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First Person Singular (1931)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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I have had problems enough with women and with my own life to need some advice, and even though we are separated by most of a century, Maugham is here to provide it. I have always questioned the motives that lay behind the decisions in my life, and why I should be and act a certain way around certain women, and in these short stories I have something approaching an answer. Thank you, Somerset, yet again. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jan 1, 2010 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular

Heinemann, Hardback, 1936.

12mo. xix+307 pp. Pocket Edition. Preface for The Collected Edition [vii-xiv]. Original introduction without title [xv-xix].

First published by Doubleday, 1931. Original preface without title.
First published by Heinemann in The Collected Edition with a new 5pp. preface by the author, 1936



The Round Dozen
The Human Element
The Alien Corn
The Creative Impulse


Life is really very fantastic, and one has to have a peculiar sense of humour to see the fun of it.

This very short quote from the not so short story "Virtue" is simply the best way to start my little essay on Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, Somerset Maugham's fourth mature collection of short stories and the second - after the previous one, Ashenden (1928) - which is not concerned with tropical locales and the fates of the British Empire builders. But the main theme is the same as in all other of Maugham's short stories, as in his whole oeuvre indeed - the human nature pure and simple (although it is neither).

I remember quite well the first time I read something by Somerset Maugham. It was the short story "Virtue". Don't ask me when this happened, it was many years ago. I was having my lunch in a little club near the Faculty where I had the pleasure to study just then. While eating the relatively tasteless Schnitzel (and the utterly tasteless mashed potatoes) I went through the table of contents of the Maugham's volume I had just bought and having liked the title of "Virtue", I read it chewing thoughtfully. I don't know whether I was just distracted by the eating or by something else (or not at all) but I found the short story uncommonly tedious. My mother had told me: "If you see something by Somerset Maugham, the short stories particularly, buy it for me!'. So I did. Out of pure curiosity I started reading "Virtue" during my lunch and could hardly finish it. It seemed a (short?) story of inordinate length, with boring plot and uninteresting lifeless characters.

Now I am simply astonished when I come to think that I could ever have had such opinion of Maugham in general and this short story in particular. Now I consider "Virtue" not only one of Maugham's absolute masterpieces but also one of the short stories closest to perfection. Not only has its plot several amazing twists, but all characters are so alive and so convincing that I can actually hear their conversations and see their faces while reading. There is not even one superfluous word in the whole piece. Even Maugham, notorious for his simple but simply perfect style, rarely wrote passages, let alone whole stories, that combined revealing glimpses of the human nature, succinctness of style and dramatic action in so fine a way. From the hilarious introduction about the poignant and almost unbearable feelings when smoking cigars and eating oysters or lamb cutlets until the final and highly charged emotionally conversation, it is simply perfect. Or at least as close to perfection as any short story could hope to reach. And its power to stimulate reflection on various aspects of life must never be underestimated:

...but if the folly of men made one angry one would pass one's life in a state of chronic ire.

'Good gracious, she could have remained faithful to him in spirit while she was being unfaithful to him in the flesh. That is a feat of legerdemain that women find it easy to accomplish.'
'What a odious cynic you are.'
'If it's cynical to look truth in the face and exercise common sense in the affairs of life, then certainly I'm a cynic and odious if you like.'

Some people with more sensitive nature might well be offended, and even appalled, by such lines. I won't beat about the bush and I'll say right away that I find Maugham's cynical view of life simply fascinating. More important still, I find it truly believable and utterly convincing. It's a point of view that might not be real or true, he never claimed it was, but who can tell if this really is so or not? Who can tell with any certainty where the truth about the human beings lies: in the realm of cynicism or in the real of the romanticism? Or somewhere in the middle? I should like to think that the last statement is the truest one; but I still find the cynical approach far more convincing than the romantic one. I don't mind telling you that Mr Maugham is the driving force behind that. I daresay such a warped view is not something very nice. But there it is. And to finish with "Virtue", I have never ever heard all my philosophy about women condensed in just one line. Here it is:

I prefer a loose woman to a selfish one and a wanton to a fool.

The most extraordinary thing about these Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular is that none of the other five is any worse than "Virtue" itself. "The Alien Corn" and "The Human Element" make particularly fascinating read, not least because of two locations, Munich and Rhodes respectively, that are not to be found in any other short story of Maugham. But there is so much more than that in these pieces. "The Alien Corn" is a brilliant and poignant study of art as the meaning of life in the hands of the aspiring pianist George, whereas "The Human Element" is indeed a very human drama with all its hypocrisy and egotism. When he was writing about the human element Maugham definitely was in his element giving you bits of insight and wisdom all along the story without slowing down the action:

People are always a little disconcerted when you don't recognize them, they are so important to themselves, it is a shock to discover of what small importance they are to others.

The worst of having so much tact was that you never quite knew whether other people were acting naturally or being tactful too.

I have always found the Bright Young People extremely tedious. The gay life seems dull and stupid to the onlooker, but the moralist is unwise to judge it harshly. It is as absurd to be angry with the young things who lead it as with a litter of puppies scampering aimlessly around, rolling one another over and chasing their tails. It is well to bear with fortitude if they cause havoc in the flower beds or break a piece of china. Some of them will be drowned because their points are not up to the mark, and the rest will grow up into well-behaved dogs. Their unruliness is due only to the vitality of youth.

"The Human Element" has one other and very compelling asset: Betty Welldon-Burns is surely one of the most charming female characters ever conceived by Maugham.

"The Round Dozen", "Jane" and "The Creative Impulse" show a different side of Maugham's genius for short stories: his caustic wit and immense power to satirize the idiotic limitations of his contemporaries and the society they lived in. Yet, even without the darkest human passions and the most brutal climaxes, Maugham's stories always have, as he was very fond of saying, a beginning, a middle and an end. Quite separately from the perfect structure, the fine writing style, the brilliantly developed characters and the natural flow of the plots, these stories are a very rich mine of perceptive points about the human condition, and you never know what you are going to dig out. "Jane", in particular, is not just a very amusing story to read but a striking revelation about the total insincerity of the society. On the one hand Jane is a very remarkable woman because:

She managed (as so few people do) to look exactly what she was.

But on the other hand, she is an exceptionally honest woman indeed! I think the final few paragraphs deserve to be quoted in their entirety:

'You know, when I married Gilbert and settled in London and people began to laugh at what I said no one was more surprised than I was. I'd said the same things for thirty years and no one ever saw anything to laugh at. I thought it must be my clothes or my bobbed hair or my eyeglass. Then I discovered it was because I spoke the truth. It was so unusual that people thought it humorous. One of these days someone else will discover the secret, and when people habitually tell the truth of course there'll be nothing funny in it.'
'And why am I the only person not to think it funny?' asked Mrs. Tower.
Jane hesitated a little as though she were honestly searching for a satisfactory explanation.
'Perhaps you don't know the truth when you see it, Marion dear,' she answered in her mild good-natured way.
It certainly gave her the last word. I felt that Jane would always have the last word. She
was priceless.

The eternal hypocrisy of the human race, the enormous amount of bogus people and sham ideas, cruel as it sounds, was always one of the topics Maugham most relished to delve into. By way of a little digression, here is a short excerpt from one of the greatest masterpiece for the stage Maugham ever wrote, The Circle (1921), where in just a few lines a whole universe of purely human phenomena is contained; and the last sentence is pretty much the same what Jane said, but expressed even more provocatively.

C.-C.: My dear Arnold, we all hope that you have before you a distinguished political career. You can't learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.
ARNOLD: But supposing it doesn't come off? Women are incalculable.
C.-C.: Nonsense! Men are romantic. A woman will always sacrifice herself if you give her the opportunity. It is her favourite form of self-indulgence.
ARNOLD: I never know whether you're a humorist or a cynic, father.
C.-C.: I'm neither, my dear boy; I'm merely a very truthful man. But people are so unused to the truth that they're apt to mistake it for a joke or a sneer.

Finally, a remark about prefaces and introductions must be made. The volume contains an original introduction written in 1931 for the First Edition and another preface written five years later for The Collected Edition. The latter is a wonderful essay on the different ways how a story can be written and is to be found, in greatly extended form of course, in the The Art of Fiction, the introductory chapter of Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), whereas the former explores in some detail the creation of characters and the relationship with their precursors from the real life. As all prefaces, introductions and forewords Maugham ever wrote, both of these make an absorbing read for everybody even remotely interested in the art of fiction.

It is certainly worth noting that in the original introduction from 1931 there is the only place, to the best of my belief, in all Maugham ever wrote and published where he openly confessed that in this case only he had not used his usual method for developing characters through elaboration of qualities that belong to different living people as well as to himself, but he had actually drawn a portrait of a real person. This is the notorious Mortimer Ellis, the principal character in "The Round Dozen", a short story first published in the London magazine Good Housekeeping in 1923 but reprinted next year in Hearst's International under the catchy title "The Ardent Bigamist". Nothing more need be said about the plot. As for the creation of fictional characters, Maugham's shrewd and pithy observations could hardly be bettered by anybody, least of all by me. They certainly deserve to be quoted.

...I have at one time or another been charged with portraying certain persons so exactly that it was impossible not to know them. I have been accused of bad taste. This has disturbed me, not so much for my own sake (since I am used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) as for the sake of criticism in general. We authors of course try to be gentlemen, but we often fail and we must console ourselves by reflecting that few writers of any consequence have been devoid of certain streak of vulgarity. Life is vulgar.

I have known authors who declared that none of their characters was ever even remotely suggested by anyone they had known and I have unhesitatingly accepted their assertion. But I have ceased to wonder why they never managed to create a character that was not wooden and lifeless. I think indeed that most novelists, and surely the best, have worked from life. But though they have had in mind a particular person this is not to say that they have copied him nor that the character they have devised is to be taken for a portrait. In the first place, they have seen him through their own temperament and if they are writers of originality this means that what they have seen is somewhat different from the fact. They have taken only what they wanted from him. They have used him as a convenient peg on which to hang their own fancies. To suit their purpose they have given him traits which the model did not possess. They have made him coherent and substantial. A real person, however eminent, is for the most part too insignificant for the purposes of fiction.

The complete character, the result of elaboration rather than of invention, is art, and life in the raw, as we know, is only its material. It is unjust then for the critics to blame an author because he draws a character in whom they detect a likeness to someone they know and wholly unreasonable of them to expect him never to take one trait or another from living creatures. The odd thing is that when these charges are made, emphasis is laid only on the less laudable characteristics of the individual. If you say of a character in a book that he is kind to his mother, but beats his wife, everybody will cry: Ah, that's Brown, how beastly to say he beats his wife; and no one thinks for a moment of Jones and Robinson who are notoriously kind to their mothers. I draw from this the somewhat surprising conclusion that we know our friends by their defects and not by their merits.

Nothing is so unsafe as to put into a novel a person drawn line by line from life. His values are all wrong, and, strangely enough, he does not make the other characters of the book seem false, but himself. He never convinces.
( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 17, 2009 |
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