Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

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Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Thoughts on wording titles.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week tinkering with the title for a new writing course that will be linked to the local archives.  We’ve done the meetings and the discussion about content, structure and themes, so you might assume that the title would be the easy part.  Surely not something that will involve a Ping-Pong of emails.

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

But how do you sum-up a seven week course in half-a-dozen words?  I need something eye-catching, enticing and straight-forward that says this is a hybrid course and it will include writing, researching and ideas for ways to present family history and memoir so that it can be easily shared.

I’ve learned to be careful, ever since someone turned up to one of my ‘Creative Writing’ classes expecting to learn about Calligraphy.  They stayed, to see what I meant by creative, and re-discovered an enjoyment in word-play that had lain dormant since their schooldays, but I can’t depend on such a lucky outcome.

Titles, I find, are tricky.  From the readers point of view they are a promise, an enticement to take part.  They can be direct, as my class titles need to be, but even then, readers might not take the same meaning from my combination of words that I think I’m providing.  So, I negotiate with my WEA organizer over what we think my words suggest.

Ambiguity can be interesting and desirable in fiction.  In reading groups we spend a lot of time investigating the way a title works on a text.  Where does it come from?  Is it directing us to read in a specific way, for instance, pushing us towards a theme?  How does it fit with the content: complementary or contrarily?  These are only some of the questions that have come up in relation to the James Joyce, Elizabeth Taylor and W. Somerset Maugham stories I’ve been discussing with groups over the last two weeks.  They’ve been fertile questions, raising diverse opinions and re-assessments and sending me back to read again something I thought I’d already got to grips with.

So it makes a change for me to be working on making my meaning simple, instead of looking for something witty and capable of multiple meanings.  But I’m glad we have now found the necessary words.

 

 

Forgotten novel – Headless Angel by Vicki Baum

A British news story, this week, reminded me of a novel that at one time was high up on my list of favourites for re-reading.  Somehow, over the last few years my copy has moved up my bookshelves and out of my eye-line, but evidently not out of my consciousness.

baum, vickiHeadless Angel is a romantic adventure that begins in Weimar and moves to Mexico.  It could have been a sentimental mess, like so many of the other cheaply bound novels I borrowed off my grandfather’s shelf as a teenager.  Instead it has a feisty heroine whose narration begins:

Now that September is blue and hazy upon the land, I like to walk up to my grave in the early afternoon and remain there until in the slanting sun the shadow of my tombstone grows long and lean and begins licking the hem of my skirt.

I can still remember the fascination of that first line.  What was this going to be, this plain boarded novel?

If ever I want to discuss what a narrative hook is, here’s a great example.  The pacing of this novel is exemplary.  Vicki Baum was a writer who knew how to intersperse action with description with back-story.

The Prologue is an exercise in lures.  Here’s the voice of an old woman, ‘in the good company of my memories’ who is supposed dead.

But what a life it must have been.  Who is this Albert, who has made a tomb for her and writes songs and poems about her?  Does he know who she is?  Why and how did she cross the Cordillera and live in ‘the wild mountain fastnesses of New Spain’?

Secrets are implied in the contrast between Albert’s reverence for classical art, and Clarinda’s pleasure in earthly satisfactions of simple food and views.  Promises are implied in the juxtapositions of Clarinda’s observations:

In a small way my grave has become one of the sight-seeing places near Weimar, and quite often travelers round out with a visit to Helgenhausen their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where Goethe and Schiller lived.

And how clever is the connection she makes?  It tells me that these are not false promises, she has mixed with interesting people.  Look how comfortable she is with Goethe, telling us that he slept in one of the bedrooms ‘a few times’, carved his initials on a tree, and drank water from the spring, using a tin cup.

Should we trust the word of a woman who is believed to be dead?

…the tin cup from which Goethe is said to have drunk the spring water…is an open fraud, for Goethe was here for the last time in 1818, much too careful and ailing an old gentleman to drink of the questionable liquid; and no doubt Babette has furtively replaced the old tin cup with a new one at regular intervals in the twenty-two years since.

Ah, so she’s willing to reveal the secrets, the truth behind the illusions.  That alone would make for an interesting read.  But the icing on the writing for me is summed up in the description she gives of the angel that Albert had carved and placed beside her grave:

It is a rather attractive angel, gracefully lifting a torch skyward in one hand while pouring with the other a flood of stiffly arrested marble tears from a marble urn down upon the little mound; unfortunately, my pretty angel has lost its head.  Poor Albert assures me that the resemblance of its face to mine was truly remarkable.  However, during the stormy days of 1806, after the Battle of Jena, when Wiemar was ransacked by Napoleon’s soldiers, a platoon of them bivouacked in our yard, used the angel’s face as a target in a friendly contest of marksmanship, and blew it to pieces.

That’s my kind of humour.  I’m already thinking up an excuse to cover settling back down with my old friend Clarinda…

Baum, viki

 

Dubliners

 

A-Birds-Eye-View-Of-Dublin-.jpgI’ve been preparing for the new class starting this week, ‘Meet the Dubliners‘.  Written more than a hundred years ago, these are individual short stories, yet read together they provide a portrait of Dublin city in early 1900, and are sometimes thought of as a novel.

41Nz+xOlieL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Whoa-there though, did I just suggest you could think of Dubliners as a novel?  Hesitantly, I say yes.

Why am I hesitant?  Because I believe that to get the most from literary short stories like Dubliners, we need to approach them as we do literary poetry. For me, that’s a slower read than I tend to give to novels.

It’s a single process too.  I don’t want to move onto the next piece of writing (or chapter) until I’ve had chance to immerse myself in the words.

My favorite sorts of poems and stories aren’t just capable of being re-read, they respond to it.  When I revisit them they give up an additional layer of meaning that I couldn’t have picked up without spending more time absorbing the meanings embedded between the lines and in the multiple interpretations our language is capable of providing.

So why suggest Dubliners could be read like a novel?  Well Joyce designed a reading order for us to follow, and taken together, the stories deliver a coded pattern to be unraveled.  A surprising number of critics do liken this to reading a novel.

Yet it is a collection of short stories.  The proof of this is that any one of the sections will stand a lone reading, and two of them, Araby, and The Dead, have been included in a variety of anthologies.

So, does it matter whether we call this a novel or a story collection?

I think that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking the reading group.