I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.
The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.
At one end, there’s a humorous account of three plump ladies whose dutiful efforts at dieting come under strain when a food-loving newcomer joins their holiday; on another there’s a harrowing story of a French girl who is raped by a German soldier during World War II, and the unexpected turn his relationship with her family takes. Some are more observational in nature without offering a clear resolution, feeling like sketches of people the writer knew in real life; others end with an unexpected or shocking twist reminiscent of O. Henry. This lent each story a certain unpredictability, as you could never be sure what you’re in for when starting the next one.
There are some wonderful and evocative descriptions of the far-flung places and the effects they have on Maugham’s protagonists; though it must be noted that the stories set in the Far East and Pacific Islands colonies are very much of their time. While they contain some wince-inducing attitudes that would absolutely not fly today, these stories are probably the most vivid ones, detailing the simmering tensions, the sense of dislocation, isolation and cultural barriers.
Wherever they happen to be set, Maugham’s short stories are mainly concerned with dissecting the human relationships and foibles. Some would probably call his view cynical, but to me it seems more that he had a remarkably clear-eyed view of the complex and imperfect human nature, and recognised that seemingly incompatible traits, good and bad, could coexist in the same person. His attitude to his characters is often dry and amused, and not overly warm perhaps, but it’s not without compassion either. In his own words:
“…if to look truth in the face and not resent it when it’s unpalatable, and take human nature as you find it, smiling when it’s absurd and grieved without exaggeration when it’s pitiful, is to be cynical, then I suppose I’m a cynic. Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep.”