Somerset Maugham: A Life
by Jeffrey Meyers
Knopf, 411 pp., $30.00
“The critic I am waiting for,” wrote Somerset Maugham in a letter near the end of his life, “is the one who will explain why, with all my faults, I have been read for so many years by so many people.” The edge of defensiveness was unusual in a man who generally accepted that he had more readers than friends or admirers, but the perceptiveness itself was characteristic. A century after Maugham’s literary career began, the other best-selling writers of his day, even those who won the Nobel Prize, such as Pearl Buck and John Galsworthy, have been largely forgotten; many of the “serious writers” by whom he was often eclipsed, Hardy and Joyce among them, are mostly read in college courses. Yet even some of the most discerning readers I know continue to push Maugham’s sales beyond the 40 million mark, and even such slight pieces of fiction as the Riviera romance Up at the Villa and the minor novel Theatre have been turned into contemporary movies.
Maugham’s biographers have been no help at all in explaining the mystery of his success. “I wasn’t even likeable as a boy,” Maugham once wrote, and, eager to take him at his word, especially when that word is negative, later writers have built up a portrait of an almost marmoreal figure, clenched and captious and unkind. His nephew Robin, whom Maugham took under his wing, repaid the debt by writing “three increasingly unreliable and malicious memoirs,” in Jeffrey Meyers’s words, asserting that Uncle Willie was “a sadistic queer.” Frederic Raphael pounced on the same material to pronounce that Maugham’s homosexuality was not just a flaw, but a fault “in the geographic sense,” and that he was “too clear to be great.” Anthony Burgess reimagined the life in a 607-page book, Earthly Powers, that begins with the eighty-year-old Maugham figure in bed with a catamite.
The view that Maugham was largely a journeyman has inspired biographers to approach him in just that diminished spirit. Ted Morgan wrote a full, but not revelatory, biography in 1980, after persuading Maugham’s literary executor, the agent Curtis Brown, to part with papers that the novelist had wanted suppressed. Now Jeffrey Meyers, biographer of Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Katherine Mansfield, and Edmund Wilson (to name but a few), turns his fast-moving pen on what he calls an “engaging Gila monster.” Maugham’s work, he assures us in his preface, can be explained by “the struggle between sexual repression and artistic expression.”
As ever, Maugham himself was much more agile than those who have tried to explain him. The whole point of the writer, he says repeatedly in his autobiography, The Summing Up, is that he is “not one man, but many.” Men are mysteries even to themselves, he frequently told us, and in The Moon and Sixpence, he says again,
In social intercourse [a man] gives you the surface that he wishes the world to accept…. But in his book or his picture the real man delivers himself defenceless.
To use the life to understand the work, he might be saying, is to try to explain the larger self by the smaller; to use the work to shed light on the life is to begin to understand how a figure who looked buttoned up and unfeeling at the dinner table could write books that hold readers with their openness and warmth.
For to turn from the biographies to the fiction itself is to move from a darkened chamber out into fresh air, and to be confronted by what you didn’t expect (the explosion of expectation is, of course, the books’ steady theme). The stories’ most compelling characters are nearly always renegades—Larry Darrell seeking truth in the Himalayas in The Razor’s Edge, Charles Strickland leaving his conventional life to pursue his muse in The Moon and Sixpence, Philip Carey crazily martyring himself for love in Of Human Bondage—and their villains are mostly those who think they know it all or uphold the status quo: society hostesses, for example, or clergymen. For all their feline air of undeludedness, the books contain characters of an almost startling innocence and even goodness—from the idealized Athelnys in Of Human Bondage to the questing Larry Darrell. The life of the stories springs, in fact, from a ravenous curiosity that seems ready to follow any trail as far as it will go.
The Maugham we meet on the page, in short, could not be further from the unsmiling, bespoke figure we see in all the pictures (handkerchief protruding from the jacket pocket of his double-breasted suit). The riddle he presents us with is how a stammering, conventional-seeming Edwardian, writing in civil service prose, could somehow become the spokesman of hippies, black magicians, and stockbrokers throwing it all over for Tahiti. His books are measured explorations of inner extravagance.
Jeffrey Meyers, author of forty-three books, takes on the conundrum of Maugham a little in the manner of a busy man at his desk who sees a new file arrive in his in-box. He leads us through the well-known facts and interpretations efficiently enough, but there’s no sense of what might have drawn him to write about Maugham, or what he hopes to say about him. His habit of including long digression after digression on how Maugham compares with Lawrence and Fitzgerald and others on whom he’s written suggests that he’s less interested in Maugham himself or his work than in the scene of which he was a fragment.
Yet hidden within the familiar biography are details that begin to suggest why Maugham was never the person many took him to be. He was born in Paris, in the British embassy, where his father was a legal adviser, and went to college in Heidelberg; his first letter, according to Meyers, was written in formal French to his parents when he was nearly seven. He was consistently left-wing in his politics and thought it “monstrous” that women should not receive equal pay with men. His work was most often criticized during his life not for its sobriety but for its sexual explicitness and an insistent concern with the poor (rather than with the Eaton Square drawing rooms he felt he knew too well).
Maugham’s beloved mother died a week after his eighth birthday, giving birth to a son who also died soon after, and when his father died two years later, the ten-year-old orphan was sent to England to live with a clergyman uncle. His stammer began, Ted Morgan tells us, when he arrived on British soil. One of his brothers, Frederic, was, like their father, a lawyer, and would become lord chancellor of Britain and a viscount somewhat embarrassed about his raffish sibling on the Riviera. Another, Henry, was an eccentric homosexual who wrote novels, a travel book, and a dramatized life of Saint Francis of Assisi before dying, in front of the young Maugham, after downing a bottle of nitric acid.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made sodomy in Britain punishable by imprisonment, came into effect the very year after the young Maugham arrived in England, and continued until two years after his death, eighty-two years later; but what is more significant, surely, is that the man too often explained by his homosexuality had four extensive love affairs with women. In his early book The Merry-Go-Round, written unusually close to the bone, Maugham divides his narrative alter ego between a fifty-seven-year-old spinster, Miss Ley, who believes that “in this world it’s the good who do all the harm,” and an ardent, earnest thirty-year-old medical student (much like Philip Carey or Maugham himself) whose “soul aches for the East” and who exclaims, “I’m sick to death of your upper classes.” As always, the writer’s sympathies lie as much with the solitary woman as with the romantic boy, and one is reminded that few writers this side of Lawrence or James were able to write so sympathetically of both sexes: in part this was because he seemed to invoke both genders from within.
An industrious and disciplined writer himself, Meyers stresses how hard-working Maugham was, turning out comedies even while lying in a sanatorium bed with TB during the last months of World War I, and publishing seventy-eight books in all. But more important, he shows how physically active and fearless he could be. During the war he had gone to work in an ambulance unit in Ypres even as one of his plays was being performed in the West End; later he was the chief agent for both the American and the British intelligence services in Russia in the weeks leading up to the Bolshevik coup.
Those who saw him in the Villa Mauresque in Cap Ferrat receiving drinks from a white-gloved butler seized upon the image of a wizened mandarin in a smoking jacket. (“He belongs,” said Frances Partridge, not untypically, “in a reptile house.”) Yet Maugham was in many ways much tougher than, for example, the equally rebellious and restless Lawrence. When World War II broke out, the sixty-six-year-old writer was forced to evacuate his villa, equipped only with a small suitcase, a blanket, and food for three days, and undertook a harrowing passage in a coal ship in which five hundred people were crammed into a space made for thirty-eight. So many dead bodies were pitched overboard that it was feared the ship’s propellers would jam.
It’s never hard to see Maugham as a doctor, patiently taking down symptoms and offering diagnoses, but he was also an adventurer, almost compulsively drawn to all those worlds he couldn’t see through. He took himself to Samoa and then visited the Dayak headhunters of Borneo (whom, characteristically, “we found exceedingly polite and hospitable folk,” as he wrote in one of his longest letters); he had an affair with the daughter of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and according to Meyers was involved in plans for assassinating a king, although Meyers does not specify which. His famous criticisms of Henry James (as having ignored the great story of his time, the rise of America), which have done such damage to his own literary reputation, derived in part from his feeling that James lived too far from the larger world; but they drew even more from his sorrow that James evinced so little interest in the downtrodden, remaining transfixed instead by the very country-house life that Maugham could evoke in his sleep.
One of the ironies of all the biographies of Maugham—he has yet to find his Richard Holmes or Richard Ellmann—is that their authors seem intent on seeing him from without, through the many people who knew him briefly, rather than trying to look into the man himself. Yet it was clearly in social settings that a shy man with a stammer was least at ease or himself, and only at his desk, with intimates, or far from the eyes of witnesses (in Borneo, for example) that he could let his deeper side show. One of the curious tragedies of Maugham’s life, and so his legacy, is that he was seen by almost everyone, and known by very few.