Reading W. Somerset Maugham novels, it almost seems a shame that we travel by planes, or locked away alone in our solitary cars, rather than boat or ship. I say that in the way that someone has nostalgia for the 1950s: I wouldn’t actually want to go back to those days. My friends may come back from trips with stories of funny, flirty or annoying encounters with their plane aisle mates, but I travel with an expression that says, “If you try to talk to me I will slit your throat.” I don’t do small talk, and if I can’t stand a chatty neighbor on a five-hour flight, there’s no way I’m surviving a monthlong boat journey. But so many of the most memorable stories from Maugham’s books were born out of an involuntary mix of people in close quarters for days on end, and you’d have to dive into the sea to escape that unbearable middle-aged man who won’t stop bragging about his sexual conquests.
Maugham was as chilly a traveler as I am — he often brought along “secretaries” (read: boyfriends) on his trips to filter the other passengers and run interference for him — but he turned those painful encounters into unforgettable characters. His most famous story “Rain,” about a Christian missionary’s very unfortunate encounter with a woman of loose morals, was born out of a similar man he met on his travels. In “Mr. Know-all,” the narrator is trapped on a ship with a man who sacrifices tact and friendships in his driving need to prove himself right about absolutely everything. “I hate him” becomes a refrain in the story, opening nearly every section.
Maugham was notorious for taking his stories from real life, barely even bothering to change the names. (This got him into a lot of trouble when multiple people saw themselves in his satire on writing and publishing “Cakes & Ale,” but Maugham would stubbornly call it his best and favorite novel to the end of his life.) And so in “The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing,” a new collection released by the Modern Library, you see the seeds to many of his short stories and novels. Even the missionary from “Rain” shows up here, although his wife rather steals the spotlight in the nonfiction version of events: “She spoke of the depravity of the natives in a voice nothing could hush, but with a vehement, unctuous horror; she described their marriage customs as obscene beyond description. She said that when they first went to the Gilberts it was impossible to find a single “good” girl in any of the villages. She was very bitter about the dancing.”
Maugham never quite felt at home in his native England, and he reported that he only felt comfortable when across the Channel. (He also had reasons to go; his travel became compulsive during his very unfortunate and unhappy marriage.) “The Skeptical Romancer” is full of accounts from China (where he set “The Painted Veil”), Vietnam, Texas and Russia, where he served as a spy during WWI and set his Ashenden tales. He wouldn’t be the writer he was had he been a homebody. Travel reveals human nature — jostled by the unexpected and uncoddled by a comfortable routine, a person reveals their true character. That’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Maugham’s travel writing. It’s not the beautiful locales and the philosophical musings they inspire (although there is that). Its power lies in what it reveals about just plain old existence.
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut. She currently resides in Berlin.