Anthony Burgess on Somerset Maugham

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

Having written his own fictional account of the colonial or expatriate experience in Malaya in his Malayan Trilogy, Anthony Burgess wrote the introduction to the 1969 edition of Somerset Maugham's Malaysian Stories. Burgess particularly emphasised the historical context of Maugham's stories, which differs crucially from that of his own novels. While Maugham had sought out "exotic" places for his stories, travelling in order to find inspiration for his fictional worlds, and then admirably catching the atmosphere of colonial life and the heyday of the alcohol-imbibing planter, the Malaya that Burgess lived and worked in was essentially a postcolonial world in which the expatriate white man was regarded with hostility. Burgess's novels are populated by cultural and ethnical hybrids, willing expatriates and dislocated exiles. In a sense they represent the end of colonial and the beginning of postcolonial literature. On Maugham Burgess comments rather patronisingly:

He stayed in no one place very long, but he usually managed to absorb something of the atmosphere of each town, village or rubber estate he visited, and he always made quick contact with the local residents. These residents were invariably Europeans - planters, colonial officials, businessmen, or just men living in exile to escape from trouble or sadness at home - and there is little evidence that Maugham gained, or wished to gain, any direct knowledge of the lives and customs of the native peoples of the East. This must be disappointing to present-day Malay and Indian and Chinese and Eurasian readers of his stories, but we have to remember that (apart from the fact that Maugham had no time to learn Malay or Chinese or Tamil) the Western attitude to the Far East was very different in Maugham's time from what it is today. (xv)


Burgess, Anthony, "Introduction" in Maugham, W. Somerset. Malaysian Stories. Singapore and Hong Kong: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd, 1969, vi-xvii.

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Last Modified: 21 October 2002