I received an e-mail from a neighbor:
|I got addicted to Maugham’s short stories when I lived in Taiwan. I don’t usually like short stories, but I was desperate for something to read in English and all I could find were some yellowed Penguin paperbacks on the bottom shelf in a little shop run by an Indian. I bought the first volume and was instantly addicted. Gradually I read all of Maugham’s short stories as well as his famous novel, The Razor’s Edge. I also was riveted to The Narrow Corner. If you have a way to get movies, get The Painted Veil (2006), based on Maugham’s novel. It haunted me for days. It’s about a woman who goes to the Orient with her doctor-husband in the 1920s. An excellent movie. My favorite short story is “The Book-Bag.”|
After reading this, I figured, “If his short stories are that good, and if ‘The Book-Bag’ is his best story, then I can’t miss with ‘The Book-Bag.’” So I read “The Book-Bag,” and soon I was addicted, too. Maugham’s stories are so enjoyable to read that it’s difficult to read only one. He’s a master of story-telling, a master of plot. Like all great storytellers, he draws you in, he persuades you that his characters are real people, he makes you “suspend your disbelief.” He’s always intelligent, sometimes humorous, and occasionally profound. His writing is clear, direct, readable. Orwell said, “The modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”1
There are several parallels between Maugham and Orwell. In Maugham’s The Summing Up, he looked back on the sufferings of his youth: “I was small; I had endurance but little physical strength; I stammered; I was shy; I had poor health. I had no facility for games.” Orwell echoed this passage in his essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys”: “I had no money, I was weak, I was ugly. I was unpopular, I had a chronic cough, I was cowardly, I smelt.”2 Both Maugham and Orwell skipped college, partly because they didn’t win a scholarship, partly because their parents couldn’t afford to send them. Both of them are known for lucid prose. “Good prose,” wrote Maugham, “should be like the clothes of a well-dressed man, appropriate but unobtrusive.”3
But while there are similarities between Maugham and Orwell, there are also differences. Orwell was about thirty years younger than Maugham. Orwell is the quintessential 20th-century writer, renowned for his depiction of totalitarianism. Maugham, on the other hand, came of age in the 19th century, in the confident years before World War I. Maugham writes about colonialism, not totalitarianism. In Maugham’s world, one Englishman can rule an island in the South Pacific, and enjoy doing it.4
I mentioned above that Maugham stammered. He isn’t the only prominent writer who stammered, there seems to be a link between writing and stammering. Perhaps the stammerer takes to writing because speaking is difficult for him.
|For the stammerer who wishes to express himself without the risks inherent in speech, there is an obvious alternative: writing. On the page, even the most unruly words can be brought into line, so it may be no coincidence that many of the finest writers have suffered from a stammer: Lewis Carroll, Arnold Bennett, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Larkin, Henry James, Charles Kingsley, Leigh Hunt, Margaret Drabble, and many more.5|
Maugham was born in 1874, so he was an exact contemporary of Churchill (he was also a friend of Churchill). Maugham also died in the same year as Churchill (1965). Maugham was a popular writer during most of his long life. When he was just 23, Maugham published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, which sold well, prompting Maugham to abandon his medical career and devote himself to writing.
Maugham’s most popular novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944), sold more than 5,000,000 copies — a tribute to Doubleday’s marketing skill as well as Maugham’s literary skill. Maugham sold more books, and made more money, than any writer of his time. His most highly-regarded novel is Of Human Bondage, which is his most personal, most autobiographical work; one might say that while his other works were manufactured, Human Bondage burst out of him, it obsessed him, it demanded to be written. As Maugham put it,
|I was but just firmly established as a popular playwright when I began to be obsessed by the teeming memories of my past life.... It all came back to me so pressingly, in my sleep, on my walks, when I was rehearsing plays, when I was at a party, it became such a burden to me that I made up my mind I could only regain my peace by writing it all down in the form of a novel. I knew it would be a long one, and I wanted to be undisturbed, so I refused the contracts managers were anxious to give me and temporarily retired from the stage.6|
The phrase “human bondage” refers to obsessive love, and is borrowed from Spinoza.
On the whole, Maugham’s childhood wasn’t happy. He was very close to his mother, and she died when he was 8 (for the rest of his life, Maugham kept a photo of her at his bedside).7 His father died when he was 10. He was sent to the home of an uncle, who was “cold and emotionally cruel.”8 His uncle sent him to boarding school, where he was unhappy.
Perhaps these experiences contributed to the tone of Maugham’s writing, which has been described as “astringent cynicism.”9 Perhaps we should ascribe Maugham’s cynicism and coldness, not simply to an unhappy childhood, but rather to the contrast between his mother’s deep love and the world’s cruelty. An Eskimo who’s raised in the Arctic doesn’t suffer from the cold as much as someone who’s raised in the Tropics, then suddenly transplanted to the Arctic. Maugham was surrounded by deep love, then suddenly transplanted to indifference.
Maugham found happiness in Heidelberg, where he went at age 16, and remained for 18 months. In Heidelberg, Maugham attended lectures on Schopenhauer, and was converted to Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview. He also had a homosexual experience while in Heidelberg; Maugham remained homosexual for the rest of his life, though he also had liaisons with women, an unhappy marriage, and one child.10 He spent much of his adult life at his mansion on Cap Ferrat, in the French Riviera; perhaps he felt that France was more tolerant of his lifestyle than England. Many literary people visited Maugham at his mansion, which was called the Villa Mauresque.
After I finished “The Book-Bag,” I read one of Maugham’s most highly-regarded stories, “The Outstation.” Like many of Maugham’s stories, “The Outstation” takes place in The East, in the British colony on the Malay Peninsula. Maugham knew such places from firsthand experience; he travelled widely, perhaps even more widely than Graham Greene. “The Outstation” is a story about animosity, about hatred between two men. This is one of the ancient themes of world literature, and Maugham handles it superbly.
The protagonist of “The Outstation” is 54-year-old George Warburton, who
|was a figure in the society of London in the early nineties, and society then had not lost its exclusiveness nor its brilliance. The Boer War which shook it was unthought of; the Great War which destroyed it was prophesied only by the pessimists.|
Thus, Maugham notes the decline of aristocratic society; this is a central theme in the work of Proust, who was just three years older than Maugham.
There’s a hint of synchronicity in “The Outstation”: the dramatic climax of the quarrel is foreshadowed by the natural world:
|Mr. Warburton went down to the river and sat in his arbor. But peace was denied him. The river flowed ominously silent. It was like a great serpent gliding with sluggish movement towards the sea. And the trees of the jungle over the water were heavy with a breath-less menace. No bird sang. No breeze ruffled the leaves of the cassias. All around him it seemed as though something waited.11|
“Mackintosh” also deals with animosity, and it resembles “The Outstation.” Walker rules a Pacific island, and he’s loathed by his bookish lieutenant, Mackintosh. Mackintosh arranges Walker’s murder semi-consciously: “He felt as though something possessed him so that he acted under the compulsion of a foreign will. Himself did not make the movements of his body, but a power that was strange to him.” One thinks of Ibsen’s Wild Duck, in which Gregers gives a pistol to Hedvig, a teenage girl, and thus semi-consciously arranges Hedvig’s suicide.
Perhaps Walker rules a bit too long. He seems to represent the aging king, the “fisher king” whose power is slipping away:
|“They were saying in Apia it was about time Walker retired. He ain’t so young as he was. Things have changed since he first come to the islands and he ain’t changed with them.” “He’ll go too far,” said the old chiefess. “The natives aren’t satisfied.”|
Another Maugham story, “Lord Mountdrago,” deals with what might be called “occult animosity” — in other words, animosity that expresses itself in occult ways. Two men appear to be dreaming the same dreams — communicating through their dreams, battling through their dreams. “Lord Mountdrago” resembles a Poe story.
“Lord Mountdrago” deals with one of Maugham’s recurring themes: behind the veil of decorum and respectability lurk the savage and the criminal. Many of Maugham’s stories deal with the rending of this veil.
|He knew how often in men who to all appearance were healthy and normal, who were seemingly devoid of imagination, and who fulfilled the duties of common life with credit to themselves and with benefit to their fellows, when you gained their confidence, when you tore away the mask they wore to the world, you found not only hideous abnormality, but kinks so strange, mental extravagances so fantastic, that in that respect you could only call them lunatic.12|
Occasionally, though, the rending of the veil reveals goodness, not savagery. At the end of “Mackintosh,” for example, Walker seems to be a good man, perhaps a better man than Mackintosh. And at the end of “Mr. Know-All,” Max Kelada appears in a good light, though much of the story deals with his vices.
Why did I choose to read “Lord Mountdrago,” which isn’t one of Maugham’s better-known stories? I read it because I’m interested in D. H. Lawrence, and I heard that “Lord Mountdrago” takes a jab at Lawrence. Here’s the passage that seems aimed at Lawrence:
|His father’s a miner, and he worked in a mine himself when he was a boy; he’s been a schoolmaster in the board schools and a journalist. He’s that half-baked, conceited intellectual, with inadequate knowledge, ill-considered ideas and impracticable plans, that compulsory education has brought forth from the working-classes.|
The quarrel in “Lord Mountdrago” begins with ridicule:
|In the House of Commons the most devastating weapon is ridicule: I mocked him; I bantered him; I was in good form that day and the House rocked with laughter. Their laughter excited me and I excelled myself. The Opposition sat glum and silent, but even some of them couldn’t help laughing once or twice; it’s not intolerable, you know, to see a colleague, perhaps a rival, made a fool of. And if ever a man was made a fool of I made a fool of Griffiths.|
I’m reminded of Dostoyevsky’s aphorism, “Ridicule is the world’s strongest weapon.”13 And because it’s a strong weapon, ridicule often leads to enduring animosity, such as we find in “Lord Mountdrago.”
I experienced something similar to what happens in “Lord Mountdrago”: I dreamed of quarreling with my cousin, and when I saw my cousin the next morning, he was somewhat distant, as if he had experienced the “dream quarrel,” too. Perhaps we should speak of “co-dreaming,” or perhaps we should say that telepathic communication takes place not only on the conscious level, but also on the unconscious level, the dream level.
Like many of Maugham’s stories, “Lord Mountdrago” draws on Maugham’s own experience — more specifically, it draws on Maugham’s experience with a psycho-therapist, whom he saw for his stutter. Maugham’s stories are often built on something he experienced or observed — a person he met, a story he heard on his travels. Imaginative literature is often not imaginary. In an earlier issue, I wrote,
|Most of the characters in Huck Finn are based on people Twain knew: Pap, Huck, Tom, Jim, the duke and the dauphin, Boggs and Col. Sherburn. Twain’s fiction has a ring of truth because it’s based on fact; as Twain put it, “If you attempt to create a wholly imagined incident, adventure or situation, you will go astray and the artificiality will be detectable, but if you found on fact in your personal experience, it is an acorn, a root, and every created adornment that grows out of it, and spreads its foliage and blossoms to the sun will seem reality, not invention.”|
Maugham’s story “Gigolo and Gigolette” is based on something he witnessed: in 1931, Maugham saw a woman dive from a high platform into a shallow pool of water, to entertain customers at a casino. Maugham’s story suggests that the will can shape the outcome, and that the diver can anticipate success or disaster. The diver’s husband tries to encourage her: “You know and I know, there’s no risk, not if you keep your nerve.” “But I’ve lost my nerve, Syd. I shall kill myself.”
One of Maugham’s best-known stories is “The Letter.” Like many of Maugham’s stories and novels, “The Letter” was made into a movie — actually, it was made into a movie four times. “The Letter” was also made into a play and an opera. Again we find the theme of savagery lurking behind the veil of aristocratic grace. Again we have a plot that’s based on an actual event. Maugham’s grandfather, father, and three older brothers were lawyers; Maugham himself might have been trained for the law if it weren’t for his stutter. “The Letter” draws on Maugham’s familiarity with legal matters.
“The Unconquered” is one of Maugham’s best stories. It deals with war and love, and like many of Maugham’s stories, it has a dramatic conclusion. (Maugham had firsthand experience of war; at the start of World War I, he was in the ambulance corps, along with several other writers. Late in 1915, Maugham joined British intelligence, and worked as a spy in Switzerland. In 1917, he worked as a spy in Russia, trying to prevent a Bolshevik takeover. Maugham earned high marks for his espionage work.)
“The Unconquered” has the best description of falling-in-love that I’ve ever read:
|She wasn’t his type. She wasn’t very pretty. There was nothing to her. Why should he have all of a sudden this funny feeling for her? It wasn’t a pleasant feeling either, it was a pain. But he knew what it was all right; it was love, and it made him feel happier than he had ever felt in his life. He wanted to take her in his arms, he wanted to pet her, he wanted to kiss those tear-stained eyes of hers. He didn’t desire her, he thought, as a man desires a woman, he wanted to comfort her.|
The man tells the woman, “It’s not only that I love you, I admire you. I admire your distinction and your grace. There’s something about you I don’t understand. I respect you.”14
Maugham was equally adept at describing the death of love — that is, the gradual withering-away of passion, respect, love. He describes the death of love in his story “Red”:
|For many years now they had lived together bound by the ties of habit and convenience, and it was with a smile that he looked back on his old passion.... The tragedy of love is not death or separation.... It is dreadfully bitter to look at a woman whom you have loved with all your heart and soul, so that you felt you could not bear to let her out of your sight, and realize that you would not mind if you never saw her again. The tragedy of love is indifference.15|
“The Unconquered” was published in 1943, and deals with the German occupation of France. Maugham shrewdly describes how the war looked from a German perspective. A German soldier asks a Frenchwoman, “Why did you want to fight for the Poles? What were they to you?” “You’re right. If we had let your Hitler take Poland he would have left us alone.”16
Maugham also makes a shrewd remark about politics in his novel Ashenden. When the Polish agent Herbartus says that World War II will give his country freedom, Ashenden responds, “What will your country do with it when it gets it?”17 Many wars were fought in the 20th century to expel foreign powers and gain independence, but did countries like Algeria and Vietnam flourish once they were independent? One is reminded of children who look forward eagerly to Christmas, only to be disappointed when it finally comes. Now Muslim extremists are fighting to create a caliphate and impose sharia law, but how grim, sterile, and disappointing this would be if it were ever realized!
Like other Maugham stories, “The Unconquered” has contrasting characters — in this case, a loving man and a hating woman. But this isn’t a case of “simple animosity,” such as we find in “The Outstation” or “Mackintosh” or “Lord Mountdrago.” This is a case of wartime animosity; “The Unconquered” shows how war between nations creates animosity between individuals.
Perhaps Maugham’s most celebrated story is “Rain,” which deals with American missionaries in the Pacific. Again we find contrasting characters: moralizing missionaries contrast with easy-going natives, and the missionaries also contrast with a high-spirited prostitute. Again we find the theme of the proper, respectable character who harbors animal impulses.
One of the missionaries deplores how the natives dance: “It’s not only immoral in itself, but it distinctly leads to immorality. However, I’m thankful to God that we stamped it out, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that no one has danced in our district for eight years.” The missionaries are equally horrified by native clothing — or rather, the lack of it — and one of them says, “the inhabitants of these islands will never be thoroughly Christianized till every boy of more than ten years is made to wear a pair of trousers.” The chief goal of the missionaries is to convince the natives that they’re sinners: “When we went there they had no sense of sin at all. They broke the commandments one after the other and never knew they were doing wrong. And I think that was the most difficult part of my work, to instill into the natives the sense of sin.” But the missionaries are confident of eventual success: “We’ll save them in spite of themselves.”
One of Maugham’s novels, The Moon and Sixpence, is based on Gauguin, who was a “reverse missionary” — that is, he went to the South Seas in the belief that primitive life was better than European life.18
Maugham’s dim view of missionaries is part of something larger — his dim view of Christianity. In Razor’s Edge, he writes,
|I couldn’t but surmise that the devil, looking at the cruel wars that Christianity has occasioned, the persecutions, the tortures Christian has inflicted on Christian, the unkindness, the hypocrisy, the intolerance, must consider the balance sheet with complacency. And when he remembers that it has laid upon mankind the bitter burden of the sense of sin that has darkened the beauty of the starry night and cast a baleful shadow on the passing pleasures of a world to be enjoyed, he must chuckle.19|
“The Bum” is in a volume of stories called Cosmopolitans; the stories in this volume are shorter than most of Maugham’s stories, and they aren’t highly-regarded. “The Bum” is about a gifted young writer who fails to break through, fails to gain recognition, and becomes a beggar. Maugham’s description of the young writer is excellent:
|He was not popular among us because he was arrogant and we were none of us old enough to take the arrogance of youth with tolerance. He thought us poor fish and did not hesitate to tell us so. He would not show us his work, because our praise meant nothing to him and he despised our censure. His vanity was enormous. It irritated us; but some of us were uneasily aware that it might perhaps be justified. Was it possible that the intense consciousness of genius that he had, rested on no grounds? He had sacrificed everything to be a writer. He was so certain of himself that he infected some of his friends with his own assurance. I recalled his high spirits, his vitality, his confidence in the future and his disinterestedness.|
After reading several short stories by Maugham, I decided to read his novel The Razor’s Edge. I figured, “If it was so popular, surely I’ll enjoy it.” But I found it somewhat disappointing, and I never quite understood why it was so popular. The protagonist, Larry Darrell, loses his faith in God and the world after witnessing the horrors of World War I. Larry travels the world in search of the meaning of life. He’s particularly impressed with the wisdom of India. (The phrase “razor’s edge” comes from the Upanishads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”)
But Larry’s spiritual quest is too remote from Maugham’s own experience. Maugham was intent on crafting novels, not discovering Truth. Razor’s Edge is crafted, not lived. It’s entertaining and readable, like all of Maugham’s work, but it isn’t Maugham at his best, and I can understand why the critics panned it. Tolstoy was so intent on finding ultimate truth that he turned his back on fiction. Maugham, on the other hand, turned his back on ultimate truth, and focused on writing fiction.
During World War II, Maugham spent several years in the U.S. He was employed by Hollywood studios to work on screenplays. In California, he met three younger Englishmen who were devoted to Eastern philosophy — Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and Gerald Heard. The character of Larry in Razor’s Edge is based on these three Englishmen (especially Isherwood) and their spiritual quest.20 Other characters in Razor’s Edge are also based on real people: Elliott Templeton is based on Henry Channon, Gray Maturin is based on Maugham’s American publisher, Nelson Doubleday.21
Eventually Larry turns his back on India, and its philosophy, and returns to the U.S. to be an auto mechanic and writer. Larry has decided that Indian philosophy is too nihilistic, too hostile to life:
|The Aryans when they first came down into India saw that the world we know is but an appearance of the world we know not; but they welcomed it as gracious and beautiful; it was only centuries later... when the debilitating climate had sapped their vitality... that they saw only evil in life and craved for liberation from its return.... It was not for me to leave the world and retire to a cloister, but to live in the world and love the objects of the world, not indeed for themselves, but for the Infinite that is in them.... I wanted to live again and again. I was willing to accept every sort of life, no matter what its pain and sorrow.22|
Thus, Larry reaches a conclusion that reminds us of Nietzsche: an affirmation of life, and an affirmation of the “eternal recurrence” of life. But Maugham doesn’t mention Nietzsche in Razor’s Edge. Perhaps Maugham reached his Nietzschean conclusion independently of Nietzsche.
As in “The Unconquered” and “Rain,” we find contrasting characters in Razor’s Edge. The bohemian Larry contrasts sharply with the conventional, bourgeois Isabel. Larry’s bohemian bent foreshadows the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. As one critic put it, “Maugham had encouraged his readers, especially affluent young post-World War II Americans, to examine and even question their own postwar values.”23
Despite its flaws, Razor’s Edge is a brave attempt, and a partly-successful attempt, to depict the enlightened person, the saint. Thus, it can be compared to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which attempts to portray a Christ figure in Prince Myshkin. Larry, Maugham’s saint, is child-like, and gets along well with children:
|He was sweet with Odette [Suzanne Rouvier’s daughter] and she adored him. I had to prevent her from making a nuisance of herself, but he never seemed to mind how much she pestered him. It used to make me laugh, they were like two children together.24|
Larry wanted to marry Sophie Macdonald, a drug addict and nymphomaniac. He says that Sophie had “spiritual beauty.... a lovely soul, fervid, aspiring and generous. Her ideals were greathearted. There was even at the end a tragic nobility in the way she sought destruction.”25 Sophie started down the road to ruin after experiencing death at close range, just as Larry begins his spiritual quest after witnessing death.26
Larry has no use for academia, and doesn’t pursue a degree. Instead, he studies the classics on his own, and goes into raptures over Homer, Spinoza, etc. “I want to learn as passionately as — Gray, for instance, wants to make pots of money.”27 Perhaps the book he reads most assiduously is William James’ Principles of Psychology, which Maugham praises for its historical importance, and for being “exceedingly readable.”28
Maugham has no truck with the experimental or avant-garde. He’s more popular with the general public than with highbrow critics; one might describe him as a middlebrow writer.29. Rebecca West faulted Maugham for lacking a philosophical vision, a positive worldview. Reviewing Maugham’s story-collection The Trembling of a Leaf, West said that Maugham’s “cheap and tiresome attitude towards life nearly mars these technically admirable stories. They are charged with a cynicism which one feels Mr. Maugham has stuffed into them to conceal his lack of any real philosophy.”30 Maugham is long on cynicism, short on enthusiasm.
The Irish writer Kate O’Brien criticized Razor’s Edge for its charming surface, for “that gloss, that convenient, amusing chic, that curious ChampsElysées décor which this author finds irresistible and which he does so well; indeed, excessively, sterilizingly well.”31
One of Maugham’s toughest critics is Diana Trilling, who speaks of “the failure of [Maugham’s] whole literary career.”32 Trilling complains that Razor’s Edge lacks deep emotion, and she quotes Maugham’s own remark: “A chill went down my spine as it strangely does when I am confronted with deep and genuine emotion. I find it terrible and rather awe-inspiring.” Trilling says that Maugham was drawn to mysticism since it promised to still emotions: “Mysticism [is] bound to be inviting to the person who is afraid of the deep emotions.”
The critic Cyril Connolly takes a more positive view of Razor’s Edge. He speaks of, “the sheer delight that I and all my friends have received from this novel,” and he says that it “perfectly recaptures the graces that have vanished.” Perhaps we can describe Maugham as the last of the 19th-century novelists. Connolly notes that Razor’s Edge isn’t Maugham’s first foray into mysticism:“In all [Maugham’s] previous work there has always been a strong inclination to mysticism.”33 Connolly calls Razor’s Edge, “A considerable addition to the literature of non-attachment, [it] ranks with Huxley’s Grey Eminence and Heard’s Man the Master.” On the other hand, Connolly scoffs at the Hindu theories and hypnotic tricks in Maugham’s novel.
In an earlier issue, I mentioned Caroline Gordon, an American novelist and critic, and I said that Gordon was a mentor to Flannery O’Connor. Gordon was married to the writer Allen Tate, and they maintained a literary salon in Clarksville, Tennessee (Gordon had grown up nearby, in southern Kentucky). “Their guests included some of the best-known writers of their time, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, and Ford Madox Ford.”34 Gordon was a harsh critic of Maugham, comparing him unfavorably to Chekhov.35 In Chekhov’s work, Gordon says, “Each detail not only vibrates with a life of its own but ‘acts’ upon the neighboring detail.” Gordon quotes Chekhov’s maxim, “If a gun hangs on the wall in one of the first scenes of a story it must be discharged before the end of the story.” Chekhov’s “greatest disciple,” Gordon says, is Joyce; Joyce’s story “The Dead” is a Chekhovian masterpiece.
Gordon thinks that Maugham doesn’t work hard enough; she disapproves of Maugham’s idea that a writer should “do only as well as it lies in him easily to do.” Gordon insists that a writer should not “stop short of the final, exhausting, almost superhuman efforts which result in the production of masterpieces.” I think Maugham is right. Many first-rate writers wrote “easily” and rapidly: Nietzsche wrote some of his best books in a week, Kafka wrote some of his best stories in a night (van Gogh could complete a painting in a day). But perhaps the important thing isn’t ease or effort, but rather whether a writer is committed to his subject, loves his subject, etc.
Like Graham Greene, Maugham wrote travel books as well as fictional works. Maugham’s Don Fernando is about Spain and its Golden Age; Maugham’s Land of the Blessed Virgin is about Andalusia. Maugham wrote about China in On a Chinese Screen, and Southeast Asia in The Gentleman in the Parlour. In the twilight of his career, Maugham wrote two historical novels: Then and Now is about Machiavelli, and uses a plot from a Machiavelli comedy; Catalina is about 17th-century Spain.
Maugham’s autobiographical works The Summing Up (1938) and A Writer’s Notebook (1949) are well-regarded. Maugham was a private person, not given to confiding and confessing, so these autobiographical works deal more with his literary career than with his life. Stephen Vincent Benét said of The Summing Up, “The whole book gives a picture of the progress and development of a craftsman that is truly remarkable in its intellectual frankness.”36 Ted Morgan’s 1980 biography of Maugham is well-regarded.37 Much Maugham material can be found at this website, and Maugham texts can be found at this website.
|1.|| Somerset Maugham: A Life, by Jeffrey Meyers, Ch. 22, #3, pp. 343, 344 back|
|2.|| Maugham’s Summing Up was published in 1938, about a year before Orwell began writing “Such, Such Were the Joys.” The parallels between Maugham and Orwell are discussed in Somerset Maugham: A Life, by Jeffrey Meyers, Ch. 22, #3, p. 344 back|
|3.|| Meyers, p. 345 back|
|4.|| As Joseph Warren Beach put it, Maugham’s “cool blood was warmed by an afterglow of Victorianism and he never seriously questioned the basic premises of that nineteenth-century culture of which he was a distinguished exponent. With all his irony, his cynicism, his uncanny faculty for reducing human motives to their lowest common denominator, he has long stood for a humanism which cherished the surface values of civilization even when it could not quite recall the grounds on which they were based.” (W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Ch. 121, pp. 352, 353) Beach is a fine critic, a Minnesota professor who wrote studies of Henry James, George Meredith, etc. back|
|5.|| article on “literary stammer” back|
|6.|| From Maugham’s The Summing Up back|
|7.|| One psychologist argued that a factor in the origin of genius is “Jocasta mothering” — that is, a mother who is in love with her son, as Jocasta was with Oedipus. He cited Maugham as an example of a genius who experienced Jocasta mothering. Perhaps Proust and Hitler also experienced this sort of mothering. See
Matthew Besdine, “The Jocasta Complex, Mothering and Genius,” Psychoanalytic Review (this is a 2-part article, both parts are in volume 55, both were published in 1968; part one is pages 259-277, part two is pages 574-600) back|
|8.|| Wikipedia back|
|9.|| Encyclopedia Britannica. The critic Raymond Mortimer spoke of Maugham’s “distrust of life, presumably the sour fruit of a most miserable childhood.” (Somerset Maugham: A Life, by Jeffrey Meyers, Ch. 21, #1, p. 327) The writer C. P. Snow said that Maugham’s friendliness “was a very astringent sort of friendliness, no nonsense about it and no sentimentality about it, but just hard, rather like visiting one’s family lawyer.” (Meyers, Ch. 11, #3, p. 175)
One might compare Maugham to Melville. Melville’s father died when Melville was 12, and Melville fell from affluence to poverty. “I had learned to think much and bitterly before my time,” Melville wrote in Redburn. “I must not think of those delightful days, before my father became a bankrupt... and we removed from the city; for when I think of those days, something rises up in my throat and almost strangles me.” One Melville critic spoke of the “tormented psychology of the decayed patrician.”
|10.|| Maugham excoriated his ex-wife in a late memoir, Looking Back, which Graham Greene called “the sick Maugham’s senile and scandalous work.” (Somerset Maugham: A Life, by Jeffrey Meyers, Ch. 21, #2, p. 331) back|
|11.|| V. S. Naipaul was fascinated by Maugham, and Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River takes its title from the opening paragraph of “The Outstation.” back|
|12.|| At the end of Razor’s Edge, Isabel is revealed to be a killer, behind a facade of good manners and good looks. back|
|13.|| The Possessed, supplementary chapter, “At Tihon’s.” Maugham seems to be keenly aware of the power of ridicule. In “Mackintosh,” Mackintosh’s hatred of Walker is prompted by Walker’s jests: “Walker little knew that there was nothing Mackintosh could stand less than chaff. He would wake in the night, the breathless night of the rainy season, and brood sullenly over the gibe that Walker had uttered carelessly days before. It rankled. His heart swelled with rage, and he pictured to himself ways in which he might get even with the bully.” Likewise, the natives can’t endure ridicule: “There is nothing the Kanaka can endure less than ridicule.” I’ve even heard people say that dogs don’t like to be laughed at. back|
|14.|| Maugham’s description of falling-in-love in Human Bondage is similar: “He did not know how he was to get through the hours that must pass before his eyes rested on her again. He thought drowsily of her thin face, with its delicate features, and the greenish pallor of her skin. He was not happy with her, but he was unhappy away from her. He wanted to sit by her side and look at her, he wanted to touch her, he wanted... the thought came to him and he did not finish it, suddenly he grew wide awake... he wanted to kiss the thin, pale mouth with its narrow lips. The truth came to him at last. He was in love with her. It was incredible.... He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before.” (Ch. 57) back|
|15.|| In an earlier issue, I discussed the death of love in the work of D. H. Lawrence. I also discussed the death of love here. back|
|16.|| Some non-Germans took a similar view. Hoffer and Jung, for example, felt that the only way for the Allies to avoid world war was to let Hitler drive east. back|
|17.|| Ch. 13, “The Flip of a Coin” back|
|18.|| The conclusion of “Rain” — suicide prompted by feelings of guilt — resembles the conclusion of “Mackintosh.”|
Rebecca West argues that the end of “Rain” is shocking not because of orgy or suicide, but because “the missionary’s wife, on hearing the news of his death, instantly knows what has happened. ‘Her voice was hard and steady. Dr. Macphail could not understand the look in her eyes. Her pale face was very stern.’ And from that one knows what a foul den of lust and suspicion of lust these people’s hearts had been.” (W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Ch. 48, p. 154) back
|19.|| Ch. 5, #4, p. 228 back|
|20.|| It can be argued, however, that the plot of Razor’s Edge predates Maugham’s stay in the U.S. The plot was taken from one of Maugham’s plays, The Road Uphill, which was written in 1924, but never published or produced. (W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, p. 352) back|
|21.|| Click here for an interesting New York Times article on the Doubleday publishing empire. back|
|22.|| Ch. 6, #8, pp. 303, 304 back|
|23.|| A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia, by Samuel J. Rogal, “The Razor’s Edge,” p. 232 back|
|24.|| Ch. 4, #9 back|
|25.|| Ch. 7, #2, pp. 323, 324 back|
|26.|| As Joseph Warren Beach writes, Sophie is “a spirit akin to Larry’s, whose vision of Evil is too much for her, and drives her the way of sin and death where Larry goes the way of life and sanctity.” back|
|27.|| Ch. 2, #4, p. 74 back|
|28.|| Ch. 1, #7, p. 32. The Razor’s Edge has been made into a movie at least twice. I thought the 1984 movie was quite good, though Bill Murray was rougher, less gentle than Maugham’s Larry. back|
|29.|| In the Norton Critical Editions, Maugham is nowhere to be found. back|
|30.|| W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Ch. 48, p. 153. In Human Bondage, Maugham ponders the meaning of life, and develops a positive worldview. back|
|31.|| W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Ch. 123, p. 357. As the American critic Joseph Warren Beach put it, “In Maugham there are few intentions that lie much deeper than the surface.... The people say just what they mean, no more and no less.... There is little to distinguish one person’s speech from another.” back|
|32.|| W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, Ch. 122, p. 355 back|
|33.|| Ibid, Ch. 124, p. 358 back|
|34.|| Wikipedia. One critic said that Gordon’s best-known novel is Aleck Maury, Sportsman, and that it was “written as an act of generosity, a homage to her then still-living father.” back|
|35.|| “Notes on Chekhov and Maugham,” by Caroline Gordon, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Summer, 1949), pp. 401-410. In this essay, Gordon discusses Maugham’s story “Rain” and Chekhov’s story “On the Road.” She explains the symbolism of “On the Road,” but one wonders how many readers appreciate this symbolism. back|
|36.|| W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, Ch. 110, p. 321 back|
|37.|| Morgan was born into the French aristocracy. He used the name “Sanche de Gramont” when he began his career as a journalist and author. Later he settled in the U.S., and used the name Ted Morgan, an anagram of “de Gramont.” Morgan served in the Algerian War, and wrote books about the French army in Algeria and Indochina. He also wrote books about early America: