Friday, June 29, 2012

Under the influence of Somerset Maugham

Once upon a time in the early 1970's, when I was living in Europe, crossing various countries there by train or hitch hiking, during summer vacations, I used to sink into the dream world of Somerset Maugham's short stories. There on the seat of a train at night, traveling through France or Italy, I imagined the world in Malaysia, Brazil, Shanghai, Greece, Burma, North Africa, Ceylon, somewhere in the jungle, in the tropics on a cargo ship in a remote sea. Those stories filled my mind with dreams of travel to remote places and inspired me to experience the Europe I was in with new eyes.

It was then that I started to love history, geography, learning about places and people's  personal stories, their life histories.

Reading his work made me want to sit alone in quiet, old-fashioned restaurants with linen tablecloths, taking notes. His writing made me want to learn, to write too and to travel to far ports.

It was under Maugham's influence that I went to live by myself in Rome in the winter of 1974, then in Greece in the Spring of 1975, then, on arriving in India later that year, settling there for the next ten years.

This post is with Somerset Maugham's short stories in mind.

Somerset Maugham's Little Stories of the South Sea Islands

Typical of the allure of the East was this first paragraph of Maugham's 
The Trembling of a Leaf:

"THE Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell, and sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests, and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant. The sun shines fiercely from an unclouded sky. The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown. The billows, magnificently rolling, stretch widely on all sides of you, and you forget your vanished youth, with its memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless, intolerable desire for life. On such a sea as this Ulysses sailed when he sought the Happy Isles. But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. They are the mountains of the country of your dreams. You sail through an unimaginable silence upon a magic sea. Now and then a few gulls suggest that land is not far off, a forgotten island hidden in a wilderness of waters; but the gulls, the melancholy gulls, are the only sign you have of it. You see never a tramp, with its friendly smoke, no stately bark or trim schooner, not a fishing boat even: it is an empty desert; and presently the emptiness fills you with a vague foreboding."

Or this first paragraph of The Outstation

"The new assistant arrived in the afternoon. When the Resident, Mr. Warburton, was told that the prahu was in sight he put on his solar topee and went down to the landing-stage. The guard, eight little Dyak soldiers, stood to attention as he passed. He noted with satisfaction that their bearing was martial, their uniforms neat and clean, and their guns shining. They were a credit to him. From the landing-stage he watched the bend of the river round which in a moment the boat would sweep. He looked very smart in his spotless ducks and white shoes. He held under his arm a gold-headed Malacca cane which had been given him by the Sultan of Perak. He awaited the newcomer with mingled feelings. There was more work in the district than one man could properly do, and during his periodical tours of the country under his charge it had been inconvenient to leave the station in the hands of a native clerk, but he had been so long the only while man there that he could not face the arrival of another without misgiving. He was accustomed to loneliness. During the war he had not seen an English face for three years; and once when he was instructed to put up an afforestation officer he was seized with panic, so that when the stranger was due to arrive, having arranged everything for his reception, he wrote a note telling him he was obliged to go up-river, and fled; he remained away till he was informed by a messenger that his guest had left."

Links to his stories, those that are readable online.

Somerset Maugham - Sixty-Five Short Stories

Then from the excellent blog Bookyards a generous list, and probably complete, of Somerset Maugham's writing, readable online here: W. Somerset Maugham -- Free Ebooks And Resource Links

Rummaging around the wonderful DelCampe site and other vintage image websites I found some images that reminded me of my first yearnings about traveling the world, its mysteries, fun, strange wonderfulness.

No comments:

Post a Comment