(in a place far away)…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

There are 30 stories in volume 4 of Somerset Maugham’s Collected Short Stories (Penguin, 1963). Most of them are set in the Far East, and around a quarter of them are told by a first person narrator who is himself travelling on a journey that will bring him into contact with the bearer of the tale he is about to tell. A half dozen first sentences give a flavour:

 

‘I was at Pagan, in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay, … (Mabel)

 

‘When I left Colombo I had no notion of going to Keng Tung, but on the ship I met a man who told me he had spent five years there.’ (Masterson)

 

‘I left Bangkok on a shabby little ship of four or five hundred tons.’ (A Marriage of Convenience)

 

‘I had been wandering about the East for months and at last reached Haiphong.’ (Mirage)

 

‘I arrived in Seoul towards evening.’ (The Portrait of a Gentleman)

 

‘I was in Thursday Island and wanted very much to go to New Guinea.’ (German Henry)

 

This seems to me a wonderful technique for, at one and the same time, both anchoring the story to a specific location, and cutting it and the reader loose from their moorings in an archipelago of imagined, but not necessarily imaginary places. Rather than the narrator bringing the tales home, to a cosy fireside in pub or parlour, as a Coppard narrator might have done, Somerset Maugham sends us on our travels, to hear the story in situ. We become the travellers, encountering the stories in far flung places, and from the mouths of strangers whose reliability we are asked to take on trust!

How far, I wonder, have we come in the fifty years since this paperback edition was first published, in respect of ‘knowing’ Maugham’s exotic locations? Are they more, or less familiar to us now? More or less exotic in fact? In his day the British Empire was a fading reality, and Maugham was writing, I suspect, for a predominantly British readership. The names of places, which are littered throughout his stories like the islands they refer to, would have been familiar to his readers, but probably not known to them. Some of his readers, of course, would have been the retired Residents and traders whose stories he is retelling. In our own time there is a greater chance of us having visited such faraway places, and a far greater chance of us having seen images of them.

Names like Pagan, Burma, and Mandalay, still hold the power of the exotic though, whether as imagined, or as remembered places. If we look at his mention of that first name, in the first quotation, notice how the parenthetical commas make ‘in Burma’ less a piece of information, and more of a nudge to memory. He expects the reader to recognise, but perhaps not quite place it.

The stories themselves, despite the colonialism that spawned them having faded entirely into the past, still have a power, for they are at heart stories of individuals coping with the disappointments and catastrophes, professional, personal, and emotional, and sometimes comic, that our lives are still constructed of.

 

‘Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish……’

Nearer to home…. Today was (and still is) Bloomsday, so here in north Cumbria we had a small celebratory Bloomsday Breakfast…. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Thanks to all those who took part, and especially those who partook of the Ulyssean Kidneys!

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