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The Narrow Corner (Vintage International) (original 1932; edition 2012)
by W. Somerset Maugham (Author)
The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (Author) (1932)
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Eurocentric, male-centric tale of passion and dispassion in the old East Indies. Maugham’s style is always a comfort: precise descriptions, detachment from his characters, an air of calm authority. So the action and the characters (rogues, frauds, obsessives, a mellow nihilist as the principal) are relayed to us from civilised, sedate scenes: gin pahits before dinner, cheroots on the veranda. ( )
Update: January 7, 2019. The book has haunted me since I read it a little less than a year ago. It grew on me, and I have now greatly revised my opinion of it. I'm taken with the characters, Saunders, Nicholls, Fred, Erick, Firth. All of them part of a mosaic of individuals who cannot reintegrate their lives into their former world. Saunders has become almost an outside narrative force, an impassive observer. The others have lost their moorings and will settle to their fates accordingly. Not only a commentary on empire and the people who made it but on people who don't belong anywhere and know it. Some reconcile, some flourish. Others wither.
An uneven work, The Narrow Corner nevertheless generates much meaning and intensity for its characters. It is actually almost like two different books in one cover. The first half begins as a work of adventure fiction--or even something built upon one of Maugham's travel books. But the second half returns to far more familiar territory for the author--the parlor room drama, where characters' souls are nakedly revealed and almost all left wanting.
Two things stand out: Maugham's notion of "distance." It is a matter of time rather than miles. What may seem just 45 miles beyond is a passage in time almost incalculable. Thus it makes it strangely complicated to shift from the overwhelming landscapes of Asian and Pacific islands to the isolated hothouse of human emotions broiling under the jungle sun of the island of Takana in the Dutch East Indies.
Second, Maugham questions the difference between "reality" and "dreams." Something of a favorite topic of mine, although I usually frame it as a question of whether there is a difference between "reality" and "fantasy." Maugham rightly sees that both ideas grow and die in our minds. They are an experience of our experience. There is no difference. And in the end it gives us special insight into the author's narrator, Dr. Saunders, who has willingly isolated himself in China and then broken away for a sea voyage to Takana. Saunders is an observer of people--and a bit of a psychoanalyst. Because of his being able to balance reality and dreams, however, he is the only one to emerge intact at book's end. The representative of dreams, Erik, fails and falls. So quite literally does the emblem of reality, Fred.
Interesting exercise, this novel.
The ending is spoiled in the introduction, and so the whole book feels unnecessary.
The story line doesn't really matter, his portraits are what's engaging. Love his words.
"I want life to be fair. I want life to be brave and honest. I want men to be decent and things to come right in the end. Surely that's not asking too much, is it?"
"It's asking more than life can give."
"Don't you mind?"
"You're content to wallow in the gutter."
"I get a certain amount of fun from watching the antics of the other creatures that dwell there."
[Preface to The Selected Novels, Vol. 2, Heinemann, 1953:]
Some critics who have been sufficiently interested in me to write about my books have stated that in Dr. Saunders I drew a portrait of myself. I don’t know how they got such a queer idea in their heads. It is true that I lent him one or two of my own experiences. But that is quite another matter. When a novelist has had an experience that will fit in with the characteristics of a creature of his invention he looks upon it a as bit of luck and makes haste to use it. I founded Dr. Saunders on a medical student I had known when I was myself one and whom I continued to know till he died forty years later. He was never a good doctor, but he had gaiety, a great sense of humour, a pleasant cynicism and not a little unscrupulousness. He was a most pleasant companion.
[Preface to The Narrow Corner, Heinemann, The Collected Edition, 1934:]
The characters of fiction are strange fish. They come into your mind. They grow. They acquire suitable characteristics. An environment surrounds them. You think of them now and again. Sometimes they become an obsession so that you can think of nothing else. Then you write of them and for you they cease to be. It is odd that someone who has occupied a place, often only in the background of your thoughts, but also often in the very centre of them, who then perhaps for months has lived with you all the waking hours of the day and often in your dreams, should slip your consciousness so completely that you can remember neither his name nor what he looks like. You may even forget that he ever existed. But on occasion it does not happen like that. A character whom you had thought you were done with, a character to whom you had given small heed, does not vanish into oblivion. You find yourself thinking of him again. It is often exasperating, for you have had your will of him and he is no longer of any use to you. What is the good of his forcing his presence on you? He is a gate-crasher whom you do not want at your party. He is eating the food and drinking the wine prepared for others. You have no room for him. You must concern yourself with the people who are more important to you. But does he care? Unmindful of the decent sepulchre you have prepared for him, he goes on living obstinately; indeed, he betrays an uncanny activity, and one day to your surprise he has forced his way to the forefront of your thoughts and you cannot help but give him your attention.
The reader of this novel will find Dr Saunders in a brief sketch in On a Chinese Screen. He was devised in order to act his part in the little story called The Stranger. I had space there to draw him but in a few lines and I never expected to think of him again. There was no reason why he, rather than any other of the many persons who made an appearance in that book, should go on living. He took the matter into his own hands.
And Captain Nichols was introduced to the reader in The Moon and Sixpence. He was suggested by a beachcomber I met in the South Seas. But in this case I was conscious soon after I had finished that book that I was not finished with him. I went on thinking about him and when the manuscript came back from the typist and I was correcting errors, a little piece of his conversation struck me. I could not but think that here was the idea for a novel and the more I thought of it the more I liked it. When the proofs at last reached me I had made up my mind to write it and so cut out the passage in question. It ran as follows:
‘About other parts of his career he was fortunately more communicative. He had smuggled guns into South America and opium into China. He had been engaged in the blackbird business in the Solomon Islands and showed a scar on his forehead as the result of a wound some scoundrelly nigger had given him who did not understand his philanthropic intentions. His chief enterprise was a long cruise he had taken in the Eastern seas, and his recollection of this formed an unfailing topic of his conversation. It appeared that some man in Sydney had been unlucky enough to commit a murder and his friends were anxious to keep him out of harm’s way for a time, so Captain Nichols was approached. He was given twelve hours to buy a schooner and find a crew, and the following night, a little way down the coast, the interesting passenger was brought on board.
‘’’I got a thousand pounds for that job, money down, paid in gold,” said Captain Nichols. “We had a wonderful trip. We went all through the Celebes and round about the islands of the Borneo Archipelago. They’re wonderful those islands. Talk of beauty, vegetation, you know, and all that sort of thing. Shooting whenever you fancy it. Of course we kept out of the beaten track.”
‘”What sort of man was your passenger?” I asked.
‘”Good fellow. One of the best. Fine card player too. We played écarté every day for a year and by the end of the year he’d got all the thousands pounds again. I’m a pretty good card player myself and I kept my eyes skinned too.”
‘”Did he go back to Australia eventually?”
‘”That was the idea. He’d got some friends there and they reckoned as how they’d square his little trouble in a couple of years.”
‘”It looked as if I was going to be made the goat.”
‘Captain Nichols paused for a moment and his lively eyes seemed strangely veiled. A sort of opaqueness covered them.
‘”Poor fellow, he fell overboard one night off the coast of Java. I guess the sharks did the rest. He was a fine card player, one of the best I ever saw.” The Captain nodded reflectively. “I sold the schooner at Singapore. What with the money I got for that and the thousands pounds in gold I didn’t do so badly after all.”’
This then was the incident that gave me idea for this novel, but it was not till twelve years later that I began to write it.
Belongs to Publisher Series
The Vanguard Library (11)
On his way home from a remote Pacific island, Dr Saunders travels with two strangers: the treacherous Captain Nichols, and Fred, a handsome Australian with a shadowy past. Driven to shelter from a storm on the island of Kanda, the trio meet good-natured Erik Christessen and his fiancée, the cool and beautiful Louise. A tense, exotic tale of love, jealousy, murder and suicide, which evolved from a passage in Maugham's earlier masterpiece, The Moon and Sixpence.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.912Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 1901-1999 1901-1945
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