The Godfather: Peter Corris on Maugham again
I’ve written before about my admiration for Somerset Maugham’s short stories and how, after selling off my entire library when I could no longer read print, the only three volumes I kept were the set of Maugham’s stories. I was in the habit of reading a couple of my favourites such as ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’, ‘Red’, ‘The Letter’ and ‘Footprints in the Jungle’ every year, usually when I was between writing books myself. Short gaps. Although I knew some of the descriptions and dialogue and twists in the tales almost by heart, this did not diminish my enjoyment and admiration. It was increased in fact by anticipation of well-known passages coming up.
So, after turning to audio books, I began to hanker for my dose of Maugham. Audible had a good selection and I opted for Far Eastern Tales, a repackaging of stories from the many collections Maugham published. Apparently the arrangement with Maugham’s estate permitted this. I’d enjoyed many of his stories set in was then known as the Far East and this seemed a good choice.
I was pleased to see ‘Footprints in the Jungle’ come up as either the first or second entry and I settled down to enjoy Robert Powell’s narration. This proved to be masterly, as most of the Audible readings are, and gave the full flavour of the story – the urbane tone of the first-person account (many of the stories are first-person), the frivolities and the seriousness of life in the Federated Malay States, and the unwinding of the plot. As with several of the stories, it begins with a bridge game in the Europeans’ club as a tolerant, cynical policeman unfolds an account of murder and deception. It is also a story of character and its paradoxes.
Powell displays his command of accents in ‘Neil McAdam’, a story of passion carried to excess. Not only does he render two different Scots accents – those of an older man and a younger one – but also that of a Russian woman. After I finished listening I found myself doing what I always do after one of Maugham’s stories – pondering how, if things had not been quite as they were, how radically different the outcome would have been. If one of the strongest effects of writing is to leave you thinking, then Maugham’s work fills the bill for me.
A number of the stories are concerned with courage or the lack of it. As a very brave man who spied for British intelligence in Russia and elsewhere before WWI and drove ambulances in France in the war, Maugham is credentialled to delve into the subject. In ‘The Door of Opportunity’, courage is the theme of an intense character study, which is compelling and compassionate without a trace of sentimentality.
That absolute absence of sentimentality is characteristic of Maugham, who viewed the world with a somewhat jaundiced and cynical eye but was always prepared to recognise merit when it was due.
There are several other story collections in the Audible list; I’ll pick one every so often, knowing that I have hours of pleasure ahead of me.