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.
This insistence on ignoring the testimony of the one witness (himself) who could take us beneath the surface is especially vexing because Maugham revealed himself to his readers with the openness of a man who feels trapped inside his solitude. His early heroine Miss Ley is “a student of men who could observe with interest the most diverse tendencies (for to her skeptical mind no way of life nor method of thought was intrinsically more valuable than another).” She outlines, over and over, a belief in pleasure and an agnosticism strikingly similar to Maugham’s, and admits that “curiosity is my besetting sin.” In Of Human Bondage, Maugham came even closer to writing from his wounds. As in many of his case studies of emotional Darwinism—the weak always prey on the strong in Maugham—a young man is so determined to behave like a gentleman in trying to save a waitress from misery that he almost destroys them both. When Maugham was asked, thirty years after publication, to read from the book for a recording for the blind, he broke down shortly after he began, and could not continue.
Frank Hurrell, his other displaced self in The Merry-Go-Round, looks like an “extremely reserved man,” but only because “his deliberate placidity of expression masked a very emotional temperament.” As he watches, with Miss Ley, three couples in a roundelay of love, her irony develops into a kind of wisdom of detachment; his own distance from what is happening quickens a longing for adventure. One reason Maugham so eludes his trackers is that his apparent concern, after the early works, is nearly always with others’ lives, not his own. Almost all his novels begin with a somewhat awkward setting of the scene in which a narrator—sometimes called Ashenden, sometimes Maugham—clears his throat with a few heavy-handed observations on society and literature. They come to life only at the moment when the narrator disappears, getting swept up in the dramas of those around him to the point where he seems as unsure of what will be happening next as we are.
One of Maugham’s great talents was for giving us the impression that his characters were running away from him, had a life of their own. In The Moon and Sixpence, in which the narrator tries to reconstruct a life that is patterned after Gauguin’s, he even halts the action midway in order to include a cumbersome digression in which he says he wishes that he could shape his characters’ destinies and that he could ascribe motive and see what was really going on in their lives. This was, of course, a literary device—he is artfully protesting his artlessness—and yet it catches something of what gives the stories their rare sense of excitement and spontaneity. They tremble with a contained man’s fascination with disorder.
In life, Maugham gave the impression of being prudent to a fault. “I have never met anyone,” wrote S.N. Behrman in his People in a Diary, “who had greater will-power, greater self-control than W.S. Maugham.” Evelyn Waugh said, as Meyers has it, “I do not know of any living writer who seems to have his work so much under control.” Yet the singular fact of Maugham’s characters is that they are nearly always out of control. They drop out of society, fall instantly in love, commit suicide or even murder out of passion. Mildred Rogers, in Of Human Bondage, famously slashes through a whole apartment with a carving knife; Jenny Bush in The Merry-Go-Round throws herself into the Thames. The interesting thing about the amused, superior-sounding narrator who takes all this in is not how often he is right in his assessments, but how often he is wrong. (Every time he—and thus we—makes an assumption about Charles Strickland, for example, it’s mistaken.)
A man who could see through so much was clearly drawn to what he could not control or anticipate, and Maugham was always seeking out new societies that would offer him surprise and people whose passions he could follow, however vicariously. Biographers, hungry for explanations, conclude that his life was habitually shadowed by the homosexuality he scarcely acknowledged. Yet the real secret Maugham was covering up, one feels, was not that he was homosexual, but that he was a romantic, hungry for surrender. Release, not repression, is his theme. Nearly all his characters harbor unconventional desires, but these have little to do with their sexual inclinations, and a lot to do with their longings to be artists, or lovers, or saints.
Maugham lived, you could say, on the edge of wildness, and the excitement of his books arises partly from our sense that the man who is so calmly appraising all the delusions of love is, in fact, in thrall to them himself (or wants to be). The men in his novels are frequently trying to rescue the women they idealize, or to confine them within their often unrealistic expectations. But beneath the comedies of high-mindedness, the stories describe the irrelevance of all intention: people are constantly being swept away, by sexual magnetism, by inexplicable impulses, by spells, the women falling victim to malign hypnotists, such as Oliver Haddo in The Magician, the men to women like Mildred Rogers, who play on their vulnerability.
One way to explain this is that Maugham may not have believed in God, but he seems to have had a reverence for the devil. His travels, like Graham Greene’s, appear to have left him with a strong belief in superstition; he had, not untypically, a stylized hand, an occult symbol brought back from Morocco by his father, printed on the covers of all his later books, and painted on the outside walls of his house, to repel the evil eye. When his novels go too far, it is not in the direction of caution.
It may seem that, for example, The Moon and Sixpence is about a “dull, honest, plain” pillar of London society who throws over all convention to become a bohemian painter in Paris and then Tahiti. But Charles Strickland’s story is more unsettling because it is reflected in the story of Dirk Stroeve, the painfully good-natured Dutch painter whom Strickland meets in Paris and who adores, to a fault, both his wife and Strickland (he “had the passion of Romeo in the body of Sir Toby Belch”). Stroeve’s wife, in turn, is captive to passions she cannot control, and ultimately kills herself with oxalic acid because she cannot protect herself against Strickland’s “demon.” Even the narrator confesses to a “fever in my blood” that “asked for a wilder course.” Where Woolf and Joyce wrote about very ordinary lives in highly inventive prose, Maugham did the opposite, using a neutral, self-effacing style to evoke extraordinary lives.
The very stiffness of his narrators’ personas enhances the quiet rebellion of the books; were Henry Miller to write about a businessman running off to become an artist in Paris, the reader would feel none of the event’s unexpectedness. Maugham used an uninflected, everyday prose to overturn uninflected, everyday assumptions; in the process he gave a new twist to the theme of public skepticism and private romanticism that has long been central for English male writers. He helped to open up the story of the white man in the East by including the white women who are seldom present in Conrad, say, and the sexual passions that complicate the encounter with the unknown. It is typical of Maugham’s fortunes that E.M. Forster, having borrowed this device from him, published no novels for the last forty years of his life, while Maugham wrote one best seller after another. Yet each passing year saw Maugham’s reputation sink a little, while Forster’s seemed to inch up year by year.
There was, of course, a private component to these investigations of passion: Maugham appears to have had a rare gift for loving not wisely but too well. His first longtime secretary-companion, Gerald Haxton, was an inveterate gambler; the French boy he kept on the side even used Maugham’s apartment in Paris for servicing clients. Yet Maugham’s strength was to make use in his work of his own follies and heartaches. “Though I have been in love a good many times,” he reports in The Summing Up,
I have never experienced the bliss of requited love…. I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me, and when people have loved me, I have been embarrassed.
The candor stings. Maugham took from Oscar Wilde a sense of the distance between the man and the mask, but where Wilde (until De Profundis) concentrated on the mask, Maugham longed to expose the suffering man. The biographers dutifully tell us that Dorothy Parker found him a “crashing bore,” but fail to explain why one of his lovers said (as quoted on the very next page of Morgan’s biography), “When we were alone he could be the world’s most enchanting conversationalist.” They point out that Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale (“a snob and a fraud,” in Meyers’s characteristic words, “a time-server and bum-sucker”) was based on the English novelist Hugh Walpole, but do not tell us why Cakes and Ale holds readers who know nothing about Hugh Walpole, and care less. For a biographer, every secret is a dirty one; for a gentleman, which is what Maugham, sometimes fatally, tried to be, the parts one hides may be the more generous or selfless parts (he refused to take payment for the often life-threatening work he did for the British government).
The curious thing about Maugham was that he could be almost embarrassingly eager to tell his readers, if not his acquaintances, who he was. His account of his life in The Summing Up (1938) is often criticized for its lack of personal revelation, and it certainly spends little time on gossip or biographical incident. Yet what is most shocking about it may be its honesty. The man who prided himself on not believing in God describes feeling himself almost “in the presence of God” in Cairo when he sat “rapt as Ignatius of Loyola in a deserted mosque.” He tells us, without fuss, “I have long known that there is something in me that antagonises certain persons,” and that he was “rather precocious, harsh and somewhat unpleasant” in his early years, but also that “I have not been afraid of excess.” It is as if he confided to the page what he couldn’t say in life.
The other unexpected feature of The Summing Up is that, in taking the measure of sixty often exotic and event-filled years, it chooses to dwell for page after page on issues of good and evil, on Spinoza, Plato, and the Upanishads. This may not make Maugham a philosopher, but it does remind us how touchingly eager he was to see his life in a philosophical light. Biographers tend to link him to Ian Fleming, but he has at least as much in common with Iris Murdoch, watching, with a sympathetic eye, the madness and illusions of love, and holding his impulsive characters up against some Platonic notion of the good, or the beautiful. One of the few times he challenged his stammer to deliver a speech, his subject was, of all things, the ideas of Kant.
This genuine philosophical restlessness, a readiness to try out every position with no program or doctrine in mind (the only moral in Maugham is a distrust of all moralism), confounds his biographers. On page 287 of Meyers’s biography, Maugham is “remarkably free of egoism”; by page 341, he is “egoistic.” On page 230, we read that he “didn’t have a mystical bone in his body”; only twelve lines later, we are blandly assured that “Maugham shared an interest in Indian mysticism with Christopher Isherwood.” Maugham was an explorer all his life, not settling, as Greene did, for a religious belief he couldn’t entirely hold; at one point in The Summing Up he gives a long and persuasive defense of solipsism, and then says that, alas, it isn’t true. He does the same, a little later, with the doctrine of transmigration of souls. In The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travels in Southeast Asia still vivid today, Maugham offers the most convincing six-page account of Buddhism and its notions of impermanence and karma that I’ve ever read, only to add, in a coda, that, unfortunately, he doesn’t believe in them.
It is as if he didn’t want to be an ironist, but could never quite find the certainty that would console him (a theme that haunts such successors as John le Carré). When The Razor’s Edge came out—selling 507,000 copies in its first month, and reminding us that Maugham was the one British writer to link the age of Hardy to what we now call the Sixties—the critics hastened to assure us that its protagonist, Larry Darrell, the eager seeker of the “life of the spirit” (who typically tries—and fails—to rescue a loose woman), was based on Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood was always pained by the claim, not least because he felt that the book simplified the trials of sainthood. Besides, Maugham had told Isherwood—as noted in the latter’s journals—that his one wish, now that he was close to seventy, was to go back to India and write a final book on Shankara before retiring to a monastery. The biographers tend not to point out that Larry Darrell sounds suspiciously close to Frank Hurrell in The Merry-Go-Round, the early alter ego whose “chief endeavour was the search for truth.”
To read of the final years of Maugham’s life can be a painful affair. His publishers tried to arrange a celebration for his seventieth birthday, and again for his eightieth, but almost nobody responded. The money he gave to his old school, King’s Canterbury, to help a working-class student enjoy an education there every year was redirected toward a physics building. One critic after another—Diana Trilling, Morton Zabel, Edmund Wilson—ridiculed him for his lack of talent. (Wilson, according to Meyers, thought that Maugham had dismissed Memoirs of Hecate County. In fact, Maugham’s enthusiasm for the book had been one reason why Doubleday published it; years after Wilson’s attack on him, Maugham told S.N. Behrman that Wilson was “the most brilliant man you have.”)
With characteristic generosity, the old man set up an award to allow young writers to travel, and its winners, fittingly, have included V.S. Naipaul, John le Carré, and Doris Lessing. When a Catholic schoolgirl (who would later become Claire Boothe Luce) wrote him a fan letter, he wrote a six-page handwritten letter in response. He left his royalties to the Royal Literary Fund, which during the Eighties managed to generate more than $250,000 a year from them to help needy writers. As his life drew to an end, however, he watched his only child, Liza, fight against his longtime companion, Alan Searle, over his money and his paintings. There was more than a touch of Lear in the aging Maugham in his castle, though there was no one in sight (but himself) to play the Fool.
In the case of writers like Lawrence and Joyce, the demands of genius are often invoked as an excuse for their cruelties or peccadilloes; with Maugham, no such exoneration was forthcoming. He belonged to no school or movement; his one successor, his nephew Robin, titled one of his memoirs Escape from the Shadows. Yet Orwell, famously, called him “the modern writer who has influenced me most,” and Evelyn Waugh, not given to compliments, called him “the only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit.” V.S. Naipaul frequently returns to the unaffiliated, sometimes haunted traveler who was at once a seeming pillar of the British establishment and, on the page, a compassionate solitary most drawn to the unfortunate. (The first published piece Naipaul ever wrote, according to Meyers, was a review for his high school magazine in Trinidad, when he was sixteen, of Liza of Lambeth. And the main character in both of his last two novels is called, a little curiously, “W. Somerset Chandra.”)
Maugham approached death with the equanimity and poise he had al-ways maintained, confirming, in some quarters, the image of a wrinkled Chinese sage far above the turmoil of men. He watched J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, and J.B. Priestley receive the Order of Merit he’d always craved, and saw the same friends who mocked him for being cold mock him for sobbing at Gerald Haxton’s funeral. “When people chatter and chatter to me,” he told the writer Godfrey Winn, “saying all the flattering things that they imagine I want them to say, I know what they are really thinking underneath—what a disagreeable old party, and how dull he is in real life! How can he ever write all those clever books and amusing plays?”
Meyers grows warm and even protective toward his subject by the end of his book, though he never begins to explain how this often taciturn and muffled man with the downturned mouth somehow did what many writers long to do, reserving his meanness and cattiness for his life, while getting the best of himself into his art. Maugham’s writing consistently wins our trust by its emotional shrewdness; but it goes even deeper than that by revealing how the rational man is shipwrecked by his reason. To concentrate on the life and all its foibles is to avoid the deeper question of how Maugham escaped, or even transcended himself on the page.
Toward the end of Cakes and Ale, one of his best evocations of the literary world, Maugham’s loyal narrator Ashenden, contemplating some pictures of the writer whose life he has been chronicling, observes:
The real man, to his death unknown or lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the fellow who lived his life, and smiled with ironic detachment at the two puppets that the world took for Edward Driffield.
As so often in Maugham’s work, you can substitute “Somerset Maugham” for the proper name in the sentence, and end up with a bitter, poignant truth.