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eastern promises

After analysing literature for three and a half years, after learning how not to talk about literature – trying to replace feelings, intuitions, and sensations with critical distance and particularities about how language is working – I feel myself at a loss. Reading the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, I feel the same hazy intoxication that I felt when I first read The Painted Veil seven years ago, in one long, now seemingly sun-drenched summer in Oxford. I read it in the upper reading room of the Radcliffe Camera, under the white dome with its echoing scratches of pigeon wings. Maugham is a relentlessly visual writer, and when I think about The Painted Veil, when I think about that summer, I’m left with the hot room in which the novel opens, the Chinese screens, the word ‘tiffin’, Charlie’s hat.

The short stories, at least those in the fourth volume of the collected stories, are similarly evocative. These dramas are all set against a setting empire, the last days of the imperial civil service, staffed by the old boys club, the administrators with their petty vendettas, their nostalgia for an England which is already extinct, who float around eastern jungles with ease, fond of their natives, taking women and opium, wary of feuds and fierce eruptions of feeling. It’s a world ripe with what is now political incorrectness, and it’s a dramatic universe that seems to be fuelled by adultery.

By the time Maugham came to write the preface to the volume, he stated flatly that the world which formed the background to his stories – from which he drew his characters – no longer existed. The narrative voice is generally first person, couched in the comfort of being possessed by a writer, who travels, and coaxes the men and women into telling him their stories. This writerly first person authenticates the story, and also approximates the reader, since the writer is interested in the human condition, and is always on the lookout for a good story.

‘People who live so desperately alone, in the remote places of the earth, find it a relief to tell someone whom in all probability they will never meet again the story that has burdened perhaps for years their waking thoughts and their dreams at night. And I have an inkling that the fact of your being a writer attracts their confidence. They feel that what they tell you will excited your interest in any impersonal way that makes it easier for them to discharge their souls.’

The reader – at least this reader – wishes Maugham’s words were true. His stories set one afire with the desire to travel, to meet strangers, to collect their stories. The preface ends with a writer’s modus operandi:

‘I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies.’

This is cold-blooded stuff: Greene's ice around the heart. It appeals to anyone who suspects the writer is also a cannibal, anyone who habitually eavesdrops, and looks in windows as they walk past houses. Maugham’s short stories are old-fashioned; at least, they are drawn to the formula with a climax and a denouement. They are factual, calm, and realist in manner. There is very little metaphor, and no experimentation. But they have a magnetic inner life: one can read story after story like his unfortunate characters take their opium, drawn to the writer’s calm voice, and the vanished – perhaps never-existent – twilight world he paints.

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