The mature work of Somerset Maugham is nothing if not honest. It moves on the weight of his blunt, plain sentences, which he delivers to the reader like so many body blows. One thinks, for instance, of The Summing Up, a book which Maugham wrote in his sixties to say a final word on things (unfortunately, he then lived to ninety-one) and in which the stark honesty of the prose is almost breathtaking. “Though I have been in love a good many times I have never experienced the bliss of requited love. I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed.” He couldn’t have said it more plainly than that.
I caught a ride into the Lexington suburbs, then took out my rain hat and harmonica and began marching and playing to the townsfolk on my way down to the University of Kentucky. It was four miles in pouring rain, and people thought I was crazy. A man along the way spotted the writing on my bag and told his buddy not to worry, it’s just another one of those nuts from California. Another guy, with his little kids tagging along behind him, dragging their miniature flags along the sidewalk, smiled and told me I looked very happy. His wife, whose dark feet in her bright white pumps reminded me of chocolate ice cream with marshmallows, was more concerned about her kids, though, and bent over to tell them not to drag the flags. As I continued past the red brick buildings of downtown Lexington, I was accompanied by an old lady in a green dress with white polka dots. She was carrying a purple handbag with lots of yarn and knitting needles, and was being pulled along by her dachshund. She had an old straw hat with a withered rose tucked into the hatband, and her snow-white hair was gathered into a bun at the back — holding up the brim of her hat. She had one of those drying-up-like-prunes faces that you see on so many old people. It happens to all of us, eventually, but at least she wasn’t dried up on the inside. She laughed at everything I said, even plain statements. When we passed a “Small Animal Hospital,” she asked me what it was. “That’s a hospital for small animals,” I said. You should have heard her howl. I really loved her.