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[113] The Gentleman in the Parlour – W. Somerset Maugham

Armchair Travel Challenge #5/Outmoded Author Challenge #5

maugham.jpg“Then it seemed to me that in these countries of the East, the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, nor great wall, but man.” (172)

W. Somerset Maugham once said in this delightful, engrossing travelogue that captures his travel from Rangoon to Haiphong he didn’t know how he would put in words an account of all the wonders and render more than a vague and shadowy impression of the gradeur. He needs not to worry, for every page, which I try to delay reading, is eloquent, absorbing, and is never below the weight of the matter. His writing evokes deep interests of local life and makes no attempt to euphemize nor to judge the natives’ ways of life, customs and traditions. It’s a genuine account of what he saw in the sense of that he renders no affectation of profundity and pretentiousness, shaking off any previous public opinion about the culture and places. Whether by river to Mandalay, on horse through the mountains and forests of the Shan States to Bangkok, in a sampan to the remote Angkor Wat, or onwards by sea to Vietnam, his muse flows from the meaning of God, the law of karma, reason for evil’s existence, to secrets of the enigmatic life that these humble people lead. He communicates a sense of indifference on the parts of people who have braved through vicissitudes and changed very little over time.

*   *   *

Some personal reflections. While Maugham’s vivid descriptions help relive my visual memories of these places (I have traveled to all the places he details in book except for the Shan States), his curious eyes and detached voice (it’s obvious from the tone of the book that he left his novelist-self behind) shine new light on my impression of the landscapes and sights. There is also a time factor that is fascinatingly at work here. Maugham and I have traveled to the sames places and seen the same temples almost a century apart. The stupendous monuments that he saw at Angkor Wat were for sure less restored and more shoddy, bearing resemblance to the state when it was discovered. Mental comparison  of his writing to my journal entries contributes to a better understanding of what I saw in my trip. This sense of completion, of attaining the fullness of travel in which you gain an in-depth knowledge of history, is simply gratifying.

I see what Maugham saw. The mystic towers of spirit’s high citadel at Angkor Wat gain a gilded, outlandish beauty not their own during sunrise and sunset. The temples are all built on a certain pattern dictated to the architects by the rites of their religion. The steep steps that lead from one storey to another are arduous and hurried means of ascent to the presence of a secret and mysterious god. The multitude of towers at Bayon Temple that at first glance seem a shapeless mass are is actually some awe-inspiring, impassive faces looming out at viewers from the weathered rugged stone. The thriving city that was built in Ayuthaya, an ancient Thai capital, raised to greatness and was destroyed in a wanton manner, leaves behind only a lonely bronze Buddha statue sitting in a courtyard. All kinds of unrelenting trees and shrubs force crumbling masonry apart. The steep gilded three-tiered roofs, with their different pitched angles, gain all kind of opalescent hues when the sky turns pink at dusk. They glitter along both sides of Menam River in Bangkok.

All these earthly wonders are captured in Maugham’s words. He imparts to these remains a new life with an eloquence that is made possible from an idle curiosity and observative minuteness. He is able to discern and dissect the lives of the natives because he never attached a polarized vision to looking at them. In ordinary affairs he’s friendly with them without condescension.

7 Responses

  1. How fascinating – to see the same places and to compare your reactions to them with Maugham’s!

  2. […] years later, on my trip to Malaysia and parts of Thailand and Burma, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Palour almost never left my hands as I followed Maugham’s travel and saw what he saw. He imparts to […]

  3. […] – Michael Cunningham (3/30/09) [184] The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (2/10/09) [113] The Gentleman in the Palour – W. Somerset Maugham (12/11/07) [105] The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley (10/25/07) [12] The Master and Margarita […]

  4. […] site. My dear W. Somerset Maugham chronicled his travel from Burma to Singapore in his travelogue, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which formed the backbone of my overland itinerary in Malaysia in 2007. Many of these travel […]

  5. […] On another trip through Malaysia, Somerset Maugham’s memoir/historical autobiography, The Gentleman in the Parlour became the perfect companion. Although I wasn’t much of a gentleman’s reincarnate that […]

  6. […] of Angkor during my trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia; and Edmund White’s The Flâneur in Paris. The Gentlemen in the Parlour, Somerset Maugham’s memoir and travelogue of Southeast Asia, accompanied me on the three-week […]

  7. […] is difficult. I don’t really know. (Three cups of coffee later) I’ll say The Gentleman in the Parlour by a favorite author of mine, W. Somerset Maugham. Not only is the title unique, it contains a word […]

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