I’m doing some research on 1930s China for the follow up to my ‘Flames of Time’ Archaeologic Adventure trilogy, and after browsing around one of my local bookshops I picked up a copy of W.Somerset Maugham’s ‘On a Chinese Screen’.
Now I’ve heard the name before, but I’ve never read any of Maugham’s other work, so why did I buy this obscure little novella?
Well, as it turns out Maugham was not only a very well respected playwright, novelist and short-story writer, he was also one of the most popular writers of his era, reputed to be the highest paid author of the 1930s.
So, he clearly knew how to write in an engaging and entertaining way, but that alone wouldn’t be enough for me to just buy this book. No, the real reason is the book itself, because what Maughan wrote in his ‘On a Chinese Screen’, was not a novel, not a play, or selection of short stories. This book is purely a collection of character profiles, or portraits. People that he met while travelling fifteen hundred miles along the Yangtse River in 1919.
What do I mean by character profiles? I mean anything from two to half a dozen pages describing the characters he met on the cruise, at parties and as part of his everyday life in China, at that time. All of which Maughan describes with short and sometimes cryptic, sometimes mundane titles, like: My Lady’s Parlour, The Mongol Chief, Fear, Her Britannic Majesty’s Representative, or just Arabesque.
Intrigued, but still not sure this was a book for me, I chose to read the chapter entitled ‘The Rolling Stone’. Bearing in mind this was decades before the band of the same name, I presumed this might be the tale of some perennial traveler. But while that’s an element, it isn’t the focus point at all, and that I was about to learn is typical of the insight and brilliance of Maugham.
He describes a surprisingly unremarkable man in his early thirties, who you might meet half a dozen times before finally remembering, but his appearance was in stark contrast to his career to date, for this man had started life as a reporter to the law courts in London, before obtaining a birth as a steward on board a merchant ship to Buenos Aires, where upon arrival he’d deserted his post in order to work his way across South America to Chile, then on to Tahita, Amoy and China, where he first worked as clerk for a local company, and then after acquiring some of the language, and changed jobs to become a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, which allowed him to travel across every region in that enormous country,
So far, so much like the rolling stone indicated in the title. But now for the twist. Because our travelling salesman, then goes on to receive an offer from one of the local English newspapers in China to write a number of articles about his travels, which he does, and Maugham goes on to describe as ‘not unreadable’ for they revealed a world carefully observed by the rolling stone, but they reflected nothing about how the various experiences had affected him, the terrible, the wonderful, the inspiring and the dreadful all provided excellent anecdotes, but impacted on the traveler in no discernible way, they were experiences of the body, not of the soul, and so Maugham concludes with the observation that the man’s unremarkable mien was actually a true reflection of his unremarkable soul.
This one example from Maugham’s ‘On a Chinese Screen’ probably provides and an excellent viewpoint on which to comment upon our modern society’s fascination with photographing anything and everything for inclusion in Instagram or Facebook timelines, but that’s not the tangent I want to follow right now.
What I want to focus on instead, is the value of inspiration, and unexpected sources that inspiration can flow from.
If this one example characterization, which I read before buying the book, is anything to go on, then this slender volume will be a goldmine of ideas for my writing, of characters and settings, attitudes and incidents, all set within a historical time frame that’s highly relevant to 1930s period in which I set most of my books.
Will I use some of these details directly? Probably not, but when I’m inventing characters or settings for my stories, it can be invaluable to have an interesting and ready-made back-story in mind for a character. Or to have an unusual event occur to find out how your own characters would deal with it, and unlike the rolling stone described by Maugham, to imagine how those events would impact on the soul or the mentality of the character that they’re happening to, so that as characters they’re not the non-descript or unremarkable figures which you need to read about for chapters before you can even remember who they are, they’re the soul-full individuals you care about from the get go.
That is certainly why with so much to write about he wrote tediously, for in writing the important is thing less richness of material than richness of character.W. Somerset Maugham – from ‘On a Chinese Screen’ – Ch.4 The Rolling Stone
Unfortunately, while I’m sure I will find the rest of Maugham’s book useful, insightful and entertaining, its rare to stumble across something like this, despite the fact that I’m often looking for exactly this kind of thing. So, if you have a go a book or books that you think contains some unique and memorable characters, settings, dialogue or description. Fiction or non-fiction, that could inspire your writing or author friends, then do please share them, hit reply, send me an email, tweet or Instagram post, and don’t forget to explain how it impacted you.
For now, for me, I’ve got a book full of other characters and scenes to dip into, marvel at and enjoy, but more importantly, I’ve got one more author W. Somerset Maugham whose works are now firmly on my list of future reading.
For more information about W. Somerset Maugham, including some modern views and opinion of his work check out: