|re-writing somerset maugham
(for lisa skylar)
|I teach ESL--English as a Second Language. The
students are Korean. One of the problems of the
job--and there are many—is finding something
suitable for them to read. By suitable I mean
simple yet interesting.
Ive tried everything--from Mark Twain to Lewis
Carroll to Hemingway. Ive tried JD Salinger and
EB White and James Thurber.
But nothing seems to work—or to work as it
should. The reaction was either boredom or
confusion or both. Usually it was confusion.
Grammar isnt the problem.They have grammar
coming out their ears. Some of them know the
grammar better than myself.
Its a problem of style. A good writer has a voice,
unique and vivid, the result of long years
practicing the craft and what you wind up with is a
tone or flavor to the language that in no way
resembles the English I teach in my class--the
subject/verb/object of the verb type English and
the words mean what the dictionary says.
The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came
in. They sat down at the counter.
“What’s yours?” George asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside
the window. The two men at the counter read the menu.
From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched
them. He had been talking to George when they came in.
“I’ll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and
mashed potatoes,” the first man said.
“It isn’t ready yet.”
“What the hell do you put it on the card for?”
“That’s the dinner,” George explained. “You can get that at
George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.
“It’s five o’clock.”
“The clock says twenty minutes past five,” the second man
“It’s twenty minutes fast.”
“Oh, to hell with the clock,” the first man said. “What have
you got to eat?”
Thats Hemingway. Whats the problem here? Its
boring. Its not boring to me but for them they
want to put a bullet through their head.,
After I got kicked out I went to visit old man Spencer and his
wife. They each had their own room and all. They were both
around 70 years old or even more than that.
It was pretty depressing. There were pills and medicine all
over the place. I'm not too crazy about sick people anyway.
What made it even more depressing, old Spencer had on
this ratty old bathrobe he was probably born in or
something. I don’t much like to see old guys in their
pajamas and bathrobes anyway. Their bumpy old chests
are always showing and their legs. Old guys legs at
beaches and places always look so white and unhairy.
But its funny about old people, they can still get a bang out
of things sometimes. For instance one Sunday when some
other guys and I were over there for hot chocolate, he
showed us this beat up old Navajo blanket that he and mrs
spencer bought off some Indian in Yellowstone park. You
could tell old spencer got a big bang out of buying it. That’s
what I mean. You take somebody old as hell, like old
Spencer, and they can get a bing bang out of buying a
With Salinger there are two problems: 1) its
riddled with slang and 2) you are inserted into the
mind of a 16 year old prep school student from
new York of the exquisitely precocious type and
unless you have a lock on the culture that
produces such a mind you don’t have a prayer
And he had a little small bull pup, that to look at him you'd
think he wan's worth a cent, but as soon as money was up
on him, he was a different dog; his underjaw'd begin to
stick out like the fo'castle of a steamboat, and his teeth
would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces. And a
dog might tackle him, and bully- rag him, and bite him, and
throw him over his shoulder two or three times, and Andrew
Jackson which was the name of the pup Andrew Jackson
would never let on but what he was satisfied, and hadn't
expected nothing else and the bets being doubled and
doubled on the other side all the time, till the money was all
up; and then all of a sudden he would grab that other dog
jest by the j'int of his hind leg and freeze on it not chew, you
understand, but only jest grip and hang on till they throwed
up the sponge, if it was a year.
To lay something like this on a Korean ESL
student—or a Mexican, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, ect—
is a futile proposition--or preposition. Again its
the style--in this case a regional style. Forget it.
I tried Bukowski. Buk was a natural--I thought
1) He wrote about the city—Los Angeles
2) the writing was simple
3) he was funny
but 4) he was incapable of stringing 4 sentences
in a row without his dick making an appearence
in an aroused state.
What about Ian Frazier--a marvelous writer who
has mastered the art of writing about nothing--
plastic bags in trees, typewriter repair, a
confusing intersection, etc.
My students said: whats the point?
So it went, with this writer and that writer and
the other writer.
I tried them all. I tried myself. They looked at
me and I looked at them and it was like speaking
to outer space.
Then I had an inspiration—Somerset Maugham.
As a student at the university, a writer wannabe
type, and there occurred these phases, of reading
a particular writer. There was a Henry Miller
phase, a William Faulkner phase, a Norman
Mailer phase. I still recall a visit by Mailer and a
talk he gave and a comment during the talk, that
to enjoy a decent piece of ass on the floor was no
longer possible because, in an effort to improve
life, the carpet companies had introduced a
synthetic fabric into the manufacturing process
and one result, if you enjoy screwing on the floor,
was to produce an allergic reaction that covered
your body with these giant red welts.
And there was a Somerset Maugham phase—
stories and some of the novels—Of Human
Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and
A wonderful writer and a story teller. He didnt
write about the non-subject—typewriter repair.
Also he was exotic—a great traveler who
wandered the world to encounter all these
people--English colonial types and as he did kept
an alert ear for stories.
But with Maugham as with the rest it was the all
too familiar problem of style compounded with a
quaint formalism that derived from his country
and date of birth--1874, in England--an
Edwardian and he wrote in the lingo of that time—
the lingo of the educated Englishman—the club
The writing is clear, direct, strong, but there is no
way for a Korean immigrant to the US, circa 2008
with a none too steady grip on the language to
unravel a sentence such as:
There had been a christening that afternoon at St. Peter's,
Neville Square, and Albert Edward Foreman still wore his
verger's gown, its folds full and stiff though it were made
not of alpaca but of perennial bronze, and worn with
complacence for it was the dignified symbol of his office,
and without it (when he took it off to go home) he had the
disconcerting sensation of being somewhat insufficiently
But I had an idea—a possible solution to some of
these nagging problems of style that continued to
torment my students. I would re-write Somerset
Maugham. Why not? I knew these people and
what would and wouldnt work--or to fall
somewhere in between--and it was a simple
matter of smoothing out some of the bumps style-
wise while retaining the bones of the story.
That was the idea. The story that follows is the
result. Will it work? We dont know. Maybe yes
maybe no. Ill keep you posted.
|(Note: this story was originally written in 1924)
Harry garnet had a good life. He had a wonderful
family and a good job. He belonged to a club and
3 nights a week attended the club to play bridge
with friends. Bridge was his passion
He was a good bridge player but, as our story
begins, on this particular night at the club he was
making one bad call after another. His friends
were puzzled. Now one of them said: Harry youre
playing like a chump. Its not like you. is
Harry said: youre right. Im not myself tonight.
His friends were concerned and asked him to
speak of his problems—to spill the beans
Harry said: its my son.
He now proceeded to tell the following story.
His son was Nicky—18 years old. If there is such
a thing as the perfect son it was Nicky. What are
the qualities we look for in a person? We look for
3 things: brains, a sense of humor, a kind heart.
And of the three it is the kind heart that heads
Nicky had these qualities. Naturally in school he
was a good student and also—to compete the
picture—an athlete—a swimmer and tennis
player. He was on the school tennis
team—the ace. He had been highly recruited to
play for the university. He was looking forward
to that. And it was tennis that was the catalyst
for harrys story.
A tournament was scheduled to occur in Monte
Carlo and a friend of harrys said: are you sending
Harry said: no. of course not
Hes too young to be sent off to Monte Carlo to
play in a tennis tournament.
The friend said; hes 18.
That’s right, said Harry. Its too young. Monte
Carlo is the vice capitol of the western world. I
wouldn’t say its worse than Hong Kong but I
wouldn’t say Hong Kong is worse than Monte
Carlo. Instead of Chinese hustlers you have
European hustlers. And nothing is worse than a
European hustler. Hes 18 and a little young to be
acquiring any bad habits. Theres plenty of time
for that. Also the middle of the term is coming
up, he has exams and he cant afford to take 3
days off to play in a tennis tournament. Does that
answer your question?
The friend: said arent you exaggerating the
situation? Look at it this way: the fantastic
experience it would be for him. Some of the best
players in Europe will be going and even if he
loses in the first round, he might win a set or two
and it would give a terrific boost to his confidence.
Harry said: Ive made up my mind
Now Harry’s wife got into the act. The subject of
the tournament came up and his wife repeated,
almost word for word, the conversation Harry
had with his friends over at the club--about the
experience and playing against the superb
competition and so forth.
And Harry replied word for word with his thoughts
on the subject—the youth of the boy and the
women and the gambling, etc, etc—the vice
His wife said: 1) hes never gotten into trouble 2)
hes not dumb and 3) what is better than being
smart—he has common sense—that he got from
So back and forth it went with his wife and friends
at the club and then Nicky himself, the son, got
into the act—to lobby for the trip
All children have a genius—and it is the same
genius—for manipulating the parents. They know
what buttons to push.
Nicky said: dad youre being overprotective. Im
18--not a baby. Besides colonel Smith the Dean
of the college is going with the team to supervise
Harry thought it over. He loved his son and hated
denying him things—at least reasonable things.
Nicky had a point. He was being over protective.
Parents raise their children to be independent and
now he was contradicting this notion. And there
was something else. He was being a spoil sport—
a stiff—and to be a stiff was not the way he
preferred to think of himself. Was he getting old?
He said: you've won- or should I say your
mother has won. You can go to Monte Carlo.
But first you must promise me something. Three
things. He ticked them off:
1) No gambling
2) do not loan money
3) Keep women at a distance
Harry said: Of all the things that bring men down,
that invite chaos into their lives, these three are
at the top of the list. It behooves you to
remember them and to heed my advice
Nicky had a rare quality: he listened to people.
Its a rare quality in anyone but extraordinarily so
when occurring in the mind of a teenager to
whom the giving of advice is a pointless act--like
speaking to outer space
Nicky said: Yes father. I know you are right
At Monte Carlo. It was a good tournament—
exciting. The winner was von Cramm—the Nazi.
His politics were questionable but there was no
ambiguity to the tennis –of the rocketing serve
and devastating effect of volley and overhead
But Nicky did well; he did not embarrass himself.
He won a set from the Spaniard, the 12th seed
and in mixed doubles made it to the semi finals.
He called his parents following each match and
they were thrilled. Harry felt he was justified in
giving permission for the boy to attend.
The tournament ended and that night there was a
dinner for the players and following dinner it was
on to visit the casino. Nicky recalled his fathers
words: no gambling But there was no harm to be
done by taking a look—strictly as an observer.
The casino was full and there was a vibe in the
air—the gambling vibe--exciting. The women
were beautiful and the men elegantly dressed.
He wandered over to the roulette table. He knew
a little about the game and though a youth of 18
already could tell that at odds of 32-1 it was a
But somehow losing didnt seem to bother these
people. They were excited to win and bored when
He watched some baccarat. Baccarat was a card
game, but a different kind of card game—not for
the faint of heart. Fortunes could be won or lost
on the turn of a single card
A brass rail had been installed around the playing
area to keep the participants separated from the
non-players--those content merely to observe the
action. One player was said to be a member of
the Greek syndicate—a vicious criminal gang.
Nicky watched him carefully. He didnt look like a
criminal. Neither did he look like a member of the
Red Cross. It was something about the eyes—
something that wasnt there—-human feeling
Now this man, playing baccarat with thousand of
dollars riding on the turn of a card and this
expression, or absence of expression never
changed, win or lose. From time to time, a trace
of smile, a faint puckering appeared at the
corners of the mouth
Nicky was fascinated.
He joined his teammates in the bar, all of whom
had been gambling with the usual mixed results
and nicky mentioned his father and his fathers
thoughts on the subject.
Joe says: your father is right but also it does
seem a shame to visit Monte Carlo without taking
one crack at the action. You could lose a hundred
francs and it wouldnt be the end of the world.
Nicky thought this over. It was a point—that one
day the end of the world would arrive but it would
have nothing to do with Nicky losing 100 francs
gambling at Monte Carlo.
Later. His friends had wandered off and Nicky
returned to the roulette table. Yes—it was a
game for chumps but there was something cool
about it. It was fun. Plus it was a new
experience—the gambling. Experience was
important. Wasnt it experience that made his
father the impressive man he was. Yes
He placed a bet—100 francs on 18. why 18.
because he was 18. The bets were down and the
croupier gave the wheel a spin.
The wheel spun one way and the little white ball
in its track spun the other way. Round and round
it goes and where it stops nobody knows. It stops
The croupier shoved a pile of chips in Nicky’s
Now an interesting thing happened. In roulette a
chip placed on the winning number is not
returned to the player.
It stays on the chip. It is only returned at the
players request. If he says nothing the chip
stays where it is to await the next spin of the
Nicky didnt know this. He was so excited,
overwhelmed and quivering with delight over the
winning of all this money that the next spin of the
wheel occurred with his one hundred franc chip
still on 18 and now, dear reader, you tell me
what happens. That is correct. 18 wins again and
another pile of chips is shoved over in Nicky’s
direction. Hes won 7000 francs.
A woman standing next to him said: Youre in luck
He looked at her.
He said: Its my first time
She said: That explains it. Then she said. Can you
loan me 1000 francs? I’ve lost everything. Ill give
it back in half an hour.
She spoke with a foreign accent—eastern
European, possibly Hungarian—the nation of
hustlers. She was 28 or 30, dressed in black with
a bit of jewelry here and there, not too much, not
too little. Tasteful. She was tall with great legs.
She had an amazing mouth. Some women have
everything but lips.
Nicky said: ok.
She took 2 red chips from the pile and
A man standing behind Nicky who had observed
this exchange said: youll never see that again.
Nicky was startled. He had been in a coma from
all the excitement of winning money and now he
snapped out of it. He thought of his fathers words
of advice about the loaning of money. Now he
had ignored this advice and not only that but to a
person he didnt even know. Also—a Hungarian!
But that was that—spilled milk. At this moment
he had won 7000 francs at roulette and he was
too happy to concern himself about briefly
misplacing a bit of common sense
He decided to play on and placed a red chip on
16--his sisters age--and then on 46--his mothers
age--but neither came up. He seemed to have
lost his touch.
Then he won by playing several bets at once.
Then he lost.
He played on-for an hour. He went to cash in his
chips--20,000 francs. He was stuffing the bills into
his pocket when the woman to whom he loaned
the 1000 francs re-appeared.
She said: ive been looking all over for you! I was
afraid you'd left. I said: what will he think of me!
She handed him his 1000 francs
Thank you so much for the loan
Whats so funny?
He said: to tell you the truth-I never expected to
see that money again.
She gave him a frigid look
She said: what did you take me for--a hustler?
Now the look changed. She said. I attended the
I watched you play—twice. You have a fabulous
game--stylish. And you look very sweet in those
Nicky was young and inexperienced but he was
not a retard and now it crossed his mind that this
borrowing of the 1000 francs by the woman may
have a been a clever device to strike up an
They spoke for a bit. She was married with a
young son. The husband was a civil servant—a
government lawyer. Now she said: do you ever
go to the Knickerbocker?
No--I haven’t been
You cant leave monte carlo with out a visit to the
Knickerbocker. Why dont you come and dance for
a bit. Also I am starving and I think after these
evil thoughts you’ve been thinking about me and
your 1000 francs you might want to buy me some
bacon and eggs.
Once again his fathers words—the words of
wisdom applying to women and the keeping of
them at a safe distance—entered his mind. But
this woman seemed so candid and charming and
also—the husband was a civil servant. Would the
wife of a civil servant be the one to lure a naïve
youth to a wretched end?
Nicky said: I cant stay long. The team leaves
early tomorrow and Ive left a message at the
hotel to call me at 7.
We'll leave as soon as you like.
The knickerbocker was pleasant-very. They ate
bacon and eggs and shared a bottle of
champagne. They danced. He was a good dancer
and the woman was easy to lead-light as a
feather. She pressed her body to his and said:
youre very good looking
Nicky said to himself: I think she likes me.
Need I describe for the reader what happens
They left the knickerbocker and hailed a taxi. She
gave directions to the hotel-her hotel. At the
hotel she said: come up for a moment. I want to
show you a picture of my son.
Up to the room and once inside the door she
delivered to his body a ferocious embrace and
gave him a kiss with that amazing mouth that he
would never forget.
Once again his fathers advice on the subject of
women entered his mind but it didnt stay long.
Nicky was a light sleeper and there in the room
with the woman a noise roused him from slumber
and he perceives a figure moving about the
room—-the woman--and what is she doing?
She moves about quietly and with caution—not to
disturb him. Yes—but why?
Because she is stealing his money. She has his
coat that she holds with one hand while with the
other reaches into the inside pocket for his
Over to the dresser and she opens a drawer and
stashes the money inside.
She hangs the coat up and returns to bed where
nicky pretends to be asleep, not an easy thing to
fake because his first impulse is to kill the
woman. But some instinct counsels against this.
Already a plan was forming. This was a game two
Time passes—a few minutes. The woman sleeps
and now Nicky gets out of bed, quietly dresses
and quietly removes the 20,000 francs from the
dresser drawer and quietly leaves the room.
He returns to his hotel and takes a bath. He lays
soaking in the tub and reviews in his mind the
events of the night before—and what a night it
had been—esp the conclusion of the night—the
retrieval of his money from the thieving chippy!
Revenge is sweet.
He already had plans for this money—to buy a
car. He had for some time been pestering his
father to buy him a car—a sporty little Aston
Martin—hot! But his father was resisting. Maybe
resisting isn’t the word. Maybe emphatic refusal
is the word.
His father said: the answer is no. Its no, no, no.
But now this small time behaviour on his fathers
part was no longer an issue. He would buy his
He finished his bath and dressed and went
downstairs into the restaurant for breakfast.
Normally he ate a light breakfast but he was
ravenous and ordered the works--grapefruit and
bacon and eggs and hash browns and grits and
rolls fresh from the oven. Delicious
He reached into his jacket for the money. He just
wanted to look at it and count it once more. So
he counts the money and the sum amounts not to
20,000 francs but 26,000 francs.
How could this be?
Then it came to him. The stash in the drawer
included 6,000 francs of her own money!
Briefly, because that’s the type of person he was,
Nicky felt a twinge of sympathy for the
woman. But this feeling passed. She was a
thieving chippy and deserved everything she got.
That was that.
And this is the story as related by Harry to his
friends at the club.
Harry said: I told him not to gamble and he
gambled. I told him not to loan money to people
and he loans money to a woman he has known
for 2 minutes. Then he spends the night with this
woman—the third thing I warned him about.
But he does all these things and what happens—
he comes home with 26,000 francs and now he is
tooling around school in a angerine orange Astin-
Martin sports car!
Harrys friends were laughing. They were
Harry said: He he thinks Im a complete fool—his
own father. He doesnt understand that life doesnt
work this way—that one swallow doesnt make a
summer and all that.
It was Randolph who spoke and he said: You
forget an important thing
Your boy is lucky. And in the long run that is far
better than being clever or rich.
|the facts of life
by somerset maugham
(with an assist from jack spiegelman)