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Somerset Maugham Presents the Levantine, “Mr. Know-All”

 Edward Shaw
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 Edward Shaw
Somerset Maugham Presents the Levantine, “Mr. Know-All”
by Edward Shaw  FollowFollow
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I'm a retiree from academe (University of California-Berkeley, UCLA) and the non-profit world who has come to writing late in life. My previous...read more experience as an executive and my educational degrees were in unrelated areas. I've also been an occasional columnist for various newspapers and journals.
Somerset Maugham Presents the Levantine, “Mr. Know-All”
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First, a little bit about this complex and gifted writer. . .

Novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist and travel writer, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was among the most notable authors of the 20th century. His work is characterized by a clear, unaffected style, cosmopolitan settings and an insightful understanding of human nature.

Maugham’s writing spanned many genres, and he was prolific. Four of the more than thirty plays he wrote were running simultaneously in London’s West End at one time. Only Bernard Shaw exceeded that record. Maugham was especially renowned for his many short stories, and he was also the single most recognized writer of travel stories between World War One and World War Two. Several of his novels – Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence come to mind – were widely recognized as masterpieces. 

Maugham was the highest paid writer in the world during the 1930s, and he also made a great deal of money from theater productions and Hollywood film adaptations of his work during and after WW II. He prospered financially from shrewd stock market investments, to boot.

Despite these successes, he did not get especially high marks from many critics and other writers of his era. They found his clear, lucid and economical writing style to be plain and suited, at best, to his short stories. The avant-garde writers of the emerging modernist movement – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann et al – were more popular and often held in higher esteem by the literary intelligentsia. Maugham, himself, was  quoted as saying “I have never pretended to be anything but a story-teller” in his 1947 booklet with that same quote for its title, and he attributed the criticism to his own acknowledged lack of a lyrical quality, small vocabulary and failure to use metaphors.      

Some personal details about Maugham may be illuminating. His mother died of TB when he was eight and he was known to have kept her photo by his bedside his entire life. His father died when Maugham was ten, so he was sent off to live with his cold, emotionally cruel uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable. At King’s School, Canterbury, where he had been enrolled, he was teased about his small stature and poor English (French was his first language) and while there developed a lifelong stammer. He also acquired the ability to retaliate with wounding remarks. 

He left school for Heidelberg at age sixteen, writing his first book there – a biography of Giacomo Myerbeer, the opera composer – and then returned to Britain to study medicine over a five year period.  He wrote a great deal during his studies and never looked back to medicine after the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. Later, like Ernest Hemingway, he was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in World War One and, subsequently, served as a spy in Russia and Switzerland for MI6, the British intelligence agency. 

Maugham had multiple relationships with both men and women and viewed attractive women as sexual rivals. His view of women was reflected in several of his works in which he portrayed them with strong sexual desires … sometimes resulting in reckless and dangerous behavior.  

Homosexuality was either disapproved of or criminal in most of the many countries Maugham visited during his lifetime. Some of his critics in turn have linked this to Maugham’s failure to condemn the villainous characters in his works. In his 1954 autobiography, Mr. Maugham Himself, Maugham effectively responds to the criticism with the statement “It must be a fault in me {sic} that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me.” (p.564)  

He met Frederick Gerald Haxton, a San Franciscan, during his WWI travels. Haxton became Maugham’s lover and companion until his death in 1944, two years before Maugham’s return to England. Then, in 1946, Maugham took up with Alan Searle. Searle was considered common compared to Haxton but his personality was said to be a good fit for Maugham, who could be painfully shy on occasion. 

It was impossible for a public figure to be openly gay during Maugham’s lifetime, so he went to great lengths to avoid disclosure of his homosexuality.  He was especially consumed by Oscar Wilde’s ruinous fate following the latter’s 1895 trial and imprisonment.  The cover for prominent homosexuals was often a conventional marriage, and this was true for Maugham as well.  His marriage to Syrie Wellcome lasted 12 years and produced a child, Elizabeth, named after the title character of his novel, Liza of Lambeth.  

Syrie had previously been involved in a messy divorce from Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical magnate, and Maugham was named as co-respondent since he had fathered Liza while Syrie was still married to Wellcome.  She desperately wanted her subsequent marriage to Maugham to succeed, but in the end she could not tolerate his ongoing relationship and travels with Haxton.  After the divorce, she went on to become a legendary interior designer and was renowned, among other accomplishments, for creating the first all-white room.  

Maugham’s relationship with Liza was a casualty, at least in part, of his relationship with Alan Searle.  In the early 1960s, Maugham sought to attribute her paternity to Henry Wellcome so he could disinherit her and adopt Searle.  Liza sued, and after trials spanning twenty-one months in both French and English courts, won recognition of Maugham’s paternity and a judgment of $1,400,000.  Maugham died about two years later.  

Now, on to Maugham’s short story, “Mr. Know-All” …

“Mr. Know-All” is often characterized as a story about first impressions, prejudice, culture and manners. I would add at least some measure of redemption to that list. The story is told anonymously in the first person, thereby permitting readers to view only the thoughts, feelings and opinions of the nameless narrator.  

The setting for “Mr. Know-All” takes place shortly after the end of WW I on an ocean liner going from San Francisco to Yokohama. This setting is just one of many examples of Maugham’s affinity for travel stories. The narrator and a certain Mr. Kelada must share a cabin because of heavy postwar passenger demand for accommodations on ocean-going vessels. 

Even before meeting him, the narrator develops a prejudicial dislike for Mr. Kelada, a wealthy British citizen of non-European extraction, after viewing his shipmate’s luggage and toiletries that had been placed in their shared stateroom. His dark skin and “Levantine” origin feed the prejudice. (“Levantine” generally refers to someone from countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean – the “Levant” -- and, in Maugham’s time, was often used disparagingly.) Throughout the tale, Mr. Kelada displays behaviors that continue to reinforce the narrator’s initial dislike: immodesty, chattiness, boastfulness, dogmatism, pushiness and much more.   

There is no concealing the narrator’s increasing dislike for Mr. Kelada as the story progresses:

“I did not at all like Mr. Kelada.”

“King George has many strange subjects.”

“The Union Jack is an impressive piece of drapery, but when it is nourished by a gentleman from Alexandria or Beirut, I cannot but feel that it loses somewhat in dignity.” 

“Mr. Kelada was familiar.”

“Mr. Kelada was chatty.”

“…it was at mealtimes that he was most intolerable. For the better part of an hour he had us at his mercy. He knew everything better than anybody else, and it was an affront to his overweening vanity that you should disagree with him.”

“We called him Mr. Know-All, even to his face.  He took it as a compliment.”

A certain Mr. Ramsay and his wife shared the assigned dinner table with the narrator, Mr. Kelada and several other guests.  Mr. Ramsay was rancorous and as dogmatic as Mr. Kelada.  The two of them had many intense, acrimonious discussions during the dinners. Ramsay disliked Mr. Kelada at least as much or more as our narrator.  

One night at the dinner table the discussion led to pearls.  It turned out that Kelada was in the pearl trade, was expert in them, and proclaimed as much to the gathered dinner guests.  He then pointed to the cultured pearl necklace worn by Mrs. Ramsay and said they would be worth $15,000 in the trade or as much as $30,000 on Fifth Avenue. Ramsay pounced, stating his wife bought the pearls from a department store for eighteen dollars and offered to bet Kelada one hundred dollars that the pearls were imitations. Kelada gleefully seized on the opportunity and took the wager.

Earlier in the story, almost in a parenthetical fashion, Maugham gave us a few details about Ramsay and his wife. He was in the American Consular Service stationed in Kobe and had been away from his wife and his New York home for a year. He was very heavy and his ready-made clothes fit him poorly. Mrs. Ramsay was a “very pretty little thing, with pleasant manners and a sense of humour.” She dressed simply because her husband was ill-paid, but she still produced an air of “quiet distinction.” The narrator was especially struck by her modesty.

Maugham had set the stage and now it is back to the bet. Both Ramsay and Kelada asked Mrs. Ramsay to remove the string of pearls so Kelada could examine them with his jeweler’s loupe. She hesitatingly resisted, saying the clasp was stuck. Ramsay came over to her, undid the clasp and handed the necklace to Kelada for examination. The narrator suddenly felt something unfortunate was about to occur but could think of nothing to say.   

As Kelada examined the necklace, he smiled triumphantly and started to speak. Suddenly he saw Mrs. Ramsay blanch and appear about to faint and her eyes, wide with terror, held a desperate appeal. The narrator said it was so clear that “…I wondered why her husband did not see it.”  Kelada flushed, obviously struggling with himself, then said “I was mistaken…it’s a very good imitation.”  With trembling hands, he gives Mr. Ramsay a hundred dollar bill. Ramsay gloats and directs a stinging remark to Kelada. The story about the Levantine’s comeuppance spread throughout the ship that evening.

The next morning, as the narrator was shaving, he saw an envelope addressed to Mr. Kelada in block letters slipped under the stateroom door.  Kelada took it from the narrator, removed a hundred dollar bill, and then asked the narrator to throw the envelope (which he had torn to bits) out the porthole. At this point, the narrator asked him if the pearls were real. His reply:  “If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe…”  Mr. Kelada had shown a wholly unexpected compassion for Mrs. Ramsay and, in the process, sacrificed himself to ridicule.  It seemed he had some decency, after all. 

The narrator ends the tale with “At that moment, I did not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada.” Thus, Maugham gives us the story twist, a signature trademark he so famously employed in many of his works, and Mr. Kelada gains a measure of redemption.         

7 comments

Discussion

  1 month ago
enjoyed this immensely. In my teens I read several of his novels and many many short stories.
  1 month ago · in response to Kristin Fouquet

    I recall Rain. I read ado much of his wish around the same time on my life (a period over 40 years ago) that I no longer have distinct memories pic all the stories and novels. But I remember the feelings I got reading them.
  1 month ago
Been years since I read the Razor's Edge, must get to it again.
  1 month ago
Great piece! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
  2 months ago
Great review! I've always thought his stories were underrated. Two of my favorites are, "The Poet," and "Rain."
  2 months ago
Once popular, Maugham is almost entirely out of print now except for The Razor's Edge. The upside is that you can get the kindle version of his entire works for only 99 cents.
  2 months ago
This is cool. I haven't read much by this author yet.