The doorman in the white short-sleeved shirt and shorts, white knee-length socks and pith helmet smiles, presses his palm to his heart and pushes the heavy wooden doors open for me. The lobby of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel is an icy, blessed sanctuary from the heat beating down on the streets outside, and I feel myself cooling down immediately. I am in Penang, off the north-west coast of Malaysia, to launch my new novel, The House of Doors, at a refurbished 1930s cinema in the heart of George Town. I was walking there when I decided to make a quick stop at the E & O first. There was somebody there to whom I felt I should say hello.
Elderly and sunburnt guests are heading to the hotel bar for evening cocktails, their echoing voices trapped in the high, smooth dome of the lobby like whispers from the past. I go over to a secluded corner and stand before a wall hung with black-and-white photographs, portraits of the notables who have stayed during the nearly 140 years of the hotel’s existence: among them Hermann Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Noël Coward. I look for, and find, as I knew I would, the familiar profile of Willie Maugham.
I was 11 when I first saw the aged face of W Somerset Maugham in a magazine. But it felt to me, even all those years ago, that the writer had always been present everywhere around me. A big pop hit that year was Murray Head’s One Night in Bangkok, from the musical Chess. Like my school friends, I sniggered at the nightlife depicted in its lyrics, but I was more taken by its tongue-twister of a line that referenced Maugham with its cheeky wordplay. Gazing at his creased face in the E & O’s lobby 40 years later, I murmur that line softly to myself, word for word: “Tea-girls / warm and sweet / some are set up / in the Somerset Maugham suite.”
Then, in my early teens, I read “The Letter”, which was probably his most famous and successful tale. “The Letter” was gripping, but I was more fascinated by the mechanics behind the words. Maugham, I discovered, had based it on a real-life event.
In 1911, Mrs Ethel Proudlock, the young wife of the acting headmaster at a boys’ school in Kuala Lumpur, had been charged with killing a tin mine manager named William Steward. She claimed that Steward had tried to rape her, and that she shot him on her veranda in self-defence. She was the first white woman in Malaya to be charged with murder. Her trial transfixed not only the European community, but the local population, too. If found guilty, she would be hanged.
Reading about the Proudlock trial, it occurred to me that, contrary to what I had been taught and what I had until that moment always believed, fact could be interchangeable with fiction. And if fact could be transmuted into fiction, then, conversely, fiction could be presented as fact, could it not? A writer’s power was so much greater than I had realised: not only to create stories, but to bend and shape reality itself.
Maugham had heard about the trial the first time he visited Malaya, with his secretary (and lover) Gerald Haxton, in 1921. Maugham made two tours to Malaya and in total spent about 10 months there. From those visits emerged two collections of stories: The Casuarina Tree and Ah King. They were tales of rubber planters and missionaries and administrators and district officers and civil servants, of men and women in the sweltering tropics. For me, those two books contain some of his strongest and most evocative writing.
The books were well received in Britain, but while the critics did not question the quality of his writing, they were discomfited by his subject matter. Nevertheless, “The Letter” was staged in numerous London productions and filmed at least twice (a 1940 version starred Bette Davis), further entrenching the image of Englishmen and Englishwomen in the colonies as snobbish and petty, and excessively fond of alcohol and adultery.
In Malaya, those books – and particularly “The Letter” – incited fury among the English expatriates. People Maugham had met and stayed with felt he had betrayed their trust by writing about the secrets they had confided to him, sometimes without even making any effort to disguise their identities. He never set foot in Malaya again.
Maugham’s life spanned almost a century. Born in Paris exactly 150 years ago this week, he was one of the most widely travelled writers of his age, crisscrossing the world on steamships and, later, in aeroplanes. “I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little,” he wrote in The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travels across South-East Asia. “I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took.” Being a homosexual, he travelled in order to escape his unhappy marriage. Perhaps it would have been less disingenuous to say that he travelled so that he could be his true self.
Another reason he travelled was to collect material. In far-flung outposts of the waning British Empire, he encountered men and women who unburdened themselves to him about their unhappy marriages, their thwarted romances and their interracial affairs. But in spite of all the sordid tales that he heard and turned into his short stories and novels, I’ve always felt that, for Maugham, the greatest sin was not murder or lust or adultery, nor was it drink or cowardice. The greatest sin was hypocrisy.
Many of his stories were set in the places he had visited: the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements, the Malay Archipelago, Burma, Hong Kong, China, the South Seas. With its populous English community and variety of races – Malays, Indians, Chinese, Javanese, Sumatrans, Siamese, Armenians – Penang would have been the perfect setting for his tales, I thought.
Growing up on that island, I heard so many stories and scandals about the people who lived there. And if there is one place in Asia today that is still infused with the atmosphere of a Maugham short story, it is Penang, with its colourful shophouses built at the turn of the century, mosques and churches and incense-filled temples and clan houses, and solid-looking colonial government buildings.
Maugham would have seen all these on his visits. He would have been fêted in the graceful mansions behind avenues of casuarinas; he would have bathed in the warm, gentle sea or taken a moonlit trip across the bay in a sampan with a young fisherman. Perhaps he had enjoyed a respite from the equatorial heat in one of the government rest-houses high up in the wooded ridges of Penang Hill. And I liked to think that he would have been intrepid enough to sample the delicious and varied local food – asam laksa, satay, and nasi kandar, mee goreng, cendol and rendang.
As I read my way through Maugham’s books, however, I grew disillusioned to find that he never set his stories in Penang, not a single one. Nor was there any mention of the island in his journals and essays. Was Penang so uninteresting to Maugham? Were the people he met there so insipid and uninspiring? Partly, my decision to write about Maugham and place him in Penang was motivated by this omission, this void in his extensive body of work. I would subvert the elements he had so often employed in his stories, I told myself, and this time, Maugham would be right in the heart of them. He would not be the detached observer he presented himself as to his readers; he would not be the dispassionate gentleman in the parlour, but an involved party, his fate entwined with the people he stayed with.
How far did Maugham deviate from the facts in writing “The Letter”? I read up everything I could find on the Proudlock trial. Although the trial had taken place in Kuala Lumpur, I failed to locate the court transcripts there. Eventually, after much pulling of hair and many dead ends, I tracked them to another island. In the National Archives of Singapore, I sat down at a table, opened the transcripts of Ethel Proudlock’s trial from 1911, and began to read. I mapped out the places where Maugham had turned fact into fiction, but I also discovered where the truth had eluded him.
Penang was where my journey into the world of Maugham the storyteller began, so it seems fitting that I should come home to launch the novel I had written about him, the novel I had written because of him. And it seems fitting, too, on this evening of all evenings, to stand before his photograph in the very hotel where he had once stayed.
Beyond the glass-paned doors opening out to the hotel’s seafront, the sun is setting. A massive cruise liner, all lit up, is pulling into the harbour from the Andaman Sea. Turning my eyes back to Willie Maugham, I thank him silently for all his stories. I fancy I almost catch the twitch of a smile at the edges of his lips as I turn away, cross the lobby, and walk out into another balmy twilight in Penang.
Tan Twan Eng’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel The House of Doors (Canongate, £20) is out now.