William Somerset Maugham’s short stories are like the furniture in a grand boarding-house or the home of an elderly aunt. When I read ‘A Man with a Conscience’ or ‘A Winter Cruise’, I am reminded of Bechstein pianos or solid mahogany writing-desks with brass handles. They’re strangely comforting and consoling, and I’m very fond of them.
Somerset Maugham was a reader as well as a writer, and his characters read too. Those homesick planters and administrators marooned in festering residences, dressing for dinner, taking native concubines and drinking rather too many stengahs and gin pahits, pounce avidly on the English weeklies and the Straits Times, no matter how old. One Malay States veteran, Warburton in ‘The Outstation’, has The Times delivered from London and reads a copy a day at breakfast, in correct chronological order, living a vicarious Home Counties life months after the events recorded.
Maugham was a traveller too, not a true sailor like Conrad who trundled around much the same territory in south-east Asia, but a man who used P & O and sundry rust-bucket tramps and mongrel vessels because that was, in his day, the most effective way of getting from A to B or from Malacca to the islands of the Andaman Sea. He took his books on board. Indeed in the very first tale in his fourth, mainly oriental volume of short stories his narrator takes a book bag wherever he goes: ‘It weighs a ton and strong porters reel under its weight.’
One evening after bridge at the club the narrator and his host return to the residence and the Acting Resident falls on the books, which are divided into numerous different categories but which include, crucially, ‘books to read at sea when you were meandering through narrow waters on a tramp steamer, and books for bad weather when your whole cabin creaked and you had to wedge yourself in your bunk in order not to fall out’.
In another bitter-sweet story, ‘Red’, an obe
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