Thursday, August 8, 2013

On a Chinese Screen, by William Somerset Maugham (1922)

We have made little secret here at The Jade Sphinx of our love for writer William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965).  Maugham was a great literary artist and a rare one – often his books are related in first-person narration, but the point-of-view is seldom intrusive or misleading.  Maugham had the gift of being everywhere and nowhere; equally at home in a native hut in Burma as at a London society party.  Having earned a medical degree but never practicing medicine, Maugham cast a cold, clinical eye on human behavior, and mercilessly robbed us of our pretentions and affectations.  His is a voice that is missed.

Maugham’s biography makes that of overly macho writers like Hemmingway pale by comparison: world traveler, espionage agent, playwright, art collector, literary stylist.  Maugham travelled long enough and far enough to make Indiana Jones envious, and he used his wide experience as the basis of several of his most successful novels, including The Razor’s Edge (1944) and The Moon and Sixpence (1919).  For those who long for a world that is still exotic, or yearn for places before they were spoiled by fast-food chains and American consumer culture, a diet of Maugham is just what the doctor ordered.

In the winter of 1919, Maugham travelled 1,500 miles up the Yangtze River.  While on the road, Maugham noted down acute and finely crafted sketches of those he met on countless scraps of paper, gathering them together for publication in 1922 under the title On a Chinese Screen.  These scraps include views of Western missionaries, army officers and company managers who are culturally out of their depth in the immensity of the Chinese civilization.  With his typical precision, Maugham sheds light on the most vulnerable parts of their lives.

On a Chinese Screen is, in many ways, the perfect summer book.  There is no through narrative, and most of the ‘chapters’ run no more than a few paragraphs.  It is the perfect book for dipping or gobbling up – the vignettes that Maugham parades before us are mesmerizing.  Reading more like the rough notes of never-realized novels or short stories, the scraps in On a Chinese Screen will resonate in your memory much longer than more sustained and fully-crafted narratives.

Here, for example, is Maugham (celebrated playwright!) talking with a Chinese professor who has studied English theater:  "Does it require no more than that to write a play?" he inquired with a shade of dismay in his tone.

"You want a certain knack," I allowed, "but no more than to play billiards."

"They lecture on the technique of the drama in all the important universities of America," said he.

"The Americans are an extremely practical people," I answered. "I believe that Harvard is instituting a chair to instruct grandmothers how to suck eggs."

"I do not think I quite understand you."

"If you can't write a play no one can teach you and if you can it's as easy as falling off a log."

Here his face expressed a lively perplexity, but I think only because he could not make up his mind whether this operation came within the province of the professor of physics or within that of the professor of applied mechanics.

"But if it is so easy to write a play why do dramatists take so long about it?"

"They didn't, you know. Lope de la Vega and Shakespeare and a hundred others wrote copiously and with ease. Some modern playwrights have been perfectly illiterate men and have found it an almost insuperable difficulty to put two sentences together. A celebrated English dramatist once showed me a manuscript and I saw that he had written the question: will you have sugar in your tea, five times before he could put it in this form. A novelist would starve if he could not on the whole say what he wanted to without any beating about the bush."

"You would not call Ibsen an illiterate man and yet it is well known that he took two years to write a play."

"It is obvious that Ibsen found a prodigious difficulty in thinking of a plot. He racked his brain furiously, month after month, and at last in despair used the very same that he had used before."

"What do you mean?" the professor cried, his voice rising to a shrill scream. "I do not understand you at all."

"Have you not noticed that Ibsen uses the same plot over and over again? A number of people are living in a closed and stuffy room, then some one comes (from the mountains or from over the sea) and flings the window open; everyone gets a cold in the head and the curtain falls."

Or, better yet, here is Maugham, on a Chinese junk, thinking about the nature of adventure and romance.  This passage, perhaps more than ever, parses closest to the center of the Maugham persona, and provides a greater understanding of the sustained sense of living he sought abroad:  Then suddenly I had a feeling that here, facing me, touching me almost, was the romance I sought. It was a feeling like no other, just as specific as the thrill of art; but I could not for the life of me tell what it was that had given me just then that rare emotion.

In the course of my life I have been often in situations which, had I read of them, would have seemed to me sufficiently romantic; but it is only in retrospect, comparing them with my ideas of what was romantic, that I have seen them as at all out of the ordinary. It is only by an effort of the imagination, making myself as it were a spectator of myself acting a part, that I have caught anything of the precious quality in circumstances which in others would have seemed to me instinct with its fine flower. When I have danced with an actress whose fascination and whose genius made her the idol of my country, or wandered through the halls of some great house in which was gathered all that was distinguished by lineage or intellect that London could show, I have only recognized afterwards that here perhaps, though in somewhat Ouidaesque a fashion, was romance.

In battle, when, myself in no great danger, I was able to watch events with a thrill of interest, I had not the phlegm to assume the part of a spectator. I have sailed through the night, under the full moon, to a coral island in the Pacific, and then the beauty and the wonder of the scene gave me a conscious happiness, but only later the exhilarating sense that romance and I had touched fingers. I heard the flutter of its wings when once, in the bedroom of a hotel in New York, I sat round a table with half a dozen others and made plans to restore an ancient kingdom whose wrongs have for a century inspired the poet and the patriot ; but my chief feeling was a surprised amusement that through the hazards of war I found myself engaged in business so foreign to my bent. The authentic thrill of romance has seized me under circumstances which one would have thought far less romantic, and I remember that I knew it first one evening when I was playing cards in a cottage on the coast of Brittany. In the next room an old fisherman lay dying and the women of the house said that he would go out with the tide. Without a storm was raging and it seemed fit for the last moments of that aged warrior of the seas that his going should be accompanied by the wild cries of the wind as it hurled itself against the shuttered windows. The waves thundered upon the tortured rocks. I felt a sudden exultation, for I knew that here was romance.

And now the same exultation seized me, and once more romance, like a bodily presence, was before me. But it had come so unexpectedly that I was intrigued. I could not tell whether it had crept in among the shadows that the lamp threw on the bamboo matting or whether it was wafted down the river that I saw through the opening of my cabin. Curious to know what were the elements that made up the ineffable delight of the moment I went out to the stern of the boat. Alongside were moored half a dozen junks, going up river, for their masts were erect; and everything was silent in them. Their crews were long since asleep. The night was not dark, for though it was cloudy the moon was full, but the river in that veiled light was ghostly. A vague mist blurred the trees on the further bank. It was an enchanting sight, but there was in it nothing unaccustomed and what I sought was not there. I turned away. But when I returned to my bamboo shelter the magic which had given it so extraordinary a character was gone. Alas, I was like a man who should tear a butterfly to pieces in order to discover in what its beauty lay. And yet, as Moses descending from Mount Sinai wore on his face a brightness from his converse with the God of Israel, my little cabin, my dish of charcoal, my lamp, even my camp bed, had still about them something of the thrill which for a moment was mine. I could not see them any more quite indifferently, because for a moment I had seen them magically.

On a Chinese Screen is available for free download at the invaluable  This is the perfect book with which to beguile the closing days of summer.

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