This is a hefty and imposing volume, heavy yet also compact in dimensions and in print. Thirty-one stories make up the Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, as selected for this immaculate Everyman’s Library edition that I scored for free from my school library. After a particularly work-heavy weekend I needed something I could sink into, something that could envelop me with lush descriptions of far-off lands and times gone by. This short story anthology seemed like it would do the trick: I knew that Maugham had been a prolific writer of short stories, and I was eager to see what the author of the fantastic Of Human Bondage could do in this medium.
Maugham tends to write close to home, and as such, often retreads familiar ground. In reading these stories in quick succession like I did, this becomes all the more apparent. Even the glowing, fanboyish introduction from Nicholas Shakespeare warns that the stories in this book often feel formulaic or repetitive. Of the 31 stories here, I’d say that over half of them are set in the British Malay peninsula (or similar southeast Asian islands under British administration), usually dealing with a governor or similar such administrator, either as the main character or as the subject of a story related by a travelling writer who acts as the narrator. Maugham’s characters invariably seem to play a great deal of bridge and walk around wearing sarongs, and all the native women wear Mother Hubbards. The remainder of the stories usually involve young writer characters observing English high society at arm’s length. The last few stories come from Maugham’s Ashenden collection about a suave, literary spy in Europe during the Great War.
Maugham’s stories tend to be what I might call character studies. They focus on a central character and an episode in their life that is particularly important or even fantastic. The stories often end abruptly, just after a flourishing twist that changes the reader’s understanding of the situation. I suspect that, had he wanted to, Maugham might have made a good living as a writer of detective fiction (though he lampoons this genre a couple of times with sly and skilful pseudo-mysteries); it’s a shame he had to suffer in the squalor of fame and fortune like he did.
With these character studies, Maugham seems interested in a few different themes. He devotes a lot of time to understanding obsession and what it is about the human spirit that makes us unable to part with things—whether they are possessions, positions, or people. Maugham’s protagonists often have an ambition or obsession that drives them, typically towards a tragic or otherwise surprising end. I wouldn’t call Maugham pessimistic, but he injects a level of cynicism into his stories that seems to imply a less-than-charitable attitude when it comes to human nature. But this is probably what makes Maugham such a great writer, and a particularly accomplished writer of short stories: he is very good at illustrating the flaws of his characters, and flaws make for the best internal, emotional conflicts, as well as the conflicts between the protagonist and others.
The stories set in the Pacific islands catered to my interest in colonial and postcolonial fiction. Maugham toured this area during the Great War and the 1920s, in the sunset years of the British Empire when its hold on its colonies was becoming more and more of a formality. The stories depict a kind of tired administrative regime. Life on the islands is full of simple pleasures: bridge games at the club, beachside reading, native mistresses, that sort of thing. Maugham’s administrators often entertain ambitions that echo the old desire to build empires—they like to build roads, in particular, as a harbinger of progress and Western capitalism.
Some of his stories deal with the relationship between the colonists and the indigenous peoples; his protagonists are often well-meaning paternalists who “treat the natives like children” and feel affection for what they regard as simpler people. His portrayals of native characters and women are often racist and sexist, but more in a way that reflects the institutional racism and sexism of the era rather than any particular personal bigotry on Maugham’s part. Though I don’t detect anything in his stories that might be directly attributable to his homosexuality, Maugham’s depiction of sexuality in general is very frank and realistic, quite at home with the attitudes towards sexual freedom and celebration that Fitzgerald chronicles in 1920s America. Several of his stories involve marital conflicts brought about or exacerbated by affairs, and in these conflicts, Maugham ascribes sexual agency to both the men and the women involved.
As with any large collection, not all of these stories are created equal. And, with a few exceptions, they are all quite long for a short story: I would struggle to read one in a single sitting, which I typically consider a good measure of a short story’s length. Not that this detracts from the quality of the stories, mind you, for Maugham uses this length to good ends. But after twenty or so of them, especially given their repetitive nature, I admit that the lustre was starting to fade.
Now that I’ve completed the collection, however, I have to admit that I enjoyed it. Of Human Bondage was my only other experience with Maugham until now, and it floored me. I didn’t have the same reaction to his short stories, but they have reawakened my desire to read more of Maugham’s work—until now, he was mostly a one-book author for me. Now that I have a better sense of his writing and his subject matter, I’m intrigued and want to sample more of his works.
This is essential reading, in whatever edition or form one finds it, for fans of Maugham. Newcomers will also find it a fine introduction, albeit one that requires patience and tolerance for repetition. It is, without a doubt, an excellent representation of Maugham’s ability as a writer of short fiction, one who uses the medium to describe and portray the shortcomings and short fuses of individuals thwarted in their desires.