a writer’s notebook

From my bookshelves: A Writer’s Notebook by William Somerset Maugham (Vintage Books, New York: 2009).

A Writer’s Notebook is full of autobiographical sketches, travel notes, and odd sentences here and there that show the mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers at work.

Maugham (pron. “Mawm”) was born at the British Embassy in Paris in 1874. He was an avowed homosexual; he never traveled without his long time companion Frederick Gerald Haxton, though he later married Syrie Wellcome with whom he had a child, Liza. They divorced after ten years.

Maugham became known as one of the chroniclers of the dying days of colonialism, and was perhaps the highest paid writer during the 1930s and ’40s. He died in France in 1965.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

1922. Sarawak.

The river is broad, yellow, and turbid. At the back of the sandy shore grow the casuarinas, and when the breeze stirs their lace-like foliage they make a sound as of people talking. The natives call them talking trees and say that if you stand under them at midnight you will hear voices of unknown people telling you the secrets of the earth.


A green hill. The jungle reached to its crest, an intoxication of verdure, and the luxuriousness was such that it left you breathless and embarrassed. It was a symphony of green, as though a composer working in color instead of with sound had sought to express something extraordinarily subtle in a barbaric medium. The greens ranged from the pallor of the aquamarine to the profundity of jade. There was an emerald that blared like a trumpet and a pale sage that trembled like a flute.


Toward evening a flight of egrets flew down the river, flying low, and scattered. They were like a ripple of white notes, sweet and pure and springlike, which an unseen hand drew forth, like a divine arpeggio, from an unseen harp.

Maugham portrait here.

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