HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureAn elegant literary tribute to W. Somerset Maugham

An elegant literary tribute to W. Somerset Maugham

The Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng’s first novel, The Gift of Rain (2007), was longlisted for the Booker prize. His second, The Garden of Evening Mists (2011), was shortlisted for it. After a gap of a decade Eng now returns with a novel that retells real-life events that took place in Penang (then British Malaya) in the 1920s.

The main character is Lesley Hamlyn, who initially appears to be “just another unhappily married woman in the tropics”. Lesley lives with her husband, Robert, in the beautiful Cassowary House, where Robert is suffering from the after-effects of a First World War gas attack. He spends more time talking to his dog than to his wife. The couple’s routine is enlivened when an old friend of Robert’s comes to stay. Their guest is “Willie” (W. Somerset Maugham, 1874–1965), “one of the richest writers in the world”, a man who likes to sit “on a quiet verandah” in the “light from a paraffin lamp” and chat to those inclined to unburden themselves to “a traveller who will be gone in the morning”.

In Penang, Willie soon starts “snuffling out other people’s scandals and secrets”. Stories unravel, from the past and present. Eng’s novel is a book of frames within frames. Narrative doors open to reveal other doors. The author works like the birds that Lesley observes at the beginning of the book, “writing circles over circles on the empty page of sky”.

Lesley happens to be a friend of Ethel Proudlock, a married woman who (in real life) was put on trial in the Kuala Lumpur courts for murdering her lover when he tried to rape her. The story of her trial is intertwined with Lesley’s account of Robert’s infidelity and her own love affair, which took place at the mysterious House of Doors.

Willie considers himself a chronicler of human weakness, of “cowardice, fear, selfishness, pride, hypocrisy”. But he insists that he writes “without any sneer of superiority” and that his characters “are never completely beyond redemption”. Eng is similarly both merciless and compassionate in his recounting of these troubled lives.

Some sections of the novel are told in the first-person voice of Lesley, some in a close third person that takes us into Willie’s internal world. It soon becomes clear that Willie himself is escaping a marriage of convenience. He has left his wife behind in London and is travelling with his “secretary”, Gerald Haxton (1892–1944).

Gerald is shallow and vain, interested only in gambling and brothels, but Willie loves him. However, the relationship is unravelling because Willie has lost all his money and Gerald is soon likely to lose interest in Willie. The pain of this clandestine relationship gives rise to some of Eng’s most brilliant and painful passages.

This all takes place against a lovingly evoked world of parasols, panama hats, houseboys, punkawallahs and the latest offerings from “cookie” (the cook). Penang is “Cheltenham on the equator”. Mock-Tudor pubs have names like the Spotted Dog. No one is really interested in poor Ethel because she has “damaged our prestige among the natives”.

The narrative is recorded with an admirable lack of comment. Whatever critique of colonialism it offers is implicit. Willie and Lesley are, however, both aware of how powerless women are in this society. Though Lesley does achieve some liberation, this is only through telling stories that Willie can borrow. The House of Doors brings to mind those colonial film and television adaptations of the 1980s – of books such as Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (1966), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1975) and James Fox’s White Mischief (1982). But this is no pastiche: what elevates Eng’s book is the sheer beauty of his writing – restrained, elegant, precise, every detail accurate, every line considered. Pain, loss and disappointment seep from every page, as do beauty and compassion.

This novel is also an elegant tribute to Maugham, who has attracted some biting criticism (in 1978 he was described in the New York Review of Books as “the mahatma of middlebrow culture”) and is currently out of fashion – but, interestingly, never out of print. One hopes that this beautiful novel might help to rescue Maugham from his own assessment: “in the very top row of the second rate”. Tan Twan Eng has no need for such defence. He resides in the very top row. The sentences here remind me of Shirley Hazzard, or perhaps James Salter. I can offer little higher praise.

Alice Jolly’s novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was runner-up for the Rathbones Folio prize in 2019

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post Other people’s scandals appeared first on TLS.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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