Somerset Maugham made a success of being a writer. So successful that as a novelist he was able to renounce his first profession as a physician, as a playwright able to leverage the early twentieth-century mania for plays in London, as a short story writer earn enormous sums from publishers and periodicals, as an investor reap large dividends while avoiding the crash of 1929, and as an entrepreneur sell and adapt his work for screenplays to the British and American film industries. All this while his first language was French, not English; while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I; while employed as a British spy in Russia during the October Revolution; while he chose to live palatially at Cap Ferrat in France; and while travelling extensively in the Orient and Oceania.
Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death …
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy ….
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn ….
— John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
One of the screen adaptations is Quartet, a set of unrelated short stories, the second of which is “The Alien Corn.” The short story is vastly superior to the film treatment, which Maugham himself introduces; but from a commercial and marketing perspective, that is immaterial, which is an instructive lesson regarding the worldly limits of artistic purity.
The film treatment discards most of the thirty-eight pages story, including its Jewish context. It replaces Munich with Paris. The story was written in 1931 and the film released in 1948, making both Jewry and Munich inconvenient. The influence of the mater familias, who is old and German, with that of the unrequited love of a young English woman of the landed gentry at Sussex. The two narrators in the story, being the author and the maternal great-uncle of the central character, and their context that they bring, are removed in the film adaptation. The central character’s obsession with wanting to become a concert pianist is not blemished, in the film, by his dissipation.
There are exceptional turns of phrase in story that are omitted in the film, which, of necessity concentrates on realizing the possibilities of the visual rather than retaining the fine turns of the written word.
From the text of the short story:
“After all, I am an Oriental,” he said. “I can carry a certain barbaric magnificence.”
He was not a great man, but within the limits he set himself he made of his life a work of art. It was a masterpiece in little, like a Persian miniature, and derived its interest from its perfection.
There is no one else in this hard world of to-day who can look upon the trivial with such tender sympathy and wring such a delicate pathos from futility.
Thus would have been erected a monument of triple brass and the ephemera imprisoned to succeeding ages in the amber’s exquisite translucency.
When they got back to the house she went to her room and would not come down to dinner that night. For the first time she had realized that beauty dies.
I rose in the world and perhaps he came down a little.
He had a real passion for art, and in his commerce with those that produced it was at his best. With them he had never that faint air of persiflage which when he was with very grand persons made you suspect that he was never quite the dupe of their grandeur.
… there is one advantage in being a writer, that, since people look upon you of no account, they will often say things to you that they would not to their equals.
I permit myself a trite comment. It is strange that men, inhabitants for so short a while of an alien and inhuman world, should go out of their way to cause themselves so much unhappiness.
I shall never forget how humiliated I felt once when, having come to Munich for a Wagner Festival, I went to a wonderful performance of Tristan und Isolde and never heard a note of it.
The three other stories adapted for this film are “The Facts of Life,” “The Kite,” and “The Colonel’s Lady.” The screen adaptation removes the salaciousness from “The Facts of Life,” and invents happy endings for “The Kite” and “The Colonel’s Lady.” These are not improvements. Authenticity of behaviour is replaced by fantasy, and Maugham’s remarkable telling of how matters of one’s own making cannot be altered to remove their consequence is a far better representation of the implacability of reality.
Yes, the book is better than the film. And, acutely aware that art for art’s sake, however effectual it may be, may, more often than not, be meaningless, Maugham must have cleverly laughed all his way to the bank.