Maugham: The Appointment in Samarra (1933)

This is included in the Kennedy/Gioia “Introduction to Fiction.”

I asked Marna and Barb about when they found the time to read, as it’s been now years since I’ve really given reading any time in my schedule. They read first thing in the morning, and right before bed. I’m desperately trying to cling to any intelligence I may once have had. But I just had to rewrite the word “intelligence” six times to get the spelling correct. I’m doomed.

Maugham, after his Razor’s Edgecan do no wrong in my book. And this example, used by Kennedy/Gioia as an example of a tale or fable, has kept me in thought for days now. In briefer, a man’s servant returns from town, says a woman jostled him in the crowd, and when he looked at her it was actually Death, so now he needs to borrow a horse and ride to Samarra to escape Death here. The master complies, after which he goes into town, finds the woman and demands to know why she scared the servant. She says her expression was just one of surprise, because she’s supposed to meet the servant in Samarra tonight and wasn’t expecting to see him here.

The point is that I laughed when the story ended. The fucking editors then ask: “How would you state the moral in your own words?” And the only thing I can come up with is “trust, but verify.”

Does the fable need a moral? Well, yes, according to this book. And if this one didn’t have a moral, then I suppose it would just be a comic episode. But if I’m trying to learn something about life itself, is it better to let the moral sink in through my dreams? Or is it better to search for it while I’m awake, debate it, use the story to recall it. This, I don’t know.

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Sex Books, Day 1: The Story of the Eye & The Story of O

And so we begin by speaking of love. The tamest, most secret longings our hearts felt in grade school. We stray at some point, a million stories left untold. But, we reach today, when our fresh stories are more interesting to us than our stale ones. And then what? You get involved in stories of love that are so painfully hilarious so as to lead one to the grocery store determined to find this or that to correct potential vitamin deficiencies and swearing not to resort to prayer and absolutely not to read one’s horoscope.

In short, I turn to the one genre my bookshelves hold the most of…determined to approach the books with the same aesthetic eye as I do everything else. When I read Shakespeare, I do so with one question: what turns me on? And that’s in that electrical aesthetic sense that makes Walter Pater still a glorious read despite the knowledge that he’s no longer a trustworthy source…he writes beautifully. But, as with anyone else, it is not simply beautiful sentences, elegant concepts, and poignant stories that turn me on…it’s also all the basest, most animal horrors of the boudoir that I approach with the same delicacy as when deciding which apples, in all their bruised, cloudy-skinned, fingernail-marked pageantry I’ll take home with me. Usually to forget and let rot in the fridge. What can I say?

So, assuming my potassium intake is sufficient, out comes the books! Let’s take a look at two of their intros and rate their efficacy:

The Story of the Eye and The Story of O.

The Story of the Eye

For the record, everything romantic that’s ever emerged from France was thanks to native-English speakers.

Eye begins with the author’s origin-tale, explaining quickly that things are about to get fucked up for reasons that can be explained away in psychoanalysis: from a young age, both he and his gal have felt a nervousness about all things sexual. What I didn’t understand the first time I read this book was that this nervousness is indistinguishable from other things that make one nervous, insofar as their manifestations go. Without that understanding, the book won’t make sense. Before a first date you feel much the same as before a job interview. This may include nausea. Nausea is also the feeling they get after decapitating a girl accidentally. The point being that while we can say “dates cause anxiety” and “job interviews cause anxiety,” the nausea and dry mouth and shakiness, we don’t tend to associate the two with each other beyond that. Much more so if we consider “dates cause anxiety” and “near car-accidents cause anxiety.” The two in this story do treat the anxieties as one and the same. So it sounds like fiction because…well, who does that?

There’s one key detail that it hinges on, though: the anxiety never dissipates. And that’s why I don’t think this story could have been written before The Great War, because it was there that we first learned on a mass scale what constant anxiety does to people. What if the anxiety remains, through the first date, through the second, through the hundredth, through a million orgasms? At that point anxiety is resolutely tied to love, to sex. And if even looking at a girl’s knees gives you anxiety, then how do you possibly handle the things in life that would give anyone else anxiety? How do you handle pain and fear and death?

And that’s the only way I can make sense of this book…I refuse to allow it to be a story of two creepy kids doing creepy things with each other. I had a friend whose sex life was extremely violent. I mean, by mutual consent. So, when the woman told him she wanted the relationship taken to the next level, i.e., he move in and be like a father to her son, my friend said “no way” and the woman clocked him right in the face. Out of anger. And my friend, (this is actually a friend of mine, not a story about me, I swear, I think the story is just as fucked up as you do), my friend was confused because he wasn’t sure if she just wanted a nice romp…or if she was actually angry.

And that’s why I don’t read in bed–because the last thing I want to do is associate reading with sleepiness. How does chapter one score? Like, 2 out of 10, like, trying to hang an electric blanket on a flagpole on a breezy day. But…that 2 of 10 is enough to bring me back to the next chapter.

The Story of O

The Story of O. Here’s where my logic entirely breaks down. If Eye could only come post-WWI, then O could only come post-WWII because I just don’t get it. It’s like, okay, so people’s faces melted to their chests in Hiroshima, I get it, but I don’t really, really get it. I mean, that’s crazy shit. The most remarkable thing in this chapter is the author’s endless descriptions of all things cloth, whether as clothing or upholstery. How it moves, feels, appears in the light, its drape, its emotional value. It’s that sort of thing that leads one to say “ah! this was written by a woman” and which leads me to say “ah! this was maybe written by Somerset Maugham.”

Secondly, I remark upon the narrator, who takes it upon him/herself to describe, midway through a somewhat sexual sequence taking place indoors that “the rain had stopped and the trees were swaying in the wind while the moon raced high among the clouds.” Fascinating. For a number of reasons. Firstly, the moon does not race anywhere ever. It’s about as well-regulated as anything possibly can be. It’s the clouds that were racing due to the wind that swayed the trees. Also, the moon was not anywhere “among” the clouds–it was in the same moony realm in which it’s always resided. This calls to mind the thin streak of cloud moving across the moon in that horrid Bunuel/Dali film, immediately followed by the razor slicing the eyeball in much the same fashion. And, so this relatively tranquil scene is followed immediately by the heroine tied up, whipped, gang-raped, confessing “I love you” while a man is gagging her with his dick, and being turned into a slave.

Let’s pause here to mention that one of my favorite films is Secretary. I understand the concept of wanting to do anything for love–that is, of absolutely needing to define oneself through another’s projected image of you. That’s the desire to be loved. Project who you think I am on me, I’ll play along if you’ll possess me, and hopefully by the time you realize the truth you’ll be in so deep that you’re stuck for life. Love!

And I’m not horrified in reading this. But I’m not turned on in any way whatsoever. I don’t care. I don’t feel titillation or excitement or a fetid desire to turn the page. I just don’t care. I’m achingly bored. This gets a 0 out of 10 in my opinion. That’s like turning the flagpole into aluminum cans.

So, if you had to guess, it’d be that I’m more turned on by stories that involve anxiety disorders than stories that involve BDSM. But not by much. And…overall this experiment is, so far, failing.

China

Note: I don’t know anything about Communism, Socialism, China, or Russia. Seriously.

Certainly I fell in love at once with the poetry of Li Po and of Tu Fu, but aside from that very little has struck me in Chinese history as memorable, just the endless succession of names and dynasties, it struck me quite the same ten years ago as it does now. Durant expresses precisely this, at an ideal moment commenting that ‘it is part of the bathos of distance that our long removal from alien scenes obscures variety in places and men, and submerges the most diverse personalities in a dull uniformity of appearance and character’ (Our Oriental Heritage, 724).

I was once told that Russia fell into the hands of Communism so easily not because it was weak, but because it had been communist all along, that historically Russia was a communist land. I don’t know if this is true. So I’ve had my eye out for indications that something in the Chinese character is similar, that there’s some governing philosophy that’s held sway the Chinese mind for thousands of years. Confucianism seems to be the philosophy they continually fall into. And I don’t feel like looking into the parallels, if there are any, right now, because that’s not why I began writing this.

“Above all, Chinese architecture suffered from the absence of three institutions present in almost every other great nation of antiquity: an hereditary aristocracy, a powerful priesthood, and a strong and wealthy central government. These are the forces that in the past have paid for the larger works of art–for the temples and palaces, the masses and operas, the great frescoes and sculptured tombs. And China was fortunate and unique: she had none of these institutions” (741).

“The general impression left by Chinese architecture upon the foreign and untechnical observer is one of charming frailty. Color dominates form, and beauty here has to do without the aid of sublimity. The Chinese temple or palace seeks not to dominate nature, but to cooperate with it in that perfect harmony of the whole which depends upon the modesty of the parts. Those qualities that give a structure strength, security and permanence are absent here, as if the builders feared that earthquakes would stultify their pains. Those buildings hardly belong to the same art as that which raised its monuments at Karnak and Persepolis, and on the Acropolis; they are not architecture as we of the Occident have known it, but rather the carving of wood, the glazing of pottery and the sculpture of stone; they harmonize better with porcelain and jade than with the ponderous edifices that a mixture of engineering and architecture gave to India, Mesopotamia or Rome. If we do not ask of them the grandeur and the solidity which their makers may never have cared to give them, if we accept them willingly as architectural cameos expressing the most delicate of tastes in the most fragile of structural forms, then they take their place as a natural and appropriate variety of Chinese art, and among the most gracious shapes ever fashioned by men” (744).

This, of course, leads me to think of Spengler’s chapter on mathematics in early civilizations, of Kenneth Clark’s discussion of viking shipbuilding, and Will Durant’s own on prehistoric Greek dwellings–because I think a Western notion of confidence as an overarching thesis may fail here–however, Durant was writing before those banners of Chairman Mao were hung, before the tanks in my memory, of the stadiums and the smog and the mass-production (the slavery that shocks us now has yet always been a component of Chinese civilization), nothing about modern China, not the convents and epidemics of The Painted Veil, and not the drug dens and orgies of The Good Earth, is what I am trying to think of now…I won’t pretend to understand the Chinese character–as much time as I’ve spent trying to understand the British or the French, I still haven’t come to terms with either, they make absolutely no sense to me, I feel as if I’m rolling dice; so much more so, the Chinese.

Concerning its poetry: “we may tire, at times, of a certain sentimentality in [Chinese poetry], a vainly wistful mood of regret that time will not stop in its flight and let men and states be young forever” (713). And concerning its architecture: “drawings . . . show that  through its long history of over twenty-three centuries Chinese architecture has been content with the same designs, and the same modest proportions” (741). And, on poetry, again,

“what we do see is, above all, brevity. . . . But the Chinese believe that all poetry must be brief; that a long poem is a contradiction in terms–since poetry, to them, is a moment’s ecstasy, and dies when dragged out in epic reams. Its mission is to see and paint a picture with a stroke, and write a philosophy in a dozen lines; its ideal is infinite meaning in a little rhythm. Since pictures are of the essence of poetry, and the essence of Chinese writing is pictography, the written language of China is spontaneously poetic; it lends itself to writing in pictures, and shuns abstractions that cannot be phrased as things seen. Since abstractions multiply with civilization, the Chinese language, in its written form, has become a secret code of subtle suggestions; and in like manner, and perhaps for a like reason, Chinese poetry combines suggestion with concentration, and aims to reveal, through the picture it draws, some deeper thing invisible. It does not discuss, it intimates; it leaves out more than it says; and only an Oriental can fill it in. . . . Like Chinese manners and art, Chinese poetry is a matter of infinite grace concealed in a placid simplicity. It foregoes metaphor, comparison and allusion, but relies on showing the thing itself, with a hint of its implications. It avoids exaggeration and passion [I immediately recall that hotel orgy that lasted for days and involved hundreds upon hundreds of people in a major Chinese city a few years ago…], but appeals to the mature mind by understatement and restraint; it is seldom romantically excited in form, but knows how to express intense feeling in its own quietly classic way” (712).

Compare, then, to the poetry of Tagore, whose every word I think is so laden with poetic ambiguity that at times I think his work suffers–in the same way that Vedic architecture so discomforts and sometimes horrifies me.

Not that I live a simple life, not for one heartbeat. But, the whole point is that there is a thread I see running through Chinese history, through its art and philosophy, which is one of simplicity, but when attached to my opinions on Confidence, I think it does have a role, which is that until recently, confidence in China was related to restraint, restraint and nuance performed the role of grandeur and obtuseness we’ve so come to adore. And where is the necessity of living forever? Perhaps as in Judaism, placing the emphasis on living during life rather than on fame and posterity and eternity etc. is what has produced so little in terms of Western greatness. Hm, yes, I do believe in subtlety above all. So I live a life of subtlety when I can, this is true.

novel: Maugham: The Razor’s Edge (1944)

I claim to be a writer if I’m pressed for a real answer, something better than “drug dealer.” But the follow-up question is always brutal: what do you write? Well…I used to consider myself a short-story writer, and then I thought I was writing a novel that turned out to be poetry…and what now? Love letters. I write very little other else. Usually I send them to Nathalie. I sometimes wonder if I enjoy them more than I enjoy love itself, for I do admit thinking, while in the throes of love, of what words I’ll be choosing to translate this into, for in my love letters I can draw you shining, and leave to drown the ways you failed, I can make something perfect, and if you saw it you’d be so pleased to know just how beautiful you looked that night. I also know the fervent apocalypse of the shades drawn all day, drinking the air humid and acrid, eating your breath, smoking your fingers, swallowing your words instead of my pills. That’s the nature of the writer, I suppose, who makes many decisions based on what experience he’ll gain to write about, no matter how foolish, unnecessary, or unhappy those decisions will be. I’ve paid the price many times, and those who care about me have tried to put a stop to it, but honestly, what else can I do?
I have to go to sleep, honest, I have work in the morning…
–Please, Stephen, don’t you see? I’m leaving soon, tomorrow is my last night, and then that’s it, that’s it for a very long time. Maybe we’ll see each other again, but look at us, look at how we live, can you tell me that we’ll be alive next week? Stay awake with me tonight. Stay awake, because this might be our last chance together.
–I will.
I’ve been claustrophobic between my sheets, alone, and I’ve had to crabwalk over bodies, dress silent, fly out to the streets to fill my lungs, and I’ve felt my whole suckled, curled up freely, cool, sweet breezes under ten blankets, she’s pretty but she’s ruined, pretty but her teeth are fucked up, she wants to drop out but she wants to have a baby, I’m not used to numbers this big, the blood hasn’t stained my hands yet, but it will, I’ve even felt like a bird when your legs were thundering on my ears, I know the sound of your blood, some kid is picking flowers out of his eyes and digging for food in the trash in Bosnia, I don’t need to be in your pants, but I need to be in your hands, I don’t want to get off, but I want to fuck you, I don’t want to love you, but I need to feel like I do.

And do I fall in love easily? This question has two answers. One, yes: Nathalie envies me for this, the way I can move on always juggling prospects and deeply enthralled day by day, how I fall in love with someone every time I ride the bus, and how I forget her face soon afterwards. Four, yes, I want to wear a housedress and bake pies and connect the freckles and end the series at the peak of its ratings. Three, yes, no, no, no, I’ve been in love, I have so, and because it was so wonderful, I can never do it again, and I have to die young. Two, no: I don’t fall in love at all. Recently I felt very mournful that I had no more love to give, that I had given all the love I possibly had within me, and that these girls that I was trying to get involved with, well, I had nothing left for them. It turned out to not be true, because I had Byronic depression for one, and Achillean rage for the other. And everyone gets a love letter, it’s like a party favor, and that doesn’t make it meaningless, because the truth is that my entire soul is poured into these letters, they’re my only art, and if I did not have them, I don’t think I could bear to live. I fill up with a terrible passion, anger, sentimentality, and it burns in me until I can write it down, writing destroys things from my mind, they go into the paper, and you’d have a difficult time forcing me to recall anything I’ve ever written about if I’ve written about them to conclusion. Does a love letter mean I love you? Eh, not necessarily, and it doesn’t mean that I could love you either. They’re called love letters because there’s a not another term for them, and my prosaic virtues others tend to find intense, overwhelming, debilitating, in short: lovely. Most of my friends have received them from me, and I’ve received many from them, and there’s nothing else that feels quite so wonderful.

When I met her, I quickly ran home and went through my tens of thousands of books packed away to find my collection of Maugham, whom she considered “the most underrated novelist in the English language,” and whom I considered very dull, whose character development was restrained to how far one’s belly protrudes and whether or not one’s shirttails are flapping. This belief was founded on my reading of The Painted Veil, being one of my least favorite novels of all time. I’d vowed to throw out everything I owned by Maugham, and I found his books deep in a stack of advanced physics and astronomy textbooks. Who am I kidding? I began reading The Razor’s Edge, to impress her, of course, and fell in love with it immediately, as he introduces the story as being a true story, and explains the outcome, and all the ways he will fall short as an author, being unable to duplicate the language of Americans naturally.

The Painted Veil is remarkable for its being the only book he wrote in which plot held preeminence over character development. The story goes: a woman cheats on her husband, he forces her to come with him to a plague-ridden town so that she’ll die. He dies. I think she goes on to cheat on him. Or maybe she dies too. The point being, his emphasis on plot fails to make even a good story. The plot of Razor’s Edge: there’s some people, they come and go, oh, and at the end somebody admits to having effected something we didn’t find particularly remarkable earlier in the book. And yet it’s a page-turner. Is it the language? The language is often difficult, as I learned the names of more fabrics, garments, viands, and brands than I could ever remember, though I’ve made a nice list of them just in case. In the end it’s a character study of many individuals, all of whose lives I could take up immediately if I so please. And in the center is the author-narrator, who lives a very moderate life, cares a bit for everyone, but needs nobody, and although everyone thinks very highly of him, they care little for him. Nearly all my close friends fall into the category of “Sophie”—drug addicts and alcoholics, using sex to make money or just to survive, who once wrote as poets and now live as poets, whose lives have become mechanized within some romantic framework, and whose deaths are imminent. And then there is Isabel, sharp, dawdles with the poets, but ultimately chooses an existence based on stability, leads a fairly uninteresting life, and whose immorality derives from passive attempts to reanimate their own dead youths. I’ve never met anyone like Larry. He’s who I strive to be…and yet, I enjoy the transitory pleasure far too much… He is not a “beat”—because he values knowledge, and experience finds its way into his life via his quest for knowledge. And in my life, as I’ve noted above, knowledge seems to find its way into my life via my quest for experience.

She and I stopped talking, abruptly, and I wrote her a 20,000 word letter. And then I had no more feelings, and then I could move on, afraid that I’d never feel anything again. I’d gotten a subscription to the New York Times so I could discuss its editorials with her. I canceled it. The book she recommended continued to be enjoyable. And as soon as I finished it, I looked up from the pages, and there beside me was a woman who was also looking up from her book, and I gave her my copy, and she taught me a few things, wrote me a very pretty note, and I’ll probably never see her again. I had my moments with each of them. Sophie has her throat slit and her body cast into the ocean, the socialite Elliot rots to death (I recognize that experience–finding that most of one’s friends are phonies when one is dying, you fucks), and everyone else seems doomed to live without love. Forget, forget everyone, forget love, close your eyes in these vast expanses of time, especially the middle years… That’s what Razor’s Edge teaches me to do, teaches me to allow life, and more specifically, people, to wash over me, and wash away as they will, to half expect them throughout life, but to expect, no matter how I live, no matter what I do, to die alone and anonymous. But what about those of us who write love letters? What are we to do?