Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hero By William Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) has fallen out of fashion today and that’s a great shame: there are few writers of such clarity of prose and consistency of vision who are also so eminently enjoyable to read.  He also wrote of the people he knew; people who, for today’s world, are increasingly irrelevant.  His is a vanished world of the English living abroad in a developing world, or of the complacent English at home wracked by an intruding outside world. 

Maugham lived a life as exciting and varied as any of that of his heroes.  He was an inveterate traveler and addicted to romance; his stories usually have a kernel of truth, often something he heard while aboard ship, over a game of bridge, or in some distant outpost of the Empire.  Many of his short stories are little better than detailed anecdotes, but the majority of his novels have a distinct power, commanding a clear-eyed (and often cynical) view of humanity and a sense of narrative sweep.  He is a writer to be savored, read and re-read.

It was with a great deal of anticipation that I recently approached The Hero, his novel from 1901.  It is available for free at the invaluable, and comes highly recommended.

The finished book was a huge disappointment both critically and commercially for Maugham.  It did not enjoy a second printing in the UK, and did not receive US publication until decades later.  It is a stunning indictment of small time mores and morals, and the small-mindedness that seems to be second nature with habitual do-gooders.  Readers were unhappy with Maugham’s social satire and blistering criticism, and reacted accordingly.  (Oddly enough, The Hero was the first book in which Maugham used the Moorish symbol on the cover that would become associated with him for most of the 20th Century – used, ironically, for luck.  The writer would have to wait for better luck next time.)

The story is a tale of the Boer War and its aftermath.  Young Jamie Parsons received the Victoria Cross for bravery in the Transvaal for his failed attempt to save the life of Reginald Larcher.  Now a celebrated war hero, he returns home to the small town of Little Primpton, Kent.  He is met with a parade and speeches, as well as by his father and mother, the devout Colonel Richmond and Frances Parsons.  Jamie’s bravery is a particular boon to the Colonel – a deeply Christian man, the Colonel was responsible for the loss of his regiment after he showed mercy to the enemy, and was repaid with a surprise attack.

Also waiting at Little Primpton is Mary Clibborn, his fiancée.  She is an extremely tedious person – constantly doing ‘good’ with little or no regard for the recipients of her largesse, or any understanding of the real world outside of the homilies of provincial religious primers.

The worst part of it all is that Jamie has come back to Little Primpton a changed man.  After his experiences in the wider world – including war, death and a flirtation with a brother-officer’s wife – Jamie no longer fits into the way of life nor the mindset of this little backwater.  When Jamie decides to end his engagement to Mary, the town – led mostly by the parson and his wife – exact revenge.

One of the chief joys of The Hero is watching Maugham deflate the small-town sanctimony of many of the characters.  Here his ruthless in his summation of his world.  Here he is on the state of England at the time (and he could have been writing about America today):

James had been away from England for five years; and in that time a curious change, long silently proceeding, had made itself openly felt—becoming manifest, like an insidious disease, only when every limb and every organ were infected. A new spirit had been in action, eating into the foundations of the national character; it worked through the masses of the great cities, unnerved by the three poisons of drink, the Salvation Army, and popular journalism. A mighty force of hysteria and sensationalism was created, seething, ready to burst its bonds ... The canker spread through the country-side; the boundaries of class and class are now so vague that quickly the whole population was affected; the current literature of the day flourished upon it; the people of England, neurotic from the stress of the last sixty years, became unstable as water. And with the petty reverses of the beginning of the war, the last barriers of shame were broken down; their arrogance was dissipated, and suddenly the English became timorous as a conquered nation, deprecating, apologetic; like frightened women, they ran to and fro, wringing their hands. Reserve, restraint, self-possession, were swept away ... And now we are frankly emotional; reeds tottering in the wind, our boast is that we are not even reeds that think; we cry out for idols. Who is there that will set up a golden ass that we may fall down and worship? We glory in our shame, in our swelling hearts, in our eyes heavy with tears. We want sympathy at all costs; we run about showing our bleeding vitals, asking one another whether they are not indeed a horrible sight. Englishmen now are proud of being womanish, and nothing is more manly than to weep. To be a man of feeling is better than to be a gentleman—it is certainly much easier. The halt of mind, the maim, the blind of wit, have come by their own; and the poor in spirit have inherited the earth.

James had left England when this emotional state was contemptible. Found chiefly in the dregs of the populace, it was ascribed to ignorance and to the abuse of stimulants. When he returned, it had the public conscience behind it. He could not understand the change. The persons he had known sober, equal-minded, and restrained, now seemed violently hysterical. James still shuddered, remembering the curate's allusions to his engagement; and he wondered that Mary, far from thinking them impertinent, had been vastly gratified. She seemed to take pleasure in publicly advertising her connection, in giving her private affairs to the inspection of all and sundry. The whole ceremony had been revolting; he loathed the adulation and the fulsome sentiment. His own emotions seemed vulgar now that he had been forced to display them to the gaping crowd.

The Hero is highly recommended, though I fear that the people who should read it (small town America) will not.  Its sour overview of empty-headed churchmen and interfering blue-noses is as needed today as it was in 1901 … and would probably be just as popular.

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