Sheppey is a popular barber on the Jermyn Street in London and he is quite happy with his station in life. He is quite street-smart and has managed his equations well with his employer, wife and young daughter who works in the city and is keen to get married to her fiance, a teacher and communist who has political ambitions.

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Maugham the masterly story teller …

‘The Outstation’ and ‘Mackintosh’ : These are two stories on similar theme but are a great example of Maugham’s power of characterization and story telling. You put two men of contrasting natures and incompatible temperament together in a situation of conflict from which there is no escape and the only outcome possible is one of them emerging victorious by the conquest of the other.

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Maugham at his villa in Riviera – Cap Ferrat Image Courtesy – Getty Image Popperfoto

And within each story you narrate episodes that force the reader to waver his sympathy from one character to the other. The plot is incidental and the closure of the story inconsequential. And Maugham makes the two stories end in utterly contrasting ways. It is amazing that I felt that both the ends are plausible and not contrived. I do not know of any other writer who could have done this with such skill in the short story format.

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R K Narayan’s ‘The Dark Room’

Somerset Maugham happened to read the novel and was interested to meet Narayan when he visited South India. Unfortunately Narayan was still an unknown name so didn’t quite make the connect and their paths didn’t cross.

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The Dark Room by R K Narayan           Image Courtesy – Rediff.com

Set in Malgudi, the novel is grim and full of foreboding sense of doom. In the tale Narayan focuses on aspects of traditional Indian marriages that are a cause of grief instead of celebration. The Dark Room narrates the sad but futile struggles of Savitri who justifiably fights with her philandering husband but ends up losing the war. Continue reading “R K Narayan’s ‘The Dark Room’”

New Year Resolutions …

It happens to all of us I guess, while spring cleaning I came across an old article on mine that was written nearly 20 years ago as a teenager. And it was a hand-written copy since I missed curating the original printed in a local English newspaper.

So its kind of fun to just type it up and create a digital record of the same. And also to wonder regarding whether the road to Hell is paved with good intentions or not?

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I was angry and had a reason to be so too. I had just earnestly started to elaborate on my New Year resolutions when my friend doubled up with laughter.

” What’s so funny?”

He wouldn’t reply, he was far too busy laughing. Well I know the reason anyways. It’s always been the case that my list of New Year resolutions is met with a mirthful cynicism and I am supposed to be as credulous as the eight-year-old kid who believes that the Moon is made of green cheese. I find this to be very sad.

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Ashenden spy stories by Maugham

Maugham worked as a British spy during the World War I and so was uniquely placed to narrate us a set of tales set in the world of spying and espionage.

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Ashenden – the British spy                                                                                                              Image Courtesy – dustjackets.com

The tales themselves don’t quite regale us in a manner we are used to expect from Maugham’s spiel. He gives us couple of good starters though – the Head who wanted to recruit him started by telling him a story of a prominent Minister losing sensitive files to a femme fatale who beguiled him with her charm. Prior to that he also shared the old story of losing a box of important files on the bus.

Post recruitment Maugham was given the following as parting advice – ‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’ ‘Perfectly.’ was the answer and with that Maugham set about discovering adventures that he documented in the present series.

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Maugham’s ‘Before The Party’

The opening scene is London as an upper middle class family gets ready to attend a ‘Garden Party’. The action is set in the mystical East – it is a sordid tale wherein the Family has just discovered that apparently their son-in-law was an incorrigible drunkard and had committed suicide. Millicent, the widow, is pressed to explain and she does have a tale to narrate.

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Somerset Maugham ‘Before The Party’                                                                                                                                Image Courtesy – Theatre Bath

The story is from the collection called ”The Casuarina Tree’ set in the 1920s and it is a tragic assortment of British character’s trial and tribulations in the alluring tropical islands in Malaya. The contrast in the beautiful settings and the shabby lives enlivens the ‘shock’ value of the story.

Maugham did not want any illusions in the mind of the reader about the nature of the narrative and so he provided a quaint explanation to the title and its significance. He explained the nature of the Casuarina tree : ‘Of the Casuarina tree they say that if you take in a boat with you a piece of it, be it ever so small, contrary winds will arise to impede your journey or storms to imperil your life. They say also that if you stand in its shadow by the light of the full moon you will hear, whispered mysteriously in its dark ravage, the secrets of your future …’.

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Maugham’s ‘The Back of Beyond’

The title is quite incongruous for a change – it is supposed to indicated a lonely forsaken place. Federated Malay States (FMS) in the days before World War II was not quite that remote – it was part and parcel of the British Empire and enough adventures to be noted for the expatriates who forayed into the unknown land to earn their livelihood.

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Rubber estates were a popular locale for stories and Maugham continues to explore the world intelligently in this short story that appeared in the collection ‘Ah King’. ‘One should not cut off your nose to spite your face’, is the sage advise the Resident offers to Tom Saffary, a planter, when he consults him about his marital woes.

George Moon, Resident in charge of Timbang Belud in the Federated Malay States is but Somerset Maugham himself donning a mask. The Resident is on the verge of retirement and he is moving away from a place where he spent his lifetime. He was known to strict but fair – he brought no sunshine to the place and was keenly aware of his Official position. But he was hard-working and toiled to improve the lives of the people in his area. He has a deep insight into human behaviour and is quite forgiving of many vices so long as the overall picture is not marred.

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Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Book-Bag’

The Book Bag is a short story from Maugham’s collection quaintly named ‘Ah King’ (It was a tribute he paid to a man-servant who was very devoted and diligent in serving Maugham during his sojourn to the East). It hasn’t enjoyed popular and critical acclaim possibly because the story theme might not hold appeal to many.

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But it is a delectable piece of narrative – the aimless opening and wandering before the tale nudges on towards its purpose is such a delight and so nice a departure from the ‘matter-of-fact’ modern tales. It is languid and casts a spell on you just like the days of the yore and the days of Arabian Nights.

So we start with Maugham doing a bit of aimless wandering in the Eastern outposts of the British Empire popularly known as the ‘Federated Malay States’ (FMS). He gets invited to one such small town and spends a few days with Mark Featherstone, an Englishman who happens to be the Acting Resident at a place called Tenggarah. Ostensibly the purpose of the visit is to attend a water festival. However what unravels is the unique tale of a devoted brother-sister duo named, ‘Tim and Olive’.

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Somerset Maugham Short Stories -‘Creature of Circumstance’

The master’s final collection of short stories – it includes tales set in the East and the West. Maugham’s trademark style is stamped all across – the title is an apt illustration of the premise. Ordinary folks are confronted by extraordinary circumstances and the story is but a narrative of what happens after that.

Most of them are tragedies and burnish Maugham’s established image of being a heartless cynic when it comes to affairs of the human heart. And yet there are a few comic gems tucked in as well. They may appear to be frivolous but they do entertain the average reader.

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Maugham is generous in providing us a bigger collection to savour this round – in all we have 15 stories. And quite a few are short tales by Maugham’s standards – but his standard formula still applies as they all have a beginning, middle and an end.

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