Tuesday, 3 February 2015

W. Somerset Maugham- The Narrow Corner

The Narrow Corner

W. Somerset Maugham

“When some incident has shattered the career you’ve mapped out for yourself, a folly, a crime or a misfortune, you mustn’t think you’re down and out. It may be a stroke of luck, and when you look back years later you may say to yourself that you wouldn’t for anything in the world exchange the new life disaster has forced upon you for the dull, humdrum existence you would have led if circumstances hadn’t intervened.”  

The last time this blog looked at a book from W. Somerset Maugham, it turned this reader into a veritable superfan of the author, determined to one day complete his bibliography. That book was the sublime The Moon and Sixpence, and, by complete coincidence, the next Maugham book I somewhat randomly chose happened to be technically a spin-off. As the author explains himself in his short introduction, the genesis for The Narrow Corner came from his nagging compulsion to fully explore an anecdote told to the prior novel's narrator by a grizzled old sea dog named Captain Nichols; about an incident some years earlier where he'd been hired to sail a murder suspect away from Sydney and around the south Oceanic seas. The idea refused to budge from his mind, and so thirteen years later came the publication of The Narrow Corner- part adventure, part thriller, all of it a compelling character study on the weaknesses of man.

Elderly Maugham
The structure of the novel is actually a fairly straightforward series of set-pieces, that by themselves contain a simple plot typically more reminiscent of a novella, or perhaps stage performance. The meat of the novel comes from Maugham's explorations of the themes and moral dilemmas provoked by the characters' experiences, portrayed through either long, thoughtful conversations between the protagonists or through Maugham's omniscient depiction of the thoughts of one character in particular. As the novel begins, Captain Nichols is indeed guiding a suspicious young Australian man through the South Seas, the irritable Fred Blake, who claims to be searching the area for a suitable location to invest in real estate.

On the (I believe fictional) island of Takana they encounter the enigmatic Englishman Dr. Saunders, who, against Blake's wishes, convinces the Captain to give him passage off the island, a place he has grown tired of. Saunders completes a trinity of opposing yet reflective personalities that Maugham uses to debate varying philosophies on life, resulting in the aforementioned long conversations spiked with introspective musings. Though the book is written with third person narration, Saunders seems to be very much Maugham's own persona inserted into the equation, and it is his thoughts that are directly explored in the prose, somewhat shaping the reader's impression of Captain Nichols and Fred Blake. Saunders tells little of his past, but seems to be a well-traveled unjudging sage of sorts, with a strong moral compass of his own but also compassion for the tribulations of those perceived as bad. He matches up very well with Nichols, who is himself a definite rogue; a pirate or a smuggler depending on the possibility of profit, but with a sense of good humour and self-justification strong enough to make him an amiable, likable rapscallion- or so it seems.

Fred Blake is the odd man out. Aggressive and insecure, he clashes with Nichols constantly, though Saunders as the middleman is able to discern that he's really a scared young man on the run. After the trio sail away from the island, and after Maugham has spent plenty of time establishing their personalities and creating a sense of foreboding, they find themselves stuck on a remote exotic island, where they meet the few Europeans settled there, including the spiritually and morally pure Dutchman Erik, and his beautiful fiance Louise. Erik stands as a shining example of a man who has achieved a form of nirvana, at peace with the world and himself, he exists as a marked contrast to his three cynical visitors.

The irresistible figure of Louise is more or less an alternative example of Chekhov's gun, in that her very existence is like a flagpole to the reader that events are about to head south. When they do, Blake also confesses the truth of his situation and how it began, and the direct parallels between his past and present bring further insight into the novel's primary themes regarding the nature of man's morality when put in pressing circumstances. There's a final revelation saved for the very end that I can't spoil but which prospectively turns the readers' final perspective regarding Maugham's themes on its head, depending on one's prior opinion of Captain Nichols.

I found the novel to be a quick, compelling read, albeit inferior in aura to other Maugham novels I'd read previously; lacking a magnetic personality like Charles Strickland in Moon and Sixpence or Oliver Haddo in The Magician. It's a much tighter story with a more cohesive resolution than those books, and in the fortnight since I finished it I've found the character motivations and decisions have stuck with me, cropping up in my thoughts with a deeper resonance than first thought. There is no true hero in the novel. Erik holds noble values, he crumbles when faced with the harsh realities of the wider world. Dr. Saunders is too morally ambiguous, though he understands the truth of events more than any other character. Captain Nichols is the most interesting of all, a lovable rogue whose good nature disguises an extremely malleable moral compass.

The Narrow Corner is another exemplary novel from Maugham. Short, structured, and easy to read, but with a deeper meaning permeating every detail. He continues to be one of the most rewarding writers of those that I'm following.