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How good was Maugham?

In The Summing Up, published in 1938 when he was sixty-four years old, Somerset Mangham inveighed against literary obscurity and extolled the virtue of clarity (his own peculiar forte). His sentiments were unlikely to endear him to many of the literati of the twentieth century, whose subtlety and complexity, some of them imagined, precluded clodhopping clarity. Maugham explained the source of the obscurity with which they wrote:
 The author wraps his meaning in mystery so
 that the vulgar shall not participate in it. His
 soul is a secret garden into which the elect
 may penetrate only after overcoming a number
 of perilous obstacles.

This is very well said, and if its import were taken seriously halt" of contemporary literary fiction would never have been published and two-thirds of the teachers of the humanities would find themselves out of a job.

Nevertheless, there is in Maugham's astringent view the suspicion of a potential for a philistine's charter. Maugham himself could hardly be accused of philistinism: he was a discriminating collector of modern art, for example recognizing the genius of Gauguin before it was common knowledge, and he both loved and was knowledgeable about oriental art well before the taste for it became general. It is unlikely that many of the people who were condescending about him were able and willing, as he was, to read Racine in French, Calderon in Spanish, Dante in Italian, Goethe in German, and Chekhov in Russian (to say nothing of his formidable erudition in English literature). And yet one can easily imagine all the militant middlebrows of the world cheering loudly as they read The Summing Up. See, we were right all along to prefer light to heavy reading.

It is the suspicion of an underlying philistinism and shallowness that has dogged Maugham's literary reputation from the start. As Jeffery Meyers's new biography of Maugham makes clear,' he had a very interesting and varied life, far more interesting than that of most writers. His knowledge of the world was incomparable; his training as a doctor taught him about the minutiae of human suffering, while his spell as a British spy in Petrograd charged with aborting the Bolshevik revolution taught him about politics at the very highest level of world significance. He travelled extensively, fearlessly, and productively. It seems to me likely that his name will live largely because of the short stories that he wrote about the South Seas and the East Indies, which are among the best in the English language, or indeed in any language.

Meyers's biography is well written, entertaining, and of commendable brevity, compared with the two previous full biographies of The Master. I should recommend it to anyone who wanted to read about his life. There is just the right amount of psychology in it, and most of the interpretations are plausible and measured. Whether it adds much to our overall picture or appreciation of its subject, however, may be doubted. It enumerates Maugham's many homosexual liaisons much more fully than other biographies, and if this is the kind of thing you want to know, then it is to Meyers that you must now turn. Personally I could have done without the anecdote concerning Maugham's fecal incontinence when he was ninety-one years old and senile, for it is a matter of human decency and good manners to draw a veil over such frailty, unless there is some very good reason not to. Our exercise of the right to know ought sometimes to be tempered by a willingness to look away.

Maugham's personality, or persona, did little to aid his popularity among the intelligentsia. He was perceived as being stiff, formal, acidulous, snobbish, unsympathetic, sour, cynical, and misanthropic, though no one ever turned down the sumptuous hospitality offered at the Villa Mauresque on that account. This disparaging view of Maugham's character is very superficial and unimaginative, but it is the one that has prevailed.

There were five influences that conspired to make Maugham the character he was, and Meyers paints a convincing picture of the development of his complex personality. The first influence was the early death of his parents while they were living in Paris, and his subsequent removal to England under the guardianship of a parsimonious, mean-spirited and bigoted clerical uncle. Meyers aptly quotes Kipling to the effect that "when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge." One might add that not all the pleasures of the world--and Maugham had tasted plenty of them by the time he died--can overcome completely the melancholy of an unhappy childhood. For him who has experienced misery early in life, there is a worm in the bud of all subsequent happiness. For such a person, life is suffering, and the most that can be hoped for is temporary distraction and relief until suffering returns.

Second, it ought to be remembered that Maugham spent the first twenty-seven years of his life under the reign of Queen Victoria, and the next nine under that of Edward VII, when it was believed that vice and emotion were things that gentlemen should not exhibit in public. It was natural, therefore, for an aspiring gentlemen to have at least two faces, the public and the private.

Third, Maugham suffered all his life from a pronounced stutter that rendered him self-conscious, especially early in life, and meant that he could never take ease of social intercourse for granted. Because of it, he always felt himself to be something of an outsider, struggling against a handicap. Self-assurance in his case always had an element of conscious bravado.

Fourth, he underwent medical training as a young man, a training that he thought was excellent for a writer. (Several times, young doctors in my hospital who aspire to write have sought my advice about what they should do, and I have always advised them to stay in medical practice for a few more years, until all the depths and shallows of the human heart are familiar to them, advice that they have never taken.) Meyers does not, in my opinion, emphasize Maugham's medical training enough. In order to be able to continue to practice, doctors have quickly to learn a kind of detached involvement in the lives of their patients. They must empathize and sympathize with them, but not to the point that they are overwhelmed emotionally by their sorrows. A doctor who fails to discipline his emotions is unlikely to be of much use to his patients; therefore the learning of such discipline, until it becomes second nature, is as much a part of medical training as pathology and therapeutics. It might appall sentimentalists to know that nothing I have seen in thirty years as a doctor, from epidemic and civil war to accident, murder and suicide, has ever caused me a moment's sleeplessness, and that a man could cut his throat in front of me without it affecting my appetite for dinner in the slightest. This, however, is not mere callousness or lack of feeling, it is necessary clinical detachment, and Maugham's writing bears the mark of a doctor's sensibility (as does Chekhov's). Though Maugham never practiced after qualification, his eye was clearly that of a doctor.

Last but not least was Maugham's homosexuality (or, strictly speaking, his bisexuality). On two occasions Meyers calls Maugham repressed, but Maugham would have disliked this word as applied to him, not because of any derogatory connotations it might bear, but because of its inexactirude. On Meyers's own evidence (whose accuracy I am not in a position to test), Maugham was far from repressed: he had an active sexual life until he was in his late eighties, he had many lovers, sailors were procured for him from the ports of the Mediterranean coast of France and brought to the Villa Mauresque, and there was no shortage of catamites during his oriental voyages. What Meyers means is that Maugham had to conduct his sexual life in private, with circumspection, since it was fame and social acceptance rather than notoriety that he desired, and it is an interesting reflection on our times that what is not done in full public view or knowledge should now be regarded as repressed. If Maugham had been able freely to parade himself with his American lover, Gerald Haxton, in Paddington (the homosexual quarter of Sydney), or in Castro Street in San Francisco, he would have been liberated rather than repressed: but I doubt that anyone would have wanted much to read what he wrote.

His deep disbelief in the possibility of lasting human happiness, his feeling of being an outsider even after he had achieved world fame, his emotional discipline that he learned as a doctor, his need for personal concealment, his high intelligence and passionate temperament combined to form a character that, despite his politesse and charm, many found disagreeable or even repellent, but which nevertheless gave him an uncanny ability to understand and sympathize with the hidden passions of the heart.

Maugham was not a snob. It is true that he had a weakness for the rich and famous (a weakness that was fully reciprocated), that royalty and former royalty were often his guests, and that he probably had a wider literary acquaintance than any man before or since. No man could be called famous until he had met Maugham. Punctilious in his manners, and demanding such punctiliousness in others, Maugham preferred people who could talk intelligently at his table and play bridge well. But nobody can be counted a snob merely because his acquaintance does not reflect the demographic make-up of the world population. This surely would be to take the concept of positive discrimination further than even its wildest and most fanatical proponents would as yet advocate. Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was drawn from his experiences as a student at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, and it treats the working class with great, though clear-eyed, sympathy. Maugham later derided the snobbery of the social milieu in which he grew up in one of his best novels, Cakes and Ale. The vicious pettiness of social distinctions based solely upon accident of birth could hardly have been more eloquently condemned. And though a man of considerable intellectual width and accomplishment himself, as familiar with the arguments of Spinoza as with the poetry of Schiller, he did not attribute transcendental or cosmic importance to his own taste for intellectual and literary pursuits. At the beginning of his short story "The Book Bag," he wrote:
 Some people read for instruction, which is
 praiseworth); and some for pleasure, which
 is innocent, but not a few read from habit,
 and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor
 praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am
 I. From the standpoint of what eternity is it
 better to have read a thousand books than to
 have ploughed a million furrows?

Maugham did not despise the ordinary, man, therefore, even if he did not choose him for his social circle, which is another thing entirely; and he soon learnt that many a dull exterior hid an extraordinary inner life. He was fond of quoting one of his anatomy teachers at St. Thomas's who, when helping Maugham to find a nerve in the corpse he was dissecting, told him that the normal was the rarest thing in the world, which is why Maugham's anatomy textbook had so misled him.

Yet the accusation is still made against Maugham that his characters are drawn only externally, that they have no subtly shifting inner life as, say, those of Virginia Woolf do, in whom emotion is like the shadow of a cloud passing over a field on a sunny day. He is therefore superficial, a behaviorist among writers, a kind of B. F. Skinner of literature. In his beautiful book of prose sketches about China, On a Chinese Screen, published in 1922, Maugham describes in a piece entitled "The Rolling Stone" an Englishman who had spent three years wandering through the remote parts of China on foot, by cart, and on the river, living more or less as a Chinese:
 When I met him I sought to discern how the
 variety, of his experience had affected him; but
 though he was full of anecdote, a jovial,
 friendly creature, willing to talk at length of all
 he had seen, I could not discover that any of
 his adventures had intimately touched him.
 The civilised world irked him and he had a
 passion to get away from the beaten trail. The
 oddities of life amused him. He had an insatiable
 curiosity. But I think his experiences
 were merely of the body and were never
 translated into experiences of the soul. Perhaps
 that is why at bottom yon felt be was
 commonplace. The insignificance of his mien
 was a true index to the insignificance of his
 soul. Behind the blank wall was blankness.

In essence, this is precisely the charge against Maugham himself, that he was a mere observer of externals without much in the way of a soul. He observed men much as lepidopterists collect butterflies, and pinned them to his page as the lepidopterist pins butterflies to his board. And certainly, I have met people like Maugham's Rolling Stone who have travelled many years in remote places who appear to have gained even less from their experiences than his Rolling Stone, for example young men from Europe and Australia who spent many years exploring the tributaries of the Congo, often in discomfort and possibly in danger, but whose vacancy of mind, incapable even of a proper anecdote, recalled that of men who have devoted themselves to smoking cannabis. According to his critics, Maugham was but one step up from them.

Maugham was aware of how disconcerting his apparent detachment might be to others. In The Narrow Corner, a novel published in 1932 that Meyers says is underrated, one of the characters, an English doctor called Saunders who is no longer allowed to practice in England and has lived many years in China, has so many traits of Maugham himself that it might be taken as a self-portrait:
 Dr. Saunders took an interest in his fellows
 that was not quite scientific and not quite
 human. He wanted to receive entertainment
 from them. He regarded them dispassionately
 and it gave him just the same amusement to
 unravel the intricacies of the individual as a
 mathematician might find in the solution of a
 problem. He had fewer prejudices than most
 men. The sense of disapproval was left out of
 him.... It is seldom that a man is shocked
 by the thought that someone has seduced
 another's wife, but it is hard for him to make a
 bosom friend of one who drops his aitches
 and almost impossible if he scoops up gravy
 with his knife. Right and wrong were no
 more to him than good weather and bad
 weather. He took them as they came. He
 judged but he did not condemn. He laughed.

 He was very, easy to get on with. He was
 much liked. But he had no friends. He was an
 agreeable companion, but neither sought intimacy
 nor gave it. It could not be denied that
 he led a good life ... for he was charitable and
 kindly ... but if motive counts for righteousness,
 then he deserved no praise; for he was
 influenced in his actions neither by love, pity
 nor charity.

Dr. Saunders's feeling for social convention as being more important than, say, the categorical imperative, and therefore a dropped aitch being a far worse solecism than a bank robbery is reflected in Maugham's thinking as far back as 1892, when he was only eighteen years old. In A Writer's Notebook there is the following entry for that year:
 No action is good or bad, but only such according
 to convention.

The preceding entry, however, recognizes the stultifying effect that convention may exert:
 Respectability is the cloak under which fools
 cover their stupidity.

Maugham's life and work may be interpreted as a constant battle in which the desire for freedom and license on the one hand and that for social respectability and observance of social convention on the other fought for supremacy and achieved an unstable equilibrium.

I think Maugham's intellectual ideal was the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, a man so equable that he was known as "le bon David," and whose prose Maugham fulsomely praised. Practically every sentence Hume ever wrote is shot through with irony, and it was to such urbane but Olympian irony that Maugham aspired, despite a temperament completely unsuited to it. This is evident from, for example, the opening paragraph of Cakes and Ale:
 I have noticed that when someone asks for
 you on the telephone and, finding you out,
 leaves a message begging you to call him up
 the moment you come in, and it's important,
 the matter is more often important to him
 than to you.

Of course Maugham is not so naive as to be offended by this, for he is a man of the world, who does not expect more of his fellow-beings than they can give. He continues in ironic tone:
 When it comes to making you a present or
 doing you a favor most people are able to hold
 their impatience within reasonable bounds.

Unfortunately for Maugham, but fortunately perhaps for the reading public, he was not naturally of equable temperament but, on the contrary, hot-blooded and passionate; it required great self-control on his part to play the role of an urbane and unruffled man of the Enlightenment. From Hume he had learnt that reason was the slave of the passions, but people vary enormously in their natural emotional temperature, and in any case passion can surprise even the most phlegmatic. Maugham's alter ego in The Narrow Corner, Dr. Saunders, is on board a small and rickety sailing vessel in a storm in the East Indies when a storm blows up. Dr. Saunders is terrified.
 It seemed to him that it was only by an effort
 of will that he did not curl up in a corner and
 whimper. He had an instinct to appeal for
 succour to a God he did not believe in, and he
 had to clench his teeth to prevent his trembling
 lips from uttering a prayer. He had faced
 death before. He knew that he had no great
 attachment to life.... No, it was not that, it
 was just some instinct over which he had no
 control; and he looked curiously, as though it
 were something outside himself, at the terror
 that made his throat dry and his knees shake.

I think Maugham's emotions terrified him. Much later in the novel, Dr. Saunders explains his philosophy to another of the characters, in terms that are reminiscent of the other philosopher whom Maugham praises for his English prose style, Berkeley (nodding also in the direction of Calderon's La vida es sueno, "Life Is but a Dream"). Asked what he believes, Dr. Saunders replies:
"Do you really want to know? I believe in
nothing but myself and my experience. The
world consist of me and my thoughts and my
feelings; and everything else is mere fancy.
Life is a dream in which I create the objects
that come before me. Everything knowable,
every object of experience, is an idea in my
mind, and without my mind it does not exist.
There is no possibility and no necessity to
postulate anything out-side myself. Dream
and reality are one ... and when I cease to
dream, the world ... will cease to be."

But Dr. Saunders is a skilled opthalmologist, just as Maugham is a popular writer with an immense income: and his idealism, while communicating an aura of pessimism and cosmic futility, actually changes nothing in his conduct. It is a defense mechanism. As Maugham himself once said, it is temperaments that choose philosophies, rather than philosophies that determine temperaments.

In fact, Maugham was not detached but, because he himself had known suffering so early in life, felt the suffering of others very deeply, so deeply that he feared his sensitivity might overwhelm him and cause him to break down altogether (or even worse, sink into sentimentality). Here Maugham describes the Chinese laborers whom he observed:
 The coolies take off their coats and walk
 stripped to the waist. Then sometimes in a
 man resting for an instant, his load on the
 ground but the pole still on his shoulders so
 that he has to rest slightly crouched, you see
 the poor tired heart beating against the ribs.
 Then also you see the coolies' backs. The
 pressure of the pole for long years, day after
 day, has made hard red scars, and sometimes
 there are open sores, great sores without bandages
 or dressing that rub against the wood;
 but the strangest thing of all is that sometimes,
 as though nature sought to adapt man
 for these cruel uses to which he is put, an odd
 malformation seems to have arisen so that
 there is a sort of hump, against which the pole
 rests. You see old men without an ounce of fat
 on their bodies, their skin loose on their bones
 ... with hair thin and grey; and they totter
 under their burdens to the edge of the grave
 in which at last they shall have rest.

Is this unfeeling, or cynical? By describing externals so faithfully, Maugham helps us to imagine the coolies' burdens and what a lifetime of such work must mean. But he is quick to disclaim any moral superiority on account of his sensitivity:
 Their effort oppresses you. You are filled with
 a useless compassion.

Control your emotion before it gets the better of you--not a message much in tune with the temper of our times.

Appearance and reality were forever at war in Maugham. He was both respectable and bohemian; he was ironically detached from humanity and passionately involved in it; he was a social snob and an intellectual democrat; he craved emotional independence and unconditional love (which he never received). In the little communities of colonial expatriates of the South Seas and East Indies he found his perfect subject matter. Here were people torn between duty and inclination, monogamy and the promptings of instinct, convention and freedom. On the whole, they were very ordinary, neither cultured nor clever, but average specimens of their class and upbringing: but, as Maugham said, he would rather talk to a dentist than to a Prime Minister (at least from the point of view of gathering material for stories, life at the Villa Mauresque being another thing entirely).

Maugham's instinct to trawl the South Seas and the East Indies for material was sound, and almost scientific in its precision. The science of bacteriology was still young when Maugham was a student, but he would have known what a pure culture was, that is to say; a culture of one bacterium separated from all others and incubated by itself. Well, the expatriates of the South Seas and East Indies must have seemed to him a pure culture of human nature and heightened emotion, seething under a thin, or strong but very brittle, veneer of convention and civilization. By virtue of his personality, opinions and conflicting desires, no one was better able to understand this than he. Precisely because the societies in which his characters moved were so tiny, passions ran high: love, jealousy, infatuation, pride, possessiveness, hatred, envy, sense of duty and position were magnified to murderous proportions, and anyone who has lived in such a society (as I have) knows that Maugham did not exaggerate. Close and unavoidable proximity with a small group of people to the exclusion of all others allows--no, almost inevitably results in--the emergence of emotions that one would hardly have credited oneself capable of. I am not given to deep hatred of individuals, but once, stuck in a small community of expatriates in Africa, I conceived an obsessive hatred for a sadistic nurse, who seemed to me then to be the embodiment of evil. My hatred was disproportionate, and I inflated the scale of her malevolence, but I did not see it until I had departed that tiny microcosm.

As to the accusation that Maugham saw only externals, that he did not indulge in the infinitely shifting qualifications, subtleties, and equivocations of Henry James (say), I think it is unimaginative, literal-minded and, curiously enough, insensitive. The inner turmoil of his characters is implicit in their behavior: more information about their states of mind would therefore decrease rather than increase the impact of the stories. Maugham is not a behaviorist who believes that subjective states are a black box whose contents are unknowable and therefore of no use or interest; he believes that man is an inference-drawing creature, and that to imagine a state of mind that leads someone to commit an extreme and uncharacteristic act has a greater effect than to be told it explicitly. I think he is right.

Another criticism of Maugham sometimes offered is that his stories are too well-made, with suspiciously neat endings. Life, by contrast, is not well-made. In that sense, then, he is not a realist, even if he is a naturalist, because in reality there are no stories. He is not avant but arriere garde, a literary reactionary, though no one who uses the term "avant garde" as a term of praise in relation to art ever quite explains what the final goal of art is: victory, perhaps, but over what exactly? A liking for stories?

I think Maugham would offer a pretty robust and uncompromising defense of his methods. First, he would say that stories are inherently satisfying to the human mind, and there is no earthly reason why writers should not offer this satisfaction to their readers; but second it is in any case the function of the human intellect to impose order on, or extract meaning from, the chaos of experience to which we are all subjected. The story is always made as much by what is left out as by what is included (as anyone who has ever heard an over-inclusive anecdotalist will attest). The storyteller is both a sculptor who fashions something from a block of experience, and a scientist who finds a generalization in a mass of data. It takes skill and intellect to do these things, and Maugham had both.

Despite his apparent disdain for some of his detractors, he was very concerned about his literary standing. He put himself at the top of the second division, but he nevertheless thought that he was unfairly disregarded by the literary establishment. Meyers thinks this was a sign of paranoia: was he not the most famous, highest paid author in the world, to whom every important writer, more or less, paid court? Did not Orwell say that the contemporary, writer he most admired was Maugham, and do encomia come any more flattering than that? But Maugham, not his biographer, was right, as evidence in this biography suggests. Festschrifts were organized for his seventieth and then his eightieth birthdays, as they were for many lesser figures, but the vast majority of literary contributors wrote nothing for them, as if to be associated in any way with The Master was to sully their reputations, or to slum it. No festschrifts for him were ever published, therefore. Maugham knew what others thought of him, and was bitter about it.

Was he a great writer? I don't think the question is important, though it is always raised in his case. But we should value him for what he wrote, not for what others wrote, or for what he didn't write, or for what he should have written if he had been more "advanced." Suffice it to say that I think he will still be read in a hundred years, if anyone reads at all, that is. Perhaps his firm and extremely forceful views on English prose, while a pleasure themselves to read, have harmed his reputation, for he has been taken to imply that everyone should write like him, which is clearly absurd. I certainly wouldn't want every writer to write like him, any more than I would like every writer to write like Sir Thomas Browne, or indeed like anyone else. To read too much of him at a sitting makes one aware of a certain flatness or insipidity in his prose, which at first had seemed bracingly direct and unadorned, as well as urbane.

Mr. Meyers can't quite make his mind up about Maugham. He accepts that he wrote masterpieces, but considers him a much lesser writer than almost all the other giants of his era. I for my part couldn't help recalling, as I read this excellent biography, the writer Trigorin's imagined epitaph in The Seagull: Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev.

(1) Somerset Maugham, by Jeffrey Meyers; Knopf, 432 pages, $30.
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Author:Daniels, Anthony
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Previous Article:Notes & comments: February 2004.
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