The Leaf, Trembling

by wjw on April 1, 2010

I put aside my Nebula reading for some stories by W. Somerset Maugham, his collection The Trembling of a Leaf. These are stories set in Samoa or Honolulu or on the long passage somewhere between, and include “Rain,” the story that introduced the world to Miss Sadie Thompson, the hooker with a heart of sulfuric acid played variously on the screen by Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth.

I like Maugham. He was a physician, a spy, a sophisticate, and one of nature’s expatriates. The Razor’s Edge is the only novel I know of that convincingly portrays metaphysics. Ashenden is the first of a long line of worldly espionage agents. (James Bond is his natural son.) Cakes and Ale is more fun than you’d ever expect in a fictionalized biography of Thomas Hardy.

Maugham traveled the world in search of story material (or for reasons of espionage) and ended up documenting the lifestyles of imperial expatriates, white men who lived with, and sometimes ruled over, the subject races of the empire. He did not glamorize these people at all, and apparently his stories left a lot of angry people in their wake, people who felt Maugham had told their stories in a degrading and tawdry manner.

Maugham doesn’t glamorize the natives, either— there are no noble savages in his work. He saves most of his venom, however, for the “half-breeds,” of whose manners, and maybe existence, he disapproves.

Somewhere in the course of reading Trembling of a Leaf, I realized that these stories were a type that I’d never encountered before. No one would write a story like this today, and though I’m hardly an expert on 19th Century short fiction, I’m not sure they were a lot of stories like these in the past, either.

The stories are, mostly, condensed novels. They contain a novel’s worth of story in a novelet’s amount of words. Maugham accomplishes this feat by having one of the characters in the story— often a character who seems to be Maugham himself— simply narrate the story, as if he were telling us the plot of a novel without breaking it into scenes or giving us many details. Assuming that “show, don’t tell” is an actual rule— which it isn’t— Maugham violates it everywhere you look. Each of the stories then ends with a twist, and is then abruptly over. Maugham isn’t interested in working up his conclusions into epiphanies— when he’s done, he’s done, and you either get it or you don’t.

(“Rain,” the collection’s most famous story, is narrated more conventionally.)

The “tell, don’t show” approach didn’t quite work for me. I felt cheated out of what would probably have been a series of very good novels.

But I’m curious concerning how the original audience would have responded to these stories. Were they used to this sort of narrative? If they were, I imagine it was encountered in the stories of lesser talents whose work has not survived.

(Apropos film adaptations of Maugham works: the Tyrone Power version of Razor’s Edge is terrific, and features the ever-suave Herbert Marshall as Maugham [without the stammer]. I never saw the Bill Murray version. Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent is a nifty adaptation of Ashenden, never to be confused with Sabotage, his adaptation of The Secret Agent. I’ve been unable to deal with the bathos of Of Human Bondage in either the film or novel versions.)
Foxessa April 1, 2010 at 9:37 pm

There appears to be something of revived interest and respect for Maugham going on, at least in England. I'm seeing articles about his works and times showing up in Brit publications, and these articles are not snarky, and they are intelligent and respectful.

Thanks for reminding me that these pieces got me wanting to re-read the little of Maugham I have read — in high school!

In any case I need a list of books to take down to Maryland. Washington College's library is very small. No grad school, no research facility is Washington — and of course you cannot be without a certain sort of library. Them's the regs for these things.

Love, C.

Love, C.

dubjay April 2, 2010 at 4:14 am

I got myself a Kindle, and can now take my library with me wherever I go! Anything out of copyright is free, or maybe 99 cents— I have the complete Shakespeare, the complete Trollope, and I could get a lot of Maugham as well.

Plus, I can convert my friends' electronic files to Kindle format for free, and read their manuscripts without having to haul a heavy manuscript around.

Yes, there's been a lot of work on Maugham lately. His secret service files have been unclassified, for one thing, which makes it clear he didn't spend the Great War slacking in a neutral country, but spying for the King.

He was the most popular writer in the world during his lifetime, which meant he was easy for other writers to hate; and he published critiques of his own class, which made him disliked for other reasons. Plus he was gay, rich, and preferred France and America to Britain.

Dang. Now I want to read Razor's Edge again. (His critique of America is considerably more kind than his critiques of his fellow Brits.)

Foxessa April 3, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Yeah — a Kindle or something like. We are going to need a car and new phones too. I also need a new computer and so does V.

Lately though, I've been finding a re-newed pleasure in reading books, I mean those things between covers with print rather than pixels. Truthfully, my concentration is better with books, still. Sign of my times, doubtless.

Love, C.

dubjay April 4, 2010 at 5:37 am

I like books, too, but I've run out of places to put them.

Also I travel a lot, and I'm tired of having to take an extra fifty pounds of books.

Dave Bishop April 5, 2010 at 9:29 am

"I like books, too, but I've run out of places to put them."

I know how you feel, Walter! I've been shipping tons of mine to the local charity shop – but it seems to make no difference. Must try harder and be a lot more ruthless!

Oh, and stop buying them (except for yours, of course!).

john_appel April 6, 2010 at 1:28 am

Maughm has been on my list of "things I really should be reading" for a while now; you've just pushed him up a quite a bit on my list. Though perhaps after I devour John Barnes' latest, which should arrive tomorrow or Wednesday.

Foxessa – Washington College may be small but they draw some surprising speakers, due to the proximity to DC and the connections of the current and past president of the school. And Annapolis is in fairly easy striking distance.

(For what it's worth one of my brothers is a WC alumni, and it's currently tied with St. John's in Annapolis in my daughter's college search. I may be writing them large checks in 18 months.)

john_appel April 6, 2010 at 1:45 am

By the way, a number of Maugham's works are available as free e-books via Project Gutenberg, for those who don't mind e-readers.

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