Slippery Fish

Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham

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

Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham; drawing by David Levine

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…

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