Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Maugham on a Chinese screen

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Maugham on a Chinese Screen

W. Somerset Maugham went to China in September 1919, a trip that lasted for six months. Though he had already travelled widely at the age of 45, it was the first time he set foot on a completely alien culture, the Far East that had fascinated him since boyhood. This experience proved to be fruitful and left him a strong impression.

From this trip, Maugham produced 3 works: a play (East of Suez), a novel (The Painted Veil), and lastly, a travel book (On a Chinese Screen).

This book plays an important role in Maugham's development as a professional writer, although it may not seem so at first sight.

As shown by his biographer Selina Hastings in The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, the trip to China was a success and in letters that he wrote more than 15 years later, he recalled Peking with very fond memories. Maugham will go back to the Far East and write more books about it, but in this post I will only focus on On a Chinese Screen.




The Land of the Blessed Virgin
The Land of the Blessed Virgin by W. Somerset Maugham

Before this book, Maugham tried his hands at travel writing as early as in 1905. The Land of the Blessed Virgin is a tribute to his beloved Spain, a symbol of freedom and possibilities throughout his works. Nevertheless, he wasn't too proud of his youthful endeavour, and indeed, it was one of the books he chose to exclude from the collected edition of his works.

What came to be On a Chinese Screen was a happy happenstance. During his trip to China Maugham recorded on his way impressions of the scenery and the people, having in mind to use these notes to write up novels or short stories upon his return. But when he got home, he found the freshness of his descriptions enchanting and a writeup or any attempt to string them together into a coherent narrative would ruin it. Thus, he revised his rough draft and had it published as a non-fiction work.

The book was very well-received. Curtis and Whitehead in The Critical Heritage record two, one from The New York Times and the other from Saturday Review, in their critical heritage series. Certainly this time there was no "but...". The praises were warm and whole-heartedly given.

The Dinner-Party
"The Dinner-Party" -- John Held Jr.

Maugham has found a breakthrough from his old models of travel writing. On a Chinese Screen at times challenges the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, and some of the chapters were published as short stories in magazines and later collections. Maugham explains in the preface of The Travel Books (1955) that it is because "at one period of my life almost everyone I met, almost everything that happened to me and every incident I witnessed or was told of, shaped itself into a short story."

Ray Long, the editor-in-chief of the Hearst magazines, noted that astutely and proposed a contract to Maugham to write similar "stories." Before then, Maugham had published a few stories in magazines from time to time. This commission opened a new and very lucrative revenue for him. Beginning in April 1923 (not 1924 as Maugham recalled later), these very short stories, in similar manner of the sketches in On a Chinese Screen, came out. He wrote 30 of them up till 1929. Later they were collected in Cosmopolitans (1936). This marks the beginning of his very prolific era of short stories writing up till 1947.

Fear

As mentioned, Maugham had found his way of writing a travel book. His focus is not on the description or the history of the exotic places, nor does he attempt to understand their peoples. What seems to capture his fascination most is the displaced people and their relationship to this foreign country, a relationship that reveals something otherwise hidden in one's personality.

Among the 58 chapters in On a Chinese Screen, 15 are descriptions of scenery, 10 are on natives (portraits of their appearances or actions; only 2 relate a direct interaction between them and the author, which didn't turn out to be happy occasions), 32 are on expatriates that Maugham met, and one chapter curiously denotes the homesickness that the author was feeling.

These chapters portray a deep divide between the two cultures, broadly defined as Eastern and Western. Throughout the book, the expats that Maugham describes are both unable and unwilling (unwilling perhaps because they are unable) to burrow into this country that they now call home. There is a mixture of arrogance, a lack of interest, and a troubling homesickness for a home that perhaps is no longer.

Maugham himself seemed to be influenced by this homesickness, though he was only but a few months away from a more familiar culture. One day he found himself transposed momentarily to his London home while shivering in the cold rain, with only an uncomfortable Chinese inn to look forward to as destination. There he was, at home, presumably after his Eastern journey, with his little daughter wearing the white squirrel (supposedly fur) that he brought back from China. It is a glimpse, a rare moment in all his works, of a warm picture of his domestic life, reading his daughter a bedtime story, in this (only) book that is dedicated to his wife Syrie. (Curiously, the dedication is omitted in the pocket edition and presumably the collected edition; the only one that seems to be retained is to Bertram Alanson in The Trembling of a Leaf.)

The Taipan
"The Taipan" -- John Held Jr.

The people Maugham encountered during his journey were necessarily limited to a restricted circle. The two Chinese (a philosopher and a student of drama) that Maugham met present two opposite pictures. One is a proud philosopher in traditional Chinese costume, the other a student of drama in European clothing hoping for some wisdom from Maugham. Both are cosmopolitans who had received European education. However, one is deeply resentful of Western superiority and armed invasion, and the other is pathetically compartmentalized. His ability to understand Western culture is as best the heavy tweed he is wearing in a warm day. [Do look up an older post I wrote about this student of drama, whose son attempted to vindicate him years later.]

At the other end of the spectrum is the sinologue, one of the Westerners included in the book who has any interest to study Chinese, but the language and the culture and the country he knows are what are printed on paper, devoid of life, even when he is living in the midst of them. Foreigners who showed any interest in the Chinese language and culture were eyed suspiciously by the expat community and they were often seen as not quite right in the head.

Mirage
"Mirage" -- John Held Jr.

Maugham's message seems to be that bridging two cultures is an insurmountable task. As an outsider to the two communities, he was able to observe the inherent misunderstanding between them, which would take a major reshuffling of attitudes to overcome.

The China that Maugham records a little short of a century ago of course is very different from the China now, together with the natives and the expats in it, but the feeling of displacement, the sense of loss, of disjointed memories, the momentary transposition to a particular space and time one calls home can still be very present in any expat, anywhere.

The Old-Timer
"The Old Timer" -- John Held Jr.

As mentioned above, On a Chinese Screen was a happy "accident." Two years later, Maugham again embarked on a journey to the Far East, this time to gather material consciously having in mind to write a travel book in the same vein as On a Chinese Screen, but with deliberation as a practice of style. It took him almost ten years before he had it published, as The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930).

Furthermore, one chapter in On a Chinese Screen provides Maugham with the basis of a character that he developed into a full novel, Dr. Saunders in The Narrow Corner (1932). A "speech" given to him by the Chinese philosopher finds its way into East of Suez. Scenes, people he met, like the French nuns, are incorporated in The Painted Veil. Indeed he didn't let any experience go to waste, and these notes give us a glimpse of how the author rendered his raw material into narratives.

On a Chinese Screen – Editions


The Consul
"The Consul" -- John Held Jr.

Nine chapters of On a Chinese Screen were first published in magazines before the book came out in October 1922. The first of them (including "The Dinner-Party," "The Taipan," "Mirage," "The Old-Timer," and "The Consul") consists of a series of five chapters bundled together under the title "Foreign Devils" published in the magazine Asia. A very ingenuous title, which unfortunately is lost in the book form.

Foreign Devils - Asia - Maugham
Foreign Devils - Asia - Maugham

These few chapters are portraits of expats, and they are by no means flattering. Anyone who has some knowledge about Chinese culture will know that "foreign devil" is a loose translation of a very colourful term that the Chinese use to refer to foreigners. There is even a succulent dish, not unlike the Spanish porra, that has the fancy name of "deep fried devil." I have heard that some people attribute it to anger towards foreign invasion, "devil" referring to the "foreign devil," lolling in the hot hellish oil, being fried. But likely this is a late appropriation of the term, as the dish has other names and it belongs to an old tradition.

I have come to the stage of my collection that I have several copies of most of the books, and when I want to read one, I have a serious dilemma of which one to read. I am like a parent who constantly feels guilty of favouritism.

Well, I am going to ignore the individual stories that are collected in different books. On a Chinese Screen is a manageable one. I have four editions.

George H. Doran, 1922


On a Chinese Screen Doran 1922 On a Chinese Screen Doran 1922
On a Chinese Screen, Doran 1922

This is the true first, published on 5 October 1922. My copy has changed quite a few hands, one of them with a stern (though only pencilled) message that it was only a loan, not a gift. It has a facsimile jacket, which I am not crazy about, but I guess it's better than having none. The facsimile jacket must have been done on a model of a later edition though, since it includes in the advertisement The Painted Veil. Oh well, I got it 7 years ago, and I am very forgiving, especially to myself.

William Heinemann, 1922


On a Chinese Screen Heinemann 1922

Then, there comes my second-born, but my favourite. You see, it is never so clear-cut. I have my objective to gather "true firsts," but there are not-so-true-firsts that are very attractive. And I am but human.

Heinemann's was published on 9 November 1922, but oh boy, come on, be honest, isn't it a beauty?

William Heinemann, Pocket Edition, 1936


On a Chinese Screen, Pocket Ed.
On a Chinese Screen, Pocket Ed.

Then I have this, a pocket edition. These green little things that are so cute! Thick papers, sturdy binding! It certainly will last longer, or has lasted longer that me, and will continue to do so for years to come. This one has a preface added for the collected edition a year before.

The Travel Books, William Heinemann, 1955


The Travel Books - W. Somerset Maugham The Travel Books - W. Somerset Maugham
The Travel Books - W. Somerset Maugham

This includes On a Chinese Screen, The Gentleman in the Parlour, and Don Fernando with a preface. As Maugham admits, the last one is dubious as a travel book. He doesn't mention anything about The Land of a Blessed Virgin; it must have safely exiled to a nether region of his brain. However, I do think it has something to recommend itself, but that isn't the business of the author but the antiquarian.

This one is more a book to have than because of any other intrinsic value. I haven't compared the texts, Maugham does say that he has omitted some things.

On a Chinese Screen – Manuscript

Yes, I haven't finished yet. The manuscript of On a Chinese Screen is lodged at the Yale University Library, among many other things. Imagine what I will do if I ever ever win (note the present tense and my optimistic nature) the lottery. It was given to the library as a gift from the author, and on that occasion, a very curious thing was said about it, that it was reminiscent of 17th century character writing.

I do know what the critic meant, but I don't think it's quite true. Maugham is working more against types, very well expressed in his argument about what is "normal."

Now, I am finally coming to the end of my post. On a Chinese Screen is definitely a book well worth reading. I have been so sluggish with my reading (don't ask me why), but I just couldn't close this one. I know I am partial to Maugham.

On a Chinese Screen can be downloaded here.

[A shorter version of this post was published as guest post on Asian Books Blog.]


On a Chinese Screen at ABE
                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                                                                    
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3 comments :

  1. I am glad to have found your blog. I confess to not having yet read all of On a Chinese Screen, but only the stories reprinted in The Complete Short Stories. I read The Gentleman in the Parlour in a 2001 Vintage paperback, but so far only Don Fernando in The Travel Books. My copy of this is of some interest, to me at least, for bearing on the inside front cover a plain sticker reading simply "W. H. Smith & Son // English & French Books // 248 Rue de Rivoli Paris"---I myself bought the book in Ankara when I lived there. The book had apparently travelled, like Maugham, though the nationality of the previous owner could have been anything, I suppose. From a table of used books in here in Istanbul recently I picked up Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, in a copy that happened to have tucked inside a story from the Jerusalem Post in 1977.

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    Replies
    1. I am glad you find the blog interesting. Definitely! Evidence of provenance is fascinating. I always save the peripheral stuff I get from a book. They are quite rare and unique on their own way.

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    2. Now I have read On a Chinese Screen and written about it myself, mainly on the Romance chapter. My copy of The Travel Books is a bit more worn than yours!

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