East of Suez
AH-KING, by W. Somerset Maugham. Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, New York, 1933. $2.50
THE six stories composing this latest volume from the analytical pen of Somerset Maugham are laid largely in the Federated Malay States and the neigbouring lands. But, as one who knows Maugham's work might surmise, the exotic setting of the scenes has little to do with the essential qualities of what is being related; here, as before, the author concerns himself more with the inner than the outer shells of his characters: he churns about in the soul, and finds it much the same on the Malay Archipelago as in East Wapping. Maugham has made the feelings of his characters more important than their dress, the harrowed back-side of their minds more entrancing than their mundane comings and goings in the streets of Singapore; and, oddly enough, he has made the reader follow him, in spite of all the distractions introduced in the shape of Eastern colour and shifting sound.
The men and women so fiercely laid bare in these pages are by no means the ordinary. A staid couple has committed a murder, and lived on to forget it, remaining quite a pleasant pair. One girl has lived in incest, and ends with suicide. A man loses wife and place because of gross and public cowardice. It is a tribute to the skill of the author that all these themes, so bloody and thundery when related in skeleton, impress the reader of the book as the most natural and commonplace. This fact is perhaps the most convincing proof that Maugham has succeeded in portraying reactions and motives in a way to jibe with the experience of all.
Aside from the general method, the book reveals more specific handling, equally satisfying in its way. The introduction of characters, in particular, is accomplished with a fine subtlety. One is given brief scraps of conversation from an individual; other characters refer at odd moments to the same person. One has but a scrappy and incomplete knowledge of his nature. Then, nicely dovetailed, there appears some short description or conversation which unites all previously known and adds to it with economy, so that the reader emerges with a friendship and knowledge of the character in question which he hardly remembers having got. There is a delicate satirical nimbus over the entire volume; at the same time, not one of the many who enter the pages is let go unsympathetically. The great virtue and strength of the work is understanding.
"Ah King" deserves all the praise given it. At the same time, clearly, the stories are only stories. They are related like tales over mulled ale, or over a shot of Scotch, depending on the reader's taste in such things, and leave an impression of leisurely chuckling over life, with some admixture of the entomologists insect-on-the-pin curiosity. Unquestionably, no one will be purged by this book, nor will he mount through it to an ivory tower; but nearly everyone will enjoy it, and nearly everyone will remember for at least an hour after reading it that he is human.