The Shut In
In this installment from his Japan Journals, Donald Richie skirts the topic of death with an aging Somerset Maugham
The following is part of Tokyo Journal’s Living Tribute to Donald Richie who passed away on February 19, 2013. Donald Richie’s contribution was originally printed in the January 1995 edition of the Tokyo Journal. It was excerpted from Japan Journals 1947-2004 by Donald Richie (Stone Bridge Press. 2004). Donald Richie’s first visit to Japan took place in 1947. Since that time he became a celebrated film critic, author and composer, not to mention a journalist of many talents recording the changes of over half a century of life in Tokyo. Donald Richie contributed to the Tokyo Journal over the years and when asked about times in the ‘90s, Donald replied, “Frightening but exhilarating. I think everybody with a pencil should be out there taking notes.”
1959. A very old man, neck corded, skin leathery, wrinkled, a nose like a beak, sunken eyes which seem to be gazing at the distant past. Born a year before Ravel, five years older than Klee, eight when Joyce was born – he has already outlived nearly everyone.
“There we are,” says W. Somerset Maugham, having managed the stretch of parquet in his slipper and settled into a chair, handling himself with care the way that old men do, knowing they are breakable. “There, we h-h- have c-c-come b-b-back.”
The stutter is initially surprising. He is so very old and stuttering is an affliction of the young. Even more adolescent is that he has apparently never accustomed himself to it. It still retains, after all these decades, the power to disturb. He remains embarrassed by it.
He turns his eyes away when he speaks. “I suppose you two are off to paint the town red,” he says, stuttering.
His secretary turns to me, “He always says that. I am allowed out once every three weeks. It is always the same. I am forever painting towns red.”
“Alan,” says Maugham, “don’t mumble. You know perfectly well that I am hard of hearing. And yet you mumble.”
“It is because you are hard of hearing that I mumble,” says Alan in a louder voice. “I was saying something I did not want you to hear. That is why I mumbled.”
Maugham snorts, offended, I thought, but, it appears amused. “There,” he says. “You hear that?” And he again snorts, a chuckle deeply hidden, almost inaudible, sunken amid the years.
“Does he dislike being alone?” I ask, lowering my voice, wondering if third-person references were usual.
“Loathes it, hates it. Either stays up to berate me, or takes double his usual dose and goes straight off, to punish me.”
“Not very entertaining, I must say,” says Maugham. “You two mumbling away there.” But he is not irritated. When I look at him he is gazing at the opposite wall as though he had not spoken at all.
The telephone rings. Alan goes to answer it, then reappears. “It was Life...Wanted your impressions of Japan, said you could name your own price.”
“Refuse,” says Maugham.
“I already have,” says Alan.
“My impressions of Japan,” Maugham says. “I don’t have any, shut up here like this. Oh, I was here once before, though. So young. I walked in the park. Some good-looking people, some horrid policemen. But Japan was even then too neat for me. I like places with a bit of mess, you see.” He sighs. “And now it is quite horrid. They will never leave one alone. I do believe that young lady is still outside the door. Do look, Alan. Are you certain she has actually gone? Well, she was there. For hours. An autograph did not satisfy her. She wanted to talk about souls. Though she was not, it would appear, a Christian and it is they, I believe, who have the monopoly on that commodity.” Again the hidden chuckle, the snort of amusement.
I say that he is indeed famous in Japan. Perhaps more famous than Shakespeare.
“It would be disarming, I dare say, for me to appear surprised at that information,” says Maugham. “But actually, my publishers keep me well informed. As they ought, given the amount they make off me.” The telephone rings again.
Alan returns. “Do you think the Emperor would ring him up?”
I say that I doubt it.
“Then I must have got it wrong. Some official, however.”
“Refuse,” say Maugham, perhaps misunderstanding.
Alan keeps fidgeting, yet makes no attempt to leave. Maugham continues to look at the wall. Then, as though speaking to it: “I was here before, years ago. No...” as though in answer to a question, “I wrote nothing about the country. It was all so long ago. I don’t remember it really. Well, yes, the Imperial Hotel here. And the park across the street. I used to walk there, Heavens. Neither of you were born back then.” And the chuckle, but perhaps it is not a meaningful sound, perhaps something to do with an impediment, or perhaps digestive.
I have been told that there are two topics not to be even brushed against: sex and death. He was too far from one and too near the other. Yet during dinner at the grill he had seemed to skirt them himself. He laid down his salad fork and, addressing no one, or everyone in the restaurant, said, “So strange. I have, you know, this neighbor at Cap Ferrar.”
“Jean Cocteau,” supplied Alan.
“In his youth he did a number of drawings, sailors mostly, sleeping. And now he has, in his old age, done this chapel. And in it he has drawn angels. There they are, angels, needing only wings and halos. But when they look, you see...why, it is those sailors again. And there they are, probably all dead by now, and he has made them angels. The very ones.” Silence, then: “He is getting old.” Then, for the first time, he laughed.
Finally, Alan says, “Well, we ought to get cracking.”
“What did you say?” asks Maugham.
“That we should be going.”
“Oh, really,” he says, slowly rising from his chair. Polite, gentlemanly, he holds out his long, wide hand. “You have been so very kind,” he says. Then he turns to Alan and holds out his hand until he recognizes him. Snatching it back, he says, “And you are not to be late. Do you hear? He likes to do that from time to time. Stay out late.”
We walk to the door. I turn and watch him slowly settle into his chair again, arranging his legs with his hands. He nods. He seems to be chuckling to himself. But his gaze was fixed, unseeing.
As the door closes I hear him call in a voice surprisingly strong: “G-g-good n-n-night.” tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.