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Story Ideas I Didn’t Pursue to the Bitter End

I’ve long been a fan of the great 20th century English novelist/playwright/essayist, Somerset Maugham, especially his short stories, most of which I’ve managed to read thanks to a Penguin edition of his collected works (one of the few that’s not managed to survive our many moves).

For my first public-speaking effort in junior high school, we had to pick a story we liked and retell it to the class). I used Maugham’s famous tale of The Verger, which I’d come across in one of my parents’ multitude of books. The story was first published in 1929 as The Man Who Made His Mark, as part of a collection of “very short stories” entitled Cosmopolitans (the name taken from the American monthly journal in which most of the stories first appeared). (William Heinemann, London, 1936)

A verger is a lay church official who supports the work of the clergy, acting as a caretaker and/or in a ceremonial capacity. In this case, a long-serving verger of a church is dismissed by a new vicar, who, in discovering his assistant can neither read nor write, decides he is unsuitable for the position. The story follows his progress afterwards; the results are quite delightful. A black and white video of the story (produced in the 1950’s, I’d say) can be found here.

In 1949 Maugham published A Writer’s Notebook (Doubleday, New York). In his preface to the book he talks about the French writer Jules Renard (1864–1910). In Maugham’s view, Renard wrote only one successful book, Poil de carotte (Carrot Top, in English). The rest of his contribution to world literature Maugham dismisses out of hand; Renard, he writes, “was so devoid of creative power that one wonders why he ever became a writer.” (p. vii)

But, twenty years after Renard’s death, his diaries were published, covering the period 1887–1910. Because he knew so many literary and theatrical figures of his day, because he had keen powers of observation and because the picture he painted of literary life was particularly savage — “They say dog does not bite dog. That is not true of men of letters in France” (p. viii) — Renard’s Journal became, Maugham considered, one of the “minor masterpieces of French literature.”

Renard was so honest, Maugham reports, that he couldn’t even draw a favourable self-portrait. In the author’s own words, then:

He was malignant, cold, selfish, narrow, envious and ungrateful. His only redeeming feature was his love for his wife: she is the only person in all these volumes of whom he consistently speaks with kindness. He was immensely susceptible to any fancied affront, and his vanity was outrageous. He had neither charity nor good will. He splashes with his angry contempt everything he doesn’t understand, and the possibility never occurs to him that if he doesn’t the fault may lie with himself. He was odious, incapable of a generous gesture, and almost incapable of a generous emotion. (p. xii)

Despite his reservations about Renard’s novels, Maugham found the Journal wonderfully good reading — extremely amusing, witty, subtle and often wise. Renard jotted down ideas, phrases, things noticed, the appearance and sayings of people he encountered, all for the purposes of using the material in his own writing.

This summation leads Maugham to the purpose of A Writer’s Notebook. He had been told (by whom he could not recall) that every author should keep a notebook, and he was scrupulous in following that advice. His notes amounted to fifteen “stoutish” volumes, beginning in 1892 and ending in 1944, which he then reduced to one book “no longer than many a novel” (p. xv) — 367 pages, to be exact. Here is a photograph of my copy (still in perfect condition), picked up – if memory serves me well – at a rummage sale.

It makes for fascinating reading. Some of the passages are lengthy, encompassing many pages and providing great detail on potential characters, places or ideas. Other notes are as brief as one or two sentences, for example, “The sky was slate grey, and so drab and melancholy was its colour that it seemed a work of man. It was a colour of infinite sorrow.” (p. 45)

Although I have kept a diary off and on since childhood (2020 and 2021 proving to be quite the memorable years!) I will not claim the powers of observation or the creativity that Maugham displays. In this vein, though, here are some of my ideas for novels that never saw the light of day:

  • The story of a family (the father a minor colonial official) living in Cairo from the early 1900s to post–World War II, following the life and times of Egypt as a colony and moving towards independence under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
  • Life in the federal public service under a time of severe austerity (hmm, that might still prove useful under a new government).
  • The story of a world coping with climate change as the new normal, such as dramatic weather swings and extreme events (I came up with that idea in the late 1980’s; rather prescient, if you ask me).
  • A murder mystery based on “the death of a 34-year-old former model whose headless and decomposed body was found … in an apartment owned by a brother of Hong Kong’s former top civil servant.” This comes from a National Post story from 2001, “Hong Kong Reopens Case of Slain Model,” detailing the fate of Annie Pang, an insurance agent with a drug habit.
  • Westerfield Tales: intertwined stories of the citizens of a fictitious town in Connecticut.
  • A tale of a mysterious inheritance, set on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. This idea came from reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books and is based on the island’s black Christmas fruitcake, a sample of which I came across (and greatly enjoyed) in a small downtown Basseterre bakery back in 2006.
  • A thriller based on the Iran Contra affair, told from the viewpoint of an honest mid-level CIA operative caught up in the wickedness.
  • A wide-ranging Ken Follett–type story looking at life in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, focusing on Freud, Gustav Klimt, art nouveau, the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc.

Beyond the many zoo and bear short stories, there were three others I did complete (but which remain shelved away in a file cabinet):

  • The Fantastic Tales of Texas Slim: actually written in brown ink and clearly based on the folk stories/tall tales of Pecos Bill
  • A Spanish Tale: a mystery story set in Madrid
  • I Remember the Moment. The moment in question is not easy to discuss or dwell upon. The first sentence reads: “I remember the moment when I decided to kill myself.” I won’t go into the method or what happened in the story (or in real life), but it reflects a unique period in my life when I was especially depressed by a situation at work — let’s call it the proverbial boss from hell. What happened? Well, I’m still here, alive and well and no longer having such thoughts. Perhaps writing it was my way of coping.