Writer Who Roamed the Globe

Article excerpt


It is difficult to think of a writer more quintessentially British in his persona and oeuvre than W. Somerset Maugham, yet he was in fact one of the most cosmopolitan English writers. Born in France, he spoke French before English, also knew German, Spanish, Italian and Russian, and was from the age of 16 an inveterate traveler.

He spent much of the next 75 years roaming the globe and for the last four decades of life made his home on the French Riviera, except for a wartime sojourn in the United States in the 1940s.

Maugham traveled for the sheer pleasure of it, always in search of all manner of adventure, always interested in and attuned to what he was encountering. And being a writer, he was assiduous in writing down his experiences. Still, as Pico Iyer (no slouch himself as a travel writer) points out in his insightful introduction to this slim volume of Maugham's selected travel writings, he only wrote four actual books in this particular genre out of an enormous output:

In practice, only four out of the seventy-eight books Maugham turned out are generally placed on the shelves marked 'Travel': his classic account of a journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, 'The Gentleman in the Parlour,' brought out in 1930; a series of sketches and snapshots called 'On a Chinese Screen,' from 1922; a very early, boyish series of wanderings around southern Spain, 'The Land of the Blessed Virgin,' published in 1905, that he delighted in mocking and repudiating in later works for its flowery style and juvenile effusions; and a meditation on some figures in Spanish history - explicitly not 'a book of travel,' though often categorized as such, 'Don Fernando,' in 1935.

Mr. Iyer has excerpted wisely and adequately from these first three books of Maugham's, but because, as he rightly says travel lay behind much of his work, the editor has performed the more difficult but infinitely worthwhile task of mining what he terms the writer's masterly appraisal of his life, 'The Summing Up' and 'A Writer's Notebook' (joined with 'The Summing Up' to make 'The Partial View').

For interesting as those three travel volumes are, they are dwarfed by the fascinating vignettes Mr. Iyer has put together from those later works. They run the gamut from actual notes for what, duly transmogrified by his artist's refracting lense, became renowned fiction to recollections of dreams, one of them opium-induced. So we even get glimpses into the subconscious of this generally guarded and cagey individual. But more often we are treated to accounts of his travels in the South Seas, especially Tahiti (location for much of one his best novels, The Moon and Sixpence ), India and Russia. But whether he is giving a description of the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg during World War I or a Texas motel during World War II, Maugham is never anything less than totally fresh and original in his slant. …