The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics.
The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham is a collection of short stories set in the South Pacific. It was my book group’s selection for October.
This is the first collection of short stories I’ve read that counted toward my classics project. I’m not usually a short story reader in general, so I was pleasantly surprised by this set. Maugham has a talent for creating vivid characters, rich settings, and compelling plots in just a few pages.
The collection begins and ends with pieces so short I hesitate to call them stories at all. The middle six pieces are the meat of the collection, and I enjoyed them very much. Though they are independent stories, because they share a common setting, I often felt they were interconnected, that I was reading about several groups of people who may have coexisted in this tiny island world.
All deal with similar themes: the relationship between the islands’ native population and the foreigners (mostly British and American) who visit and live there. Most of the stories deal primarily with the foreigners, the natives playing supporting roles as wives, bystanders, store owners, petitioners, and so on. The stories also tend to feature two foreigners of different minds on a subject: the place of Christianity and missionaries on the islands, the proper way of relating to the indigenous population, the merits of the British vs. native way of life. In most of the stories there was at least one someone who was dreadfully unhappy, often because of cultural misunderstandings or incompatibilities. I found the tensions fascinating and well portrayed.
Several of the stories also include a tale within a tale. Often a story’s main character spends most of the story relating something he heard about or that happened to him earlier. This structure gives the stories a depth I often find lacking in the form in general and allows Maugham to explore both tales as well as the narrator or main character’s feelings toward or the consequences of the innermost story.
I cringed now and then at the treatment and view of both women and native islanders in these stories. White women mostly demur to their husbands, who are stronger and more clever. Native men were treated as far inferior to white men, and half-castes were treated no better. Native women had it the worst, I felt — they were almost universally stunningly beautiful yet rather simple, and very much at the mercy of men. (And yes, I do realize that these relations were less Maugham’s creation than the way the races and sexes actually did relate to one another!)
I was curious to learn about how Maugham ended up in this particular area of the world and so turned to Wikipedia. Here’s a snippet of his biography from there:
“In 1916, Maugham travelled to the Pacific to research his novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. This was the first of those journeys through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s which were to establish Maugham forever in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, although the books on which this reputation rests represent only a fraction of his output. On this and all subsequent journeys he was accompanied by Haxton [the young American lover and companion Maugham met in Paris], whom he regarded as indispensable to his success as a writer. Maugham himself was painfully shy, and Haxton the extrovert gathered human material that Maugham steadily turned into fiction.”
There’s so much in just that one paragraph that intrigues me! Maugham’s other travel experiences and subsequent writings, his personality, his (apparently complicated) love life. Perhaps a biography of Maugham will be in my reading future.
I’m curious to read more by Maugham now, as I enjoyed these stories quite a bit. If you’ve read anything by him, where would you suggest I turn next? I have The Painted Veil on my shelf, but I’ve heard The Razor’s Edge is loosely based on my favorite story in The Trembling of a Leaf. Any thoughts?