The Perfect Traveler
Travel Books: He was cool, steady and prone to breaking rules. Pico Iyer celebrates the life and work of Somerset Maugham.
10.28.09 | 10:13 AM ET
The perfect traveler must be a perfect contradiction. She should be open to almost everything that comes her way, but not too ready to be taken in. He should be worldly, shrewd, his feet firmly on the ground; but he must also have the capacity to give himself over to moments of real wonder. He or she must be curious, observant, spirited and kind—ready to spin a spell-binding tale of adventure and irony at the Explorers’ Club, and then throw it all over for a crazy romance in the South Seas.
Really, I suppose, the ideal traveler, or travel companion, offers a happy blend of steadiness and surprise. I make up such lists of characteristics often, in my head, and scroll quickly through some of the obvious suspects (Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Annie Dillard). And then, somehow, I alight, over and over, on a man who seems to be wearing a silk dressing gown and is best known for his novels (though in his lifetime he was celebrated as a dramatist). We read “Of Human Bondage,” “The Razor’s Edge” or “The Moon and Sixpence” for their familiar characters, their unembarrassed intensity and, perhaps, behind all that, their exotic scenes; but the reason Somerset Maugham is still commanding readers almost 50 years after his death, and the reason Hollywood keeps turning to him for new movies (“Up at the Villa,” “Being Julia,” “The Painted Veil”) is that he was a classic traveler, disguising his hunger for romance, and even for transcendence, behind the cool demeanor of an unillusioned, above-it-all, often feline Englishman.
In reality, however, Maugham was born in Paris and all his early letters were written in perfect French. As a teenager he studied in Heidelberg and then, having already mastered Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian and Russian, he went to Seville for 16 months in his early 20s and learned Spanish. He served in World War I as a volunteer ambulance driver and nurse—though he had four plays on at the time in London’s West End—and he became the West’s main source of intelligence in Russia during the weeks leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. And all of that was before he undertook the long, almost never-ending series of journeys, to Borneo and China and the Pacific and Japan, that made him perhaps the defining teller of far-flung tales. Look at him enjoying himself with Noel Coward and Winston Churchill, and it’s easy to forget that he spent the last 39 years of his life in France, where he had a secret symbol to repel the evil eye painted on his outside wall (and had that same symbol slipped into the cover of his books).
Only four of the 78 books Maugham turned out are officially placed on the travel shelves: his classic account of a journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, “The Gentleman in the Parlor” (still the best book on Southeast Asia I know), brought out in 1929; a series of far-sighted, ironic sketches and snapshots called “On a Chinese Screen,” from 1920; a very early, boyish series of wanderings around southern Spain, “In the Land of the Blessed Virgin,” from 1905, that he delighted in repudiating in later years for its flowery romanticism; and a meditation on some figures in Spanish history—not, he said, “a book of travel,” though it is generally characterized as such—called “Don Fernando,” from 1935.
Yet travel lay behind nearly all his work, and the traveling impulse—the wish to steal into the untried alleyway, to slip into a foreign heart, the wish to be away from the stuffy drawing-rooms he knew too well, and out among dramas and mysteries that would challenge and expand his mind—was really the engine that drove all his writing. His early book on Spain is full of the excitement and rebellion of a boy eager to be away from England’s enclosedness, at loose in a world of sunshine and passion, a “romancer by profession,” as he calls himself. In his youthful novel, “The Merry-Go-Round,” published when he was 30, a burning young medical student, Frank Hurrell (much like Maugham himself—even the name sounds like Larry Darrell, the questing hero of “The Razor’s Edge” almost 40 years later), cries, famously, “My whole soul aches for the East, for Egypt and India and Japan. I want to know the corrupt, eager life of the Malays and the violent adventures of the South Sea Islands ... I want to see life and death, and the passions, the virtues and vices, of men face to face, uncovered.” The phrasing may be purple, jejune, but the sentences are as alive as anything in “Siddhartha” or “On the Road.” When Maugham, at the end of his life, looked back on his experience, in “The Summing Up” and “The Writer’s Notebook,” he began returning again and again to formative experiences “on the wing.”
Much of the particular beauty of Somerset Maugham as travel model, for me at least, is that he breaks every rule you might find in Travel Writing 101. He generalizes wildly. He claims not to be interested in the places he’s visiting. He admits that he’s only hunting for material and, very typically, in the middle of Southeast Asia, goes off on such a long digression about a novelist in London that we lose all sense of where we are. Trees in a Thai village he likens, unusually, to “the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne,” Asian clothes he calls much less interesting and various than what you’d see in Piccadilly and, in the middle of wildly colorful and unvisited landscapes, he confesses that his great delight comes from reading F.H. Bradley’s “Appearance and Reality.”
Yet the net effect of all these transgressions is to suggest he’s having fun. He seldom loses his temper on his travels, and he never seems bored. He always, in fact, seems to be just where he most wants to be. He wins our trust by telling us frankly that he’s lazy, unfair and uninterested, and his sense of ease and general perambulating is so intense, you can easily overlook that he’s sleeping for days in an open rowboat, has a temperature of 105 (just before offering one of the most brilliant synopses of Buddhism I’ve read) and went on a 60-day march when he was close to 50.
More deeply, Maugham’s background—growing up in a foreign country, training as a medical student (which is to say, a keen observer of both the body and the mind), and suffering from a lifelong stammer—all schooled him in listening, in hearing others’ symptoms more than just listing his own, in seeing how much he could get by being not a somebody at home but a no one abroad. He’d grown up hearing his father bring back stories from Greece, Turkey and Morocco, and his mother, whose own father had served in India, “could prattle Hindustani much better than English.” And over and over he saw that he could most powerfully engage with life undistractedly in some place not his own. As he put it in his autobiography, “I never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and me.”
Part of what made Maugham such an engaged traveler was that he had already had his fill of so-called success and high society, and quickly saw that “I would much sooner spend a month on a desert island with a veterinary surgeon than with a prime minister.” He was eager to try everything—to smoke opium, to visit prisons as much as churches, to do the very things that another part of himself would denigrate as reckless or susceptible. “A novelist must preserve a child-like belief in the importance of things which common sense considers of no great consequence,” he wrote late in life. “He must never entirely grow up.”
What this meant in practice was that, like all the great travelers, he brought a freshness as well as a knowingness to everything he saw, and did not just try to excavate the past, but, more, to outline the future. Go to Chiang Mai tomorrow, and you will almost certainly meet a man who threw over his comfortable life in London for the less visible benefits of a cozy room in the wilderness, a local girl with whom he shares few words and, nearby, a missionary raging against all such men, and such girls: a classic Maugham triangle. Visit the China being “definitively” covered by tomorrow’s foreign correspondents and you’re unlikely to find anyone who catches the country’s character and mysteries so well as Maugham did 90 years ago. It’s hard not to go to an expat dinner party in Hong Kong, Paris, Buenos Aires, and not realize that you’re in a collection of half-exotic types that you’ve met before in a Maugham short story.
Maugham was able to write about the British in China, say, because he could find an Englishman in himself, but he could also sympathize with—and longed to explore—everything that was the opposite of that. He could give us unusually sensitive accounts of Confucianism, of Buddhism, of mysticism and hedonism because he could locate elements of all of them in his own make-up. He was at once the archetypal denizen of the Belgravia lounge and, by virtue of that fact, a lifelong rebel who always longed to be as far from such civilities and boredoms as he could.
This made for a blend of anti-moralism and philosophical enquiry much rarer than it might seem. D.H. Lawrence, for example, traveled everywhere at the same time as Maugham, and caught Ceylon, Australia, New Mexico with a vividness and fury that few travelers have matched in the 80 years since. Almost preternaturally attentive and alive, he could pick up the smells, shapes, instincts of a place, grow bewitched by them and then grow violently disenchanted—all inside a week. Every place became a reflection of his mood. Aldous Huxley, meanwhile, who later became one of the most open-minded explorers of different traditions, bumped across Asia in “Jesting Pilate” like many a modern travel writer, looking only for an excuse to show off his superior wit. Evelyn Waugh is great fun to read, but you never come away from him feeling that you’ve really seen or visited Ethiopia or South America.
Perhaps that is why Maugham is so alive even now, stealing into many of the travel writers we most enjoy. It’s hard to savor Graham Greene, for example, without seeing Maugham’s ghost in the mix of worldliness and romanticism, the persistent investigations into faith, the condition of the lonely man in a scruffy room abroad (the two of them even both wrote works called “The Tenth Man” and both ended up living on the French Riviera). Pick up Paul Bowles’ harrowing stories of travelers consumed by the places they visit and you realize that Maugham is one of the few writers who has claimed those depths before him. Jan Morris’ blend of tolerance and acuity—her very British longing for a counter-Britain everywhere—powerfully evokes her great predecessor, and when I read “Hotel Honolulu” by Paul Theroux, I feel as if I’m paging through a Maugham anthology of the South Seas, though updated to the modern moment, and with sexual explicitness and rage added. V.S. Naipaul began his escape from his native Trinidad by writing a schoolboy essay on Maugham—it won a competition—and, more than 50 years later, was endowing the protagonist of two late novels with the curious name, “W. Somerset Chandran.”
As a young man, Maugham was taught, he says, by an anatomy teacher that “the normal is the rarest thing in the world,” and when he was traveling he spent little time looking at the sights, but went off instead “on the search for emotion,” as he put it in his early book on Spain, collecting “characters,” picking up stories at the bar, using the Alhambra or the temples of Thailand as a launching pad for inquiries into beauty and impermanence and illusion. And what gives his work its particular power is that, you can tell, he remained all his life a stowaway at heart, whose spirit lay with the wastrel and the seeker. You see that most obviously in “The Moon and Sixpence,” about a man (based on Gauguin) who throws over his successful job in Paris to go to live in Tahiti, or in “The Razor’s Edge,” about a quintessential young American who leaves behind the comfortable circles of Chicago to look for wisdom in the Himalayas. But even the lesser stories and travel books are likewise full of runaways, men of the cloth, drifters committed for life to a place they know will never be home (or pining for an England they know they’ll never see again).
We’re not used to thinking of Maugham as a hippie, but it’s worth recalling that he was roughing it around India for three months when he was 63, seeking out swamis and yogis; he told his friend Christopher Isherwood, a few years later, that his great wish, when he turned 70, was to return to the subcontinent and study Shankara. He had no time for the likes of Henry James, with his country-house themes, and from early on was sounding much more like a vagabond Thoreau (“What is the use of hurrying to pile up money when one can live on so little?”). Read his great apologia, “The Summing Up,” and you find him as metaphysically alive and excited as that German who just spun out his creed to you over dinner in a candlelit restaurant in Ladakh last night. Indeed, Maugham read philosophy every morning when he woke up, the way others might do yoga.
At the beginning of his short story, “Honolulu,” Maugham writes, in tones we instantly recognize as his own, “The wise man travels only in imagination.” In his early book on Spain, he concluded, “It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad.” Yet the strength of Maugham is that he would not listen even to his own advice, and was permanently breaking the rules he’d so clearly and logically laid down. He does, after all, go to Honolulu, and there meets a Western traveler whose story, perhaps, he would never have listened to, or heard, if he’d met the man in London or New York. On his 90th birthday—he’d enjoyed Japan and Italy in his 80s—he confessed that perhaps his greatest wish now was to go back to Angkor Wat. “I have one desire left,” he wrote, his powers failing, “which is to return to that lost village in the jungle in the Far East.” In truth, though, as every reader of the man knows, he’d never really left the place at all.
Adapted from the introduction to The Skeptical Romancer: Selected Travel Writing of W. Somerset Maugham, edited by Pico Iyer, to be published by Everyman’s Library, a division of Alfred A. Knopf, next week.