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On a Chinese Screen by W. Somerset Maugham
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On a Chinese Screen (1922)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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1244137,150 (3.5)18
  1. 00
    The Problem of China by Bertrand Russell (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Russell and Maugham make for a fascinating comparison. They saw China circa 1920 from different points of view. Russell is more objective and more concerned with political and social questions, while Maugham is more subjective and more concerned with individuals (mostly but not only Europeans). Both write extremely clear, readable and witty prose.… (more)
  2. 01
    The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (John_Vaughan)
  3. 01
    The Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. 2 by W. Somerset Maugham (John_Vaughan)
  4. 01
    The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham (John_Vaughan)
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It was pleasing to have purchased this book in Shanghai and to have read it with the images of Shanghai and Hangzhou fresh in my mind. Maugham captures a good deal of the Chinese culture and, from what I saw of The Bund in Shanghai, the Colonial era in full swing. The work consists of 58 portraits of individuals and their idiosyncrasies and various places. At times, it is difficult to tell whether Maugham is mocking, mimicking, or satirising the various ways in which an air of cultural superiority was practised by foreigners in China. Yet it is fascinating reading, particularly in the context of just having visited Shanghai and noting the extent of its Colonial history in the face of ancient culture. ( )
  madepercy | Nov 7, 2017 |
W. Somerset Maugham

On a Chinese Screen

Heinemann, Hardback, 1953.

12mo. xii+228 pp. The Collected Edition. Preface for The Collected Edition, 1935 [ix-xii].

First published by George H. Doran, 5 October 1922.
First published by Heinemann, 9 November 1922.
First published in The Collected Edition, April 1935.
Reprinted, April 1953.

Contents*

Preface**
[I.] The Rising of the Curtain
[II.] My Lady's Parlour
[III.] The Mongol Chief
[IV.] The Rolling Stone
[V.] The Cabinet Minister
[VI.] Dinner Parties
[VII.] The Altar of Heaven
[VIII.] The Servants of God
[IX.] The Inn
[X.] The Glory Hole
[XI.] Fear
[XII.] The Picture
[XIII.] Her Britannic Majesty's Representative
[XIV.] The Opium Den
[XV.] The Last Chance
[XVI.] The Nun
[XVII.] Henderson
[XVIII.] Dawn
[XIX.] The Point of Honour
[XX.] The Beast of Burden
[XXI.] Dr Macalister
[XXII.] The Road
[XXIII.] God's Truth
[XXIV.] Romance
[XXV.] The Grand Style
[XXVI.] Rain
[XXVII.] Sullivan
[XXVIII.] The Dining-Room
[XXIX.] Arabesque
[XXX.] The Consul***
[XXXI.] The Stripling
[XXXII.] The Fannings
[XXXIII.] The Song of the River
[XXXIV.] Mirage
[XXXV.] The Stranger
[XXXVI.] Democracy
[XXXVII.] The Seventh Day Adventist
[XXXVIII.] The Philosopher
[XXXIX.] The Missionary Lady
[XL.] A Game of Billiards
[XLI.] The Skipper
[XLII.] The Sights of the Town
[XLIII.] Nightfall
[XLIV.] The Normal Man
[XLV.] The Old Timer
[XLVI.] The Plain
[XLVII.] Failure
[XLVIII.] A Student of the Drama
[XLIX.] The Taipan***
[L.] Metempsychosis
[LI.] The Fragment
[LII.] One of the Best
[LIII.] The Sea-Dog
[LIV.] The Question
[LV.] The Sinologue
[LVI.] The Vice-Consul
[LVII.] A City Built on a rock
[LVIII.] A Libation to the Gods

*The contents are not numbered in the ToC, but inside the book they are.
**This preface is not reprinted in the Vintage Classics edition!
***Reprinted in The Complete Short Stories, Heinemann, 1951, 3 vols.

====================================

This is not a book at all, but the material for a book.

This is how the author begins his preface. Though he was apt to be disingenuous about minor details, Maugham was honest with his readers about the essentials.

On a Chinese Screen is indeed not a book but a random collection of 58 sketches, most of them no more than a few pages long, which Maugham made during a trip to China in 1920. He “vaguely” thought they might be useful as material for novels or stories, as were many of his notes published much later, after he had stopped writing fiction, in A Writer’s Notebook (1949). He contemplated a continuous narrative, but finally decided to publish the notes as they were lest they otherwise lose their freshness. The result is a little gem that everybody seriously interested in Maugham should read.

But don’t choose the 2001 Vintage Classics edition. Vintage committed a criminal offence when they did not reprint the 1935 preface. In addition to the biographical background, essential for the proper understanding of the book, the preface also contains a revealing tribute to Maugham’s most favourite activity after writing. I make no apologies for the lengthy quotation that follows. This is Maugham at his finest, full of charm, wit and wisdom.

I travel because I like to travel. I like the sensation it gives you of freedom from all responsibility. Time never spreads out so spaciously before you as on a journey and, though perhaps you do little of what you had in mind to do, you have the feeling that you have leisure for everything. You have long empty hours that you can fritter away without the uneasy consciousness that time is flying and there is not a moment to waste. Though I think the traveller is a fool who does not secure for himself such comfort as is possible I can very well do without it. I like a good dinner, but I can enjoy the roughest and (what is worse) the most monotonous fare. In the South Seas I have eaten Hamburger steak day after day with unimpaired appetite (though I admit that when I returned to San Francisco and was offered one my stomach rose at the sight) and on an island in the Malay Archipelago I have eaten bananas for three meals a day because there was little else to eat. Nor have I ever looked upon bananas with longing since. I like to sleep night after night in a different place and I am not particular about my accommodation. I have slept very comfortably on a mat in a native house in Savaii and luxuriously in an open boat on a Chinese river. I have even enjoyed sleeping on sacks of copra in a launch and it would be hard to find anything more lumpy. But how exquisite were those starry nights! I like meeting people whom I shall never meet again. No one is boring whom you will see but once in your life. It is interesting to guess what sort of a person he is and to compare him with others of the same sort you have met before. For the most part people sort themselves into a small variety of types and you have the amusement of recognising the traits and idiosyncrasies that you expect. And just as you will sometimes see an effect of nature that you know from the pictures of a certain painter so you will run across persons you have read of in books. The Kipling character, for instance, is by no means uncommon in the East. I do not know if he is a descendant of the men and women that Mr. Rudyard Kipling described in the India of forty years ago, or if he has formed himself on diligent perusal of those good stories. It is comic to hear him use those well-worn phrases and to see him, as though it were natural to him, entertain that attitude towards the world which is now so out of date. Then there is the excitement now and then, very rarely of course, of coming upon someone who is different from any one you have ever known. You find him in unexpected places, on board of some coasting steamer, away in a walled town on the borders of Tibet or on a coconut plantation in the Aroe Islands. Solitude, an unusual life, have given him the opportunity to develop on his own lines without the hindrance of our Western civilisation which forces upon people, at least outwardly, (and alas! how greatly is the inner life influenced by the outer!) a common shape. This man may not be very intelligent. He may seem even a little crazy. He may be immoral, dishonest, coarse, vulgar and rude; but by heavens, he’s odd! He seems almost to belong to a different species. If you are interested in human nature your heart leaps.

Maugham frankly admits that when he prepared his notes for publication he tried to “remove the carelessness and slip-shod character of hasty writing”. He sure did. The sketches are beautifully written with all of Maugham’s skill for choosing the right words in the right order. For all of the usual accusations of cliché-ridden prose, many of Maugham’s similes are unique. Only in one of his books can you read of a woman who “looked like the heroine of a play by Victorien Sardou who had outlived the melodramatic fury of her youth and now did crochet.”

All sketches are self-sufficient, including those a page or so long. They cover a bewildering range of moods and subjects. A great deal in them may well be fiction, but does it matter one way or the other? Maugham’s intention, as stated in the preface, was to present a “truthful and perhaps lively picture of the China I had seen”. The key word here is the personal pronoun. Maugham certainly presents an engrossing picture of China, and I am saying this as somebody who has always found the great civilisations of the East rather dull, but the book is revealing first of all about Maugham himself. When he regales his readers, out of the blue, with the Kentish fields amid a Chinese landscape (XVIII, XLIII) or an in-depth analysis of the French character (XIX), it speaks volumes.

Just like Maugham is amused that people fall into few types and exhibit the same characteristics over and over again, it is fun for his readers to note how several major themes occur again and again under disguise in his works. Broadly speaking, Maugham was fascinated by the complexity and unpredictability of human nature. He could never get over his astonishment how people who looked perfectly ordinary could lead extraordinary lives, or at least do extraordinary things. “The Lotus Eater” (1934) is his most memorable exploration of this conundrum, but “The Rolling Stone” (IV) is no slouch either. The latter has the additional bonus of the protagonist being a writer. No doubt he wrote only tedious stuff, “for in writing the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.”

Maugham was a man hard to impress and even harder to baffle. But one thing that both impressed and baffled him was the jumble of contradictory traits that often existed in a single human being and, for all he could say, formed a harmonious whole. Countless characters in his novels and short stories testify to Maugham’s absorbing interest in the matter. Even a brief list would be endless, but just think of Alban Torrel from “The Door of Opportunity” (1931), that epitome of culture, courage and cowardice, the prima donna from “The Voice of the Turtle” (1935) with her seamless blend of sincerity and falseness, or the lecherous and flippant yet smart and dependable Rowley Flint from Up at the Villa (1941). “The Cabinet Minister” (V) and “Her Britannic Majesty's Representative” (XIII) are magnificent examples of perplexing human nature, quite worthy of standing besides Maugham’s finest achievements. He concludes the latter with a charming jibe at his “compatriots”[1]:

They are strange people the British. If their manners were as good as their courage is great they would merit the opinion they have of themselves.

Most of the pieces are character sketches of Europeans in China, missionaries, magistrates, government officials, businessmen, doctors, sailors; in short, all sorts of odd, strange, queer if you like, adventurers. Maugham was never interested in ordinary folk, and he admitted as much.[2] Fortunately for him, and for us, he found plenty of wacky people to write stories about. Once he thought he had found a “normal man” (XLIV), that exceedingly rare and “precious work of art” which he sought for the pure aesthetic thrill he expected to receive from him. But in the end, confronted with a somewhat bizarre form of paternal affection, he concluded that the fellow was not “quite a normal man after all.”

These portraits are written with much humour, but not without sympathy. Maugham is not unsympathetic to missionaries, for example. “Servants of God” (VIII) is a memorable dual portrait of them, one Englishman and one Frenchman. Maugham cares little about their profession, but he is keenly aware of their singular personalities. “Fear” (XI) is another missionary sketch, and one that reaches almost tragic dimensions. “The Fannings” (XXXII) is a family portrait of a deputy commissioner, his wife and their two children. He is an aggressive “martinet” who roundly abuses the Chinese, she is “a miracle of unselfishness” who praises her husband as though he were God. A ridiculous family! Here is an admirable subject for satire. But there is not even irony in Maugham’s treatment. He traces the husband’s aggression to painful shyness, admires the wife’s sincerity and is rather touched by their children. So much for Maugham’s “jaundiced” view of human nature!

On the other hand, when Maugham is in the mood, his pen is deadly. “Henderson” (XVII) is a hilarious sketch of those ideologues who preach one thing and practice another with breathtaking lack of scruple. Henderson happens to be a Socialist, but Maugham’s portrait can easily stand for the adherents of many pathological “–isms”. “The Missionary Lady” (XXXIX) does not avoid the onslaught, either. She is “exemplifying Benedetto Croce's theory that grammar has little to do with expression”. When the author shares with her some rather trite remarks, no doubt deliberately provoking her, she bids him farewell with the charming conceit that it’s good to “exchange ideas with one’s intellectual equals.” “Dinner Parties” (VI), which consists of two parts, “Legation Quarter” and “At a Treaty Port”, is a devastating satire of the shallowness of diplomatic circles. Maugham was at his element with the pretentious posturing of rich and snobbish folk[3]:

On the whole it made little difference to them in what capital they found themselves, for they did precisely the same things in Constantinople, Berne, Stockholm and Peking. Entrenched within their diplomatic privileges and supported by a lively sense of their social consequence, they dwelt in a world in which Copernicus had never existed, for to them sun and stars circled obsequiously round this earth of ours, and they were its centre.

People who tell you Maugham is entirely occupied with Europeans probably have never read the book. Chinese characters, though rather uncommon, are not entirely missing from these pages. “The Philosopher” (XXXVIII) and “A Student of the Drama” (XLVIII) are the most interesting. The former was a somewhat pathetic figure who was eager to impart his wisdom to modern China (but nobody asked for his advice), had studied philosophy all over Europe only to become quite disenchanted with any non-Chinese philosopher, and confirmed Maugham’s belief that “philosophy is an affair of character rather than of logic: the philosopher believes not according to evidence, but according to his own temperament.” As for the student of the drama, a “Professor of Comparative Modern Literature” if you please, he is gently mocked for his academic obtuseness. By the way, both sketches contain certain reflections on philosophy and drama that later went straight into The Summing Up (1938). Some of them make for a fine bit of comedy:

"They lecture on the technique of the drama in all the important universities of America," said he.
"The Americans are an extremely practical people," I answered. "I believe that Harvard is instituting a chair to instruct grandmothers how to suck eggs."
"I do not think I quite understand you."
"If you can't write a play no one can teach you and if you can it's as easy as falling off a log."
Here his face expressed a lively perplexity, but I think only because he could not make up his mind whether this operation came within the province of the professor of physics or within that of the professor of applied mechanics.


Maugham finds some time to comment on Chinese art, which he finds exquisite but a little monotonous (LI), and in quite a few instances he is moved by the Chinese landscape to produce ravishing descriptions of it. He even finds some time to make a gentle fun of the worn-out adjective “inscrutable” usually applied to Chinese people (XX). That is to say, he pokes fun at himself because Ong Chi Seng, the Chinese clerk from “The Letter” (1924), is an epitome of inscrutability. Yet Maugham remains convinced that there is a gulf essentially impossible, or at least very hard, to bridge between Europeans and Chinese. Claims like these have earned him accusations of racism by people who read books (and write reviews, interestingly) more to flaunt their own prejudices than for any other purpose. In “A City Built on a Rock” (LVII), a magnificent impression of the sounds and smells of a populous Chinese city[4], Maugham reflects, rather baffled, almost dejected, that he can enter the lives of his own people, “at least imaginatively”, but he doesn’t know the first thing about the Chinese: “for their likeness to yourself in so much does not help you; it serves rather to emphasise their difference.”

Nor is it true to say that Maugham is entirely free from social, historical or even political overtones. He does avoid them and, as a rule, he is less convincing in them, but there are one or two notable exceptions. “The Grand Style” (XXV) is a remarkable portrait of a gentleman a generation older than the author. Maugham carefully analyses the historical background, merely a few decades back, yet profoundly different. That old gentleman had received different education, had read different books and newspapers, had, in short, lived in different times. He was a classic Victorian. Maugham, being born in 1874, was also Victorian, technically speaking, but he was in fact much more Edwardian. The sketch contains an astute observation on the concept of gentleman and one of his many tributes to the prose of Swift:

He was very different from the men of my generation; but whether the difference lay in his voice and gesture, in the ease of his manner, or in the elaborateness of his antique courtesy, it was not easy to discover. I think he was more definitely a gentleman than people are nowadays when a man is a gentleman with deprecation. The word is in bad odour and the qualities it denotes have come in for a deal of ridicule. Persons who by no stretch of the fancy could be so described have made a great stir in the world during the last thirty years and they have used all the resources of their sarcasm to render odious a title which they are perhaps all too conscious of never deserving.
[…]
But how can I analyse the subtle quality which distinguished this old man? Read a page of Swift: the words are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style. And so with him; there was style, and there is no more to be said.

“Democracy” (XXXVI) is another highlight. Maugham treats the subject with an almost disconcerting flippancy. His olfactory theory, in a nutshell, is that China is a far more democratic country than any in the West because there is in it no division by our sense of smell. The Chinese live among plenty of nasty smells, but don’t notice them; so high officials could socialise with coolies without their nostrils being assaulted in the process. We in the West, on the other hand, are divided by a stinking wall between the working man and the intellectual. “The matutinal tub divides the classes more effectually than birth, wealth, or education”, Maugham opines, and continues that sanitation “is responsible for class hatred much more than the monopoly of capital in the hands of the few.”

It is hard to say how far Maugham’s tongue was in his cheek when he developed this SOD (Sanitary Olfactory Democracy) theory. I think he was rather in the earnest. Granted that this is not the whole truth, it may well be at least part of it. The sketch finishes with a famous quote:

It is a tragic thought that the first man who pulled the plug of a water-closet with that negligent gesture rang the knell of democracy.

Many of the sketches hide disturbing depth under innocuous titles. Some are positively shocking. “The Beast of Burden” (XX), for example, is an ode to the coolies. With a characteristic sense for dramatic contrast, Maugham begins cheerfully: the coolies make a pleasant sight at first, they fit the landscape with their blue clothes. But then Maugham reminds us that he is a doctor and describes with medical precision the physical deformities from which those poor souls suffer courtesy of their lifelong labour. It makes for a painful read. Another sketch, harmlessly titled “The Vice-Consul” (LVI), is actually a graphic description of an execution – and a much better achievement than Orwell’s inexplicably celebrated “A Hanging”. Unlike his younger colleague, Maugham presents you with both points of view through the mind of the Vice-Consul. It is an “immense responsibility” to kill a man, a product of “innumerable generations”, yet it matters so little in the end.

But the most heart-rending sketch is the one innocently titled “The Sights of the Town” (XLII). Let me not spoil it for you. I quote only the opening paragraph here. This is vintage Maugham, witty and sweet, but it hardly prepares you for the harrowing things that follow.

I am not an industrious sight-seer, and when guides, professional or friendly, urge me to visit a famous monument I have a stubborn inclination to send them about their business. Too many eyes before mine have looked with awe upon Mont Blanc; too many hearts before mine have throbbed with deep emotion in the presence of the Sistine Madonna. Sights like these are like women of too generous sympathies: you feel that so many persons have found solace in their commiseration that you are embarrassed when they bid you, with what practised tact, to whisper in their discreet ears the whole tale of your distress. Supposing you were the last straw that broke the camel's back! No, Madam, I will take my sorrows (if I cannot bear them alone, which is better) to someone who is not quite so certain of saying so exactly the right thing to comfort me. When I am in a foreign town I prefer to wander at random and if maybe I lose the rapture of a Gothic cathedral I may happen upon a little Romanesque chapel or a Renaissance doorway which I shall be able to flatter myself no one else has troubled about.

When editor John Whitehead published the invaluable collection of uncollected writings A Traveller in Romance (1984), named after a story by Maugham, one reviewer noted with perspicacity on which she no doubt congratulated herself that Maugham was, to judge by his works, “very little tinged with romance”[5]. When you read something like that, you can be sure the author has read, at best, very little Maugham very superficially, if at all. Or they have a wholly wrong concept of the word “romance”.

“Romance” (XXIV) provides the most comprehensive explanation, as far as I know, what Maugham meant by this elusive word. He certainly didn’t mean “romance” in its slushy sense, still less was he concerned with “Romantic” in its historical sense. No, he meant something much more difficult to define. It was with him an aesthetic emotion, almost a mystical experience, based on extrapolation from the immediate surroundings to the whole of human nature and human history. It usually came to him surprisingly, in places and under conditions which few people would consider “romantic”. Maugham gives several fascinating examples here, but it’s another sketch (LI) that to my mind provides the best one. “The Fragment” in question is merely part of a Greek statue that somehow found its way, some 2,000 years ago, to the border between China and Tibet. When the French doctor who owned the antique suggested that the statue might have been of Alexander the Great, Maugham, an incurable romantic in his own way, produces some of his finest writing:

Head and arms were gone, and the statue, for such it had been, was broken off just above the waist, but there was a breastplate, with a sun in the middle of it, and in relief Perseus killing the dragon. It was a fragment of no great importance, but it was Greek, and perhaps because I was surfeited with Chinese beauty it affected me strangely. It spoke in a tongue with which I was familiar. It rested my heart. I passed my hands over its age-worn surface with a delight I was myself surprised at. I was like a sailor who, wandering in a tropic sea, has known the lazy loveliness of coral islands and the splendours of the cities of the East, but finds himself once more in the dingy alleys of a Channel port. It is cold and grey and sordid, but it is England.

[…]

It was a thrill. Was it possible that one of the commanders of the Macedonian, after the expedition into India, had found his way into this mysterious corner of China under the shadow of the mountains of Tibet? The doctor wanted to show me Manchu dresses, but I could not give them my attention. What bold adventurer was he who had penetrated so far towards the East to found a kingdom? There he had built a temple to Aphrodite and a temple to Dionysus, and in the theatre actors had sung the Antigone and in his halls at night bards had recited the Odyssey. And he and his men listening may have felt themselves the peers of the old seaman and his followers. What magnificence did that stained fragment of marble call up and what fabulous adventures! How long had the kingdom lasted and what tragedy marked its fall? Ah, just then I could not look at Tibetan banners or celadon cups; for I saw the Parthenon, severe and lovely, and beyond, serene, the blue Ægean.

Two sketches made it to the definitive edition of Maugham’s short stories, and if “The Consul” (XXX) is merely a farcical trifle about the “decidedly odd” Mr Pete and one silly English woman, “The Taipan” (XLIX) is a chilling piece about the power of the subconscious and one of Maugham’s masterpieces of short fiction.[6] (“Mirage”, “Rain” and “The Point of Honour” have nothing to do with Maugham’s stories of the same names.) At least six sketches more (VI, XI, XXXIV, XXXVIII, XLV, LVII) were published in magazines but didn’t make it as short stories. They may well have, together with a number of others (e.g. VIII, XIX, XXI, XXV, XLIV, LIII). If they lack the classic Maugham plot with a beginning, a middle and an end, they are brimming with condensed plots and colourful characters. Especially the latter!

Nobody knew that better than Maugham himself. As he freely admitted[7], Dr Saunders from The Narrow Corner (1932) was developed from one of those sketches (“The Stranger”). Several cases of nuns and Mother Superiors (XVI, XLVII) almost certainly were used when Maugham came to write The Painted Veil (1925), his eleventh novel, one set largely in China and one in which a convent, together with its remarkable mistress, plays an important role. Surely too many coincidences! Maugham finishes one of the sketches (XXI) with the words “That is a story I should like to write.” I am rather sorry he didn’t.

Of course, not all sketches are of equal merit. But there are very few in which Maugham’s formidable powers of description and characterisation are ends in themselves, and even these are neither unreadable nor tedious. Sometimes external references are necessary.

“My Lady’s Parlour” (II) is possibly the dullest of these 58 sketches, merely describing a lady’s attempts to turn an old Chinese temple into a very English home. But if you do know that On a Chinese Screen was the only book Maugham dedicated to his wife, you cannot but appreciate the subtle fun he had at the expense of Syrie and her career as an interior decorator. This is not the place to discuss Maugham’s unfortunate marriage and way too much has been made of it by vulgar hacks anyway. But it’s worth noting that the humour in “My Lady’s Parlour” is light and good-natured.

“The Plain” (XLVI) is merely a description, albeit an extremely evocative one, of the human and natural wonders around – Heidelberg. This is odd in the middle of China. But if you are not entirely ignorant of Maugham’s life, you know that he spent a blissful year in Heidelberg between May 1890 and July 1891, that is when he was 16-17 years old. It was a period of crucial importance in his life. He read and discussed everything from Meredith to Omar Khayyám, saw Ibsen’s plays (and Ibsen himself in Munich), listened to Kuno Fischer’s lectures on Schopenhauer and, in short, “first entered upon the intellectual life”. There is no reason to doubt his words, written more than 40 years after the event, that in Heidelberg “I had been happier than ever before. I had for the first time tasted freedom…”[8] All this makes the 46th sketch not only comprehensible, but moving.

Other sketches are clearly intended as nothing more than stylistic experiments. Here and there Maugham indulges in unusually florid sightseeing. No doubt he was amused to see if he could improve on the purple patch that filled his early notebooks.[9] Some reviewers have been sorely disappointed by poetry-in-prose exercises like “Arabesque” (XXIX). It goes without saying that Maugham is better with people than with places. That said, I see nothing wrong with his description of the Great Wall of China. Indeed, I find it stirring and suggestive. Don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself. Here is the whole thing complete (it’s the shortest sketch in the book):

There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down to the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts. Ruthlessly, for it was built at the cost of a million lives and each one of those great grey stones has been stained with the bloody tears of the captive and the outcast, it forged its dark way through a sea of rugged mountains. Fearlessly, it went on its endless journey, league upon league to the furthermost regions of Asia, in utter solitude, mysterious like the great empire it guarded. There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China.

I don’t know if this book could be of much use for those interested in the modern history of China circa 1920. I doubt it. Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of China (1922) may be a better choice, though given Russell’s completely different personality and purpose, his book may also prove to be a fine companion volume to Maugham’s much more subjective account. Be that as it may, On a Chinese Screen is a treasure trove for the student of Maugham. If it doesn’t have quite the scope and depth of A Writer’s Notebook, it nonetheless makes for a pleasant and profitable read – to exaggerate an understatement. And if you are a writer of fiction, you may have the additional pleasure of finding in it the plots of half a dozen novels and the characters for a full dozen short stories.

One last piece of advice. Don’t read “The Taipan”, “The Vice-Consul” or “The Sights of the Town” before going to bed. Trust me, you don’t want to do that.

______________________________________________
[1] I admit the quotation marks are my own fault. I have never been able to apply a superficial concept like nationality to great writers – indeed, to great artists. I am amused when people talk of Great American/British/French/Russian writers or novels. If something or somebody is great, they must transcend at least the national borders in the Western world. Otherwise they are provincial.
[2] See the preface to vol. 3/4 of The Complete/Collected Short Stories, Heinemann/Penguin, 1951/1963.
[3] See also his take on crème de la crème of the French Riviera in the story “Gigolo and Gigolette” (1935).
[4] Boy, was Anthony Curtis wrong when he remarked on Maugham’s “indifference to all but the visual sense”! On a Chinese Screen alone is enough to refute nonsense like this. See Mr Curtis’ essay in Writers and Their Work, No. 279, Northcote Press, 1982. p. 8.
[5] Troy Bassett, “W. Somerset Maugham: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1969-1997”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 41, Number 2, 1998, pp. 133-184. Entry No. 236.
[6] Simply because he wasn’t fond of the messy stream of consciousness so beloved by his modernist contemporaries it is often assumed that Maugham did not explore the human subconscious. On the contrary, he did so constantly, even in his shortest stories. The title character in “Mayhew” (1923), for example, changes his whole life on a whim prompted by alcohol, but he follows his instinct/impulse/whatever because he is a man who “would never have continued from bravado in a course that he had come to the conclusion was unwise.” If the subconscious exists and has any influence over our actions, this is as fine an example of it as anything.
[7] See the 1935 preface to The Narrow Corner for its inclusion in Heinemann’s The Collected Edition.
[8] The Summing Up (1938), chapters 18 and 51. See also chapters 24, 63 and 65 for other important references to Heidelberg. No need to waste your time with Maugham’s obscene biographers.
[9] See A Writer’s Notebook (1949), “1900”. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Nov 1, 2016 |
Maugham is good when he describes people and what they say; when he attempts things like his 'Arabesque' he falls over his pen. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
[Preface to On a Chinese Screen, Heinemann, The Collected Edition, 1935:]

This is not a book at all, but the material for a book. I travel because I like to travel. I like the sensation it gives you of freedom from all responsibility. Time never spreads out so spaciously before you as on a journey and, though perhaps you do little of what you had in mind to do, you have the feeling that you have leisure for everything. You have long empty hours that you can fritter away without the uneasy consciousness that time is flying and there is not a moment to waste. Though I think the traveller is a fool who does not secure for himself such comfort as is possible I can very well do without it. I like a good dinner, but I can enjoy the roughest and (what is worse) the most monotonous fare. In the South Seas I have eaten Hamburger steak day after day with unimpaired appetite (though I admit that when I returned to San Francisco and was offered one my stomach rose at the sight) and on an island in the Malay Archipelago I have eaten bananas for three meals a day because there was little else to eat. Nor have I ever looked upon bananas with longing since. I like to sleep night after night in a different place and I am not particular about my accommodation. I have slept very comfortably on a mat in a native house in Savaii and luxuriously in an open boat on a Chinese river. I have even enjoyed sleeping on sacks of copra in a launch and it would be hard to find anything more lumpy. But how exquisite were those starry nights! I like meeting people whom I shall never meet again. No one is boring whom you will see but once in your life. It is interesting to guess what sort of a person he is and to compare him with others of the same sort you have met before. For the most part people sort themselves into a small variety of types and you have the amusement of recognising the traits and idiosyncrasies that you expect. And just as you will sometimes see an effect of nature that you know from the pictures of a certain painter so you will run across persons you have read of in books. The Kipling character, for instance, is by no means uncommon in the East. I do not know if he is a descendant of the men and women that Mr. Rudyard Kipling described in the India of forty years ago, or if he has formed himself on diligent perusal of those good stories. It is comic to hear him use those well-worn phrase and to see him, as though it were natural to him, entertain that attitude towards the world which is now so out of date. Then there is the excitement now and then, very rarely of course, of coming upon someone who is different from any one you have ever known. You find him in unexpected places, on board of some coasting steamer, away in a walled town on the borders of Tibet or on a coconut plantation in the Aroe Islands. Solitude, an unusual life, have given him the opportunity to develop on his own lines without the hindrance of our Western civilisation which forces upon people, at least outwardly, (and alas! how greatly is the inner life influenced by the outer!) a common shape. This man may not be very intelligent. He may seem even a little crazy. He may be immoral, dishonest, coarse, vulgar and rude; but by heavens, he’s odd! He seems almost to belong to a different species. If you are interested in human nature your heart leaps.

I went to China in 1920. I did not keep a diary, for this is a thing I have never been able to do since I was ten, but I made notes of the people and places that excited my interest. I vaguely thought they would be useful for stories or a novel. They mounted up and it occurred to me that I might make them into a connected narrative of my journey. […] But when I got them into some sort of order it seemed to me that they had a freshness, for they were made when the impression was vivid, that they might lose if I elaborated them into such a narrative as I had intended. I thought it enough if I made them a little more succinct and if I tried as far as I could to remove the carelessness and slip-shod character of hasty writing. I hoped they would give the reader who cared to make some use of his imagination a truthful and perhaps lively picture of the China I had seen.

[Preface to The Travel Books, Heinemann, 1955:]

The reader will find in this volume, scattered among incidents of travel, some of the stories, perhaps a dozen in all, that he may already have read in the three volumes in which are included pretty well all the stories I have ever written. The books here contained were written many years ago. On a Chinese Screen was published in 1922, The Gentleman in the Parlour in 1930, and Don Fernando in 1935. They have lost the flavour of actuality, and I never supposed that they would be reprinted. When I came to sort out the material for a complete collection of my short stories, it occurred to me that in On a Chinese Screen and in The Gentleman in the Parlour there were narratives which with a little arrangement might suitably find a place in it. This is not to say that they were fictional. They were straightforward recitals (almost what the French call reportages) of the impressions made upon me by the people I came in contact with and the circumstances of their lives as they disclosed them to me. If, with the addition of a few lines of introduction, the pieces I had written could well pass for short stories, that is because at one period of my life almost everybody I met, almost everything that happened to me and every incident I witnessed or was told of, shaped itself into a short story. In On a Chinese Screen and The Gentleman in the Parlour I was not writing fiction, I was relating facts; indeed, far from embroidering on the facts to make them more effective, as the writer of fiction is justified in doing, I took pains to modify them when I thought they were too fantastic to be credible. Let me give an example: In one of the chapters in The Gentleman in the Parlour I tell of a trip I took in a coasting steamer in order to get from Bangkok in Siam to Kep in Cambogia. My fellow-passengers were the oddest, the most absurd lot of people I had ever come across. They might have been characters in an uproarious farce. They were very friendly – with the exception of an Italian tenor who sat by himself in the bows, and at night, accompanying himself on a guitar, sang at the top of his voice fragments from operas. I briefly described him, but omitted to mention that he was a murderer fleeing from justice and seeking a refuge from extradition, since I thought it so improbable that I could not expect the reader to believe it. The present volume would have lost much of what interest it may have if, because they have recently appeared in my collected short stories, I had left out these true narratives; for indeed they belong to it and complete its shape.
  WSMaugham | Jun 15, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195837851, Paperback)

Originally published in 1922. This volume from the Cornell University Library's print collections was scanned on an APT BookScan and converted to JPG 2000 format by Kirtas Technologies. All titles scanned cover to cover and pages may include marks notations and other marginalia present in the original volume.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:20 -0400)

Maugham spent the winter months of 1919-20 travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Always more interested in people than places, he gave full rein to a sensitive and philosophical nature. On a Chinese Screen is the refined accumulation of the countless scraps of paper on which he had taken notes. Within the narrow confines of their colonial milieu, missionaries, consuls, army officers and company managers are all gently ridiculed as they persist obliviously with the life they know.… (more)

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