Friday, 15 March 2013

The Gentleman in the Parlour - W. Somerset Maugham



The Gentleman in the Parlour. A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (London: Heinemann, 1930)

As can be seen in the picture, this is a beautiful book, even as a battered copy. The gold leaf letters on the cover is still luminous. It is elaborately decorated by a dragon and on the spine, a pagoda. My first edition copy did not come with a jacket.   

This is one of Maugham's travel books describing his journey, as stated in the title, from Burma to Vietnam. 

Somehow the opening reminds me a lot of The Land of the Blessed Virgin (1905). Although not highly appreciated and probably not read anymore, it has a very memorable opening with Maugham sitting in his room in wet London, yearning for sunny Andalusia:
In London now, as I write, the rain of an English April pours down; the sky is leaden and cold, the houses in front of me are almost terrible in their monotonous greyness, the slate roofs are shining with the wet. Now and again people pass: a woman of the slums in a dirty apron, her head wrapped in a grey shawl; two girls in waterproofs, trim and alert nothwithstanding the inclement weather, one with a music-case under her arm. A train arrives at an underground station and a score of city folk cross my window, sheltered behind their umbrellas; and two or three groups of workmen, silently, smoking short pipes: they walk with a dull, heavy tramp, with the gait of strong men who are very tired. Still the rain pours down unceasing. (1)
The here and now is displaced by memory. In The Gentleman in the Parlour, instead of remembering the foreign land from home, Maugham begins with a reflection on Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt (for those who are familiar with the latter, one could trace similarities in Maugham's essays). When he opens Hazlitt’s book of essays, he is already on Irrawaddy sailing towards Pagan. One can say that the book begins in media res; the journey is half started already. The reading of Hazlitt’s book merges seamlessly with his sailing along the river, sort of like falling into the rabbit hole, describing the exotic foreign scenery and its people.  

What follows is a mixture of reflections and descriptions. Instead of describing his journey and what he sees per se, Maugham narrates the effects of what he is experiencing has on him. Seeing sights means something more: “I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took” (12). Travelling, like the Grand Tour in past centuries, is a way to enrich oneself; it is not only about seeing what one is supposed to see, like the active and energetic Czecho-Solvak sightseer that Maugham met during his journey, who indefatigably collected all the possible information that he could find about all the places that he visited (16-20). Mingled with what is in front of him, Maugham writes about what he is thinking, reading, remembering, creating (such as the short story “Princess September” that he conceived during his recovery from malaria). Typical of Maugham, he also records the people that he meets, little anecdotes not unlike some of his short stories.

I am not very familiar with travel writing, but this is a very enjoyable read, with Maugham playing around a little with the genre. He has broken away from the Baekeder recipe that he follows twenty-five years ago. He does warn the reader at the beginning: “So that the reader of these pages may be under no misapprehension I hasten to tell him that he will find in them little information” (11). There is a very good analysis on this book together with other travel writings done by contemporary authors. A review of the article can be read in this blog.

You can also read the book on My Maugham Collection Concordance Library.

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