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Creatures of Circumstance

af W. Somerset Maugham

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1181228,462 (4.9)5
Creatures of Circumstance begins with an explanation from the author telling how this collection came about. He states that he "has never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. I endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." The short stories in this extraordinary collection--with the exception of one--were written after the close of World War I. Maugham shrewdly and brilliantly exploited the public taste of his time to put on display the changing morality of the twentieth century. An expert storyteller, he was also a master of fictional technique. His fiction offers a synthesis of pleasures in the form of realism, exoticism, shrewd and ironic observation, careful craftsmanship, and characterization. Among the stories included in Creatures of Circumstance are "The Colonel's Lady," "Flotsam and Jetsam," "Sanatorium," "Appearance and Reality," "The Point of Honor," "A Woman of Fifty," "The Man from Glasgow," and "The Kite."… (mere)
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[“The Author Excuses Himself”, preface to the first edition, Heinemann, 1947:]

I owe my readers an apology for the publication of this volume. At the beginning of the war I brought out a collection of short stories which I called The Mixture As Before and for which I wrote a short preface. I was occupied then with work that took all my time and so asked my friend Edward Marsh if he would correct the proofs. He wrote and told me that he was sorry to see by my preface that I had decided to write no more stories. I did not know what he meant, but was too busy to inquire. I saw no reviews and a copy of the book only when I returned to England some months later. Then I found out. I had written: “I shall not write many more stories,” and either the typist or the type-setter, thinking perhaps that I had written quite enough stories, had left out an m, so that the line ran: “I shall not write any more stories”. I have looked at my manuscript and I had in fact, as I intended, written many.

I had several stories written for which I could not find a place in The Mixture As Before and several in mind, and it was my plan even then in due course to publish a further volume. So my readers must not think that I wilfully misled them. I dare not even now promise them that I shall write no more; no writer can be sure than an idea will not one day occur to him that takes his fancy so that he is in the end driven to write it.

Some of these stories were written long ago, but I have left them as they were, for I did not think I could make them more readable by bringing them up to date; nor have I thought it necessary in one story, Winter Cruise, to change the nationality of various characters that take part in it to avoid affronting those who are persuaded that all the nationals of a country with which we have been at war are equally hateful; one story was written during the war and others since its close. They have all been published in magazines.*

I know that in admitting this I lay myself open to critical depreciation, for to describe a story as a magazine story is to dismiss it with contumely. But when the critics do this they show less acumen than may reasonably be expected of them. Nor do they show much knowledge of literary history. For ever since magazines became a popular form of publication authors have found them a useful medium to put their work before readers. All the greatest short story writers have published their stories in magazines, Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant; Chekov, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling. I do not think it is rash to say that the only short stories that have not been published in a magazine are the stories that no editor would accept. So to damn a story because it is a magazine story is absurd. The magazines doubtless publish a great many bad stories, but then more bad stories are written than good ones, and an editor, even of a magazine with literary pretensions, is often obliged to print a story of which he doesn’t think highly because he can get nothing better. Some editors of popular magazines think their readers demand a certain type of story and will take nothing else; and they manage to find writers who can turn out the sort of thing they want and often make a very good job of it. This is the machine-made article that has given the magazine story a bad name. But after all no one is obliged to read it. It gives satisfaction to many people since it allows them for a brief period to experience in fancy the romance and adventure which in the monotony of their lives they crave for.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published, where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick. Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression, or drawn a character. This is all very well, but it is not a story, and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered. There is also today a fear of incident. The result is a spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekov is perhaps responsible for this too; on one occasion he wrote: “People do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives, and when they eat their cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup then becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. To eat it may thus be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact is that Chekov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

I read some time ago an article on how to write a short story. Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong. She stated that the “focal point” of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to “liven” personality. Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written. I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves. They are in fact purely conventional types and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral. And that is about all the short story writer can do. He has not the room to describe and develop a character; he can only give the salient traits that bring the character to life and so make the story he has to tell plausible. Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of stories. The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune to me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia. I endeavour to bear my misfortune with fortitude.

_____________________________________________________
*This paragraph deserves at least an attempt for decoding. The publication history of the stories in Creatures of Circumstance is complicated. What is known so far is the following. The stories that “were written long ago” probably are “A Man from Glasgow”, “The Mother” and “The Happy Couple” as all of them appeared in magazines between 1905 and 1909. The first two underwent only minor revisions before their inclusion in this book, but the third was thoroughly rewritten and turned into a virtually different story. John Whitehead (Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987, pp. 61-2, p. 78 n. 9), apparently under the influence of the common Spanish setting, has speculated about the existence of early versions of “The Point of Honour” and “The Romantic Young Lady”, but these haven’t turned up so far. Several other stories were published in magazines before the war, namely “A Casual Affair” (1934), “Appearance and Reality” (1934) and “Sanatorium” (1938), but it is unlikely that Maugham would refer to these as “written long ago”. The story “written during the war” is probably “The Unconquered”, first published in 1943, although “Flotsam and Jetsam” (1940) and “Winter Cruise” (1940) may also have been written after the outbreak of the war. One story, “The Kite”, is not known – at least so far – to have been published in magazine at all. Last and least, though no early version of “The Colonel’s Lady” seems to exist, its origins date back to a note made in 1901; see A Writer’s Notebook (1949). Ed.
  WSMaugham | Apr 24, 2017 |
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Creatures of Circumstance begins with an explanation from the author telling how this collection came about. He states that he "has never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. I endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." The short stories in this extraordinary collection--with the exception of one--were written after the close of World War I. Maugham shrewdly and brilliantly exploited the public taste of his time to put on display the changing morality of the twentieth century. An expert storyteller, he was also a master of fictional technique. His fiction offers a synthesis of pleasures in the form of realism, exoticism, shrewd and ironic observation, careful craftsmanship, and characterization. Among the stories included in Creatures of Circumstance are "The Colonel's Lady," "Flotsam and Jetsam," "Sanatorium," "Appearance and Reality," "The Point of Honor," "A Woman of Fifty," "The Man from Glasgow," and "The Kite."

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