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Great Modern Reading (1943)

– tekijä: W. Somerset Maugham, Fannie Hurst

Muut tekijät: William Faulkner (Avustaja), Francis Scott Fitzgerald (Avustaja), Dashiell Hammett (Avustaja), Aldous Huxley (Avustaja), John Steinbeck (Avustaja)

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[From the Introduction to Great Modern Reading, Doubleday, 1943, pp. xi-xvi:]

It is for the people of America that I have devised this anthology. It occurred to me that it would be useful to them and I hoped interesting, if I could give them, as it were, a bird’s eye view of literary production in England and America during the last forty or fifty years. That is what I have tried to do in this volume. The result is imperfect, partly owing to my own inadequacy for the task, since my reading, except in special subjects, has been desultory, and it is only too probable that I have remained unacquainted with certain authors a selection from whose works would have made my picture more complete; but it is imperfect also because my space was severely limited. I wished this book to be published at so cheap a price that it would strain no one’s resources to buy it, and the cost of production set definite bounds to the quantity of material I could include.

I have made this anthology for the people of this country, for the woman who goes into the store to buy a spool of cotton or a cake of soap, for the man who goes in to buy a packet of nails or a pot of paint; I wish no one to think that on that account I have allowed my choice to be qualified by any consideration that what I was offering the readers might be above their heads. Far from it. With the object I had in mind of giving a survey of literary production during a certain period, I have chosen what seemed to me best and most significant. I believe in the people and I believe in their taste.


I am not so stupid as to mean that all people have such a naturally good taste that they will always prefer what is best to what is of no great value. After all, we none of us do that, and few of us are so delicately constituted that we can put up with nothing but the first rate. Most of us can like very much things of unequal merit. I know for my part I can get a great deal of pleasure out of an opera of Puccini’s; but it is a different sort of pleasure from that which I get out of an opera of Mozart’s. There are times when I would rather read the stories of Conan Doyle than Tolstoi’s War and Peace. I mean only that there are many people in this country, many millions it may be, who are quite as capable of enjoying great music, great painting, and great literature as those others who have had ampler opportunities to form their taste and confirm their judgment. So in this anthology I have made no compromise. I would not claim that all pieces in it are great literature; during the last twenty-five hundred years, all the world over, not so much of the literature that has been produced can truly be called great; indeed, we have been told that it can be got into a five-foot shelf; and this is a necessarily incomplete selection from the writing in England and America of half a century. I do claim, however, that none of these pieces can fail to appeal for one reason or another to a curious and intelligent mind.

I have always felt that reading should be a pleasure. Of course, to get anything out of it, you must give it your full attention, but to a healthy understanding there is nothing disagreeable in the activity of the intellect. It is, however, the business of an author to make your perusal of his work enjoyable. There are writers who have things to say that are interesting and useful for us to know, but by some unfortunate accident of nature they cannot say them with grace or elegance, so that to read them is a burden. Since this anthology is designed also to persuade people to the habit of reading, I have, so far as I honestly could, left out writing of this sort; I wanted to show that good reading could very well be pleasant reading.


Some of the pieces are by English authors and some by American, but I have not sought in any way to distinguish them, for I think the time has passed when there was any point in speaking of English literature and American literature; I prefer now to speak of it as one, the literature of the English-speaking peoples. I have started with the writers of our own day and gone backward to those who were writing at the beginning of my period. This I have done because, for us who live now, the present is our more pressing concern. The literary productions of our contemporaries speak our own language and are dressed in the clothes we wear; they use the conveniences we are accustomed to, the telephone, the motorcar, the radio, the plane, so that when we come to make ourselves acquainted with them, it is with a sense of familiarity which is a help to such of us as have never acquired the habit of reading. Because they deal with a life that is our life, they have an immediate interest.


People will not read the classics because they have got it into their heads that they are dull. They have formed this impression, I think, because they have been forced to read them in schools and colleges, and the reading prescribed by scholastic authorities is not as often as it should be chosen to persuade the young that great literature is good to read. It is natural enough that, when they arrive at maturity, many persons should suppose that there is little in the great works of the past that can help them to deal with the anxious and harassing present. But a work becomes a classic only because succeeding generations of people, ordinary readers like you and me, have found pleasure in reading it. It does that because it appeals to the human problems that we are all confronted with.

I have included in this anthology nothing that to my mind has not a merit of its own, but to fulfill my intention in making it, I have put in some pieces of which the literary merit is small because they seemed to me significant of the time at which they were written. I have had, on the other hand, to leave out some things that I thought both significant and of literary value simply because I had not room for them. For this reason I have been obliged to omit Joseph Conrad’s Youth and Richard Wright’s Fire and Cloud. I wish to stress this point because, after I published the anthology called Tellers of Tales, I was made aware that some of my fellow authors were affronted because I had not included any story of theirs. One wrote to me very acrimoniously, pointing out that his stories had appeared in anthologies for twenty years and the fact that I had not thought fit to insert one proved to his complete satisfaction that I did not know a good story when I saw it. Well, I had read the stories of this irascible author and had received pleasure from them, but here again my space was limited; I was making a choice from stories written since the beginning of the nineteenth century in the five countries that have cultivated the art to best advantage, and I thought that each country should be adequately represented; though I thought the stories of this particular author good, I could not but know that Jack London had done the same sort of thing, if not better, at least before him, and so it seemed to me unnecessary to give an example of his work. I hope then that no writer will be angry with me if in this brief anthology I have not asked him for permission to print a piece of his. It may be that I would have liked to, but it did not quite fit into my scheme. It is no reflection on his merit. I do not pretend that my taste is perfect, nor do I presume it to be as impartial as that which a professional critic is in duty bound to have. I have my likes and dislikes, and though I am not blind to the merit of what I dislike, and will freely admit it, I do not like it any the better for that.
1 ääni WSMaugham | Dec 5, 2019 |
Great Modern Reading

W. Somerset Maugham's
Introduction to Modern English and American Literature

Doubleday, Hardback, 1943.

8vo. xvii+614 pp. Compilation, Commentaries and Introduction [xi-xvii] by Maugham.

First published by Doubleday, 1943.
Reprinted as Introduction to Modern English and American Literature, 1943.


Introduction by W. Somerset Maugham

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
Petrified Man by Eudora Welty
The Visit by Andy Logan
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

[Commentary by WSM. Letters:]
An Airman's Letter to His Mother, Anonymous
Three War Letters from Britain

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
Boy with His Hair Cut Short by Muriel Rukeyser
The Express by Stephen Spender
In Railway Halls by Stephen Spender
What I Expected by Stephen Spender
Birmingham by Louis MacNeice
Tempt Me No More by Cecil Day Lewis
Look, Stranger, at This Island Now by W. H. Auden
A Shilling Life Will Give All the Facts by W. H. Auden
As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden
No Doubt Left. Enough Deceiving by James Agee

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
The Gift by John Steinbeck
The Erne from the Coast by T. O. Beachcroft
Maria by Elizabeth Bowen
The People vs Abe Lathan, Colored by Erskine Caldwell
Night Club by Kathrine Brush
The Lily by H. E. Bates
Mary by John Collier
Brotherhood by H. A. Manhood

[Commentary by WSM. Essays:]
Let Freedom Ring by Alva Johnston
Art and Isadora by John Dos Pasos

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train by Frances Cornford
Unfortunate Coincidence by Dorothy Parker
Godspeed by Dorothy Parker
Social Note by Dorothy Parker
Indian Summer by Dorothy Parker
Healed by Dorothy Parker
Kindly Unhitch that Star, Buddy by Ogden Nash
If You Can't Eat, You Got To by E. E. Cummings
The Noster Was a Ship of Swank by E. E. Cummings
The Fish by Marianne Moore
In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman
On His Books by Hilair Belloc
On Nomany, a Guest by Hilair Belloc
On Lady Poltagrue by Hilair Belloc
Epitaph on the Politician by Hilair Belloc
Another on the Same by Hilair Belloc
Fatigue by Hilair Belloc
On a Dead Hostess by Hilair Belloc
On Some South African Novelists by Roy Campbell

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
Bill's Eyes by William March
Defeat by Osbert Sitwell
Legend of the Crooked Coronet by Michael Arlen

[Commentary by WSM. Letters:]
Letter to T. D. D. by D. H. Lawrence
Letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell by D. H. Lawrence
Letter to Herbert S. Houston by Walter Hines Page
Letter to Mr Wu by Oliver Wendell Holmes
Letter to Mrs Winthrop Chanler by John Jay Chapman
Letter to William James by John Jay Chapman
Letter to His Wife by John Jay Chapman
Letter to Mrs Winthrop Chanler by John Jay Chapman
Letter to S. S. Drury by John Jay Chapman

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon
Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon
From My Diary by Wilfrid Owen
Greater Love by Wilfrid Owen
Breakfast by Wilfrid Owen
The Soldier by Rupert Brooke
I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger
The Song of the Ungirt Runners by Charles Hamilton Sorley
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries by A. E. Housman

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
The Avenging Chance by Anthony Berkeley
The Crime in Nobody's Room by Carter Dickson
A Man Called Spade by Dashiell Hammett

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
Ash-Wednesday by T. S. Eliot
The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot
Mr Eliot's Sunday Morning Service by T. S. Eliot

[Commentary by WSM. Essays:]
Comfort by Aldous Huxley
Mary Wollstonecraft by Virginia Woolf
What I Believe by E. M. Forster
How Writing in Written by Gertrude Stein

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet
Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter
The Greatest Man in the World by James Thurber
''There's Money in Poetry'' by Konrad Berkovici
The Foghorn by Gertrude Atherton

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
Chicago by Carl Sandburg
Leisure by William Henry Davies
What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Edna St. Vincent Millay
O World, Be Nobler by Lawrence Binyon
Blue Girls by John Crave Ransom
Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens
Shine, Perishing Republic by Robinson Jeffers
Promise of Peace by Robinson Jeffers
The Call by Charlotte Mew

[Commentary by WSM. Essays:]
Dr Arnold by Lytton Strachey
Phineas Taylor Barnum by Gamaliel Bradford

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
At the End of the Passage by Rudyard Kipling
Roman Fever by Edith Wharton
I'm a Fool by Sherwood Anderson
The Golden Honeymoon by Ring Lardner
The Match-Maker by H. H. Munro (''Saki'')
Revelations by Katherine Mansfield

[Commentary by WSM. Short stories:]
The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
The Ghosts of the Buffaloes by Vachel Lindsay
Benjamin Pantier by Edgar Lee Masters
Mrs Benjamin Pantier by Edgar Lee Masters
Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day by James Weldon Jonhson
Miniver Cheevy by Edward Arlington Robinson
Richard Cory by Edward Arlington Robinson
Once by the Pacific by Robert Frost
The Pasture by Robert Frost
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Puritan Sonnet by Elinor Wylie

[Commentary by WSM. Essays:]
Seeing People Off by Max Beerbohm
Afterthoughts by Logan Pearsall Smith
Classic Liberty by George Santayana
Dunkirk by Winston Churchill

[Commentary by WSM. Poems:]
The Listeners by Walter de la Mare
An Epitaph by Walter de la Mare
Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling
A Shropshire Lad, XXII by A. E. Housman
Last Poems, XI by A. E. Housman
Last Poems, XXVI by A. E. Housman
More Poems, XII by A. E. Housman
More Poems, XXXVI by A. E. Housman
In Time of ''The Breaking of Nations'' by Thomas Hardy
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
In Tenebris by Thomas Hardy
Nightingales by Robert Bridges
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats
The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats
Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats
''In No Strange Land'' by Francis Thompson


Great Modern Reading - what a title, surely a publisher's invention - is the third and last of Maugham's huge anthologies which he compiled, introduced and, in two of the cases, copiously annotated between 1933 and 1943; curiously, all of them were commissioned by American publishers and never reprinted in England:

Traveller's Library (1933)
Tellers of Tales (1939)
Great Modern Reading (1943)

These three huge volumes amount to nearly 4000 (!) pages and offer a staggering variety of short stories, poems and essays; even three complete novels are included in Traveller's Library. Somewhat exceptional in terms of variety is Tellers of Tales which contains only short stories, but no fewer than 100 of them and coming from no fewer than five countries (England, America, Russia, France, Germany). All three books are distinctly different than Maugham's last anthology - A Choice of Kipling's Prose (1952) - which is obviously dedicated to only one author. All three are valuable volumes to peruse for a number of reasons. They reveal the astonishing breadth of Maugham's reading, for one thing, and his introductions, notes and selections are often highly illuminating about his personality, for another. It is a well-known fact that Maugham was a great writer but it is often neglected that he was a great reader as well; he never lost his passion for reading and he read, not only a great deal, but rather seriously too - a rare combination indeed. So such anthologies give us the almost unique opportunity to profit from the immersion of a great mind into great literature.

Great Modern Reading is the smallest member of the trio: ''only'' 600 pages or so, small and easy to handle octavo, printed on pleasantly thick paper and in a font comfortable for the eyes. Yet the book is perhaps the most varied of all. Due to space limitations it doesn't contain any novels, but it does contain no fewer than 32 short stories, 76 poems, 11 letters and 12 essays (including one speech by Churchill). The introduction is the shortest and the least remarkable of all Maugham wrote for his anthologies, yet well worth reading and contemplating; his notes are enlightening and stimulating, full of opinions on fellow writers that tell us as much about them as about Maugham. Let me start with the former where, in his typically clear and direct style, Maugham explains frankly whom he compiled this selection for, what he tried to achieve and why the final result is essentially imperfect:

It is for the people of America that I have devised in this anthology. It occurred to me that it would be useful to them and I hoped interesting, if I could give them, as it were, a bird's eye view of literary production in England and America during the last forty or fifty years. That is what I have tried to do in this volume. The result is imperfect, partly owing to my own inadequacy for the task, since my reading, except in special subjects, has been desultory, and it is only too probable that I have remained unacquainted with certain authors a selection from whose works would have made my picture more complete; but it is imperfect also because my space was severely limited. I wished this book to be published at so cheap a price that it would strain no one resources to buy it, and the cost of production set definite bounds to the quantity of material I could include.

Not to the quality though. In the very next paragraph Maugham states clearly that he has made no compromise in this direction: he has included only what he thinks is among the best, for his choice has not in least been qualified by any fear that what he offers might be above the heads of the masses: ''I believe in the people and I believe in their taste.'' Now, unlike most people, I do believe Maugham himself and have never really doubted his sincerity in print, even though he may well be evasive or disingenuous from time to time. I also admire Maugham's highly commendable lack of intellectual snobbishness - again something typical for him, with but very few exceptions - and something I find but seldom in my own acquaintances, or in myself for that matter.

All the same, I firmly disagree with Maugham about his faith in the mass taste, if I may put it so. He gives his arguments of course, namely his personal observation that people at a concert, for instance, always prefer the serious music to the lighter one. But I have never been able to observe anything like that. Moreover, I am still not convinced at all if such things as good and bad taste really exist; it seems to me that the only adjective applicable to taste is ''personal''. When it comes to different forms of art, the experience is so overwhelmingly personal that I can't bring myself that it should be affected by something so superficial, vague and, above all, external as taste. So I still ask questions like ''Who decides what's first rate and what's of no value?'' or ''Does it matter to the layman that what moves him deeply and gives him an unique thrill is generally considered, to put is politely, second rate?'' I don't know, but Maugham's introduction - as always with him - opens the gates to a great deal of fascinating speculation. Here is how he describes what he has called at another place ''vagaries of taste'', again with his idiosyncratic blend of captivating candour and well-measured modesty:

I am not so stupid as to mean that all people have such a naturally good taste that they will always prefer what is best to what is of no great value. After all, we none of us do that, and few of us are so delicately constituted that we can put up with nothing but the first rate. Most of us can like very much things of unequal merit. I know for my part I can get a great deal of pleasure out of an opera by Puccini's; but it is a different sort of pleasure from that which I get out of an opera by Mozart's.

Here I should like to use one of the exceedingly rare musical references in Maugham's oeuvre to question his taste. It seems to me that he implies here that Puccini's operas are distinctly inferior to Mozart's. This is very high-handed indeed. Taken at their best - say, Don Giovanni and La Boheme - Mozart and Puccini are vastly different, no argument here and we can hardly expect something else, indeed, since their years of birth are separated by more than a century; but to rank one above the other, or the opposite case, seems to me equally pointless and silly business. Then again, Maugham has never claimed that his taste is perfect, much less has he ever stated that it is anything but personal and partial. For my part, within these absolutely necessary limitations, the subject defies even elementary discussion. Must I, after all, be ashamed of myself because I love both Mozart and Puccini, or Verdi and Wagner too for that matter, or because I adore Liszt but can't stand (most of) Bach, or because I am moved to tears by Andrea Bocelli but left cold by Placido Domingo? I should certainly hope not.

It is devilishly difficult to appreciate somebody else's taste when it's dramatically different than your own. But it's probably worth trying. It creates tolerance, avoids stupid confrontations and on the whole improves a relationship, provided that both sides share a certain amount of common sense. Besides, you never know what's going to capture your imagination next; whether it will just give you an intense pleasure or will profoundly enrich your personality, one can never know. But it's equally uncertain where the ''conqueror'' will come from.

However that may be, the point I want to make is a simple one: even the slightest non-fiction piece by Maugham is thought-provoking, to say the least. As a more or less direct consequence of this fact, one might say that Maugham's selections are even more fascinating than they otherwise would have been; apart from their intrinsic value, a vastly personal matter everybody should estimate for himself, these pieces are of certain value for Maugham buffs too. It is tantalising to reflect what Maugham saw in them and why he found them appealing enough to be included here; indeed in his notes he often discusses these matters with his usual frankness. Toward the end of his introduction, after stating once again that he had made no compromise in this anthology, he makes a bold and indeed uncompromising claim:

So in this anthology I have made no compromise. I would not claim that all pieces in it are great literature; during the last twenty-five hundred years, all the world over, not so much of the literature that has been produced can truly be called great; indeed, we have been told that it can be got into a five-foot shelf; and this is a necessarily incomplete selection from the writing in England and America of half a century. I do claim, however, that none of these pieces can fail to appeal for one reason or another to a curious and intelligent mind.

Now, the ''five-foot shelf'' stuff is perfect nonsense; I can only surmise Maugham was joking, or at least trying to joke. But the last sentence is worth considering more carefully. Note the added emphasis with ''do'': Maugham rarely does that in his writings, so it says a great deal; namely that, it seems to me, he took his job as compiler of anthologies quite seriously and really was concerned with offering his readers the best of the best, at least as far as his opinion and taste go. Nor is it a coincidence that Maugham harps again and again on this lack of compromise or the merit of what he chose to include; neither is very typical for him either. For my part, however, this is an excellent recommendation to give such book a solid dose of attention. Before going into some detail about the actual contents, I should like to quote again from his introduction, one delightful discourse on the nature of the classics and the perverse system to ''study'' them in school:

People will not read the classics because they have got it into their heads that they are dull. They have formed this impression, I think, because they have been forced to read them in schools and colleges, and the reading prescribed by scholastic authorities is not as often as it should be chosen to persuade the young that great literature is good to read. It is natural enough that, when they arrive at maturity, many persons should suppose that there is little in the great works of the past that can help them to deal with the anxious and harassing present. But a work becomes a classic only because succeeding generations of people, ordinary readers like you and me, have found pleasure in reading it. It does that because it appeals to the human problems that we are all confronted with.

Fair enough. And small wonder that the book caused a good deal of animosity in the highbrow circles at the time. Indeed, it is not generally known that the notorious attack of Edmund Wilson in New Yorker (8 June, 1946), probably the most vicious one ever launched on Maugham, was at least partly based on Maugham's opinions expressed in Great Modern Reading; but as it has already been made quite clear, the book was not compiled for people like Mr Wilson. It is designed for the ordinary reader who seeks entertainment.

The diversity of subjects and styles is so overwhelming, that one doesn't really know where or how to start. So in these desultory remarks I would rather single out several authors, pieces and genres that have captured my imagination for one reason or another. I do not pretend to have read every single piece in the book.

I should like to start with Aldous Huxley whose clear, witty and no-nonsense style I really like. So, obviously, did Maugham since he included his pieces everywhere. Traveller's Library contains one short story (''The Tillotson Banquet'') and two essays (''Wordsworth in the Tropics'' and ''A Night at Pietramala''); even among the greatest masters of the short story in Tellers of Tales has Aldous Huxley found a place (''Nuns at Luncheon'').

In the notes to Great Modern Reading (pp. 335-336) Maugham makes no bones about Aldous being a better essayist than a novelist (and a better essayist than Virginia Woolf, for that matter), but he is certainly not blind to Huxley's strengths as a novelist either. Having read nothing substantial but Brave New World (1932)*, I am still in the very beginning of my quest for Huxley, so to say, but on the base of this novel alone I think Maugham's comments are rather shrewd. As far as Huxley's powers as essayist are concerned, in the very first sentence of his note Maugham pays him probably the greatest compliment he was capable of:

Aldous Huxley is an essayist whom I would be ready to rank with Hazlitt.
The essayist needs character to begin with, then he needs an encyclopedic knowledge, he needs humour, ease of manner so that the ordinary person can read him without labor, and he must know how to combine entertainment with instruction. These qualifications are not easy to find. Aldous Huxley has them; so, in a much smaller way, had Virginia Woolf. To my mind both these writers have been more successful in this particular style than in the novel.
Aldous Huxley has greater gifts than she had, a vigour, and a versatility that were beyond her, and if he has never quite acquired the great position as a novelist that his talent seems to authorize, I think it is because of his deficient sympathy with human beings. The novelist must be able to get into the skin of the creatures of his invention, see with their eyes and feel with their fingers; but Aldous Huxley sees them like an anatomist. He dissects out their nerves, discovers their arteries with precision, and peers into the ventricles of their hearts. The process gives rise in the reader to a certain discomfort. In saying this I do not wish to disparage Aldous Huxley's fiction; he has the priceless gift of readability, so that even though you balk at his attitude, you are held by his narrative skill and stimulated by his originality.

When I say that Maugham's notes are an inexhaustible source of fascination, I mean exactly passages like that. He is virtually never entirely dismissive, let alone scathing, and he is almost always provocative and stimulating, even though one may well disagree with him a number of times; I can't say, for instance, that I balk at Huxley's attitude; quite on the contrary: I find it fresh and appealing. Of course one must always be on one's guard when reading such comments. If taken too seriously, they might fill one's head with tons of prejudices and prevent him from enjoying works he would otherwise find quite different. Didn't Maugham once write that one should be careful when one reads a novelist's criticisms of other people's novels?**

''Comfort'', the essay by Aldous Huxley included here, is a hilarious piece that managed something very few pieces of non-fiction only several pages long are capable of: it made me laugh aloud. It begins rather inauspiciously but it finally makes a pretty good case that such mundane matters as chairs, central heating and baths really have had much greater historical significance than I previously suspected. In his leisurely and vastly amusing manner, Aldous Huxley draws some quite astonishing parallels. Certainly, it had never occurred to me that chairs, central heating and baths might possibly have anything to do with the history of human society and its different forms of government. Despite the great deal of fun and flippancy, the piece is rather serious; near the end Huxley completely abandons his tongue-in-cheek tone to make his point. It is a point well considering and even more relevant today than it must have been in the 1940s. Unlike historical times, the modern world is literally inconceivable without the numerous faces of comfort. In itself it's a fine thing, but we really should be careful not to depend too much on it. As Aldous wonderfully put it:

I am inclined to think that our present passion for comfort is a little exaggerated. Though I personally enjoy comfort, I have lived very happily in houses devoid of almost everything that Anglo-Saxons deem indispensable. Orientals and even South Europeans, who know not comfort and live very much as our ancestors lived centuries ago, seem to get on very well without our elaborate and costly apparatus of padded luxury. I am old-fashioned enough to believe in higher and lower things, and can see no point in material progress except in so far as it subserves thought. I like labour-saving devices, because they economize time and energy which may be devoted to mental labour. (But then I enjoy mental labour; there are plenty of people who detest it, and who feel as much enthusiasm for thought-saving devices as for automatic dishwashers and sewing-machines.) I like rapid and easy transport, because by enlarging the world in which men can live it enlarges their minds. Comfort for me has a similar justification: it facilitates mental life. Discomfort handicaps thought; it is difficult when the body is cold and aching to use the mind. Comfort is a means to an end. The modern world seems to regard it as an end in itself, an absolute good. One day, perhaps, the earth will have been turned into one vast feather-bed, with man’s body dozing on top of it and his mind underneath, like Desdemona, smothered.

Speaking of the four essays in this particular group, after Huxley's I was most impressed with ''What I Believe'' by E. M. Forster. This is a powerful piece of writing, though not nearly as powerful as the one with the same name by Bertrand Russell. I had never read a single word by E. M. Forster, but after this essay I think I'll be reading him again. ''What I Believe'' is highly opinionated, tremendously pugnacious and amazingly blunt personal statement. But it compels one to think about things. Besides, it's not often that a writer's personality jumps from the pages with such force; in a way, it is a compelling phenomenon, even if one doesn't particularly like the man behind the pen. Among many other things, the essays contains a fascinating, if idiosyncratic, analysis of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, or at least one of its many facets. Especially taken into its historical context - the essay was first published in 1938 - it is difficult to resist quotation; Wagnerians know why:

But it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong are so stupid. Consider their conduct for a moment in The Nibelung's Ring. The giants there have the guns, or in other words the gold; but they do nothing with it, they do not realize that they are all-powerful, with the result that the catastrophe is delayed and the castle of Valhalla, insecure but glorious, fronts the storms. Fafnir, coiled round his hoard, grumbles and grunts; we can hear him under Europe today; the leaves of the wood already tremble, and the Bird calls its warnings uselessly. Fafnir will destroy us, but by a blessed dispensation he is stupid and slow, and creation goes on just outside the poisonous blast of his breath. The Nietzschean would hurry the monster up, the mystic would say he did not exist, but Wotan, wiser than either, hastens to create warriors before doom declares itself. The Valkyries are symbols not only of courage but of intelligence; they represent the human spirit snatching its opportunity while the going is good, and one of them even finds time to love. Bruennhilde's last song hymns the recurrence of love, and since it is the privilege of art to exaggerate she goes even further, and proclaims the love which is eternally triumphant, and feeds upon freedom and lives.

The essays by Virginia Woolf and Santayana I have found readable but, despite their short length, somewhat dull and superficial; certainly I quite agree with Maugham about the lack of erudition of the former and the florid prose of the latter. The piece by Gertrude Stein, however, is the only real disappointment among the essays in the volume and here I couldn't disagree more with Maugham who sees ''a lot of common sense'' in it; what I see is labouriously and carelessly written piece with very few points of mild interest that may be skipped without any loss.

But there are compensations. One of them is Churchill's passionate speech about the evacuation of the British troops near Dunkirk in 1940, a most precarious and poignant episode from the beginning of the Second World War. Maugham gives no details in his note but it seems that Churchill, then a Prime Minister, delivered the speech in the House of Commons shortly after the Dunkirk operation was over. In addition to a fine tribute to the Royal Air Force, Churchill predicted that the Battle of Britain was about to begin and could not but be won by the British - as history has since shown, he was perfectly right. The speech has a good deal of pathos and propaganda of course - and aren't these noble qualities in wartime? - but it makes an excellent and very affecting read. Especially memorable is the rousing coda in the end when Churchill repeats again and again the words ''We shall never...'', including the forceful and now legendary ''We shall never surrender!''

I would like to mention also Max Beerbohm's ''Seeing People Off'', for it is surely one of the finest pieces in the whole book. It is supposed to be an essay, but it's actually a marvellous short story of the type Maugham liked best: with a beginning, a middle and an end, with wisdom and humour, the kind of writing that compels you to put the book down and reflect on the life around you. Max Beerbohm describes with rare subtlety the embarrassment everybody must have felt one time or another when a friend is seen off to a long journey. He is witty and amusing, with hardly any hints of ''mannered'' style or ''affectations of language'', as Maugham gently warns us in his notes, but he treats his subject with sympathy and understanding. And then, right in the middle of these extraordinary five pages or so, the essays changes into a short story without the slightest deviation from the main theme. The finale is stunning and I sure as heck don't want to spoil it for anybody who hasn't read it yet. But I often wonder how much of it really happened, how much of it really was true, and how sad if that bizarre institution A.A.S.B. (Anglo-American Social Bureau) really existed at the time. Well, sad it may well be, even shattering indeed, but I daresay it is not so fantastic considering the deep-seated fear of loneliness in any of us - and our constant attempts to suppress it in one way or another.

The most unusual among the essays certainly is the one by Logan Pearsall Smith: it's two pages of epigrams and nothing else. Many of these, however, are on Oscar Wilde level and, needless to say, they are dead serious. It is seldom that one finds so much wit and wisdom in mere two pages that I cannot resist quoting about of half of these gems:

There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieves the second.

There are few sorrows, however poignant, in which a good income is of no avail.

Don't laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find his own.

When they come downstairs from their Ivory Towers, Idealists are apt to walk straight into the gutter.

''Well, for my part,'' they say, ''I cannot see the charm of Mrs Jones.''
''Is it not conceivable,'' I feel inclined to answer, ''that Mrs Jones hasn't tried to charm you?''

Eat with the Rich, but go to the play with the Poor, who are capable of joy.

If you want to be thought a liar, always tell the truth.

Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither, - these make the finest company in the world.

The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.

If you are losing your leisure, look out! You may be losing your soul.

What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.

One of the things that strikes me most forcefully while reading Great Modern Reading at random - what a delightful thing to do! - is how often I find poetry inside. It is well-known that, for all his extraordinary versatility which included novels, short stories, essays, drama and travel writing, Somerset Maugham never wrote any poetry - save one short and passionate poem in the late 1920s that was later reprinted in A Writer's Notebook (1949). But he certainly had a genuine passion for reading poetry in least three different languages: English, French and German. The first of these he learnt as mother tongues, so he had no problems reading everything: from Keats and Wordsworth to Verlaine and Rimbaud; German he studied assiduously during his youthful sojourn in Heidelberg and most of his life he knew it well enough to read (and love) Goethe in original language.

All poems in Gread Modern Reading, of course, are in English and I am truly sorry my that knowledge of the language does not - and probably never will - allow me to read them as they should be read. Still, it's clear even to me that the variety is spectacular: from Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling all the way to T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Parker, with William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, Thomas Frost, Hilair Belloc and numerous others in between; there is everything: from long poems written in a language of ravishing beauty to single stanzas full of naughty wit. For my part, perhaps more interesting are Maugham's notes about the poems and poets of his choice; they are of more or less the same great diversity and at all events highly revealing. On occasion, indeed, these notes border on poetry themselves:

I have a notion that there is a poetry that appeals rather to the head than to the heart, the poetry of Dryden, for instance, and a poetry that appeals to the heart rather than to the head, Verlaine, say; and I have no doubt that the greatest poetry of all appeals to both, and here, I suppose, the classic example would be the great speeches that Shakespeare put into the mouths of Hamlet and Othello. But to my mind there is another sort of poetry, one that appeals to what, knowing no other word to express what I mean, I must call the subconscious. There is a poetry that gives you the same sort of thrill, a strange primeval feeling, that you get when on a river in Borneo you hear the drums beating in a distant village, when you walk alone in those silent stealthy woods of South Carolina, or when in the jungle of Indo-China you come upon those vast, those colossal heads of Brahma that form the towers of a ruined temple.

Several times did Maugham apologise for not having enough space to include even one complete novel in Great Modern Reading, but he did include a number of short stories. Here again the diversity factor is extremely high: from Henry James to Dashiell Hammett. Given the choice, I'll take the latter any time, but I'll start with the former all the same. Apart from T. S. Eliot, Henry James is probably the most prominent writer in the notes of this anthology; hardly surprisingly indeed, as Maugham has written a good deal of his eminent colleague. As always in this case - as in pretty much any other, for that matter - Maugham doesn't like mincing words, so he starts thus (p. 524):

This is the longest story in this volume. It is written with leisureliness that is now out of fashion and I am aware that you may find it exquisitely tedious. But in such a book as this it would have been shocking to leave out a story by Henry James; for, though not the most gifted writer America has produced (I should place far above him for power and originality Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain), he is its most distinguished man of letters.

Obviously Maugham included ''The Beast in the Jungle'' out of sheer obligation. I wish he'd had the guts to omit it. Of course I have not read all pieces in this anthology so far, but this story of Henry James (my first encounter with his writing) has so far been the only one which I have not been able to read; no matter how many time I've tried, I never managed more than five pages. This sounds ludicrous but it happens to be a fact. I can safely say that I have never ever read more confused, convoluted, turgid, pompous and portentous a prose than that of Henry James. Not a single sentence is there which I can read but once and grasp its meaning; indeed, in many instances I reach the end of a sentence only to realise that I have forgotten the beginning. Let me put it bluntly: if a simple sentence which makes clear sense is likened to a straight rope, then James' prose surely can very accurately be described as an Inca Khipu!

I will wait until I read more of James - if ever - before I agree with Maugham's always negative, and sometimes harsh, criticism of him. Yet, Maugham did have some words of appreciation and even praise, if a cold one, for Henry James. In his note here he goes no further than admiring his ''technique'', ''subtlety'' and ''adroitness'', but in other places he has remarked on James' artistic integrity or his ability to project his personality in his writings. Interestingly, Maugham also mentions here that he included ''The Beast in the Jungle'' mainly because the story has a ''peculiar poignancy'' to him as it reveals James' major limitations, namely that he was not able live a life from the inside but had to observe it from the outside - and he was ''too perspicacious not to recognize'' that. For all fans of both Maugham and James, if there are any such creatures, I should like to add that Maugham, genuinely or not believing that we might be stimulated to peruse some of James' novels, recommends starting with The American, even though he thinks James' best novel is The Ambassadors.

On the other pole of the short story world stand the three short stories by Anthony Berkeley, Carter Dickson and Dashiell Hammett, for these obviously are detective stories. What a relief to switch from Henry James to detective stories! All three pieces make a thoroughly enthralling read; they have everything one may ask from the genre: good plots, great dialogue, suspense, mystery; and I have to say that I could guess the killer correctly only in Dashiell Hammett's ''A Man Called Spade'', my introduction to Samuel Spade on paper (after The Maltese Falcon and Humphrey Bogart on the screen). My favourite is definitely ''The Avenging Chance'' by Anthony Berkeley. I won't spoil it for anybody who hasn't read it, but isn't it cute to kill somebody with poisonous chocolates? As for ''The Crime in Nobody's Room'' by Carter Dickson, it is the most mysterious of the three and even somewhat fanciful at times, but it's an entertaining tale nonetheless.

Between these extremities, as can be expected, there is a great variety of short stories. But I do wish Maugham had laid more stress on their intrinsic value before include them in his anthology. In his notes he makes no bones that some pieces are here because of their evocative description of certain historical period, like Fitzgerald's ''Babylon Revisited'' and the American expatriates leading bohemian lives in Paris of the 1920s; or because their author had had considerable influence on the American short story, as in the case of Sherwood Anderson. Well, I can't say that I find Fitzgerald in any way compelling but, after my thorough disappointment with The Great Gatsby, I have found his story here surprisingly substantial considering its short length, if ''carelessly written'' and ''not quite convincing'' as Maugham puts it.

But about Sherwood Anderson there is no excuse - nor about Ring Lardner, for that matter. It is completely beyond me how Maugham could ever have selected for reprinting such monstrously incompetent writing: inane plots, total lack of characterisation, poor narrative, repetitions, lousy slang, abominable disrespect for grammar (deliberate or not, I don't know). Maugham's claims that Lardner's story here is ''one of his best'' and ''first class'' (p. 463) are totally mind-boggling. Saki's ''The Match-Maker'' fairs a great deal better but it is so short that it's hardly a sketch, let alone a story. As far as Ernest Hemingway is concerned, the most remarkable thing in Great Modern Reading is Maugham's reference to him (p. 158):

The only writer I can think of who benefited by contact with Europe is Ernest Hemingway. I have a notion that without it he would not have acquired the breadth of outlook and the sensitiveness to beauty that make him to my mind the most versatile and powerful writer of fiction in the English-speaking world.

It is amusing to see Maugham going completely overboard; he seldom did. He also mentions that he included specifically Hemingway's ''The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'' because it's a fine example of the so called ''exotic'' short story, namely one that is set against an exotic background because it could not have happen anywhere else. It's a very good story, neatly told, with fine twist in the end, vivid characters and evocative representation of the atmosphere in the African savannas, although I would have appreciated at least a little background about the Macombers and Wilson. And I have to say I do dislike Hemingway's revolting hunting scenes, with their gruesome descriptions of dying lions and bulls. Still, it was a very pleasant surprise. My first encounter with Hemingway's writing was his short ''story'' ''The Three-Day Blow'' in another anthology (50 Great Short Stories, 1952, ed. Milton Crane) and this was such a crap that in comparison the pathetic attempts of Sherwood Anderson and Ring Lardner look like great literature. As for Miss Mansfield's short ''stories'', I will deal with her trivial female characters, so full of histrionic affectations, in my review of Traveller's Library (1933) where Maugham chose to include no fewer than three pieces by her.

There are also several short stories for which the best recommendation to read them is their short length. These include the astonishingly slangy ''The Petrified Man'' (which indeed must hold the world record for the biggest amount of slang per page of fiction) and the unbelievably sloppy ''Night Club'' (whose twist in the end is way too contrived to be plausible). How Maugham could call the latter ''a good, brilliantly told story'' and the former ''amusing'' is well beyond me. Other pieces are actually no stories at all, but rather sketches and rough drafts. Many of these are written with subtlety (''The Lily'') and sensitivity (''The Visit''), and are sometimes thought-provoking (''The People vs Abe Lathan, colored'', ''Defeat''or extremely poignant (''The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze''), but one is left wishing for some elaboration that never comes. Then there are those stories which are well-constructed and well-written, but resemble fairy tales for children rather than fiction for adults. Nevertheless, some of these are tremendously exciting and effective (''The Erne from the Coast'') or wickedly hilarious ''Mary'', ''Maria''), and thus make a highly entertaining read, and would even bear a re-read.

But the short stories, apart from the three detective gems, are not all disappointments and mixed bags. Far from it. There are several highlights I should like to make a note of.

A signal experience was my introduction to Rudyard Kipling, something I confess I had looked upon with certain misgiving for I had heard that his vocabulary is not the easiest one to get along with. In a way, the accusation is certainly justified - what the heck is ''punkah'''? After asking OALD, I now know that punkah was ''(in India in the past) a large cloth fan that hung from the ceiling and that was moved by pulling a string''. Though ''At the End of the Passage'' was not an especially mind-blowing experience, I can sort of see why Maugham had such an enormous admiration for Kipling in general and for his Indian stories in particular. The man knows how to tell a story; he also knows how to create an atmosphere of mystery and how to build dramatic tension. I often had to struggle with Kipling's obscure language, but he somehow made me care for his characters, those wretched men in distant colonies who are constantly tormented by climate and loneliness - and for whom suicide is but an escape. ''At the End of the Passage'' is by way of being a ghost story, and in addition to skilful narrative may also offer some remarkable metaphors such as a tomtom that ''beat with the steady throb of a swollen artery inside some brain-fevered skull.''

Interestingly, when he remarks in his notes that a collection of Kipling's best stories would reveal his real stature as a great story-teller, Maugham actually anticipated what he himself did a decade or so later. His last anthology - and the only one dedicated to a single author - was A Choice of Kipling's Prose (1952). In his wonderful introduction to this volume, Maugham flatly called Kipling the greatest short story writer England had ever produced and the only one who can stand comparison with the masters in the genre from France and Russia (that is, in Maugham's opinion, Maupassant and Chekhov, respectively). But I have yet to read any writer of short stories who is even remotely in the category of Somerset Maugham. But that's another story.

Another introduction to a great name was ''The Gift'' by John Steinbeck. It did convince me that this fellow must be checked out very thoroughly in the future. ''The Gift'' is an amazing story that affected me very deeply indeed. It had been a while since the last time when I read a piece of fiction that took the sleep away from me, but that's exactly what happened at my first meeting with the pen of John Steinbeck. I was astonished to read Maugham's note that ''The Gift'' was ''condemned for sentimentality''; and it is almost as funny to find Maugham describing the work as ''human and kindly''. Actually, the story is harrowing and the first thing to say about it is to warn readers who love animals that they should be prepared for some painful moments. (The same is even truer for the much cruder ''The Erne from the Coast'', which resembles Hemingway in terms of animal cruelty.)

The plot of ''The Gift'' is very simple but fabulously well executed, with beautifully drawn main character (a ten-year-old boy), amazing building of dramatic tension and a simply harrowing finale. It is seldom that I find such (literally) heart-breaking power in a short story: it makes me almost sick, yet it is completely irresistible. Nor is it more often that my first encounter with a great name from the world of literature is auspicious and lives up to the high expectations I usually have. John Steinbeck has exceeded my expectations by far. ''The Gift'' is not just among the best short stories in this anthology, but one of the finest I have ever read.

Perhaps the pleasantest surprise among the short stories was ''Roman Fever'' by Edith Wharton, ''a writer of distinction and a woman of overwhelming culture.'' Now this is what I call a great short story, namely one that can be re-read for the sheer pleasure of the ingenious narrative, the subtle characterisation and the formidable sense for dramatic climax. The twist in end is half-expected, yet it comes so swiftly and so devastatingly that one is stunned. On re-reading the story with a great deal of pleasure, and already intimate with Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley, I have been able to relish the meticulous preparation of the grand finale via numerous at first glance irrelevant details and thinly veiled hints. If the other stories of Edith Wharton are half as good as ''Roman Fever'' is, she is certainly worth reading.

Last and least, there are the letters which, frankly, add nothing to the value of the book. I wish Maugham had used the space for more short stories and essays. The war letters do have some poignant moments but their extolling the British Empire smacks not a little of chauvinism; this is true even for the most famous, and by far the finest, among them, ''An Airman's Letter to His Mother'' (which, incidentally, is printed together with a nauseatingly pompous supplement that was inserted by way of preface to its first publication in book form, apparently by the publisher). As for the other letters, the most interesting, fame-wise, are those of D. H. Lawrence, whose stories Maugham thought ''formless and verbose'' – a strange claim considering that he had included them both in Traveller's Library and in Tellers of Tales (''The Prussian Officer'' and ''Odour of Chrysanthemums'', respectively). Well, if anything, Lawrence's letters do not in the least stimulate me to read those stories, or anything else by him for that matter. Nor do those by Walter Hines Page, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Jay Chapman. All these letters do present vividly the personalities of their writers, but I remain unconvinced that any of them is worth exploring further.

All in all, Great Modern Reading is a magnificently rich and varied, if quite uneven, collection to be sampled regularly and savoured slowly. Apart from Henry James' incomprehensible mess and few other examples of very poor writing indeed, it hardly contains anything which is not readable and indeed worth reading. Few things would bear re-reading tough. If my rating is a trifle inflated, this is because of my gross literary inexperience which cannot but make such books of greater value than they probably are. Still, Great Modern Reading is well worth reading. I hesitate to describe it as a bedtime book for this implies a distinctly lightweight stuff that one may read late in the evening when one too is tired to read seriously anything serious; there are some pieces here that fall well into this category, but with the book on the whole this is certainly not the case. After all, even the most readable literature, if it has any serious claims to be of something more than ephemeral value, also requires the full attention of, and even certain amount of effort from, the intelligent reader in order to be fully appreciated. Great Modern Reading rewards both.

List of Maugham's notes that, inexplicably, cannot be found in the original table of contents:
pp. 1-2, on Eudora Welty, Andy Logan and William Saroyan;
p. 25, short and perfunctory one on the war letters;
pp. 31-32, on young poets;
pp. 42-43, on Steinbeck, Beachcroft, Bowen, Caldwell, Brush and three English writers;
pp. 127, short and perfunctory one on Alva Jonhston and John dos Passos;
pp. 157-158, on Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Arlen;
pp. 241-242, on D. H. Lawrence, Walter Hines Page, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Jay Champan;
pp. 255-256, on poetry inspired by the First World War;
pp. 263-264, on detective stories;
pp. 321-323, on T. S. Eliot;
pp. 335-336, on Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Gertrude Stein;
pp. 366-367, on Vincent Benet, Katherine Ann Porter, Thurber, Berkovici and Atherton;
pp. 413-414, on Carl Sandburg, W. H. Davies and Charlotte Mew;
pp. 423-424, on Lytton Strachey and Gamaliel Bradford;
pp. 462-464, on Kipling, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Katherine Mansfield and O. Henry;
pp. 524-527, on Henry James; and very briefly on Woolf, Huxlex, Forster, Kipling, Conrad, H. G. Wells, Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Wila Cather and James Joyce;
pp. 566-567, on the so called ''blurb writers'';
pp. 580-581, on Max Beerbohm, Logan Pearsall Smith, Santayana and Churchill;
pp. 599-601, on Walter de la Mare, Kipling, Housman, Robert Bridges, Hardy, Yeats and Francis Thompson.


* In the notes to Traveller's Library (1933, p. 1168), after expressing preference for his essays over his novels again, Maugham casually mentioned about ''Mr Huxley'' that ''at present he is somewhat lacking in humanity''. I can't help feeling that the major reason for this remark in 1933 was the fact that Brave New World had been published just an year before. Nor do I wonder that Aldous' inhumanity is a great advantage in the description of a totally dehumanizing world. But that's another story.

** He did: in the introduction to Tellers of Tales (1939). ( )
3 ääni Waldstein | Nov 12, 2009 |
In 1943, Somerset Maugham published this anthology of what he considered to be some of the best examples of Modern English and American Literature at that time. This is a thick, robust, wonderful collection filled with short stories, essays, bits of histories and biographies and poems. The book is broken up into a couple of dozen sections, each one with an introduction by Maugham. In my opinion, this is a priceless collection. Not in terms of financial value, but in terms of its value as a specimen of literature, a large collection of works hand selected by a great contemporary writer, with each work introduced with Maugham's witty, informed, passionate opinions about the art of writing. I read through this book slowly, as one of my between books, and savored each session with it. It's definitely one of the gems of my entire 2000-plus volume library. ( )
4 ääni rocketjk | Jun 9, 2009 |
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