1. – The Fall of Edward Barnard by W. Somerset Maugham
Over the years, I had not read very much… not anything, really, by W. Somerset Maugham. I did sit down with The Razor’s Edge once, a few decades ago, but couldn’t get very far into it. Although he wrote right at the edge of the modern era, his prose was too stifled and stuffy for my tastes. I set it aside after a few pages and didn’t revisit Maugham, though I knew this was a mistake – there had to be worth there, he is too well known and lauded for me to ignore.
This last weekend, I rode my bike into the crystal towers of downtown Dallas… intending to hang out there a bit before riding back up north. I went over to Klyde Warren Park, bought some lunch from a food truck, and settled in to rest a bit before pedalling home. I realized that I had forgotten my Kindle and discovered I wanted something to read. After a bit of frustration I remembered that the park had a reading area, complete with shelves full of books.
I walked over and perused the selection, eventually picking up a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s Complete Short Stories – in a couple of volumes. I sat down and read a couple. There was a deliciously evil little tale set in two times and locations – A Woman of Fifty… and a very short work set in Guatemala about a Nicaraguan revolutionary on the run called The Man With the Scar.
I really enjoyed both of these stories. I realized that the stylized writing is employed by Maugham as a device to emphasize the wild irony of the stories beneath. He is not writing about proper society, but about the turbulent chaos that lies beneath and beyond… and that is a subject that fascinates me.
Those two little tales gave me enough rest to ride home and then I procured a selection of Maugham’s stories to read… more in depth. I started with Rain – a juicy story about the conflict between a strict missionary and a woman of ill repute while both are stranded in a cheap hotel in Pago Pago. It is arguably the best known of his short stories and has been made into a handful of films.
It was crackerjack. It impressed me enough for me to elevate the next story in the collection, The Fall of Edward Barnard to the first of my June Month of the Short Story daily selections.
The Fall of Edward Barnard is very similar to Rain – it is sort of the flip side of the same story, though with less horrific consequences (it even has an almost happy ending – though terrible in its own happy way). If you have the time read both… and then compare and contrast.
They concern the conflict between the European/American style – the ambitious, religious, strict, repressed, overbearing way of looking at life and the world with the relaxed, sensual, permissive way of the primitive South Sea Islands. Again, the archaic prose is used to good effect – be sure and don’t let that stop your reading or enjoyment; fight through the language (Word of the day: quixotry) until you get to the point where the author relents and lets loose a little.
So now I have added another classic author to my personal pantheon. It is interesting in that he is not overly careful about maintaining a strict point of view or even consistent tone – he lets his prose go where it needs to to tell the story. When I write, I sweat blood trying to make sure I don’t reveal facts or ideas that are not available to my point of view character at the time the story is unfolding…. Perhaps I need to relax a bit and let the story tell itself.
Something to think about.
“I think of Chicago now and I see a dark, grey city, all stone–it is like a prison–and a ceaseless turmoil. And what does all that activity amount to? Does one get there the best out of life? Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre? Is that how I must spend my youth? Youth lasts so short a time, Bateman. And when I am old, what have I to look forward to? To hurry from my home in the morning to my office and work hour after hour till night, and then hurry home again, and dine and go to a theatre? That may be worth while if you make a fortune; I don’t know, it depends on your nature; but if you don’t, is it worth while then? I want to make more out of my life than that, Bateman.”
—-W. Somerset Maugham, The Fall of Edward Barnard