Friday, April 6, 2012

Maugham Round Up (Part 1 of 2)

"She had the serenity of a summer evening when the light fades slowly from the unclouded sky. There was nothing dull in her immense placidity;it was as living as the sea when under the August sun it lay calm and shining along the Kentish coast....The clothes of that day gave a woman dignity and there was something amazingly attractive in the way her virginal beauty contrasted with the loveliness of her gown...She was like a silvery flower of the night that only gave its perfume to the moonbeams.
~~ Cakes and Ale

This will probably be my last Maugham post for awhile as I think I've burned through all the books I had of his in my library (until I get around to getting a nice copy of The Painted Veil), so I thought I'd lump them all together and discuss them in a couple of posts. 


Summary (via Shelfari) : Author William Ashenden, is unexpectedly contacted by Alroy Kear, a busy-body literary figure in London. Kear has been asked by the second Mrs. Amy Driffield to write the biography of her deceased husband, Edward Driffield. Driffield, an author who was once scorned for his realist representation of late-Victorian, working-class characters, but who in his later years has become lionized by scholars. The second Mrs. Driffield, a nurse to the ailing Edward after his first wife left him, is known for her propriety and interest in augmenting and cementing her husband's literary reputation. Her only identity is that as caretaker to her husband in life and to his reputation in death. It is well known, however, that Driffield wrote his best novels while married to his first wife/muse, Rosie.
Kear knows that William Ashenden had a long acquaintanceship with the Driffields when he was a young man. Kear contacts Ashenden to get privy information about Edward's past — including information about his first wife, Rosie, who has been oddly erased from the official narrative of Edward's genius. The plot revolves around how much information the narrator will divulge to Driffield's second wife and Kear (while exposing it all to the reader), who ostensibly wants a "complete" picture of the famous author, but who routinely glosses over the untoward stories that might upset Driffield's surviving wife. It is William Ashenden who holds the key to the deep mystery of love, and the act of love, in the life of each character as he recounts a fascinating literary history of creativity, infidelity and literary memory.

She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love... She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it was not lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere,unspoiled, and artless...You see, she wasn't a woman who ever inspired love. Only affection. It was absurd to be jealous over her. She was like a clear, deep pool in a forest glade into which it's heavenly to plunge, but it is neither less cool nor less crystalline because a tramp and a gypsy and a gamekeeper have plunged into it before you. 
~~ the promiscuous nature of the 1st Mrs Driffield being glossed over. 

Fun, sometimes slightly dark character study (what Maugham is known for) but not one of my favorites among his works, though by this post you may see that there were a number of memorable quotes scattered throughout the text. Lots of English locales here that are also found in most of his books -- Tercanbury, Blackstable, etc. There's also a ton of little history lessons throughout the text for my fellow history buffs. Learned about some people I hadn't heard much about before. Agnes Sorel I knew of, but I now also know of Miss Maria Fitzherbert, lover of George, Prince of Wales in the late 1700s, and Emma, Lady Hamilton, the lover of Horatio Nelson, officer in the Royal Navy and 1st Duke of Bronte. The character of Edward Driffield references the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant as well as the Fall of Bastille (French Revolution). Other historical moments referenced include the popularity of such musicians as Tosti, popular painters  (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Peter Lely, Samuel Scott, El Greco, Sisely, G.F. Watts and Titian -- specifically "Entombment of Christ"), references to now vintage food and pharmaceutical products such as Bemax -- a vitamin supplement -- and Rye-Vita, a brand of rye biscuit, Rye House (a residence once belonging to writer Henry James), the Daimler motor car (Mercedes Benz)  and humorous descriptions of the production and popularity of the safety bicycle:
I wheeled the bicycle to a road not far away which I knew was perfectly flat and straight and so solitary that no one would see me making a fool of myself. I tried several times to mount, but fell off each time. I barked my shins against the pedals and got very hot and bothered. After I had been doing this for about an hour, though I began to think that God did not intend for me to ride a bicycle, but was determined to do so all the same, to my disgust I saw two people on bicycles coming along the deserted road. I immediately wheeled my machine to the side and sat down on a stile, looking out to sea in a nonchalant way as though I had been for a ride and were just sitting there wrapped in contemplation of the vasty ocean.  ~ Willie Ashenden (narrator of story) trying to learn how to ride a safety bicycle
Example of a Tosti song below:

Example of song by composer Maude Valerie White
Opera singer Nellie Melba performing "My Jo"
Recording from 1913

"Welcome Footsteps" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (circa 1883)

I had read too many novels and had learnt too much at school not to know a good deal about love, but I thought it was a matter that only concerned young people. I could not conceive that a man with a beard, who had sons as old as I, could have any feelings of that sort. I thought when you married that was all finished. That people over thirty should be in love seemed to me rather disgusting.  ~ Willie Ashenden  :-P   the young are so cute....

"Entombment of Christ" by Titian (circa 1520)

There are a number of powerful, related themes in this one -- we've all experienced people hiding their true characters under a facade, living under the guise of "I keep it real" without divulging the small print to that statement. We've all heard little rumors / secrets within relationships of those we know and love and it's a common thread of thought to ponder over the glorification of celebrity life. All these ideas are explored in this novel. 


Summary via ShelfariFilled with adventure, passion, and intrigue, The Narrow Corner is a classic tale of the sea by one of the twentieth-century's finest writers.   Island hoping across the South Pacific, the esteemed Dr. Saunders is offered passage by Captain Nichols and his companion Fred Blake, two men who appear unsavory, yet any means of transportation is hard to resist. The trip turns turbulent, however, when a vicious storm forces them to seek shelter on the remote island of Kanda. There these three men fall under the spell of the sultry and stunningly beautiful Louise, and their story spirals into a wicked tale of love, murder, jealousy, and suicide. Meet Louise, sequestered from life and civilization on her father's island plantation near Malaya. Like the enchantress in the old tale, she will lure men to their destruction. A group of men, an odd lot, come to visit Louise's father. In each of them she ignites a flame that soon blazes into an inferno, consuming sultry passions, leaving dying embers of tragedy - and death!

Dr. Leo Stanley, chief surgeon at San Quentin Prison
(this image reminded me of the description of Dr. Saunders below)

Dr. Saunders was not a great reader. He seldom opened a novel. Interested in character, he liked books that displayed the oddities of human nature, and he had read over and over again Pepys and Boswell's Johnson, Florio's Montaigne and Hazlitt's essays. He liked old travel books, and he could peruse with pleasure the accounts in Hakluyt of countries he had never been to. He had at home a considerable library of the books written about China by the early missionaries. He read neither for information nor to improve his mind, but sought in books occasion for reverie. He read with a sense of humor peculiar to himself, and was able to get out of the narratives of missionary enterprise an amount of demure fun which would have much surprised the authors. He was a quiet man, of agreeable discourse, but not one to force his conversation on you, and he could enjoy his little joke without forcing a desire to impart it to another.  ~~ The Narrow Corner

Not going to lie, this one was a bit of a slow read for me, though there were some great observations about life and nature. I appreciate that Maugham branched out of his normal England, but the story didn't pull me in as I had hoped. You figure "oooh South Seas... sexy!" - not necessarily. What may have gone wrong here (for me anyway) was a small fault in Maugham himself. He had a rep for being a bit of a sexist, one of the "a woman's place is in the kitchen and men are the decision makers" crowd, common trait for his male characters in his books. Check out how he relates a woman's beauty to the functionality of a good table *insert eye roll*:

The doctor as a rule was not captivated by feminine beauty; he could not think but the manner in which a woman's frame was made for obvious physiological purposes much detracted from its aesthetic appeal. Just as a table should be solid, of a convenient height and roomy, so a woman should be large-breasted and broad in the beam; but in both cases beauty could only be an adjunct to utility. You might say that a table which was solid, roomy and of a convenient height was beautiful, but the doctor preferred to say that it was solid, roomy and of a convenient height. **sound of crickets** Well, that kills the doctor fantasy.... ladies - go for firemen instead ;-)

As long as you're not offended by that (remember, part of it could have just been him being a product of his era), then the guy is one talented writer. I'm pretty liberal minded for the most part so I can let a lot roll off me, as far as seemingly offensive behavior. It takes something major to shock me anymore. But I think Maugham's view on women might have affected his ability to write an sort of gripping romance that would strongly appeal to women readers. I think he tried here to write a sort of dark, steamy romance but it fell short. Not unlikely if you think the best thing about a woman is her ability to make a killer sandwich or put a mean crease line in your slacks :-P. Reading this book though, the mild sexism might not seem so bad when you take into account the usage of profanity and racial slurs. It felt like a heavier usage here than in Maugham's other works, but then again the plot involves sailor characters, so I'm not sure if it was put in as historical context. Still, that part made for some uncomfortable reading for me.

"Legend of the True Cross (Queen of Sheba meeting Solomon)"
by Piero della Francesca, painter mentioned in 
The Narrow Corner

The sea was quite calm…The dawn slid between the low, wooded islands, gravely, with a deliberate calmness that seemed to conceal an inward apprehension, and you felt it natural and even inevitable that men should have personified it in a maiden. It had indeed the shyness and the grace of a young girl, the charming seriousness, the indifference and the ruthlessness. The sky had the washed-out color of an archaic statue. The virgin forests on each side of them still held the night, but then insensibly the grey of the sea was shot with the soft hues of a pigeon's breast. There was a pause, and with a smile the day broke. Sailing between those uninhabited islands, on that still sea, in a silence that strange and exciting impression of the beginning of the world. There man might never have passed and you had a feeling that what your eyes saw had never been seen before. You had a sensation of primeval freshness, and all the complication of the generations disappeared. A stark simplicity, so bare and severe as a straight line, filled the soul with rapture. Dr. Saunders knew at that moment the ecstasy of the mystic. 

I love that feeling!! The page after this gorgeous observation on the beauty of life holds an interesting observation about accepting one's inevitable death one day:

It's a question of age you know. The old are much more easily frightened than the young. I couldn't help thinking it rather funny at the time that I, who had so much less to lose than you who've got all your life before you, should dread losing it so much more than you did. 

Never thought of it that way before, but I thought that was a neat point. Okay... Pt. 2 coming up.....