The Narrow Corner, xxi

A twenty page chapter. From one sentence to twenty pages. At least in this printing. The first chapter will always be just that one line. And it’s a good chapter, for the most part. There’s a lot in it. Maugham lumps together most of the characters, just referring to them as “they,” which is a bit of a change. A lot goes on before Dr. Saunders, the ostensible protagonist and witness of the novel’s events, gets a break out. What’s he doing? He’s listening. Turns out Firth, father of “the girl,” is a self-styled intellectual scholar who has set about to do a translation of a Portuguese poet. He can’t stop finding similarities between his life and the poet’s. One of the things I love about Maugham is you’ll go 172 pages only to have what amounts to a Borges concept for a few pages. There’s a line about Firth the translator’s books all having underlines and pencil notations, which is cute as my copy of The Narrow Corner has a lot of underlines and pencil notations now. Maugham also employs the doctor “[asking] himself” something; it’s a less jarring device than breaking to the second person, though Maugham does it later in the chapter and I almost hope I forget to talk about it because I want to stick to positive stuff. There’s a lot of it here. Maugham’s taken with Firth, even though the doctor is not. There’s a wonderful bit about translation, Firth saying, “Every generation must retranslate the great works of the world for itself. My aim is not only to render the sense, but also to preserve the rhythm and music and lyrical quality of the original.” Just imagine if movie remakes worked in that regard. Then Maugham moves on from the doctor and the translator to dinner, after a lengthy description of Louise the girl’s dress. The dinner conversation is fun, once again setting the captain off against the plantation owner. These later chapters have paragraphs without the doctor at the start and then Maugham introducing him, and his observations, about halfway through. He’s going for long paragraphs, which is a Maugham thing. It’s not one of my things—Summing-Up an exception—and I’m not sure how Maugham maintains the pace so well. The lengthy paragraphs never get tiresome; they’re breezy and entertaining, even when he’s talking about very big Eastern philosophical ideas and how they might relate to Westerners relocated to the East. The chapter ends with Fred the fugitive and Louise the girl going off together while the others play bridge and having a romantic moment. Maugham even switches to Louise’s perspective on Fred for a moment; The Narrow Corner doesn’t stick to its narrative distance, but Maugham doesn’t appear to be particularly ambitious with that variation. He just wants to get the story out and along. It’s actually a somewhat nice scene, maybe because Louise is still likable and Fred’s never more personable than with her. Maugham’s previous humanizing of Fred the fugitive got ominous and monotonous rather quickly. He’s not a mystery right now, he’s a leading man with a love interest. Overall, it’s a successful chapter with some really good moments throughout.

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