“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,
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