Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham
A Writer’s Notebook
The Razor’s Edge
The Narrow Corner
Cakes and Ale
Mr. Robert Calder has written a biography of W. Somerset Maugham in order to redress, nicely, I think, some recent studies of the man who was probably our century’s most popular novelist as well as the most successful of Edwardian playwrights. Maugham’s last biographer, Mr. Ted Morgan, concentrated morbidly on the incontinences and confusions of a mad old age while scanting works and bright days. Doubtless, he was influenced by the young Maugham’s remark:
I cannot understand why a biographer, having undertaken to give the world details of a famous man’s life, should hesitate, as so often happens, to give details of his death…. Our lives are conditioned by outer circumstances but our death is our own.
Not, as it proves, with Mr. Morgan on the case. But then, as demonstrated by Mr. Morgan and other biographers of known sexual degenerates (or merely suspected—Lennon, Presley, by one A. Goldman, the master of that expanding cottage industry, Bioporn), a contemptuous adversarial style seems to be the current…norm. Despite the degenerate’s gifts, he is a Bad Person; worse, he is Immature; even worse, he is Promiscuous. Finally, he is demonstrably more Successful than his biographer, who is Married, Mature, Monogamous, and Good.
Although Mr. Calder is MMM&G, he does believe that
Morgan’s antipathy to the man is most damaging. Though his treatment of Maugham’s homosexuality is more explicit than anything previously published, it always emphasizes the nasty procuring side of his homosexual life.
Yet even a gentle schoolteacher in Saskatchewan like Mr. Calder must know that the men of Maugham’s generation paid for sex with men or women or both (the last century was prostitution’s Golden Age—for the buyer, of course). Would Mr. Calder think it relevant to note and deplore as immature Joseph Conrad’s visits to women prostitutes? I doubt it. Obviously a double standard is at work here. What is sheer high animal spirits in the roaring boy who buys a pre-feminist girl is vileness in the roaring boy who buys another boy.
To Mr. Calder’s credit, he does his best to show the amiable side to the formidable Mr. Maugham—the side that Mr. Calder terms “Willie,” as he was known to friends. But our schoolteacher also distances himself from “nastiness” in his acknowledgments where he notes “the unqualified encouragement of my parents, and my children—Alison, Kevin, Lorin, and Dani.” (Did they pipe “What’s rough trade, Daddy?” with unqualified encouragement?) No matter. By and large, children, your Daddy has done the old fruitcake proud.
Maugham spent his first twenty-six years in the nineteenth century and for the subsequent sixty-five years he was very much a nineteenth-century novelist and playwright. In many ways he was fortunately placed, though he himself would not have thought so. He was born in Paris where his lawyer father did legal work for the British Embassy, and his mother was a popular figure in Paris society. Maugham’s first language was French and although he made himself into the premier English storyteller, his prose has always had a curious flatness to it, as if it wanted to become either Basic English or Esperanto or perhaps go back into French.
Maugham’s self-pity, which was to come to a full rather ghastly flowering in Of Human Bondage, is mysterious in origin. On the demerit side, he lost a beloved mother at eight; lost three older brothers to boarding school (all became lawyers and one Lord Chancellor); lost, at eleven, a not-so-well-loved father. He was then sent off to a clergyman uncle in Whitstable—home of the oyster—and then to the standard dire school of the day. On the credit side, under his father’s will, he got 150 pounds a year for life, enough to live on. He was well-connected in the professional upper middle class. He had the run of his uncle’s considerable library—the writer’s best education. When he proved to be sickly, he was sent to the south of France; when, at seventeen, he could endure his school no more, he was sent to Heidelberg and a merry time.
On balance, the tragic wound to which he was to advert throughout a long life strikes me as no more than a scratch or two. Yes, he wanted to be taller than five foot seven; yes, he had an underslung jaw that might have been corrected; yes, he stammered. But…tant pis, as he might have observed coldly of another (used in a novel, the phrase would be helpfully translated).
Yet something was gnawing at him. As he once observed, sardonically, to his nephew Robin Maugham, “Jesus Christ could cope with all the miseries I have had to contend with in life. But then, Jesus Christ had advantages I don’t possess.” Presumably, Jesus was a six-foot-tall blond blue-eyed body-builder whereas Maugham was slight and dark with eyes like “brown velvet”; and, of course, Jesus’ father owned the shop. On the other hand, Maugham was not obliged to contend with the sadomasochistic excitement of the Crucifixion, much less the head-turning rapture of the Resurrection. It is the common view of Maugham biographers that the true tragic flaw was homosexuality, disguised as a club foot in Of Human Bondage—or was that the stammer? Whatever it was, Maugham was very sorry for himself. Admittedly, a liking for boys at the time of Oscar Wilde’s misadventures was dangerous but Maugham was adept at passing for MMM&G: he appeared to have affairs with women, not men, and he married and fathered a daughter. There need not have been an either/or for him.
Maugham’s career as a writer was singularly long and singularly successful. The cover of each book was adorned with a Moorish device to ward off the evil eye: the author knew that too much success overexcites one’s contemporaries, not to mention the gods. Also, much of his complaining may have been prophylactic: to avert the furies if not the book-chatterers, and so he was able to live just as he wanted for two thirds of his life, something not many writers—or indeed anyone else—ever manage to do.
At eighteen, Maugham became a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. This London was still Dickens’s great monstrous invention where
The messenger led you through the dark and silent streets of Lambeth, up stinking alleys and into sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm.
For five years Maugham was immersed in the real world, while, simultaneously, he was trying to become a writer. “Few authors,” Mr. Calder tells us, “read as widely as Maugham and his works are peppered with references to other literature.” So they are—peppered indeed—but not always seasoned. The bilingual Maugham knew best the French writers of the day. He tells us that he modelled his short stories on Maupassant. He also tells us that he was much influenced by Ibsen, but there is no sign of that master in his own school of Wilde comedies. Later, he was awed by Chekhov’s stories but, again, he could never “use” that master because something gelled very early in Maugham the writer, and once his own famous tone was set it would remain perfectly pitched to the end.
In his first published novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), Maugham raised the banner of Maupassant and the French realists but the true influence on the book and its method was one Arthur Morrison, who had made a success three years earlier with Tales of Mean Streets. Mr. Calder notes that Morrison,
writing with austerity and frankness,…refused to express sympathy on behalf of his readers so that they could then avoid coming to terms with the implications of social and economic inequality. Maugham adopted this point of view in his first novel, and was therefore, like Morrison, accused of a lack of conviction.
In general realists have always been open to the charge of coldness, particularly by romantics who believe that a novel is essentially a sermon, emotional and compassionate and so inspiring that after the peroration, the reader, wiser, kinder, bushier indeed, will dry his eyes and go forth to right wrong. This critical mindset has encouraged a great deal of bad writing. The unemotional telling of a terrible story is usually more effective than the oh, by the wind-grieved school of romantic (that is, self-loving) prose. On the other hand, the plain style can help the dishonest, pusillanimous writer get himself off every kind of ideological or ethical hook. Just the facts, ma’am. In this regard, Hemingway, a literary shadow self to Maugham, was our time’s most artful dodger, all busy advancing verbs and stony nouns. Surfaces coldly rendered. Interiors unexplored. Manner all.
For someone of Maugham’s shy, highly self-conscious nature (with a secret, too) the adoption of classic realism, Flaubert with bitters, was inevitable. Certainly, he was lucky to have got the tone absolutely right in his first book, and he was never to stray far from the appearance of plain story-telling. Although he was not much of one for making up things, he could always worry an anecdote or bit of gossip into an agreeable narrative. Later, as the years passed, he put more and more effort—even genius—into his one triumphant creation, W. Somerset Maugham, world-weary world-traveler, whose narrative first person became the best-known and least wearisome in the world. At first he called the narrator “Ashenden” (a name carefully chosen so that the writer would not stammer when saying it, unlike that obstacle course for stammerers, “Maugham”); then he dropped Ashenden for Mr. Maugham himself in The Razor’s Edge (1944). Then he began to appear, as narrator, in film and television dramatizations of his work. Thus, one of the most-read novelists of our time became widely known to those who do not read.
Shaw and Wells invented public selves for polemical reasons, while Mark Twain and Dickens did so to satisfy a theatrical need, but Maugham contrived a voice and a manner that not only charm and surprise in a way that the others did not, but where they were menacingly larger than life, he is just a bit smaller (5’ 7”), for which he compensates by sharing with us something that the four histrionic masters would not have dreamed of doing: inside gossip. It is these confidences that made Maugham so agreeable to read: nothing, he tells us with a smile, is what it seems. That was his one trick, and it seldom failed. Also, before D.H. Lawrence, Dr. Maugham (obstetrician) knew that women, given a fraction of a chance, liked sex as much as men did. When he said so, he was called a misogynist.
In October 1907, at thirty-three, Maugham became famous with the triumphant production of Lady Frederick (one of six unproduced plays that he had written). Maugham ravished his audience with the daring trick of having the eponymous lady—middle-aged with ardent unsuitable youthful admirer—save the boy from his infatuation by allowing him to see her un-made-up at her dressing table. So stunned is the lad by the difference between the beauty of the maquillage and the crone in the mirror that he is saved by her nobleness, and right before our eyes we see “nothing is what it seems” in spades, raw stuff for the theater of those days.