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The Complete Short Stories (1927)

af W. Somerset Maugham

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I have read this collection over a period of 20+ years, a few at a time. While certainly out of fashion - certain passages and story lines are what one might call 'politically incorrect - Maugham's conversational style and his insights into human character and behaviour are still a delight to read; and I savoured the stories over these many years. ( )
  heggiep | Jan 11, 2024 |
[Preface to The Complete Short Stories: East and West, Doubleday, 1953 [1934], pp. v-xx:]

This book contains thirty stories.[1] They are all about the same length and on the same scale. The first was written in 1919 and the last in 1931. Though in early youth I had written a number of short stories, for a long time, twelve or fifteen years at least, occupied with the drama, I had ceased to do so; and when a journey to the South Seas [1916/17] unexpectedly provided me with themes that seemed to suit the medium, it was as a beginner of over forty that I wrote the story which is now called Rain. Since it caused some little stir the reader of this preface will perhaps have patience with me if I transcribe the working notes, made at the time, on which it was constructed. They are written in hackneyed and slipshod phrases, without grace; for nature has not endowed me with the happy gift of hitting instinctively upon the perfect word to indicate an object and the unusual but apt adjective to describe it. I was travelling from Honolulu to Pago Pago and, hoping they might at some time be of service, I jotted down as usual my impressions of such of my fellow-passengers as attracted my attention. This is what I said of Miss Thompson: “Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion, perhaps not more than twenty-seven. She wore a white dress and a large white hat, long white boots from which the calves bulged in cotton stockings.” There had been a raid on the Red Light district in Honolulu just before we sailed and the gossip of the ship spread the report that she was making the journey to escape arrest. My notes go on: “W. The Missionary. He was a tall thin man, with long limbs loosely jointed, he had hollow cheeks and high cheek bones, his fine, large, dark eyes were deep in their sockets, he had full sensual lips, he wore his hair rather long. He had a cadaverous air and a look of suppressed fire. His hands were large, with long fingers, rather finely shaped. His naturally pale skin was deeply burned by the tropical sun. Mrs. W. His Wife. She was a little woman with her hair very elaborately done, New England; not prominent blue eyes behind gold-rimmed pince-nez, her face was long like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness. She had the quick movements of a bird. The most noticeable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating to the nerves like the ceaseless clamour of a pneumatic drill. She was dressed in black and wore round her neck a gold chain from which hung a small cross. She told me that W. was a missionary on the Gilberts and his district consisting of widely separated islands he frequently had to go distances by canoe. During this time she remained at headquarters and managed the mission. Often the seas were very rough and the journeys were not without peril. He was a medical missionary. She spoke of the depravity of the natives in a voice which nothing could hush, but with a vehement, unctuous horror, telling me of their marriage customs which were obscene beyond description. She said, when first they went it was impossible to find a single good girl in any of the villages. She inveighed against dancing.[”] I talked with the missionary and his wife but once, and with Miss Thompson not at all. Here is the note for the story: “A prostitute, flying from Honolulu after a raid, lands at Pago Pago. There lands there also a missionary and his wife. Also the narrator. All are obliged to stay there owing to an outbreak of measles. The missionary finding out her profession persecutes her. He reduces her to misery, shame, and repentance, he has no mercy on her. He induces the governor to order her return to Honolulu. One morning he is found with his throat cut by his own hand and she is once more radiant and self-possessed. She looks at men and scornfully exclaims: dirty pigs.”


So far as I could remember it I have placed the stories in this volume in the order in which they were written. I thought it might possibly interest the reader to see how I had progressed from the tentativeness of the first ones, when I was very much at the mercy of my anecdote, to the relative certainty of the late ones when I had learnt so to arrange my material as to attain the result I wanted. Though all but two have been published in a magazine these stories were not written with that end in view. When I began to write them I was fortunately in a position of decent independence and I wrote them as a relief from work which I thought I had been too long concerned with. It is often said that stories are no better than they are because editors of magazines insist on their being written to a certain pattern. This has not been my experience. All but Rain and The Book-Bag were published in the Cosmopolitan Magazine and Ray Long, the Editor, never put pressure on me to write other as I wished. Sometimes the stories were cut and this is reasonable since no editor can afford one contributor more than a certain amount of space; but I was never asked to make the smallest alteration to suit what might be supposed to be the taste of the readers. Ray Long paid me for them not only with good money, but with generous appreciation. I did not value this less. We authors are simple, childish creatures and we treasure a word of praise from those who buy our wares. Most of them were written in groups from notes made as they occurred to me, and in each group I left naturally enough to the last those that seemed most difficult to write. A story is difficult to write when you do not know all about it from the beginning, but for part of it must trust to your imagination and experience. Sometimes the curve does not intuitively present itself and you have to resort to this method and that to get the appropriate line.

I beg the reader not to be deceived by the fact that a good many of the stories are told in the first person into thinking that they are experiences of my own. This is merely a device to gain verisimilitude. It is one that has its defects, for it may strike the reader that the narrator could not know all the events he sets forth; and when he tells a story in the first person at one remove, when he reports, I mean, a story that someone tells him, it may very well seem that the speaker, a police officer[2], for example, or a sea-captain[3], could never have expressed himself with such facility and such elaboration. Every convention has its disadvantages. These must be as far as possible disguised and what cannot be disguised must be accepted. The advantage of this one is its directness. It makes it possible for the writer to tell no more than he knows. Making no claim to omniscience, he can frankly say when a motive or an occurrence is unknown to him, and thus often give his story a plausibility that it might otherwise lack. It tends also to put the reader on intimate terms with the author. Since Maupassant and Chekov, who tried so hard to be objective, nevertheless are so nakedly personal, it has sometimes seemed to me that if the author can in no way keep himself out of his work it might be better if he put in as much of himself as possible. The danger is that he may put in too much and thus be as boring as a talker who insists on monopolizing the conversation. Like all conventions this one must be used with discretion. The reader may have observed that in the original note of Rain the narrator was introduced, but in the story as written omitted.

Three of the stories in this volume were told me and I had nothing to do but to make them probable, coherent and dramatic. They are The Letter, Footprints in the Jungle and The Book-Bag. The rest were invented, as I have shown Rain was, by the accident of my happening upon persons here and there, who in themselves or from something I heard about them suggested a theme that seemed suitable for a short story. This brings me to a topic that has always concerned writers and that has at times given the public, the writer’s raw material, some uneasiness. There are authors who state that they never have a living model in mind when they create a character. I think they are mistaken. They are of this opinion because they have not scrutinized with sufficient care the recollections and impressions upon which they have constructed the person who, they fondly imagine, is of their invention. If they did they would soon discover that, unless he was taken from some book they had read, a practice by no means uncommon, he was suggested by one or more persons they had at one time known or seen. The great writers of the past made no secret of the fact that their characters were founded on living people. We know that the good Sir Walter Scott, a man of the highest principle, portrayed his father, with sharpness first and then, when the passage of years had changed his temper, with tolerance; Henri Beyle, in the manuscript of at least one of his novels, has written in at the side the names of the real persons who were his models; and this is what Turgenev himself says: “For my part, I ought to confess that I never attempted to create a type without having, not an idea, but a living person, in whom the various elements were harmonized together, to work from. I have always needed some groundwork on which I could tread firmly.” […] It looks as though the practice were very common. I should have said it was necessary and inevitable. Its convenience is obvious. You are much more likely to depict a character who is a recognizable human being, with his own individuality, if you have a living model. The imagination can create nothing out of the void. It needs the stimulus of sensation. […] The whole affair would be plain sailing if it were not for the feelings of the persons concerned. The writer has to consider the vanity of the human race and the Schadenfreude which is one of its commonest and most detestable failings. A man’s friends will find pleasure in recognizing him in a book and though the author may never even have seen him will point out to him, especially if it is unflattering, what they consider his living image. Often someone will recognize a trait he knows in himself or a description of the place he lives in and in his conceit jumps to the conclusion that the character described is a portrait of himself. Thus in the story called The Outstation the Resident was suggested by a British Consul I had once known in Spain and it was written ten years after his death, but I have heard that the Resident of a district in Sarawak, which I described in the story, was much affronted because he thought I had had him in mind. The two men had not a trait in common. I do not suppose any writer attempts to draw an exact portrait. Nothing, indeed, is so unwise as to put into a work of fiction a person drawn line by line from life. His values are all wrong, and, strangely enough, he does not make the other characters in the story seem false, but himself. He never convinces. […] The created character, the result of imagination founded on fact, is art, and life in the raw, as we know, is of this only the material. The odd thing is that when the charge is made that an author has copied this person or the other from life, emphasis is laid only on his less praiseworthy characteristics. If you say of a character that he is kind to his mother, but beats his wife, everyone will cry: Ah, that’s Brown, how beastly to say he beats his wife; and no one thinks for a moment of Jones and Robinson who are notoriously kind to their mothers. I draw from this the somewhat surprising conclusion that we know our friends by their vices and not by their virtues. I have stated that I never even spoke to Miss Thompson in Rain. This is a character that the world has not found wanting in vividness. Though but one of a multitude of writers my practice is doubtless common to most, so that I may be permitted to give another instance of it. I was once asked to meet at dinner two persons, a husband and wife, of whom I was told only what the reader will shortly read. I think I never knew their names. I should certainly not recognize them if I met them in the street. Here are the notes I made at the time. “A stout, rather pompous man of fifty, with pince-nez, gray-haired, a florid complexion, blue eyes, a neat gray moustache. He talks with assurance. He is a resident of an outlying district and is somewhat impressed with the importance of his position. He despises the men who have let themselves go under the influence of the climate and the surroundings. He has travelled extensively during his short leaves in the East and knows Java, the Philippines, the coast of China and the Malay Peninsula. He is very British, very patriotic; he takes a great deal of exercise. He has been a very heavy drinker and always took a bottle of whiskey to bed with him. His wife has entirely cured him and now he drinks nothing but water. She is a little insignificant woman, with sharp features, thin, with a sallow skin and a flat chest. She is very badly dressed. She has all the prejudices of an Englishwoman. All her family for generations have been in second-rate regiments. Except that you know that she has caused her husband to cease drinking entirely you would think her quite colourless and unimportant.” On these materials I invented the story which is called Before the Party. I do not believe that any candid person could think that these two people had cause for complaint because they had been made use of. It is true that I should never have thought of the story if I had not met them, but anyone who takes the trouble to read it will see how insignificant was the incident (the taking of the bottle to bed) that suggested it and how differently the two chief characters have in the course of writing developed from the brief sketch which was their foundation.


There is evidently something that a number of people do not like in my stories and it is this they try to express when they damn them with the faint praise of competence. I have a notion that it is the definiteness of their form. I hazard the suggestion (perhaps unduly flattering to myself) because this particular criticism has never been made in France where my stories have had with the critics and the public much greater success than they have had in England. The French, with their classical sense and their orderly minds, demand a precise form and are exasperated by a work in which the ends are left lying about, themes are propounded and not resolved and a climax is foreseen and then eluded. This precision on the other hand has always been slightly antipathetic to the English. Our great novels have been shapeless and this, far from disconcerting their readers, has given them a sense of security. This is the life we know, they have thought, with the arbitrariness and inconsequence; we can put out of our minds the irritating thought that two and two make four. […] My prepossessions in the arts are on the side of law and order. I like a story that fits. I did not take to writing stories seriously till I had had much experience as a dramatist, and this experience taught to me leave out everything that did not serve the dramatic value of my story. It taught me to make incident follow incident in such a manner as to lead up to the climax I had in mind. I am not unaware of the disadvantages of this method. It gives a tightness of effect that is sometimes disconcerting. You feel that life does not dovetail into its various parts with such neatness. In life stories straggle, they begin nowhere and tail off without a point. This is probably what Chekov meant when he said that stories should have neither a beginning nor an end. It is certain that sometimes it gives you a sensation of airlessness when you see persons who behave so exactly according to character, and incidents that fall into place with such perfect convenience. The story-teller of this kind aims not only at giving his feelings about life, but at a formal decoration. He arranges life to suit his purposes. He follows a design in his mind, leaving out this and changing that; he distorts facts to his advantage, according to his plan; and when he attains his object he produces a work of art. It may be that life slips through his fingers; then he has failed; it may be that he seems sometimes so artificial that you cannot believe him, and you do not believe a story-teller he is done. When he succeeds he has forced you for a time to accept his view of the universe and has given you the pleasure of following out the pattern he has drawn on the surface of chaos. But he seeks to prove nothing. He paints a picture and sets it before you. You can take it or leave it.

[From A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday & Company, 1949, pp. 80, 110-11, 213:]


They were talking about V.F. whom they’d all known. She published a volume of passionate love poems, obviously not addressed to her husband. It made them laugh to think that she’d carried on a long affair under his nose, and they’d have given anything to know what he felt when at last he read them.

This note gave me the idea for a story which I wrote forty years later. It is called ‘The Colonel’s Lady’.



The missionary. He was a tall thin man, with long limbs loosely jointed, hollow cheeks and high cheekbones; his fine, large dark eyes were deep in their sockets, and he had full sensual lips; he wore his hair rather long. He had a cadaverous look, and a look of suppressed fire. His hands were large, rather finely shaped, with long fingers, and his naturally pale skin was deeply burned by the Pacific sun.

Mrs W., his wife, was a little woman with her hair very elaborately done, with prominent blue eyes behind gold-rimmed pince-nez; her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness. She had the quick movements of a bird. The most noticeable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating the nerves like the clamour of a pneumatic drill. She was dressed in black, and wore round her neck a thin gold chain from which hung a small cross. She was a New Englander.

Mrs W. told me that her husband was a medical missionary, and as his district (Gilberts) consisted of widely separated islands, he frequently had to go long distances by canoe. The sea was often rough and his journeys were not without danger. During his absence she remained in their headquarters and managed the mission. She spoke of the depravity of the natives in a voice nothing could hush, but with a vehement, unctuous horror; she described their marriage customs as obscene beyond description. She said that when they first went to the Gilberts it was impossible to find a single ‘good’ girl in any of the villages. She was very bitter about the dancing.

Miss Thompson. Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion, perhaps not more than twenty-seven: she wore a white dress and a large white hat, and long white boots from which her calves, in white cotton stockings, bulged. She had left Iwelei after the raid and was on her way to Apia, where she hoped to get a job in the bar of a hotel. She was brought to the house by the quartermaster, a little, very wrinkled man, indescribably dirty.

The lodging house. It is a two-storey frame house, with verandas on both floors, and it is about five minutes’ walk from the dock, on the Broad Road, and faces the sea Below is a store in which are sold canned goods, pork and beans, beef, hamburger steak, canned asparagus, peaches and apricots; and cotton goods, lava-lavas, hats, rain-coats, and such like. The owner is a half-caste with a native wife surrounded by little brown children. The rooms are almost bare of furniture, a poor iron bed with a ragged mosquito-curtain, a rickety chair and a washstand. The rain rattles down on the corrugated iron roof. No meals are provided.

On these three notes I constructed a story called ‘Rain’.


They came to dinner. He was a big, fat man, with a very naked face, rather bald, prosy and pompous; she was smallish, dark, neither young nor pretty, but alert and evidently competent. She was very lady-like. She was the sort of woman whom you meet by the dozen in at Tunbridge Wells, Cheltenham or Bath – born spinsters who seem never to have been young and who will never, you think, grow old. They have been married five years and seem very happy. I suppose she had married him just to be married.

I never saw them again, and they never knew what they had let themselves in for when they came to dinner that night. They suggested to me a story which I called 'Before the Party'.

[From Quartet, Doubleday & Company, 1949, pp. 24, 83, 123, 170-71, 189:]

Mr. Maugham appears on the screen and introduces the film.

The story you are now going to see is called The Facts of Life, but I didn't invent it. I was sitting one night in Monte Carlo in the Casino with a friend having a glass of beer before going home to bed, and then he suddenly told me this story out of the blue. It amused me and I hope it will amuse you. He assured me it was perfectly true, but it was very late at night and I dare say he embroidered on the facts a little. Anyhow I don't think any young man would be wise in going to Monte Carlo hoping that anything of the sort would happen to him, because it wouldn't.... The Facts of Life.

I think the moral of this story is that it's a great help in this life to be born lucky, but of course that isn't enough. You have to have the brains to take advantage of your luck and the determination to make the best possible use of it, because unfortunately you can't count on it.


Mr. Maugham appears on the screen and introduces the film.

The Alien Corn is a story about a young man who wanted to be a pianist. He was a great friend of mine and it has been a grief to me that his life was wasted. There is a certain amount of invention in the story of course, but the main facts are as I have stated them.

In the arts many are called but few are chosen. It's not enough to have a burning desire to paint, to write or to play an instrument. You must have at least a streak of talent and that is a gift of nature. If you haven't got that no amount of industry will help you, but if you have that streak only unremitting industry will enable you to make something worth while out of it. I am quite sure of this – that it's better to be a good plumber or a good typist than an indifferent painter, writer or pianist.


Mr. Maugham appears on the screen and introduces the film.

The story we are going to show you now is called The Kite. I should tell you right away that it isn't my story at all. I only wrote it. Before the war I had some small connection with the Prisoner's Aid Society and on that account I heard some stories that interested me. This was one of them. I hesitated to write it for a long time because to tell you the truth, I couldn't quite understand it myself. So at last I said to myself: Well there's only one thing to do and that is to sit down and write it and see how it comes out. That is precisely what I did.... The Kite.

Since The Kite was published, I have received any number of letters from psychologists and psycho-analysts explaining my story to me. And all I can tell you is that if Herbert Sunbury and his mother knew what shocking instincts lay behind his unfortunate passion for flying a kite, they would be very much surprised.


You know since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire at night, or in a group in the market place to listen to telling of stories. I have a notion that the desire to listen to stories is as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. I have never pretended to be anything but a teller of stories – I have told a great many and I have enjoyed telling them.

In recent years a new way of telling stories has been discovered by the motion pictures, and most of my novels have been presented in this way. But I have also written a number of stories. Some were longish and needed an hour for the telling, but I have written some shorter ones and it is some of these, four in point of fact, which you are invited to see tonight.

The fourth is called The Colonel's Lady. I should like to tell you how the idea of it came to me, but if I did I should spoil it. So I'm not going to till after you've seen it.

I got the idea for this story nearly fifty years ago, but I may tell you that I was comparatively young man at the time. I was listening to two women gossiping. It appears that one of their friends had just published a book of passionate love poems which were obviously not addressed to her husband, and they were wondering how the husband would take it. I thought it would make a pretty good subject for a story and made a note of it. Then I forgot all about it. But one day two years ago I happened to be going through my old notebooks and came across it. I still thought it was a pretty good subject for a short story, so I wrote it.[4]


Mr. Maugham: Now you have seen all these stories, and I shall be happy if they have given you as much pleasure to see as they gave me to write. At the start I told you that I had used in my writings pretty well everything that has happened to me in the course of my life. It has been a long and varied one. I think I have learnt a little something about human nature and I have tried to tell others what I knew as truthfully and honestly as I could. The public – you – have been very kind to me, but sooner or later we must part. I hope we shall part good friends.

[From Trio, Doubleday & Company, 1950, pp. 48, 102:]

1. Medium close shot of Somerset Maugham.
Mr. Maugham: Mr. Know-All, I believe, is a story of my own invention, but I shouldn’t like to have to go into the witness box in a court of law and take my oath on it. I think I might venture to make use of a phrase of Dr. Johnson's, and say that if a story is good, it’s unlikely to be new, and if it’s new, it’s unlikely to be good. The fact is, we story tellers, like the hero of a celebrated poem, have come too late into a world too old.[5]


1. Medium long shot of Somerset Maugham.
Mr. Maugham: The Sanatorium is a story found on my own experiences, and if you like to take the character of Ashenden as a flattering portrait of the old party who stands before you, you are at perfect liberty to do so.

[From Encore, Doubleday & Company, 1952 [1951], pp. 16, 68, 122:]

After the main credit titles, Dissolve to a series of shots of Somerset Maugham in his garden, under which there is the following narration:

“No novel, or play, or short story written by Somerset Maugham could ever be mistaken for the work of another writer, they are characteristically his. So now that we have made three more of his stories into a film it seems suitable to take our camera to the South of France where he lives, and ask him to introduce them to you.”

Mr. Maugham has, by now, got fairly near the camera and sits by a small garden table:

Mr. Maugham: Ladies and gentlemen, I am really quite ashamed to face you again. You will begin to think I fancy myself as a film actor, but I assure you that I don’t. It is because I don’t that I am talking to you from my garden. I thought that if you were tired of looking at me you could look at the flowers. Today you’re going to see three more of my stories arranged for the screen by three very clever script writers. The stories are founded on fact, but of course they are fiction, and like every other author I have looked upon it as my right to arrange my facts to suit my purpose, which was to entertain.

1. Mr. Maugham: The aim of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is to amuse. You must not look in it for a moral because there isn’t one. My hero was a very lucky man; he is just the exception which proves the rule that, on the whole, honesty is the best policy and, in this hard world, if you want to eat you must work.


1. Mr. Maugham: “Winter Cruise” was suggested to me by a woman I met on a journey in the South Seas. She had a heart of gold, but she was a crashing bore. I avoided her like the plague, but I couldn’t help liking her, and I hope you will too.


1. Mr. Maugham: “Gigolo and Gigolette” is a story about two people in the show business. In it you are going to see something of their lives from the inside. For my part I wish there were laws to prevent them from risking life and limb night after night to give the public a morbid thrill, but there aren’t, and so to earn a hazardous living they will continue to break their backs and break their necks for your amusement.

[Prefaces to The Complete Short Stories, 3 vols., Heinemann, 1951:]

This is the first volume of my collected short stories. In my early youth I wrote a number, but they are so immature that I have preferred not to reprint them. A few are in a book that has long remained out of print, a few others are scattered in various magazines. They are best forgotten. The first of the stories in this collection, Rain, was written in 1920 in Hong Kong, but I had hit upon the idea for it during a journey I took in the South Seas during the winter of 1916. The last of my stories was written in New York in 1945 from a brief note that I found by chance among my papers and which I made as far back as 1901.[6] I do not expect ever to write another.


But my stories are of very different lengths. Some are as short as sixteen hundred words, some are ten times as long, and one is just over twenty thousand. I have sojourned in most parts of the world, and while I was writing stories I could seldom stay anywhere for any length of time without getting the material for one or more tales. I have written tragic stories and I have written humorous ones. It has been an arduous task to get some kind of symmetry and at least the semblance of a pattern into a collection of a large number of stories of such different lengths, placed in so many different countries and of such different character; and at the same time to make it as easy as possible for the reader to read them. For though to be read is not the motive which impels the author to write, his motive is other, once he has written his desire is to be read, and in order to achieve that he must do his best to make what he writes readable.


There is one more point I want to make. The reader will notice that many of my stories are written in the first person singular. That is a literary convention which as old as the hills. It was used by Petronius Arbiter in the Satyricon and by many of the story-tellers in The Thousand and One Nights. Its object is of course to achieve credibility, for when someone tells you what he states happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth than when he tells you what happened to somebody else. It has besides the merit from a story-teller’s point of view that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact and can leave to your imagination what he doesn’t or couldn’t know. Some of the older novelists who wrote in the first person were in this respect very careless. They would narrate long conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard and incidents which in the nature of things they couldn’t possibly have witnessed. Thus they lost the great advantage of verisimilitude which writing in the first person singular offers. But the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it is concerned. He may be the hero or he may be an onlooker or a confidant. But he is a character. The writer who uses this device is writing fiction and if he makes the I of his story a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a little shrewder, a little braver, a little more ingenious, a little wittier, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not drawing a faithful portrait of himself, but creating a character for the particular purposes of his story.


In this final volume I have placed the rest of my stories the scene of which is set in Malaya. They were written long before the Second World War and I should tell the reader that the sort of life with which they deal no longer exists. When I first visited those countries the lives the white men and their wives led there differed but little from what they had been twenty-five years before. They got home leave once in five years. They had besides a few weeks leave every year. If they lived where the climate was exhausting they sought the fresh air of some hill-station not too far away; if, like some of the government servants, they lived where they might not see another white man for weeks on end, they went to Singapore so that they might consort for a time with their kind. The Times when it arrived at a station up-country, in Borneo for instance, was six weeks old and they were lucky if they received the Singapore paper in a fortnight.

Aviation has changed all that. Even before the war people who could afford it were able to spend even their short leave at home. Papers, illustrated weeklies, magazines reached them fresh from the press. In the old days Sarawak, say, or Selangor were where they expected to spend their lives till it was time for them to retire on a pension; England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them; their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent. But with the rapidity of communication it remained an alien land, a temporary rather than a permanent habitation, which circumstances obliged them for a spell to occupy; it was a longish halt in a life that had its roots in the Sussex downs or on the moors of Yorkshire. Their ties with the homeland, which before had insensibly loosened and sometimes broke asunder, remained fast. England, so to speak, was round the corner. They no longer felt cut off. It changed their whole outlook.

The countries of which I wrote were then at peace. It may be that some of those peoples, Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, were restive under the British rule, but there was no outward sign of it. The British gave them justice, provided them with hospitals and schools, and encouraged their industries. There was no more crime than anywhere else. An unarmed man could wander through the length of the Federated Malay States in perfect safety. The only real trouble was the low price of rubber.

There is one more point I want to make. Most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence. The vast majority of these people, government servants, planters, and traders, who spent their working lives in Malaya were ordinary people ordinarily satisfied with their station of life. They did the jobs they were paid to do more or less competently. They were as happy with their wives as are most married couples. They led humdrum lives and did very much the same things every day. Sometimes by way of a change they got a little shooting; but as a rule, after they had done their day's work, they played tennis if there were people to play with, went to the club at sundown if there was a club in the vicinity, drank in moderation, and played bridge. They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. They were good, decent, normal people.

I respect, and even admire, such people, but they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies. But, I repeat, they are the exception.

[From the Preface to The World Over, Doubleday, 1953 [1952], pp. v-xii:]

This book contains all the stories I have written that are not included in East and West. The tales in that collection were of about the same length and written on the same scale and so it seemed convenient to publish them together in a single volume. Most of the stories which I have now gathered together are very much shorter. Some were written many years ago, others more recently. They appeared in magazines and were afterwards issued in book form. To the first lot I gave the title Cosmopolitans, because they were offered to the public in the Cosmopolitan Magazine, and except for Ray Long, who was then its editor, would never have been written.


In the preface to East and West I said pretty well all I had to say about the short story in general. I have nothing to add to that. I have written now nearly a hundred stories and one thing I have discovered is that whether you hit upon a story or not, whether it comes off or not, is very much a matter of luck. Stories are lying about at every street corner, but the writer may not be there at the moment they are waiting to be picked up or he may be looking at a shop window and pass them unnoticed. He may write them before he has seen all there is to see in them or he may turn them over in his mind so long that they have lost their freshness. He may not have seen them from the exact standpoint at which they can be written to their best advantage. It is a rare and happy event when he conceives the idea of a story, writes it at the precise moment when it is ripe, and treats it in such a way as to get out of it all it implicitly contains. Then it will be within its limitations perfect. But perfection is seldom achieved. I think a volume of modest dimensions would contain all the short stories which even closely approach it. The reader should be satisfied if in any collection of these short pieces of fiction he finds a general level of competence and on closing the book feels that he has been amused, interested and moved.

With one exception all the stories I have written have been published in magazines. The exception is a story called “The Book Bag.” When I sent it to Ray Long he wrote to me, in sorrow rather than in anger, that he had gone further with me than with any other author, but when it came to incest he had to draw the line. I could not blame him. He published the tale later in a collection of what he thought in his long career as editor of the Cosmopolitan were the best short stories that had ever been offered him.


[Last paragraph:]
I have written my last story.

[From “Looking Back”, Show Magazine, August 1962, p. 100:]

But for him [Gerald Haxton] I should not have got the material for many of the stories I wrote. At least on one occasion he gave me the story ready made. We had gone to Sumatra and were staying at a place which in my story I called Tanah Merah. As usual we were made honorary members of the white man’s club. We generally dined there, but late, since at sundown men gathered at the bar and did not stroll into the dining room till nine. One evening I grew tired of waiting for Gerald, who was with a group of fellows drinking at the bar, and sat down to my dinner. I had nearly finished when he staggered in. “I know I’m drunk,” he said, “but I’ve got a damned good story for you.” He told it to me and I wrote it. I called it “Footprints in the Jungle”. I don't think I can have written it very well; it was a murder story and when it was printed some critics found fault with it because it was very soon obvious who had committed the murder. But I was not trying to write a who-done-it. What interested me was something very different. The woman and her lover had killed her husband, but the crime could never be brought home to them. Though the members of the community, planters, traders, agents, doctors – and their wives – were well aware of the facts, they continued to live on the best of terms with the widow and her lover. They married and, in short, lived happily ever afterwards. I came to know and found them very agreeable. They were kindly and hospitable. I was pretty sure that they had never been troubled by remorse; it was impossible not to like them, for they were very nice. Human nature is very odd.

[1] All stories from Maugham’s first five mature collections, six pieces each: The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), The Casuarina Tree (1926), Ashenden (1928), First Person Singular (1931) and Ah King (1933). Ed.
[2] Cf. “Footprints in the Jungle”. Ed.
[3] Cf. “Honolulu”. Ed.
[4] Cf. A Writer’s Notebook (1949), p. 80; see above. See also Garson Kanin, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Atheneum, 1966, p. 151. Ed.
[5] Alfred de Musset, Rolla, 1833:
Je suis venu trop tard dans un monde trop vieux.
(I have come too late into a world too old.) Ed.
[6] See note 4. Ed.
1 stem WSMaugham | Jun 20, 2015 |
Alle Geschichten von SM inklusive Regen und den Ashenden -Geschichten. Ein Höhepunkt für Maugham-Fans, zwei schön gemachte Bücher im Schuber. ( )
  vreeland | Aug 15, 2007 |
Vol. 2 i'm not sure why i like maugham. witty, a timepiece. ( )
  pingobarg | Jan 26, 2007 |
Vol. 1 i'm not sure why i like maugham. witty, a timepiece. ( )
  pingobarg | Jan 26, 2007 |
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