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I have enjoyed the short stories of Somerset Maugham, and have reviewed the four volumes of his Collected Short Stories on Amazon. I had expected this book, originally published in 1922, to contain more of these, or that it was perhaps one of his novels. I was a little disappointed to find that it consists, not of short stories (except for Nos.49 and 56), but of a series of 58 vignettes of people and scenes he had encountered in China during his travels in the country two years earlier. They are unconnected with each other, descriptive, very short, and have little or no plot. It makes them rather tiring to read one after another. The book might almost be summed up in this extract from the fourth of these:
“He had seen all manner of things, quaint, impressive, terrible, amusing, and unexpected. He wrote twenty-four articles. I will not say they were unreadable, for they showed a careful and a sympathetic observation; but he had seen everything at haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art”
Each of these vignettes is a well-crafted piece of writing, but I think they would be more satisfying if they did not break off in an inconsequential manner but were part of a story. Sometimes they are simply descriptions of scenery. Many are about Europeans in China (missionaries, officials, traders and ship’s captains) most of whom had lived in China for very many years and had no wish to go back to an England with which they had lost touch); yet some of these convey how little interest in or understanding of China the resident foreigners often had. Maugham himself is very interested in the Chinese and shows some empathy, especially for the unremitting hard work of the ubiquitous coolies or of the straining rowers on junks that ply the Yangtse River.
In 1919, Maugham spent the winter months travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze river. This collection of tiny portraits - some only a page long, the most a few pages - capture the flavour of that time and a country which few people in England would have travelled to or known much about. Maugham was, as he admitted, not much for sightseeing, but it was people who mainly caught his sharp eye. In this collection of dinner parties, where guests "are bored to death with one another" or missionaries who suddenly show a "glimpse of icy hatred" when addressing their wife, you see where the author found charactes for his novels or short stories.
Of course, Maugham does write about places as well as people. There are opium dens - not the squalor he expects, but cosy and imtimate. He writes of staying in inns, of those who have profited from their time in China, those who cannot wait to retire back to England and the ports, with the old seafarer's and their tales. Of diplomats, dignitaries and taipans. There is the sadness of a Chinese orphanage, where the children are orphans, "only in the sense that their parents had abandoned them" and the unsentimental account of a 'baby tower'. Whether the author is writing of coolies or dignitaries, of the Chinese passion for decoration or a sudden view, having a tongue in cheek discussion about Ibsen with a Professor of Comparative Modern Literature or worrying about finishing one of his alloted three books which is all he has allowed himself on a journey, this is a charming collection to dip into.
I had no idea what I was starting to read, but turned out its a great look into 1920's China from the point of view of a British man. Maugham's descriptions are beautifully clear and immediately a image formed in my head from each setting. A set of short stories, easy to read in the subway or on the bus.
Somerset Maugham has way of always explaining everything clearly and yet always leaving you room for your own thoughts and conclusions. This book of essays will stay with me has his Razors Edge. A little know treasure, which I have learned a lot about China and still know “ Nothing “.
W. Somerset Maugham is my favorite author, and I have read almost all of his books and every one of his short stories. But On a Chinese Screen is not only his best work [in my opinion], but also one of the ten best books I have ever read. I have to wonder why this book is not required reading in any 1st year college writing class.
The book is not a story, nor is it a short story. It is best described as a series of very short [1-5 pages] vignettes that describe some character, scene, setting, place, or event as Maugham travels through China c/1919. The writing is magnificent, and the insights are compelling. Any aspiring writer should read this book to catch a glimpse of a master story teller's ability to state succinctly the essence of a character, event, place or setting.