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The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of a man

February 3, 2011 14 comments

The Trembling of a Leaf. Little Stories of the South Sea Islands by William Somerset Maugham. (kindle version. 2831 locations)

L’extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l’extrême désespoir, n’est-ce pas la vie ? Sainte-Beuve Extreme felicity only separated from extreme despair by the trembling of a leaf, isn’t this life? Sainte-Beuve

This quote was chosen by Maugham himself to explain the title of this collection of short stories. It is a perfect summary of the persistent feeling left by these pearls of literature. 

The Trembling of a Leaf is composed of six short stories, framed by an introduction text on the Pacific and a conclusion picturing a boat leaving the islands. The title of this post is actually the first sentence of the book. All the stories take place or are related to South Sea Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii or Samoa Islands. Of course I had Gauguin’s paintings in mind when reading and indeed, following Gauguin’s footsteps was Maugham’s purpose for his own journey into these islands in 1916.

These short-stories are full of colourful characters dressed in white duck pants and Mother Hubbard dresses, “which the missionaries of a past generation had, in the interests of decency, forced on the unwilling natives” Clothes are important as they give away a man’s way of life. White men who adopt the local lava-lava or wear pareos have totally or partly abandoned the Western way of life.

In all, there is a tiny event, hardly felt as the trembling of a leaf, which will change the character’s life. At a certain moment, the choice they’re making, the way they react to an event or answer will be decisive for their future. Yin shifting into Yang. In all, appearances are deceptive.

The main characters are American or British men. They most of the time get involved with native women. I was less convinced by the characters passionately in love with natives and able to throw their future away for them. These women sound enchanting, literally, like the sirens or Circe in Homer. They have a façade of purity, a taste of heaven that makes white men fall for them head over feet.

It was a more natural life than any he had known, it was nearer to the friendly, fertile earth; civilisation repelled him at that moment, and by mere contact with these creatures of a more primitive nature he felt a greater freedom.

Maugham also tells a lot about these societies and their hierarchies between the natives, the half-castes, the white. Maugham describes how passionate love and lust with their inevitable bad choices bring mischief. He points out cultural differences and the resulting misunderstandings or difficulty to live together on the long run. He portrays conceited white men and how they look down on natives with contempt. He shows how little we know of other people’s mind and even sometimes of our own mind.

Maugham’s prose is beautiful. The descriptions of the landscapes are breathtaking and made me want to fly there immediately, especially in the middle of winter.

Three coconut trees grew there, like three moon maidens waiting for their lovers to ride out of the sea, and I sat at the foot of one of them, watching the lagoon and the nightly assemblage of the stars.

Two short stories will stay with me, I think. The first one is Mackintosh and the second one is The Fall of Edward Barnard.

Mackintosh is the name of a British man, working as Walker’s assistant, the British governor of Talua, a Samoan Island. Marckintosh and Walker have opposite tempers. While Mackintosh is quiet, sober, literate, Walker is loud, drinks a lot, sleeps with natives. He is always sure to be within his rights, whatever he does.

Mackintosh began to see the real man, and under the boisterous good-humour he discerned a vulgar cunning which was hateful; he was vain and domineering.

Walker can’t respect Mackintosh’s boundaries. He makes fun of him, not realizing “there was nothing Mackintosh could stand less than chaff”. Despite these differences, he likes Mackintosh and he is convinced that Mackintosh likes him too, when the latter only feels a growing hatred for him.

Here he [Mackintosh] was a prisoner, imprisoned not only by that placid sea, but by his hatred for that horrible old man.

Mackintosh despises Walker although he acknowledges he is a good manager for the island. He tries to improve the roads and does not exploit the natural wealth of the place for his own fortune. Walker runs his island as a British aristocrat would run his estate. He’s fond of this land and he considers the natives as his peasants.

The fragile balance between the two men cracks when a native named Manuma comes back to Talua. He has been in Apia, the closest city and is better educated than his people. So when Walker wants some villagers to build a road for half the salary paid in Apia, he rebels. Silently, like Gandhi, the villagers rebel. They will not build the road. Walker then uses his knowledge of the Samoan customs to break the rebellion by a trick. The villagers surrender. The road is built.

But Manuma now considers Walker as his enemy. The enemy of my enemy being my friend: how can this new hatred help Mackintosh?

This short story is a jewel because everything is there: action, psychology and politics. It can be read through different lenses. On the first level, there is a basic story of hatred between two men. The psychological analysis is clever. Mackintosh is an apple name and like Adam, he is about to be thrown away from the Garden of Eden. He’s going to lose his innocence.

On a higher level, there is a metaphor of colonialism. Walker is a perfect colonialist, the white man patronizing the natives that he calls his children. He thinks ‘They love me’, ‘They won’t rebel’. Blinded by the love he is sure they feel for him, he thinks he can do whatever he wants. No harm can be done, no consequences should be feared. I couldn’t help thinking of India when I was reading this. Manuma shows what will happen in all the colonies: with education, the native elites question the power of the white man. It was written in 1921, very lucid on Maugham’s part.

The Fall of Edward Barnard is the other one that touched me. This one is more about what we should expect of life. Edward Barnard is engaged to the rich Isabel, a member of the high society in Chicago. When his father looses his fortune, he decides to spend a few years in Tahiti, to learn about business and if possible become a rich man and then come back to Chicago and marry Isabel.

Bateman is Barnard’s best friend and has been secretly in love with Isabel for ages. When Barnard’s return is delayed without any valuable reason, Bateman decides to figure out what is happening and travels to Tahiti. He finds there a Barnard who has totally changed his way of living and aim in life. Here are Bateman (first speaker) and Barnard talking:

“This is no life for you”

  “You talk of this sort of life and that. How do you think a man gets the best out of life?” 

“Why, I should have thought there could be no two answers to that. By doing his duty, by hard work, by meeting all the obligations of his state and station.” 

 “And what is his reward?” 

 “His reward is the consciousness of having achieved what he set out to do.”

“It all sounds a little portentous to me.”

And then comes the one question I don’t want to look at too closely, for I’m not sure my answer would be consistent with the life I’m living:

Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre?”

(…) Bateman asking, Barnard answering

What do you value in life then?”

I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me. Beauty, truth and goodness.”

This short story questions our Western way of life, our unquenchable thirst for money and material goods. It challenges what our societies consider as happiness. It is really modern and I wonder what Maugham would write about our world in the 21st century.

I’ve read The Trembling of a Leaf in English and discovered that the dictionary on the kindle can’t find compound words. I searched for the funny-looking ones, such as higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky or shilly-shally. I probably missed tons of British references and discovered others.

There is something with Scotland in these stories. Several characters are Scottish – Mackintosh, Dr Macphail – and in The Pool, when the couple goes back to Great Britain, the man finds a job in Aberdeen. And what it is between Scottish and English people? I noticed that sentence: “His Scot’s name gave an opportunity for the usual jokes about Scotland”. In France we have jokes about Belgians, it seems that Scots are English’s Belgians. I also really enjoyed the dialogues, like this little pearl of British polite way to say no:

“Do you believe in the supernatural?”

“I don’t exactly know that I do,” I smiled.

I sometimes thought the phrases sounded like French. But then I knew it was Maugham’s first language, so perhaps I imagined it. I wonder why he never wrote in French.

Anyway, these short stories are really worth reading. There’s the depth of the questioning about life, the relationships between the characters, the descriptions of the heavenly landscapes and the fair analysis of the domination of white men on these islands.

A last quote, just for the sheer pleasure of Maugham’s prose:

It seems to me that the places where men have loved or suffered keep about them always some faint aroma of something that has not wholly died. It is as though they had acquired a spiritual significance which mysteriously affects those who pass.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

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