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Vintage English
It is foretold! The torrential flow of inexorable destiny!

Author - Somerset Maugham

In this issue of Vintage English, the author dealt with is Somerset Maugham (pronounced 'mawm'). He is an author, very much dear to me. I have not read all his novels, but then his Of Human Bondage, I read when I was in pre-graduation years. I believe that I was too young then to fully appreciate the deepness of the theme. It was a long novel, and must have been tedious in my first reading. But then, through my early experience in reading classical English literary works, I had built up an understanding that these novel are better enjoyed in the second and subsequent readings. I have gone through the novel, in parts and pieces, many times. It is long ago now. Yet, I remember the theme, and its undercurrent of binding passions, as powerful as destiny itself. Yet, the hero’s physical defect, being clubfoot didn’t and doesn’t seem to me a great deficiency.

I have read only a few of his novels, and those too in the far distant years. I remember them vaguely. There is a dim remembrance from The Razor’s Edge, which I think did not amuse me much.

Cakes and Ale also, I can remember. I think it was a powerful novel, set on complicated human relationships, including that of dependence and infidelity.

I quote from Wikipedia

Maugham drew his title from the remark of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Cakes and ale are the emblems of the good life in the tagline to the fable attributed to Aesop, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse: "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear".

Maugham once said, "Most people cannot see anything, but I can see what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating."

I cannot very well agree with his diffidence. It is my experience that he is a person with a tremendous power of observation and understanding. He could very well penetrate through the thick walls of emotional concealments, and of differing social and cultural experiences. Maybe he could discern through the codes in the software that existed behind the eventualities and us. {Persons who are interested in this theme about codes that control our life, please click here}

I have read his Moon and Six Pence many times. When I first took up the book many years ago, I remember the feeling that I couldn’t get a head or tale of the theme, at least in the first chapter. It seemed too connected to a particular era in English society, and that too, extremely integrated. I had felt that, as a stark outsider, this novel was well beyond my levels of comprehension and enjoyment.

Nevertheless, as I went through the next pages, I could feel the power in the theme. His style of inserting lengthy discourses on strong understandings of complicated human situations would be a real discouragement in the first reading. I finished my first reading in my traditional ritualistic mood. Then came the repeated readings. I could then get to see the quaint gorgeousness that lay embedded in the immense lines and paragraphs. It was like tasting a delicious exotic dish, with pied ingredients.

It has been said that this novel is based on the life of Paul Gauguin. I am not sure if this is true. However, what I discerned in the novel is the passion that lies dormant in all men and women to pursue the ideal as he or she sees it. However, very few persons do dare to venture on this perilous journey. Most remain content with the mundane and the ordinary, and live lives in mediocrity, in contemptuous fear of the unknown living standards that necessarily come to accompany those who move out of the beaten track.

It is a brutal novel, written in terrifying bluntness. The frightening single purpose mood of the protagonist, as he moves ahead through his destiny, bearing and creating social upheavals is best read, than heard talked about. The viciousness in the character lies in close association with an admirable feature of fortitude.

Once you know the story, then you can settle down to enjoy the intricacies within. Maugham has superb mastery over words. He uses them with meticulous precision to delineate his marvellous observations on paper. See these words of his from Moon and Six Pence {It is about the protagonist (Strickland)}:

He was independent of the opinion of his fellows.

And it was just that which had most disconcerted me in my dealings with him. When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally, they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours.

It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilised man.

No one runs so hurriedly to the cover of respectability as the unconventional woman who has exposed herself to the slings and arrows of outraged propriety. I do not believe the people who tell me they do not care a row of pins for the opinion of their fellows. It is the bravado of ignorance. They mean only that they do not fear reproaches for peccadilloes, which they are convinced none will discover.

Quoting from Wikipedia: According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of Of Human Bondage in which the novel's protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Presumably, Strickland's "moon" is the idealistic realm of Art and Beauty, while the "sixpence" represents human relationships and the ordinary pleasures of life.

Maugham has written much; Novels, plays, short stories, essays and travelogues. However, it is his short stories that have been of enduring enchantment for me.

I think I have read most of them, in my pre-graduation years. It has been a long time. I have only very vague memory of most of the themes. I don’t remember many of them at all. But then, all of them do have a singular theme stretching through them all.

Most of these are stories of British individuals living in far off geographical areas, cut off from their native land and social system. They exist as solitary islands, right the midst of strange and disturbing social communication systems and structures. They are doing a very good job, living up to their famed ideals of individual quality. Yet, the weird ambience does prey upon them, and their minds.

The stories present a rare mix of extremely complex emotions. There are issues of passions, strange alignments, racially forbidden infatuations, infidelity, eerie powers of the eastern witchcraft, condescension, living up to the popular expectations of British honour and courage, discretion verses valour, solitude, isolation, magnanimity, animosities, insecurities, outrage, and the continuous need to be above the local social system, which has a very creepy contempt for those who go below. Yet, in all these themes, I have discerned the acute discernment by the author about the complex nature of non-English Eastern culture, language and social systems. The force that the language and words of the east exerts on the persons who can understand it. How it bears on the English individuals also. Many of them had been swept off to these far off shores by the idiosyncrasies of the English laws. There is passion and pathos, in these stories, that linger on.

Actually, in these times when the English nations are widely opening themselves up to the global communities, I feel that there is a wealth of information in these stories for those who are in charge of policymaking. Not heeding the lessons hidden in these stories can lead to the unmaking of English social systems. Maybe there are hints of why there is a decay/collapse of English economic systems in sharp synchronisation to fantastic technological progress.

Maugham did not have to take recourse to his imagination to write most of these stories, for many of them presented themselves to him during his stay/journeys in the eastern islands. He only had to convert them into a readable form.

Many of the themes in the short stories, I can vaguely remember, but then I can’t connect them to any particular title. However, there is one story that sort of has stood apart from the other themes. It is Princess September. Though the setting is based in the East, the theme is somewhat similar to English fairytales. Many a time, I have felt that it is similar to Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince, even though the themes are entirely different.

Then there is his The Verger, which also deals with a very light delightful theme. It also stands starkly apart from his usual themes.

However, as per my experience, most of the themes of his short stories deal with emotional problems and fantastic happenings connected to social systems, which more or less contort English communication systems. I am not sure if Maugham was aware of this fact. However, his observations are meticulous in their precision.

The truth about the English natives living in far off locations was that they were more or less right inside societies where the social structure were acutely different. They would feel the measuring, ranking and stratification of themselves in the minds of the local inhabitants. As they get to understand the local languages, the trauma of this issue increases. The only way to ward of its ill effects would be to become more and more recluses, and bear an aura of superior complex.

Maugham has also written a different genre of short stories, based on a character called Ashenden. Ashenden is a spy working for the British Secret Service. Actually, these stories were based on real life experiences of Somerset Maugham. Maugham had worked for the British Secret Service during the First World War, moving around under the guise of a writer. Many of these experiences had the tone of horror, pain and treachery.

There is no need to discuss his private inclinations here, especially sexual. There is his own famous lines: There is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror’. Nobody discusses any Mahatma’s similar indulgences when discussing his or her philosophies.

Maugham summed up his literary experiences in The Summing Up, which he published in 1938, when he was 64. It contains his views and feelings about style, literature, art, drama and philosophy.

However he did not die fast, and actually lived on until his death in 1965. He was 91 then. His old age was not a happy one. It is said that he was tormented by memories. Whether it was the effect of senility or his helpless to bear the evaluation of mediocre individuals, I am not able to say.

He has said thus in 1959:

What makes old age hard to bear is not a failing of one's faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one's memory.

Somerset Maugham was born on the 25th of January 1874. He died on the 16th of December 1965. A few years before his death, in 1962, he published fragments of autobiographical writings under the title Looking Back on Eighty Years. It came out in a serialised form in the London Sunday Express. It has calamitous effects, with regard to his relationship with his daughter, Liza. For, the writings were depreciative of his former wife (her mother), Syre.

However, this writing does not confine itself to Syre, but does sketch his relationship with many other persons, including his own mother and also with such personalities as Sir. Winston Churchill.

Book profile



Author: Somerset Maugham

The Story

Folk songs:

On the banks of Allen Water,

On the banks of Clyde

Excerpt: Magnus in The Apple Cart

English Colonial History:

Emancipation of slaves

Scientist: Sir. Isaac Newton

Geo discoverers: Captain James Cook

Film: The bridge on River Kwai

Actress: Vivien Leigh

Battle: Jameson Raid

Incidence: Nelson’s death



Popular songs: Jingle Bells

Place: Rocks of Gibraltar

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