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The Mixture as Before by W. Somerset Maugham

The Mixture as Before (1940)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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[Foreword to The Mixture as Before, Heinemann/Doubleday, 1940:]

When my last volume of short stories was published The Times headed their review of it with the title The Mixture as Before. This of course was meant in a depreciatory sense, but I did not take it as such and so I have made so bold as to use it for the collection which I am now inviting the public to read. After pursuing the art of fiction for over forty years I have a notion that I know a good deal more about it than most people. In that long period I have seen a number of bright stars creep shyly over the horizon, travel across the sky to burn for a while in mid heaven with dazzling effulgence, and then dwindle into an obscurity from which there is little likelihood that they will ever again emerge. The writer has his special communication to make, which when you come to analyse it is the personality with which he is endowed by nature, and during the early years of his activity he is groping in the dark to express it; then, if he is fortunate, he succeeds in doing this and if there is in his personality a certain abundance he may continue for a long time to produce work which is varied and characteristic; but the time comes at last (if he is so imprudent as to live to a ripe age) when, having given what he has to give, his powers seem to fail. He has fashioned all the stories he himself is capable of digging out of the inexhaustible mine which is human nature and he has created all the characters which can possibly be constituted out of the various sides of his own personality. (For no one I believe can create a character from pure observation; if it is to have life it must be at least to some degree a representation of himself: I do not believe Shakespeare could have begotten Hamlet, Brutus and Iago if he had not been himself Iago, Brutus and Hamlet.) A generation has arisen which is strange to him and it is only by an effort of will that he can understands the interests of a world of which he can now be only an observer. But to understand is not enough; the novelist must feel, and he must not only feel with, he must feel in. It is when he has reached this stage that he finds his readers turning from him in weariness. It is well then if he can bring himself to cease writing books which might just as well have remained unwritten. He is wise to watch warily for the signs which will indicate to him that, having said his say, it behoves him to resign himself to silence. He must be content, he must rejoice even, if a new work which he tenders to the approbation of the public shows no falling off; if, in fact, it can truthfully be called The Mixture as Before.

The writing of stories is very much a matter of luck. They 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 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. I have now written between eighty and ninety stories, I shall not write any more; I am quite satisfied if the readers of this collection, should they remember any of those I have written in the past, agree that I have not been overbold in giving it the title I have.
  WSMaugham | Jun 15, 2015 |
W. Somerset Maugham

The Mixture as Before

Heinemann, Hardback, 1940.

12mo. ix+288 pp. Original Foreword [vii-ix].

First published by Heinemann, 1940.



The Three Fat Women of Antibes
A Man with a Conscience
The Treasure
The Lotus Eater
The Lion's Skin
Lord Mountdrago
Gigolo and Gigolette
The Voice of the Turtle
An Official Position
The Facts of Life


The Mixture as Before is another short story collection by Somerset Maugham that makes me wonder, yet again, how he could manage to maintain so high a level of craftsmanship and a quality so close to perfection for so long a time. This book was published 19 years after Maugham's first mature short story collection - Trembling of a Leaf (1921) and 25 years after his first true masterpiece - Of Human Bondage (1915). By 1940 Maugham had stopped writing stories for the English in the Far East and so there are none in The Mixture as Before, although there are two exotic stories set in the other end of the world.

All in all, the collection contains ten short stories and at least seven of them are superb in any aspect: characters, plot, writing style, food for thought. The rest three are simply wonderful and make only extremely pleasant read. They were all published in various magazines during the 1930s usually under the same titles, except for "Lord Mountdrago" and "The Treasure" which appeared as "Doctor and Patient" and "The Best Ever", respectively.

By 1940 it was already a tradition for Maugham to preface his books, short story collections especially, with absorbing introductions that explain the origins of the title and say a great deal more about the writer and his striving to master his craft. He does not disappoint this time either:

When my last volume of short stories was published The Times headed their review of it with the title ''The Mixture as Before.'' This of course was meant in a depreciatory sense, but I did not take it as such and so I have made so bold as to use it for the collection which I am now inviting the public to read. After pursuing the art of fiction for over forty years I have a notion that I know a good deal more about it than most people.

If The Times really did make such a remark about Cosmopolitans (1936), Maugham's previous short story collection, they did show only that they never read either this volume or any of the earlier ones. For Cosmopolitans is comprised of very short stories written on a magazine commission and it is quite different than Maugham's earlier works in the genre; it is everything but ''The Mixture as Before''. I find Maugham especially charming when he elegantly dispenses with his modesty as in the last sentence above. Then he makes a number of fascinating points about the career of a writer, his books, his characters and his old age when his faculties begin to fail him. He finishes with another reference to the title but in a rather different context:

He [the writer] is wise to watch warily for the signs which will indicate to him that, having said his say, it behooves him to resign himself to silence. He must be content, he must rejoice even, if a new work which he tenders to the approbation of the public shows no falling off; if, in fact, it can truthfully be called The Mixture as Before.

Thank God - should He exist - The Mixture as Before is exactly what its name says it is: Maugham at his very best as a short story writer, showing yet again an astounding variety of themes and moods.

The two exotic stories in this volume - "A Man with a Conscience" and "An Official Position" - are unique among all stories Maugham ever wrote. They are the only ones set in St. Laurent de Maroni, the French penal settlement in Guiana. Maugham visited this grim place personally in 1936 and in A Writer's Notebook (1949) one can find a lot of information about it that was later incorporated in the two stories, including a brief reference to one of the main characters. But the stories themselves are not to be found among Maugham's notes.

Both of them have similar and highly effective beginning: idyllic description of a beautiful tropical place very much like paradise or a man so obviously content with his life that he seems not to have a single care in the world; as it turns out, in the very next sentence, the tropical paradise is actually a penal settlement where people sentenced mostly for murder are sent and the apparently happy man is one such prisoner who is serving a twelve-year sentence.

The endings of both stories, however, are quite different. I would certainly venture to claim that the last few pages of "An Official Position" are among the greatest in terms of psychological penetration and dramatic effect Maugham ever penned. They are chilling and haunting, horrifying and yet fascinating. Both stories have brilliant plots and among the grim, and often brutal, details about executions with the guillotine or those filthy dormitories where fifty prisoners or so spend the nights and the warders dare not enter if they don't want to get their throats cut, there is a great deal about human nature and that purely human phenomenon: crime, its motives, its relation if any to the conscience, its impact if any on the human mind.

Interestingly, the protagonists in both stories are sentenced for having killed their wives; this may not be very appealing to some faint-hearted persons but for my own part it does not at all detract from the greatness of these masterpieces. Reading "A Man with a Conscience" always makes me ask myself if there is something more idiotic than marriage for love (as if both things had anything to do with one another!), while "An Official Position" I always find extremely poignant because it makes me reflect how simple yet elusive, and how terribly short when found at last, the human happiness really is.

Another great favourite of mine is "The Lotus Eater". The extraordinary story of Thomas Wilson is told in a way which is simply perfect. The theme is one of those Maugham loved most: how surprising and singular and bold thing can be done by somebody who looks so perfectly commonplace. Also, below the surface, there are some provocative reflections about those rare people who are able to take their lives in their own hands. The very first lines are so memorable that I can't resist the temptation of quoting them:

Most people, the vast majority in fact, lead the lives that circumstances have thrust upon them, and though some repine, looking upon themselves as round pegs in square holes, and think that if things had been different they might have made a much better showing, the greater part accept their lot, if not with serenity, at all events with resignation. They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the selfsame rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron. It is not often that you find a man who has boldly taken the course of his life into his own hands. When you do, it is worth while having a good look at him.

The main moral of the story as I see it is that one must take the course of one's life in one's own hands but one must not turn it into a constant streak of pleasures. Otherwise one is very likely to lose one's will and end one's life quite miserably. But perhaps it's worth it. If you really can find happiness it is worth while sacrificing something pretty substantial for achieving it. It is rather sad but so true that:

Very few people know where to look for happiness; fewer still find it.

Besides the multitude of reflections about life that always obsess me while reading "The Lotus Eater", it contains some of the most charming descriptions of scenery in all of Maugham's stories: very concise and yet effectively recreating the magical atmosphere of Capri:

The Piazza at Capri, with its clock tower, over the footpath that leads up from the harbor, with the church up a flight of steps, is a perfect setting for an opera by Donizetti, and you felt that the voluble crowd might at any moment break out into rattling chorus.

When one gets tired of passionate and violent human dramas, there is a lot in The Mixture as Before to make one relax completely. "The Three Fat Women of Antibes", for example, is a real riot and definitely one of the most hilarious stories Maugham ever wrote. So are "The Treasure" and "The Voice of the Turtle". If any of these cannot make you laugh outright at least once I really don't what could.

On the other hand, "The Lion's Skin" is a perfect example for a very amusing story that has a very serious message indeed; it is a masterful exploration how far human hypocrisy can go when one wants to be a gentleman. It is a well known, even a trifle trite, statement that when a man wears a mask for a very long time he eventually starts to believe he is what he pretends to be and not what he really is; but it is quite compelling to read all that written in so fine a style and coupled with such an entertaining plot.

It is also worth noting that "The Treasure" is the source of one of Maugham's most famous quotes which you can find in dozens sites on the Internet, but it is almost never mentioned where it comes from:

Now it is a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best you very often get it.

Another masterpiece in this collection that demonstrated yet again Maugham's versatility is "Lord Mountdrago": one of the few mysterious stories he ever wrote. Its plot gives Maugham an excellent opportunity to go deep inside the human psyche, well beyond the consciousness, where lies the thin red line that separates sane from insane:

...after all the years during which Dr. Audlin had been treating the diseased souls of men he knew how thin a line divides those whom we call sane from those whom we call insane. He knew how often in men who to all appearance were healthy and normal, who were seemingly devoid of imagination, and who fulfilled the duties of common life with credit to themselves and with benefit to their fellows, when you gained their confidence, when you tore away the mask they wore to the world, you found not only hideous abnormality, but kinks so strange, mental extravagances so fantastic, that in that respect you could only call them lunatic. If you put them in an asylum not all the asylums in the world would be large enough.

The very next story, "Gigolo and Gigolette", is as different as it could be. It is a deeply moving tale about a couple in the show business who risk their lives, she directly and he indirectly, for amusing rich and greedy and vacuous and loose people who have far too much money to know what to do with it, or harbour in themselves the morbid desire to see some death exclusively live. Maugham's sarcasm and cynicism rarely if ever have been so damning (and so amusing!) as when he describes, just by the way, parties on the Riviera:

It was his duty to be civil to the rich and great. Mrs. Chaloner Barrett was an American widow of vast wealth; she not only entertained expensively, but also gambled.
''Got a good table for me, Paco?'' said Eva Barrett.
''The best.'' His eyes, fine, dark Argentine eyes, expressed his admiration of Mrs. Barrett's opulent, ageing charms. This also was business.

Mrs. Barrett paused at the top of the steps that led down to the terrace long enough for the press representative, a little haggard woman with an untidy head, to come up with her notebook. Sandy whispered the names of the guests. It was a representative Riviera party. There was an English lord and his lady, long a lean both of them, who were prepared to dine with anyone who would give them a free meal. They were certain to be as tight as drums before midnight. There was a gaunt Scotch woman, with a face like a Peruvian mask that has been battered by the storms of ten centuries, and her English husband. Though a broker by profession, he was bluff, military and hearty. He gave you an impression of such integrity that you were almost more sorry for him than for yourself when the good thing he had put you onto as a special favour turned out to be a dud. There was an Italian countess who was neither Italian nor a countess, but played a beautiful game of bridge, and there was a Russian prince who was ready to make Mrs. Barrett a princess and in the meantime sold champagne, motor cars and Old Masters on commission.

Finally, there is "The Facts of Life", another very funny story, extremely skilfully written and set mostly in the brilliant and full of temptations Monte Carlo. The adventures of Nicky, an absurdly young and perfectly inexperienced in life but very talented on the tennis court (and not only), are a real joy to read. The story makes for a cheerful and optimistic ending of the book. Life is a very funny thing indeed. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 18, 2009 |
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