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Cosmopolitans (Complete works / W. Somerset Maugham) (Anglais)

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I am and have been, since I was a child a great fan of Somerset Maugham. I was looking for the complete works, and this book is not that but very entertaining, nonetheless. I do hope somewhere someone has the complete works of this superbly entertaining author. I do wish that Amazon could reproduce what I say and write without changing the capital letters and the grammar. They need a better system.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Maugham + very short stories = very great entertainment 17 juillet 2011
Par Alexander Arsov - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
W. Somerset Maugham

Very Short Stories*

Raw Material [1923, as ''The Imposters'']
Mayhew [1923]
German Harry [1924]
The Happy Man [1924]
The Dream [1924]
In a Strange Land [1924]
The Luncheon* [1924]
Salvatore [1924, as ''Salvatore the Fisherman'']
Home [1924, as ''Home from the Sea'']
Mr. Know-All [1925]
The Escape [1925, as ''The Widow's Might'']
A Friend in Need [1925, as ''The Man Who Wouldn't Hurt a Fly'']
The Portrait of a Gentleman [1925, as ''The Code of a Gentleman'']
The End of the Flight [1926]
The Judgement Seat [never published in magazine***]
The Ant and the Grasshopper [1924]
French Joe [1926, as ''Another Man Without a Country'']
The Man with the Scar [1925]
The Poet [1925, as ''The Great Man'']
Louise [1925, as ''The Most Selfish Woman I Ever Knew'']
The Closed Shop [1926]
The Promise [1925, as ''An Honest Woman'']
A String of Beads [1927, as ''Pearls'']
The Bum [1929, as ''A Derelict'']
Straight Flush [1929]
The Verger [1929, as ''The Man Who Made His Mark'']
The Wash Tub [1929, as ''In Hiding'']
The Social Sense [1929, as ''The Extraordinary Sex'']
The Four Dutchmen [1928]

Heinemann, Hardback, 1938.
12mo. xiii, 302 pp. The Collected edition. Original Preface, 1936 [vii-xiii].

First published by Doubleday Doran in 1936.
First published by Heinemann in The Collected edition in 1938.

* In the square brackets: the year of the first publication in a magazine and the alternative title, if any.

** Significantly rewritten version of Cousin Amy which was first published in a magazine in 1908 but had to wait more than 60 years to appear in book form: ''Seventeen Lost Stories'' (1969).

*** But it was published in pamphlet form in 1934.


The first thing about ''Cosmopolitans'' by Somerset Maugham that must be stressed firmly is that this short story collection is quite different than all others he ever published. Hence any comparisons between them are, to put it mildly, ridiculous. I wonder why this escapes some biographers of Maugham, most notably Jeffrey Meyers who insists on such comparison in his somewhat pathetic attempt ''Somerset Maugham: A Life'' (2004).

Let's look at the numbers first: all previous short story collections by Maugham, published between 1920 and 1933, contained no more than 6 stories each (except Ashenden of course; but its 16 chapters were later merged into six short stories anyway). ''Cosmopolitans'' contains exactly 29 pieces and has the subtitle ''Very Short Stories''. It is therefore quite obvious that these short stories are expected to be much shorter and much less complex in terms of both plot and character development than Maugham's previous works in the genre. Indeed, they are. Therefore any comparisons of that sort are, to put it very mildly, preposterous. Mr. Meyers also tells us that there is only one outstanding story in this collection and that is ''Mr. Know-All''. This too is a perfect nonsense.

The name of the collection comes, of course, from the famous magazine ''Cosmopolitan'' in which all these short stories save one appeared between 1923 and 1929. Indeed, they were written on a commission from that magazine whose editor, Ray Long, happened to read Maugham's travel book ''On A Chinese Screen'' (1922) and thinking that some of the 58 short sketches included in it might well serve as short stories commissioned a dozen or so new ones to Maugham. Later most of these very short stories were revised a great deal, acquired new titles and were published in a single volume by Doubleday in 1936. To this book Maugham wrote one of his most charming prefaces, extremely amusing to read and containing a lot of serious thoughts about the art of fiction. He states that the stories for Cosmopolitan were to be short enough to be printed on two opposite pages of the magazine and leave enough space for an illustration. Maugham describes his difficulties to compress all he had to say in so limited a space and points out that these stories, naturally, are anecdotes. But I couldn't say it better than he did:

''My difficulty was to compress what I had to tell into a number of words which must not be exceeded and yet leave the reader with the impression that I had told all there was to tell. It was this that made the enterprise amusing. It was also salutary. I could not afford to waste a word. I had to be succinct. I was surprised to find how many adverbs and adjectives I could leave out without any harm to the matter or the manner. One often writes needless words because they give the phrase a better ring. It was very good practice to try to get balance into a sentence without using a word that was not necessary to the sense.''

''The matter of course had to be chosen with discretion; it would have been futile to take a theme that demanded elaborate development; and I have a natural predilection for completeness, so that even in the little space at my disposal I wanted my story to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not for my own part much care for the shapeless story.''

''The anecdote is the basis of fiction. The restlessness of writers forces upon fiction from time to time forms that are foreign to it, but when it has been oppressed for a period by obscurity, propaganda or affectation, it reverts, and returns inevitably to the anecdote.''

After that Maugham makes a very shrewd remark about novels in general that is pretty much true for all fiction:

''The novel may stimulate you to think. It may satisfy your aesthetic sense. It may arouse your moral emotions. But if it does not entertain you it is a bad novel. It is merely laziness that induces people to go to novels for instruction on subjects that are the province of experts. There is no short road to knowledge and you will only waste your time if you seek it in a work of fiction.''

Maugham's aim with these very short stories was to amuse and to entertain. Nothing more. To my mind he succeeds completely. And gives much more besides as well.

The most amazing thing about all short stories in this collection is that even in this very limited space Maugham manages to achieve a perfect structure. His stories always have ''a beginning, a middle and an end'' although the ''cosmopolitans'' (by design!) are much shorter than his other stories and do not make any pretensions for plot plausibility or character complexity. For my own part, I can hardly imagine something more enjoyable to read than these quite charming little pieces. Most of them are simply hilarious and I always laugh my head off while reading them, ''Mr. Know-All'', ''The Ant and the Grasshopper'', ''The Poet'' and ''The Wash Tub'' being the perfect examples. The short story ''Louise'', on the other hand, is a very apt example of something that is both hilarious and, if you look at it under a slightly different angle, quite serious at the same time; it is also one of the most cynical works Maugham ever wrote and one that can always be counted to win him more accusations of misogyny. Personally I consider it a masterpiece.

The emotional range of Maugham's writing is as exceptional here as it is everywhere else in his works; only the different themes are explored in different stories because of the limited space. Among the many wonderful experiences while reading ''Cosmopolitans'' you can touch for a moment the pure goodness (''Salvatore''), be enchanted by some extremely honest women (''The Promise'' and ''The Social Sense''; misogyny be damned!), convince yourself that the illiteracy is not something so bad after all (''The Verger''), be shocked by how unexpected a thing somebody could do (''A Friend in Need'') or be deeply moved by the heart-rending story of ''The Bum''. I have not the slightest hesitation to put all these stories in an imaginary volume of mine called ''The Best Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham''. Indeed, the first lines of ''A Friend in Need'' may very well serve as an introduction to Maugham's complete works:

''For thirty years now I have been studying my fellow-men. I do not know very much about them. I should certainly hesitate to engage a servant on his face, and yet I suppose it is on the face that for the most part we judge the persons we meet. We draw our conclusions from the shape of the jaw, the look in the eyes, the contour of the mouth. I wonder if we are more often right than wrong. Why novels and plays are so often untrue to life is because their authors, perhaps of necessity, make their characters all of a piece. They cannot afford to make them self-contradictory, for then they become incomprehensible, and yet self-contradictory is what most of us are. We are a haphazard bundle of inconsistent qualities. In books on logic they will tell you that it is absurd to say that yellow is tubular or gratitude heavier than air; but in that mixture of incongruities that makes up the self yellow may very well be a horse and cart and gratitude the middle of the week. I shrug my shoulders when people tell me that their first impressions of a person are always right. I think they must have small insight or great vanity. For my own part I find that the longer I know people the more they puzzled me: my oldest friends are just these of whom I can say that I don't know the first thing about them.''

Of course, as every extremely productive writer, Maugham is not always at his best (only the mediocre is, as he once said). His finest achievements in the genre were generally his much longer and much more complex short stories where he had much greater chances to explore the human nature and all its singularities. Yet, the aforementioned very short stories prove conclusively that Maugham could well reach the same degree of perfection in much shorter and essentially different in character works. This shows his considerable versatility as a writer which is often grossly underestimated.

Even not at his very best Maugham can be amusing (''Raw Material''), thought-provoking (''Mayhew''), moving (''Home'') and hilarious (''The Closed Shop''). Even at his worst Maugham remains highly readable and not at all boring. I certainly think some of the stories here - ''The Portrait of a Gentleman'', ''The Man with the Scar'', ''German Harry'' and ''French Joe'' for instance - are the worst of all 110 or so Maugham ever wrote. Yet they make a very pleasant reading if not altogether absorbing. Even in these short stories Maugham could always surprise you with something deep and profound. Take for example the introductory paragraph of the otherwise indifferent story ''The Happy Man''. I certainly consider these few lines to be some of the greatest Maugham ever wrote:

''It is a dangerous thing to order the lives of others and I have often wondered at the self-confidence of politicians, reformers and such like who are prepared to force upon their fellows measures that must alter their manners, habits and points of view. I have always hesitated to give advice, for how can one advise another how to act unless one knows that other as well as one knows oneself? Heaven knows, I know little enough of myself: I know nothing of others. We can only guess at the thoughts and emotions of our neighbours. Each one of us is a prisoner in a solitary tower and he communicates with the other prisoners, who form mankind, by conventional signs that have not quite the same meaning for them as for himself. And life, unfortunately, is something that you can lead but once; mistakes are often irreparable, and who am I that should tell this one and that how he should lead it? Life is a difficult business and I have found it hard enough to make my own a complete and rounded thing; I have not been tempted to teach my neighbour what he should do with his.''

Two short stories in ''Cosmopolitans'' require special attention.

''The Luncheon'' is actually a significantly rewritten version of the short story ''Cousin Amy'' published in ''Pall Mall Magazine'' in March 1908. Maugham was adamant that none of his early stories, which he thought very immature and preposterously supercilious, should be reprinted in his later collections (unless he revised and approved of it). So ''Cousin Amy'' had to wait more than 60 years for its first appearance in book form: ''Seventeen Lost Stories'' (1969), compiled and with introduction by Craig Showalter, first published just four years after Maugham's death. It is extremely fascinating to compare both versions because such comparison offers an unparalleled insight into Maugham's development as a writer marked by his constant striving to improve his style. Much as ''Cousin Amy'' is amusing to read, its later version is much subtler and much funnier; Maugham actually discarded the gluttonous cousin for an ardent admirer of a young writer. And to a great effect I would say.

The short story ''The Judgement Seat'' is unique in both this volume and the whole of Maugham's oeuvre. To the best of my belief it is the only one of all 29 short stories here that was never published in a magazine form. Interestingly, it was published as a pamphlet in 1934 and under its present title. Moreover, it certainly is the only case in all of Maugham's works when he wrote pure fantasy (just like the ''The Closed Shop'' is the only case when he enjoyed playing with utopia). ''The Judgement Seat'' is set where nobody has ever come back from to tell us what it really is and one of the main characters is He who half the mankind passionately believe in and the other half, with equal vehemence, deny his existence. It gives an excellent opportunity for Maugham to mention and even to explore a bit one of his favorite themes, one of the greatest controversies that is there:

''No one can deny the fact of Evil,'' said the philosopher, sententiously. ''Now, if God cannot prevent Evil he is not all-powerful, and if he can prevent it and will not, he is not all-good.''
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