One of the seminal writers of the twentieth century, W. Somerset Maugham was also a fearless and constant traveler who chronicled his adventures with a rare mix of wit and excitement. In The Skeptical Romancer, acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer selects vignettes of Maugham's wise and vivid prose that track his transformation from a boyish traveler in Spain to a worldly man of letters, looking back on India, China, Russia, and America. Beginning with an early book on Spain and culminating in excerpts from old age, this collection introduces us to Maugham at his most surprising, charming, and prophetic. In piece after piece, one can see the spirit that continues to cast an unrivaled influence over successors from Graham Greene to Paul Theroux, from Jan Morris to V. S. Naipaul.
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February 14, 2012
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Excerpt from The Skeptical Romancer by W. Somerset Maugham
I N T R O D U C T I O N
When one travelled in the East, it was astonishing how often one came acrossmen who had modelled themselves on the creatures of his imagination.
--W. Somerset Maugham, of Rudyard Kipling
What makes a great traveler? Those of us who spend much of our lives on the road--or on the page--often beguile an idle hour or two with the question. The ideal companion should be open to every person or encounter that comes his way, perhaps--but not too ready to be taken in by them. She should be worldly, shrewd, her feet firmly on the ground; and yet she should be ready to surrender, if only for a moment, to the magic and excitement of what she could never see or do at home. He should be curious, observant, fun, wry and kind; he should be able to spin a spell-binding tale before the Royal Geographic Society in London and then throw it all over for a crazy romance in the South Seas.
The heart of the conundrum, really, is that the people we like to spend time with on the road are often sensible, and yet aware of the limits of sense, and the virtue of being senseless every now and again. They're rooted enough to be up for every possibility. They shouldn't have an agenda or overwhelming prejudices, and they should be as able to see to the heart of the natives of any country as to their fellow travelers. Maybe what they really offer is a happy blend of steadiness and surprise.
I draw up such lists myself, often, and then I look across the room and realize that there's one person I know who fits the bill ideally. Somerset Maugham was celebrated in the England of his day as one of its most successful dramatists and is cherished, even now, almost half a century after his death, as a spinner of classic tales of exploration and flight that Hollywood seems to turn into fresh movies every year. Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence all define Maugham for many as a cool, even feline observer of the human tragi-comedy who could be at once startled and amused by the stories he picked up and set in colonial Asia or the Pacific. The person behind them, we sense, was someone always hungry for the new, and ready to follow any opening or character he met, down any alleyway, in search of a story, yes, but also in search of a sense of escape and even transcendence.
Maugham's voice and presence have so much the feeling of Edwardian England and the silk dressing-gown, however, that it's easy to forget sometimes that he was born in Paris, and that his early letters were all written in perfect French (for English schoolboys the secret language of romance). He studied in Heidelberg for two years as a teenager, he went to live in Seville for sixteen months in his early twenties and, having already mastered Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian and Russian, he set about learning Spanish. He served in World War I as volunteer ambulance driver and nurse, even though he had four plays on at the time in London's West End - and then became the West's main source of intelligence in Russia during the weeks leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. By the 1920s, before most people, even those of means, were traveling very widely, he was going to Borneo, to China, to the South Seas and Japan, and, having spent early sojourns in Paris and Capri, he passed the last thirty-nine years of his life in the south of France. There he had another memento of the larger world, a secret symbol to repel the evil eye, painted on his outside wall--the same symbol he slipped on to the cover of his books.
The writer who would at once take his reader on journeys to India, Samoa, Hong Kong and yet somehow always set him at his ease, the man of high culture who often asserted,''The best use of culture is to talk nonsense with distinction,''is best revealed for me in his early novel, The Merry-Go-Round, published when he was thirty. That book, typically, unfolds an interlocking set of love stories--stories of great passion and drama--as they are seen by two slightly detached observers: one is a fifty-seven-year-old spinster, Miss Ley, who takes in everything with a wise serenity and pronounces grandly, and somewhat skeptically, on human folly and illusion. The other is a burning young medical student, Frank Hurrell, who cannot contain his hunger for experience. ''My whole soul aches for the East, for Egypt and India and Japan,'' he cries out at one point. ''I want to know the corrupt, eager life of the Malays and the violent adventures of the South Sea Islands . . . I want to see life and death, and the passions, the virtues and vices, of men face to face, uncovered.'' The language is purple, but the sentiments are as alive and quickening as anything in Hesse or Kerouac, and it's hard not to recall that Maugham was himself a medical student, who learned early about human suffering, and longed, as he told us, ''for fresh air, action, violence,'' to be away from the hushed drawing-rooms of England. Even when young, in short, he could summon the perspective of both an elderly, disengaged observer and an eager romantic--and show himself as close to woman as to man.
In practice, only four of the seventy-eight books Maugham turned out are generally placed on the shelves marked''Travel'': his classic account of a journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, The Gentleman in the Parlour, brought out in 1930; a series of sketches and snapshots called On a Chinese Screen, from 1922; a very early, boyish series of wanderings around southern Spain, The Land of the Blessed Virgin, published in 1905, that he delighted in mocking and repudiating in later works for its flowery style and juvenile effusions; and a meditation on some figures in Spanish history - explicitly not ''a book of travel,'' though often categorized as such, Don Fernando, in 1935. Yet travel lay behind much of his work, if only because, as Miss Ley says, ''Curiosity is my besetting sin,'' and as is written of Frank Hurrell, his ''deliberate placidity of expression masked a very emotional temperament.'' When it came to his masterly appraisal of his life, The Summing Up, and to his A Writer's Notebook ( joined with The Summing Up to make The Partial View), it's hard not to notice how many of Maugham's central, formative experiences came on the road, or through it.
More than that, his young book on Spain, though certainly ornate, and without the crisp definition that marks the mature Maugham style, shows us the master traveler as he would always be, under the surface, and before he became an institution and the famous writer ''Somerset Maugham.'' What we see in it is an ardent, dewy, rebellious boy--a ''romancer by profession,''as he puts it--anxious to be away from England's enclosedness and gray, and at home already in the south, the world of sunshine and abandon. Later he will develop a more measured, poised voice that has the sound of skepticism trying to keep its boyishness at bay; but here, in this unselfconscious work, is already an original and grown-up sensibility, compounded of a susceptible heart, a careful mind and a spirit that is eager to tangle with the essential questions of life and all its meanings.