Somerset Maugham

By Jeffrey Meyers

When Somerset Maugham undertook the writing of Great Novelists and Their Novels in 1948, his choice of title signaled his preference for biographical criticism. “I am more interested in an author’s personality than in the books he writes,” he said in an introduction to another anthology. “Even though an author’s books mean nothing very much to me I like to know what sort of life he led what he looked like and how he talked.”

So here goes: Maugham was shorter than average height (5’7″), had an underslung jaw and, in later years, a wrinkled hide often described as reptilian (the literary lion metamorphosed into literary lizard). He spoke with a stammer – something he managed to perversely elevate into a major disability. He preferred sexual partners of the same sex. His life was one of voluptuous, cultivated misery.

Like his early alter ego Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, he was a masochist. Not being happy, not having friends, believing in nothing and wallowing in self-pity: These were the things that made life worth living. And as the most successful (that is, highly-paid) writer of his day, he had the means to suffer in style.

Maugham’s fiction (he was also an enormously popular Edwardian playwright, but that doesn’t count for as much these days), was incident-oriented. He didn’t follow the Modernist masters into the stream of consciousness because he wasn’t that interested in what went on in people’s heads. In fact, he didn’t like other people very much. And they didn’t like him.

Maugham knew it. And he also knew it was a “grave disadvantage both to the writer and the man.” This is the fate of a cynic: Expect the worst out of people and that’s what you’ll get. Even his obituary in the New York Times felt it necessary to point out that “no one liked him very much.” When his publisher planned a Festschrift for his seventieth birthday a long list of old “friends” begged off and the project had to be scrapped. Professional envy? Perhaps. And there was more than enough to envy about Maugham – the huge sales (Meyers calculates sales of forty million copies of his books), the expensive art collection, the villa on the French Riviera, the celebrity.

But the fact is no one liked him very much. Not his wife or daughter. Not his lovers (he saw most relationships as simply an arrangement of mutual exploitation). Not even his servants (they looted his wine cellar as soon as he died). Not even . . . his biographer?

It seems that way. At best Meyers appears uninspired by the subject of his latest bio (though this may be exhaustion given the rate at which he cranks them out). His attempts at making connections are strained. “The lives and works of Conrad and Maugham had significant similarities.” But the similarities are all superficial. Francis King is said to have had “distinct affinities with Maugham”: “he was cosmopolitan and wrote finely observed novels and stories”. What is distinct about that? Or take this fine observation:

Maugham wrote that “good prose should be like the clothes of a well-dressed man, appropriate but unobtrusive”; Orwell echoed him in his famous simile: “Good prose is like a window pane.”

This is an echo?

Meyers should slow down and avoid lazy contradictions like saying that Maugham was “out of touch with contemporary feelings and behaviour” in 1955, but “even in old age . . . sensitively attuned to the temper of the time.”

Despite this sometimes perfunctory and careless quality the book moves swiftly through the remarkably eventful 92 years of Maugham’s life while making a convincing case for his place in the literary pantheon. That place was willed and determined. His method and style were economical. He set himself a regular number of words to write each day (1,000 to 1,500) and wrote for three or four hours each morning (he jump-started his work by composing the first two sentences in his morning bath). His plays were written according to formula and a tight schedule (one week, with weekends off, for each act and a fourth week to revise). Even his career trajectory followed a program.

Always willing to appear self-deprecating, he placed himself no better than “the very front row of the second-raters”. Did this make him a hack? The “intelligentsia” he so despised might have said so. And that distinction between the critics and the public, distinction vs. lucre, is still very relevant today.

Maugham thought money was essential for happiness, but the happiness he sought was really a luxurious misery. This he was able to buy: the round of boring parties, the quack treatments for longevity, the faux-marriages of convenience (one wife, two husbands), the sex with boys. “He seemed to me an unhappy man . . . who got no fun out of living,” observed Frieda Lawrence after one visit. And when his nephew Robin asked him what the happiest memory of his life was, the old man said that he couldn’t think of one.

A riot of self-pity translated into art. Which must have been what he wanted, in the end.

Review first published June 19, 2004.