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Slippery Fish

Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham

by Robin Maugham
Simon & Schuster, 188 pp., $8.95

Conversations with Willie is an intermittently entertaining memoir, but its details can be careless (at one point Robin Maugham speaks of Arnold Toynbee when it is obvious he means Philip), and parts of the reminiscences are now and again so chatty or unreflective, the dialogue so studied (even for literary people) as to appear spurious. Usually the scene is dinner at the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat during Maugham’s last decades, the garrulous uncle “looking back,” the attentive nephew ever ready to collate the crumbs that fall from the great man’s table. Edwina Mountbatten, Aleister Crowley, the Duc de Nemours, Lady Churchill…the famous names fly past. Some of Maugham’s comments are odious, some twinkling. On Lord Beaverbrook: “He’s got a crush on me. But I’m eighty-seven, and he’s eighty-three, so I think it’s rather unlikely, don’t you?” There are megalomaniacal regrets over a meeting with Kerensky when Maugham was a British agent during the War (“Perhaps if I hadn’t made a hash of it in Russia, the whole world would be different”), and his celebrated stammer, the blight of his life, is good for a chuckle or two. “I’m told there’s a pensioner in Nice who’s still alive and kicking at one hundred and four,” a lady affably tells him at a luncheon in his honor. “Fer-fer-fer-fuck one hundred and four,” the nonagenarian replies.

On the whole, though, I found the portrait desolating. Maugham, probably the most consistently successful writer to publish in the twentieth century, apparently led a staggeringly unhappy life. At least on the evidence of the memoir; in The Summing Up he writes otherwise.

Temperamentally Maugham was as far from a rebel as one can be without turning into a plaster saint, yet he was always attracted to the rebellious, the vulgar, the vicious, the scapegrace. He has famously said he could only love those who did not love him, and those who did he could not love at all. The relationship between Philip Carey and Mildred in Of Human Bondage, the most popular of his novels, is clearly sadomasochistic. The sensitive Philip with his club foot, his vicarage background, his European sojourns, his hectored years as a medical student in the slums of South London is a re-creation of the young Maugham himself—and the repeated humiliations he suffers at the hands of a sluttish and spiteful waitress, who though always looking for a “real gentleman” prefers blatant tradesmen to her genteel and prostrate suitor, come out of obsessive sources. Anyone familiar with Kipling knows that Bessie the Cockney maid in The Light that Failed is Mildred’s forerunner, and readers of The Way of All Flesh can see in Philip’s peregrinations the shadow of Ernest Pontifex on his assorted adventures. Nevertheless, the book is a striking achievement, without profundity but one of those long, rambling, mesmerizing chronicles of a young man in search of his soul. No wonder because of it Maugham was to become the mahatma of middlebrow culture.

But the novel is particularly interesting right now, I think, because of what we learn from the nephew’s memoir about the two most important romantic relationships of his uncle’s life. Maugham was in his early forties in the summer of 1915 when Of Human Bondage was published, deep in his affair with Syrie Wellcome, a Mayfair matron, and just after his meeting with a young American soldier at the Front in France, the handsome and amiable ne’er-do-well, Gerald Haxton. At the end of the novel, Philip has to choose between the stability of family life, the “simplest pattern,” represented by the sensibile and motherly Sally, and the lure of far-off lands, of pagodas and lagoons. Philip opts for Sally, but his creator, in point of fact, never really opted for either; or rather, in complicated fashion, chose both. After her divorce Maugham married Syrie, set up house, and had a child, their daughter Liza; but he also traveled around the world to the South Seas, to China and India—with Gerald, his “secretary and companion.” The arrangement went on for a number of years until finally in 1927 Syrie admitted defeat and the marriage was over.

Gerald the swashbuckler and Syrie the society darling: one gathers they were essentially frivolous people, not at all Maugham’s intellectual peers, but they provided a necessary armor. “Given a mask,” says Wilde, “we’ll tell the truth.” And perhaps Maugham agreed. But unlike the author of De Profundis he had no intention of ever ruffling society’s feathers. He had gone past the exigencies of youth, turned from the world of medicine to that of a proliferating literary and theatrical career, judged himself a man who had to make the most of his “deficiencies,” and thus, in a social sense, learned to surround himself with saviors and protectors. Syrie and Gerald knew how to run things, were actors, not observers. It was largely thanks to Gerald that the Villa Mauresque became a showplace, thanks to him again that its “priceless paintings” survived the Nazis, and it was through Syrie—later to achieve a certain vogue in the Thirties as an interior decorator—that Maugham first tasted the joys of le gratin. And there were other dividends as well.

Gerald drank (was indeed almost an alcoholic), Maugham (aside from a Martini before dinner) hardly touched a drop; Gerald was a sportsman, Maugham could barely swim; Gerald was full of bonhomie, Maugham tongue-tied and aloof. The duels to the death between the cad and the snob, the “rough diamond” and the bookish administrator, the complications of class and character animating some of the best of the stories—“The Outstation,” “Lord Mountdrago,” “The Yellow Streak”—owe their genesis, in whole or in part, to travels with Gerald. While the scabrous or decorative wit, the brittle chatter of the later comedies of manners (The Constant Wife, Our Betters, The Circle) are surely reflective of life with Syrie.

But if Maugham always felt enticed by his inferiors, he nevertheless also managed to preserve his distance from them. Above everything else he dreaded emotional enslavement, dreaded being deceived even more. Certainly his most powerful images (though in general these are the exceptions among his writings) have to do with mismatings that haunt the soul or invade one’s dreams—the magnate and his trashy mistress in Our Betters; Philip and Mildred; Lord Mountdrago and Griffiths, “that filthy little Welshman”—or being prey to irresistible impulses: the tale of Rosie’s “night out” after the death of her child, a tour de force that brilliantly concludes Cakes and Ale.

Maugham, according to the memoir, came to regard Syrie, often given to creating “scenes” of her own (“don’t make me a scene” being a familiar plaint), as his “greatest mistake”; the attachment, however, whatever its nature, drew blood, and the loss of it made him unregenerately embittered toward her the rest of his life. The greater loss was of course Gerald whose sudden and premature death at the time of the Second World War when Maugham was nearly seventy deprived him of the one person he had come to consider “my chief care, my pleasure, and my anxiety.” Still, if the nephew’s account is to be credited, there too a gulf was present. “Even when I’m alone with you,” we hear Gerald remarking in the strained language of the memoir, “somehow I don’t feel you’re there. It’s a stranger who’s watching me. I feel that you’re registering everything I do, everything I say, so that you can make me a character in one of your books.”

Yet just as Maugham could perhaps never wholly surrender himself to another human being, so I believe he could never wholly surrender himself to his art, however often he would turn out a novel or play a year. One senses that not only in his slighting of Henry James in favor of Arnold Bennett, or in his dreary reiteration that “the public knows best,” but more tellingly in various dramatizations of art and artist. Cakes and Ale is a sparkling work, with Don Fernando his best single achievement, a sardonic study of the foibles and impostures of both small-town life and the life of literary London, but its one real defect, surely, lies in its crucial portrait of Edward Driffield, the shaggy-dog author supposedly modeled after Thomas Hardy. Driffield is misunderstood by Maugham, or not understood enough, or antipathetic to his interests; he never comes “alive” the way the other characters, Rosie or Alroy Kear (Hugh Walpole), do; and Maugham’s ultimate jibe—that he was “ruthless” and “that when he had exhausted an emotion he took no further interest in the person who had aroused it”—does not convince. If anything it would seem more apt as a comment on Maugham himself. In The Moon and Sixpence Charles Strickland, the London stockbroker who flees to the South Seas to paint, modeled after Gauguin, though more exhilarating a creation similarly fails to suggest the wild and unalterable paths of genius; suggests instead an extraordinary bounder, a sort of Bel Ami but without the sympathetic qualities of Maupassant’s philanderer, who gets off a lot of good cracks at the expense of “respectability” and “civilization” while the gentlemanly narrator (again Maugham himself) demurs in ambivalent fashion.

But we see this animadversion to art—that is to say, “high art”—more vividly, I think, in peripheral sketches: Fanny Price, in Of Human Bondage, the tart, hysterical, committed artist, loveless and starving to death in a squalid Parisian garret, who hangs herself because she can never become a great painter, and the young man from the gentry class (in the story “The Alien Corn” used as one of the sequences in the film Quartet) who empties a rifle in his head because he can never become a great pianist. Maugham’s attitude to both is curiously vindictive—underneath the compassionate details or bravura touches there lurks, I suspect, the philistine’s disbelief in all this twaddle and stuff and nonsense about the claims of “high art” or “high seriousness.” “Matthew Arnold,” he tells us in The Summing Up, “did a great disservice to culture when he insisted on its opposition to philistinism.” And it is noteworthy too that in the nephew’s memoir he coolly relates the “grim” fate of one of his older brothers who wrote “dreadful plays in blank verse which were praised by various highbrow critics but which never made him a cent” and who swallowed a bottle of nitric acid in a “shabbily furnished bedroom” and died—an event, characteristically enough, later put to use in the depiction of the sordid suicide of one of Strickland’s mistresses in The Moon and Sixpence.

Maugham learned French at an early age, and his style, primarily anecdotal, derives largely from Maupassant (see “Le Signal” for the paradigm of the typical Maugham short story), while the shapeliness and bite of his sentences are close to the French aphorists—to Pascal, for instance. “La Passion ne peut être belle sans excès. Quand on n’aime pas trop, on n’aime pas assez.” If one were to give a rough translation of that remark it would sound like Maugham’s “I don’t know anything that is more contrary to love than affection.” He took the animal side of Maupassant, stripped it of its passion, placed there instead obsession or compulsion, and turned the gravity of Pascal and the aphorist tradition to the blunt and commonsensical uses of his English tongue.

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