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 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.

When he began publishing—Liza of Lambeth,1 his first novel, appeared in 1897—the sermons and homiletics of the Victorian age were already passing into the adventurous disguises and titillations of the Edwardian age—and mutations of both eras occur in his work. Also a pronounced strain of Social Darwinism. Maugham is a firm believer that the “weak” are driven to the wall and that only the “strong” survive—the “strong,” that is, not in character but in property and possession. (It is probably inevitable that two of his three historical novels should have as their presiding genius or inspiration the figure of Niccolò Machiavelli.) The struggle of the species that goes on in his work, however, does so, I think, largely under glass. So too the journeys of the soul. Elements of the material and the spiritual unite in his world, not only in the elegantly banal comment (“The spirit is very strange; it never soars so high as when the body has wallowed for a period in the gutter”), but also in the restrictions and releases he places on each. For neither ever goes far or too far: Maugham is a writer who delights in “showing up” a certain milieu, the stupidity and inertia of its mores, or delights in “summing up” his characters as “creatures of circumstance” who cannot get beyond their “just deserts.” Either way, though, society is the deus ex machina of his varied texts. Society is always waiting to intervene, rearrange, legislate, and abolish (see, especially, his punitive studies of “wasters,” “Red” or “A Friend in Need”).

Perhaps that’s why so many of his tales deal almost exclusively in the world of gossip—or in the accouterments of scandal and betrayal. A favorite—and highly effective tactic—is that of two men of the world settling down to drinks after dinner and dishing the dirt. Now this is also one of the devices of Proust and James, just as James’s “international theme” and Proust’s anatomization of the haute bourgeoisie parallel Maugham’s long day of the British Empire finally waning in its colonial outposts or Mediterranean retreats—and Maugham is to be congratulated, I think, for being the first to capitalize upon that particular event in history. But contrasting two little excerpts, one from Maugham, one from Proust, perhaps we might better observe the differences involved.

In “The Human Element,” Humphrey Carruthers, a member of the Foreign Office, visiting a once celebrated beauty, living in idyllic retirement on the island of Rhodes, who has been the love of his life, is devastated to discover, after stumbling upon a scene at a moonlit beach, the “odious truth”:

It was all clear to him, clear with the ghastly vividness with which on a stormy night a flash of lightning can disclose a ravaged landscape, clear, horribly clear. The way the man had dried her and the way she leaned against him pointed not to passion, but to a long continued intimacy…. That was why she had that little house in the Street of the Knights, so that they could spend two or three days together in domestic familiarity. They were like an old married couple. Humphrey asked himself how long the hateful thing had lasted and suddenly he knew the answer; for years. Ten, twelve, fourteen; it had started when the young footman first came to London—he was a boy then, and it was obvious enough that it was not he who had made the advances; all through those years when she was the idol of the British public, when everyone adored her and she could have married anyone she liked, she was living with the second footman at her aunt’s house….

Turning to Proust we encounter a similar instance of upper-class revelation—Saint-Loup, the dashing playboy and gallant soldier, dining with his young wife and friends in the suburbs of Paris:

He was seated by the side of Gilberte—already pregnant (he was, in the years that followed, to keep her continually supplied with off-spring)—as he would presently lie down by her side in their double bed in the hotel. He spoke to no one but his wife, the rest of the hotel appeared not to exist for him, but at the moment when a waiter came to take his order, and stood close beside him, he swiftly raised his blue eyes and darted a glance at him which did not last for more than two seconds, but in its limpid penetration seemed to indicate a kind of curiosity and investigation entirely different from that which might have animated any ordinary diner studying, even at greater length, a page or messenger, with a view to making humorous or other observations which he would communicate to his friends. This little quick glance, apparently quite disinterested, revealed to those who had intercepted it that this excellent husband, this once so passionate lover of Rachel, possessed another plane in his life, and one that seemed to him infinitely more interesting than that upon which he moved from a sense of duty. But it was to be discerned only in that glance.

No doubt Maugham would consider the blue eyes and limpid penetration and quick glance too “subtle” an evocation for his taste. Indeed in “The Human Element” and elsewhere he mocks the paraphrases of the “intelligentsia” or the “allusive” talk and “atmosphere” of “experimental” writing (“atmosphere is all very well, but atmosphere without anything else is like a frame without a picture”). But if the mutual basis of the above quotations is melodrama, then surely Maugham embodies it, Proust transcends it. What Maugham wants is for things to come to a point; he always seeks, as he says, the “unifying links,” the “perfectly realized” situation or “pattern” where life, “like a good story, pursues its way from beginning to end in a firm and unbroken line.”

What he has to say of James and his “convoluted style” (a reproach uttered years earlier and more wittily by Wells)—that “he was like a man who should provide himself with all the impedimenta necessary to ascend Mount Everest in order to climb Primrose Hill”—could as easily fit his judgment of Proust, in whom he affected to see only a “comic genius.” The wavering, fragmentary, transient qualities of modernism, of characters caught in all their disjointed wholeness; the “salient and peculiar detail” and ruminating texture of James; Proust’s imperturbability and almost toneless musical structure—all these were to remain thoroughly alien to him (however often he might speak of people being not “all of a piece”); as would too the conception of a literary destiny or of literature itself as delineated in James’s “The Middle Years” or Proust’s “A Propos de Baudelaire.”

Maugham, coming from a long line of doctors, ministers, barristers, championed the “craftsmanship” of the professional over that of the “exquisites,” thought Proust’s philosophical lucubrations tiresome and James’s knowledge of the world “inadequate” for his materials, larded his tales with advice and information on any number of “practical” matters—on travel, politics, tennis, Malacca canes, Worth frocks, steamship companies, copra plantations, “the etiquette of bridge,” the bills of fare in expensive restaurants, national traits, marriage. Society seen as successive “states of consciousness” or society as “metaphor” or “sensibility” is not for him; and whatever strange realms he inhabits these tend to become insular, and the exotic, however bizarre, is purely geographical (as a character in “Honolulu” says: “There’s something about a Chink, when he lays himself out to please a woman she can’t resist him”).

Of course whether in his prestidigitating tours of various genres and themes (sanatoriums and voyeurism, mysticism and adultery) or in his creation of enduring vehicles for stars or of figures who have already become a part of contemporary folklore (Ashenden the spy, Reverend Davidson, Sadie Thompson) the Maugham “touch” is unmistakable. Few other writers have ever matched his hold on the popular imagination. And the virtues he extolls, “lucidity, simplicity, and euphony,” are, at his best, his own. It is hard not to be charmed by the fluency of Maugham’s narrative skills, by a plain style that is both colorful and dramatically succinct, and by the deftness of his conversational idiom (a practice later to fascinate Coward, Greene, and Isherwood).

But if he assiduously read Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer (and Maugham was always ambitious), he never absorbed them as Proust, say, absorbed Bergson; and if he studied literary history, his sweeping judgments of Carlyle, Pater, and Meredith show how ill schooled he was; and if he had a wide and profitable knowledge of the classics—Fielding and Zola, in particular, fed his interest in country and working-class lives—still his fiction lacks the intimacy and amplitude, the density of human relations the older writers possess, as he himself noted. His formula, “stick to the point and, when necessary, cut,” is true enough as a technical description of what he’s about, but psychologically or intellectually it is false. Contrary to the opinions of his admirers Maugham rarely follows an argument to its rigorous conclusions, hardly ever penetrates the motivations of his characters (paranoia, for instance, is one of the most interesting and persistent traits of his heroes, jealousy and thirst for revenge those of his heroines, yet for the most part each is described as if Freud never existed, and with a good deal of smugness besides), and usually when he “cuts” does so only for effect.

In general Maugham sees only what is most obvious or most prudential for his purposes, then calls what is most obvious or most prudential an astute observation. And never is that more apparent, I think, than when under a guise of equanimity or a cosmopolitan veneer he is forever reassuring the reader, confirming him, in explicit or subliminal ways, in his conventional prejudices and beliefs, or defusing whatever “shock” he’s intent on imparting, reducing it to the level of coup de théâatre, the frisson of novelty (see Lady Frederick or The Letter). His pessimism, though it is a necessary ingredient of his world view, and though it can add a certain gloss and stylish candor to his writings, is of the most conservative kind, not in the least upsetting to the status quo. And his apologia, The Summing Up, despite quite trenchant comment on literary matters, can often seem a veritable medley of comforting maxims, both cynical and genteel. On the poor:

No one who has dwelt among them can fail to have noticed how little they envy the well-to-do. The fact is that they do not want many of the things that to others of us appear essential. It is fortunate for the well-to-do. For he is blind who will not see that in the lives of the proletariat in the great cities all is misery and confusion….

In it he nobly and obliquely equates the “beauty of life” with that of a man acting “in conformity with his nature and his business.” This, however, has not been one of his accomplishments. Instinctively, I believe, Maugham always recoiled from the complexities of his own nature and the promptings of his heart. Both the vitam impendere vero and the vitam impendere amori were beyond him.

One wonders, finally, why. He has said that the greatest wound of his life, a wound that was never to heal, was the traumatic death, when he was a child of eight, of his adored mother from tuberculosis—the same illness to which Gerald would later succumb. Was the “perfect unity” he once shared with his mother as the youngest of her four sons at the heart of what he sought to recapture in the creation of a “pattern” he claimed was to fascinate him throughout his career? Was the quest of the “pattern” further intensified by the ordeal of an orphaned youth spent with a skinflint parson uncle and an aunt too timid or fastidious to demonstrate the “loving kindness” he needed? Did he keep looking for acts of “loving kindness” in all the wrong places and like a child wish to turn “bad” people “good” (Rosie the generous barmaid, the apostle of free love in Cakes and Ale, is surely Mildred seen at a later date and in a mellower mood)2 or to turn from the reality of unhappy situations to fantasies about them (the awful Blackstable family of Philip’s youth is quite different from the jolly “Victorian” family—worthy of Dickens or Trollope—to which Sally belongs)?

And did the insecurity he felt, the complaint that he had no poetry in his soul, inevitably influence his relations with social butterflies like Syrie or reckless types like Gerald or even have something to do with his still mysterious and highly uncharacteristic activities on behalf of Allied Intelligence in Switzerland and Russia? And did Maugham, who always thought he had no physical allure, who indeed was said to resemble his “ugly” father, unconsciously seek in Syrie or Gerald or others like them the lost beauty of his mother?

About homosexuality, obviously he harbored an unappeasable guilt over it throughout his life, despite the sophisticated circles in which he traveled, and was totally lacking in what is now called “gay consciousness.” Aside from a nasty and gratuitous reference to Housman and his love of a “soldier boy,” he never once broached the subject in print. In the memoir we learn that at the time his nephew was contemplating publishing a “confessional” novel, Maugham voiced his violent and hypocritical objections—“Why proclaim from the rooftops that although you like hopping into bed with girls, you are predominantly homosexual?… Why do you think that Noel or I have never stuck our personal predilections down our public’s throats? Because we know it would outrage them”3—told him instead to marry an heiress and “ger-go into politics.”

“Longevity is genius,” he acidly reminds us in Cakes and Ale, published in his fifties. But the older and more famous and more popular Maugham became the less he was to be venerated by the critical establishment, until at eighty or ninety he could rightly say that the people at Encounter “despise me”—the exact opposite, ironically enough, of the fate of Driffield/Hardy, who labored in obscurity in his youth, suffered indifference in middle age, only to rise to the stature of a giant in the world of letters in his dotage. And why did he put malicious remarks about Henry James in Driffield’s mouth when he himself had used them—or would use them—in his essay on James?

And why was he so full of unexamined or unadmitted ressentiment directed toward the various worlds—social, literary, sexual—he inhabited? The only world that seems to have escaped his savaging is that phantasmal one of “normalcy”—though not, of course, human nature: “The nature of men and women—their essential nature—is so vile and despicable that if you were to portray a person as he really is, no one would believe you.” And did he cling so tenaciously or deviously to the concept of “normalcy” because without it he would have been unable to sustain the image of “perfect unity” with the mother? And did his pursuit of “normalcy” both enforce and provoke that devotion, thus ensuring that his attachment to Gerald or Syrie or even his own daughter would always prove less acceptable, less fulfilling?

Maugham is a slippery fish. One can admire a career that has been so steadfast in surmounting its repeated difficulties, and one knows that the best of the tales—terse, nimble, flawlessly composed—as well as a travel book like Don Fernando with its splendid essays on Loyola and El Greco, will, to one degree or another, be part of English literature, despite the dim repute in which they are currently floundering. But Maugham should have been a much better writer and certainly should have had a much better character. In him the two go together. He gives us design but not vision. Is it really a providential agony the tormented Philip sees in the “pattern in the carpet” or rather an all too neat and conventional parable about the triumph of the will over the “meaninglessness of existence”? And that will, that design is ultimately a reflection of a society that, au fond, is to be righteously viewed as fixed, hierarchical, vengeful. The only characters of his I can easily think of as escaping society’s strictures are the heroine of “Jane” who dissolves the smart set in gales of laughter because she speaks “truth” (and that was “so unusual that people thought it humorous”), and the hero of The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell, who seeks enlightenment in India and perhaps at the novel’s conclusion is happily driving a cab in Manhattan.

Maugham, who was an “agnostic,” who could not “believe”—on his death-bed he asked his nephew to utter the prayers he found impossible to pass his lips—believed nonetheless, wholeheartedly and aggrievedly, in society. This was his church (however errant a member he may have been), and there was to be no salvation, for him or for others, outside it. Here was the real thralldom. He absurdly overvalued society, and society rewarded him, he became “the world’s most famous living author”; but life paid him back: I cannot remember a single instance of happiness, he confesses to his nephew on the eve of his ninetieth birthday.

The portrait his nephew has given of his uncle in his ailing last years is a pitiful spectacle, perhaps even an exercise in unconscious malice, but it has, for all that, a ring of truth. Maugham, an old crocodile in a Chinese dressing gown, shedding tears of strychnine, bemoaning his fate and his past, full of bogus repentance, talking of “vanity and stupidity” and Jesus Christ; Maugham fearful of being forgotten, fearful of being “found out,” fearful of losing everything (the marble steps and silver platters and teakwood tables), fearful of letting Alan Searle, Gerald’s successor, out of his sight; Maugham communing among his ghosts, screeching at his servants, helplessly tottering down the palatial halls of his Riviera villa, with its Moorish colophon, his defense against the evil eye. In the end he desired that his ashes be placed under the grounds at King’s School, Canterbury (where he had already lavishly endowed a library to his memory), a school that had been the scene—a “veritable purgatory” he once called it—of so many of his youthful sorrows, but which, nevertheless, he always felt to be the epitome of respectability.

This Issue

November 23, 1978