AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Thursday, 28 September 2017


My mother had a thing for W. Somerset Maugham, especially for two of his novels, which she introduced to me in my teens... And they changed my life, somehow, making me dream to emulate the adventurous and tormented characters Maugham depicted. I almost succeeded, living on the Razor's Edge while yearning for the Moon and Sixpence.
Katha Upanishad "1-3-14. Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones, for that path is sharp as a razor's edge, impassable, and hard to go by, say the wise."
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait 'Les Miserables' (1888)
The Great And the Good
Somerset Maugham’s sense of vocation.
By Ruth Franklin

In Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence, there is a scene in which Dirk Stroeve, a painter, visits an art dealer to inquire after the work of another artist, Charles Strickland, whose paintings he has persuaded the dealer to take on. Stroeve is himself a mediocre painter of blatantly commercial landscapes and peasant scenes, unrepentant about his lack of originality. “I don’t pretend to be a great painter,” he says early on, “but I have something. I sell.” Yet he recognizes Strickland’s work as genius. He tells the dealer, “Remember Monet, who could not get anyone to buy his pictures for a hundred francs. What are they worth now?” The dealer questions this logic. “There were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success?” Stroeve is infuriated. “How, then, will you recognize merit?” he asks. “There is only one way—by success,” the dealer replies. “Think of all the great artists of the past—Raphael, Michael Angelo, Ingres, Delacroix—they were all successful.”

Success came easily to Maugham, whose career embodies the vexing questions implicit in Stroeve’s argument with the art dealer: how do we recognize artistic merit, and what relation, if any, does it have to popularity? It is difficult to think of another writer whose work was once so ubiquitous and is now so thoroughly absent from the contemporary literary canon. As Selina Hastings writes in her new biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2010)—the title is somewhat sensational, given that most of Maugham’s secrets have been open for some time—Maugham was for much of his life “the most famous writer in the world.” He once had four productions running simultaneously in London’s West End, his novels were best-sellers in England and America, and his works have been adapted for film and television more than ninety times. He spent his later years in style, in a villa on the French Riviera, and his death, in 1965, at the age of ninety-one, was front-page news in Europe and America. Yet during the seven years I spent studying English literature at two universities, three decades later, I do not recall anyone, professor or student, ever mentioning his work.

Maugham’s critical acclaim was always more uneven than his commercial success. Theodore Dreiser championed Of Human Bondage, but English critics, particularly the Bloomsbury literary élite, were largely uninterested in Maugham. (He paid them back in his fiction by invariably portraying critics, bitterly and hilariously, as opportunistic philistines.) Joseph Conrad wrote snidely of Maugham’s first novel that the author “just looks on—and that is just what the general reader prefers.” When he was praised, it was for his technical skill rather than for his psychological depth. “I do not know of any living writer who seems to have his work so much under control,” Evelyn Waugh once wrote. In a devastating piece on Maugham for this magazine in 1946, Edmund Wilson said, “I have never been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate.” Such criticism seems to have carried a particular sting for Maugham, perhaps because it coincided precisely with his own self-deprecating assessments. In his autobiography, The Summing Up, published in 1938, when he was sixtyfour, he explained, “I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them.” These limitations, as he saw them, included “small power of imagination,” “no lyrical quality,” and “little gift of metaphor”: “I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought with pains I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed.”

Somerset Maugham by Ronald Searle
There is more than a hint of the English gentleman’s requisite modesty in these words—a gesture of self-criticism made from the comfortable vantage of success—and what appears to be soul-searching reflection may just be an advance parry against the critics’ blows. But Maugham was right that his gift lay not in a striking style or in sweeping ambition but in the raw powers of observation and the glittering precision that he brought to his moral dramas. “It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed,” he once wrote, with his characteristic understatement. The devastating conditions of the poor in London slums, the eccentric characters populating remote colonial outposts of the South Pacific, the treacherously hypocritical upper class: always looking on, Maugham set their stories down—sometimes virtually unaltered—in his singularly unemotional style. Must a true artist be a visionary in the manner of Charles Strickland, an originator constantly in the process of “making it new”? Or is “making it real,” however unfashionable, sometimes just as worthwhile? Fittingly, Maugham’s obsession with the greatness of which he believed himself incapable occasionally spurred him to achieve it.

"One of the first things one learned about Somerset Maugham in London was that no one liked him very much,” the journalist Drew Middleton wrote just after Maugham’s death. The difficult ground of his life has been covered many times. Hastings’s approach, though never hagiographic, is refreshingly sympathetic. Maugham was born in 1874 in France, to English parents, and grew up speaking French more fluently than English. Orphaned at the age of ten, he was shipped off to southeast England to live with his uncle, a vicar, and his wife. When he was at boarding school in Canterbury, the other boys abused him for his small size and his difficulties with English pronunciation, which developed into a full-fledged stammer that was to plague him all his life. Hastings identifies as autobiographical the episode in Of Human Bondage in which Philip Carey, the author’s fictional alter ego, prays that God will cure him of his clubfoot. His disappointment is the first step in his loss of religious faith.

Most readers have assumed that Philip’s clubfoot stands in for his creator’s speech impediment, but Francis King, an English writer and a friend of Maugham’s, argued that it was “a metaphor for a graver disability”—his sexual orientation. Maugham famously once said that as a young man he had thought that he was “three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around.” He did have relationships with women and, in 1917, married Syrie Wellcome, who had become pregnant with his child while still married to her first husband; Maugham was named in the divorce proceedings. Homosexuality was more than a hindrance in turn-of-the-century England. It could send a man to jail: Oscar Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” took place in 1895, when Maugham was twenty-one. By that point, he had already spent some time studying in Heidelberg, where he absorbed influences as diverse as Pater, Ibsen, and Schopenhauer. After his return to London, he took up medical studies. Training among the poor in London’s slums, he found himself fascinated by the people and their stories, which inspired his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897, about the life and death of an eighteen-year-old factory worker. “I caught the colloquial note by instinct,” he wrote later.

Maugham photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1934
From the start, Maugham approached writing as a profession, earning a living being his first priority. He had no illusions about his early work: a letter to his agent accompanying three short stories called one of them “bad enough to suit anything.” He turned to playwriting, because it was lucrative, and because, as he later claimed, he found it easier “to set down on paper the things people said than to construct a narrative.” Maugham is again selling his talent short: it was not every writer who could sit down and dash off a top-rate comedy within a month. “His acute intelligence enabled him to gauge what his audiences wanted,” Hastings writes, and “his expert craftsmanship delivered it.” And what the audiences wanted was the kind of witty, urbane society drama for which he became famous. But after a remarkable run of eight hit plays—he eventually wrote more than two dozen—the novel pulled him back. Maugham began writing Of Human Bondage in 1911; it was published in 1915. The ease with which he had found success as a playwright perhaps instilled in him the mistrust of pure facility that became a recurrent preoccupation in his novels.

In a foreword to the novel, Maugham notes that it had a first life as a shorter book, called The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey, which he had written at the age of twenty-three. He is relieved now that it was not published, he says, because he would then have “lost a subject which I was too young to make proper use of.” Of Human Bondage is autobiographical, he says, but not autobiography: “Fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own, but not all the incidents are related as they happened.” Despite this caution, critics and biographers have mostly read at least the first part of the novel as drawn directly from Maugham’s life—the early death of the mother, the icy vicar, the torturous school experience, and then the escape to Heidelberg, where Philip is first exposed to aesthetic experience. The parallels break down as Philip reaches adulthood, which is also where the novel begins to take shape as a masterpiece.

Somerset Maugham by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1942After failing as an accountant, Philip flees to Paris, where he spends two years studying to be a painter and living la vie bohème. Maugham depicts the world of the art students with the fondly satirical eye of an older man who can no longer take his younger self quite seriously. Philip grows his hair, learns to drink absinthe, and spends evenings in seedy cafés debating the purpose of art, but—like most of his circle—he turns out not to have much talent. “What does it matter if your picture is good or bad?” his friend Clutton, the only gifted painter among them, asks him. “The only reason that one paints is that one can’t help it.” But Philip, like his creator, knows that he lacks this kind of passion; his talent, he worries, lies in nothing more than “a superficial cleverness of the hand.” When he abandons art to enter medical school, it is with a sense of relief.

The true originality of the novel, and the reason many critics were taken aback by it, lies in the miserable, mildly sadomasochistic love affair between Philip and a waitress, Mildred, which begins soon after he returns to London. An odd and unattractive love object, she has a “chlorotic color” brought on by anemia, thin pale lips, “narrow hips and the chest of a boy.” (It has been universally assumed that this episode is based on an unhappy relationship the young Maugham had with a man.) She affects pretentious manners to disguise her lower-class background, and her conversation is superficial. At her warmest, she is merely indifferent to Philip, but when she’s in a bad mood her contempt for him manifests itself in cruelty:
He was not happy with her, but he was unhappy away from her. He wanted to sit by her side and look at her, he wanted to touch her, he wanted . . . the thought came to him and he did not finish it, suddenly he grew wide awake . . . he wanted to kiss the thin, pale mouth with its narrow lips. The truth came to him at last. He was in love with her. It was incredible.
. . . When she left him it was wretchedness, and when she came to him again it was despair.
The novel does not try to explain the source of Mildred’s hold over Philip—the inexplicability of his passion is precisely the point. She soon runs off with a businessman, freeing Philip to become involved with another woman, who is smart, kind, and loving. He is well aware of the difference between their characters, and yet when Mildred reappears, pregnant and desperate, he cannot resist her. “When all was said the important thing was to love rather than be loved. . . . He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her.” But when Mildred betrays him again the spell is broken, and it’s a relief to be told, after their painful final encounter, that Philip will not see her again.

But Philip has traded one form of bondage for another. After running through most of his savings supporting Mildred, he loses the rest on the stock exchange and has to give up his medical studies. Too proud to ask his friends for money, he pawns his clothes and is reduced to sleeping outdoors. “He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it,” he muses later. Once he has hit bottom, he has the revelation he has been longing for ever since he stopped believing in God: that life has no meaning other than what one makes of it. And now, at last, he feels free: “Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design.”

The novel’s fundamental drama is Philip’s rejection of the romantic temperament as unsuitable for real life. In the end, neither love nor art can live up to his youthful expectations; it is only by learning to overcome their temptations that he can achieve peace. “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master,” Spinoza wrote in the section of his Ethics from which Maugham drew the novel’s title. Instead, a man like this is “mastered by fortune, in whose power he is, so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he sees the better before him.” Philip is finally able to choose “the better,” with his engagement to Sally, the wholesome daughter of a friend. But he continues to distinguish between the “affection” he feels for her and his “love” for Mildred. And the book’s ending is deliberately unromantic. “I’m so happy,” he tells Sally after she accepts his proposal. “I want my lunch,” she replies.

El Greco - Presumed self-portrait

El Greco—“the Greek who had devised a new technique to express the yearnings of the soul,” as one Maugham character describes him—appears in each of Maugham’s major novels. Part of the fascination may be related to speculations about El Greco’s homosexuality, as Maugham once acknowledged. But surely it was also because the painter embodied precisely the artistic quality that Maugham felt lacking in himself. Of Human Bondage is a deeply imagined and powerfully moving novel, but it has far more in common, formally speaking, with a work of the previous generation like Jude the Obscure than it does with the experimentalism of Virginia Woolf ’s The Voyage Out or Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, both published the same year. (Ford was almost exactly the same age as Maugham, Woolf a decade younger.) This is not necessarily a flaw: new is not always better, as Maugham’s characters are fond of repeating, and a broad audience was ready for his themes, even as a new literary élite was moving beyond his forms.

Furthermore, Maugham was both self-aware and canny enough to exploit the artistic conundrum of his reliance on the old technique. This question is central in The Moon and Sixpence, the novel that immediately followed Of Human Bondage. (Maugham drew the title from a reviewer’s complaint that Philip Carey “was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.”) The nameless narrator is a writer who accepts his own style as behind the times. He compares himself to the once famous poet George Crabbe, who, following Alexander Pope, wrote “moral stories in rhymed couplets.” Time went on, and “the poets sang new songs,” but Crabbe continued in the same style. Now, the narrator says, a generation of new writers has arisen, and “I am on the shelf. I will continue to write moral stories in rhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool if I did it for aught but my own entertainment.”
Somerset Maugham
If genius is originality, then the narrator knows that he lacks it; his art is something that he chooses to do, rather than a passion that has chosen him. “I wonder if I could write on a desert island, with the certainty that no eyes but mine would ever see what I had written,” he asks. In dire contrast is the figure of Charles Strickland (modelled loosely on Gauguin), a stockbroker who suddenly deserts his family. Everyone assumes that he has run off with a woman, but when the narrator discovers him in Paris he is living in a cheap hotel, alone: he has decided to become a painter. The narrator is astounded. “Supposing you’re never anything more than third-rate, do you think it will have been worth while to give up everything?” he asks. Strickland has no use for the question. “You blasted fool,” he answers. “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself.”

Like Clutton in Of Human Bondage, Strickland represents pure artistic desire, unmotivated by outside influences. It is a feeling to which the narrator cannot relate. A third way to live the artist’s life comes in the form of Dirk Stroeve, the painter who grasps the greatness of Strickland’s work, and persuades the art dealer to carry it, while accepting his own mediocrity. In one particularly poignant scene, which takes place after Strickland has stolen and then abandoned Stroeve’s wife, Stroeve discovers a nude portrait of her by Strickland. Furious, he grabs a paint scraper to destroy it, but cannot continue. “It was a work of art . . . a great, a wonderful picture,” he tells the narrator. “I was seized with awe. I had nearly committed a dreadful crime.”

Critics have always had reservations about this book, but it was an immediate best-seller, and remains among Maugham’s most popular. The character of Strickland is perhaps too broadly drawn, and in the end, despite the narrator’s insistence that “man is incalculable,” it is a bit too implausible that a buttoned-up stockbroker could turn into this roughtalking, utterly amoral brute. But the subtlety of the narrator’s character has often gone unappreciated. At the start of the novel, he declares himself inadequate to the story: true greatness is something he can’t pretend to understand, and he is bewildered by Strickland’s art. He is not so much an unreliable narrator as an insufficient one. But by the end he, too, gazing upon one of Strickland’s late paintings, is transformed. He still cannot say what moves him about the picture, but he knows that it is great; its greatness is what changes him.
The Day of the God (1894) - Paul Gauguin
By this time, Maugham had begun the habit of globe-trotting that he was to continue into old age, and the final chapters of The Moon and Sixpence draw heavily on his voyage to Tahiti, where he actually discovered a painting by Gauguin in a remote hut (and brought it home with him). Hastings notes, “As a writer of fiction, Maugham was a realist: his imagination needed actual people and events to work on, and these his travels amply furnished.” Of course, this is not exactly the method of most “realists,” who are usually more concerned with reproducing the atmosphere of everyday life than with telling other people’s stories. Maugham’s use of the real was extreme: he sometimes failed to change even the names of his characters and got into trouble for his dependence on found stories. When his novel Cakes and Ale appeared, in 1930, all of literary London recognized the fawning, sycophantic hack novelist Alroy Kear—“I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent,” the novel’s narrator says—as a stand-in for Hugh Walpole, an acquaintance of Maugham’s. Hastings agrees, characterizing as “deeply disingenuous” a letter of apology that Maugham sent to Walpole. Alroy Kear “is made up of a dozen people and the greater part of him is myself,” Maugham wrote. “There is more of me in him than of any writer I know.”

But, even if Maugham’s intentions were insincere, his statement contains an element of truth. For there is something of Maugham in the prolific, industrious Kear, with his excellent manners and his friends in high places. The narrator tells us that Kear “saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains”—the same word that Maugham applied to himself in The Summing Up (“I thought with pains I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed”). And Kear defends himself by saying, “I know I’m not a great novelist. . . . I think I can tell a good story and I can create characters that ring true. And after all the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” He goes on to cite his high sales. We hear an echo of Dirk Stroeve’s “I sell,” but also of Maugham’s justifiable pride in his own popularity.

Maugham travelled frequently to gather material, but also to escape his unhappy living situation. His marriage was predictably miserable, with Maugham preferring the company of Gerald Haxton, a young American whom he had met during the First World War, when they were both volunteering with the Red Cross. According to a memoir by Maugham’s nephew, when Maugham asked Haxton what he wanted out of life Haxton said that he was interested in “fun and games . . . someone to look after me and give me clothes and parties.” This might seem to suggest a less than promising match, but the men remained together until Haxton’s death, from alcoholism and tuberculosis, in 1944, with Maugham apparently content to stay at home while Haxton roamed the Riviera, gambling and picking up boys. (With his matchless gift for aphorism, Maugham called the Riviera “that sunny place for shady people.”)

Cap Ferrat, France, 1954, English author Somerset Maugham (right) is pictured with his secretary-companion as they eat dinner at the Villa Mauresque

All of Maugham’s friends seem to have had strong feelings about this relationship, either pro or con, and Hastings lets many of them have their say. But she sheds little light on the peculiar fact that Haxton was Maugham’s employee as well as his life partner, drawing a salary for services that included companionship (though, it seems, not necessarily sex) and typing manuscripts. After Haxton died, his role was filled by an even younger man, named Alan Searle, for whom the financial arrangement seems to have been of primary importance. When Maugham, in his old age, was suffering from senility, Searle succeeded in turning him against his daughter and largely disinheriting her for his own gain, a sad story that Hastings explores in grim detail.

Maugham’s late novel The Razor’s Edge offers a depiction of an incompatible couple with tantalizing similarities to himself and Haxton. Here he uses the same form that he polished to perfection in The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale—the narrator observes his characters and reflects disinterestedly on tensions between conventionality and the risky search for self-fulfillment. This time, however, he raises the verisimilitude to a high pitch, using his real name and styling the opening as a kind of memoir. “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving,” he writes, and continues, “If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. . . . I have invented nothing.” The narrator meets Isabel and Larry, a happily engaged young couple, on a visit to Chicago. But soon he learns of a hitch in their plans: Larry, recently returned from serving as a pilot in the First World War, has decided to turn down a promising job so that he can devote himself to reading and thinking. Isabel generously encourages him to take some time for himself, but she is as alarmed to come upon a Greek dictionary in his room as she might have been to find another woman’s bathrobe. “What is that going to lead to?” she asks him in frustration. “The acquisition of knowledge,” he replies.

It turns out that Larry has embarked upon a spiritual quest. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not,” he tells Isabel. “I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.” He asks Isabel to join him, but—in words strikingly similar to the ones Haxton is reported to have said to Maugham—she refuses to live frugally on his small inheritance: “I want to have fun. I want to do all the things that people do. I want to go to parties, I want to go to dances. . . . I want to wear nice clothes.” Later, she tells the narrator that she broke off her engagement because she didn’t want to stand in Larry’s way. He scoffs, “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”

 उत्तिष्ठ जाग्रत प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत | क्षुरस्य धारा निशिता दुरत्यया दुर्गं पथस्तत्कवयो वदन्ति
uttiṣṭha jāgrata prāpya varān nibodhata | kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā durga pathas tat kavayo vadanti

Larry spends ten years reading books and travelling the world. He lives in Paris, works in a coal mine, and visits a Benedictine monastery. Finally, he goes to India to stay at an ashram, and here he achieves something like transcendence. The Maugham figure asks Larry what attracted him to the yogi with whom he studied. “Saintliness,” Larry answers. “I was slightly disconcerted by his reply,” the narrator comments. “In that room, with its fine furniture, with those lovely drawings on the wall, the word fell like a plop of water that has seeped through the ceiling from an overflowing bath.” Larry’s sincerity, his utter lack of cynicism, sets him apart from the rest of the novel’s characters, who are disconcerted by the contrast between his manner and their vaunted sophistication. Larry, the narrator says, is “the only person I’ve ever met who’s completely disinterested. . . . We’re not used to persons who do things simply for the love of God whom they don’t believe in.”

Larry, a nearly messianic figure, is Maugham’s most mysterious creation. In contrast to Philip Carey, tortured by his nonsensical love, or even Charles Strickland, driven inexorably by his own creative impulse, he is a truly free man: wedded (literally or figuratively) to no other person, entirely selfsufficient, utterly focussed on his own search for meaning. There is a selfishness in his quest, but even a lover he abandons on his way does not begrudge him his liberty. Perhaps because Maugham himself was not religious, Larry always feels a little out of reach, yet he is all the holier for it. Cyril Connolly, reviewing The Razor’s Edge, wrote that Maugham is “the worldliest of our novelists, and yet is fascinated by those who renounce the world. . . . Here at last is a great writer, on the threshold of old age, determined to tell the truth in a form which releases all the possibilities of his art.” At the end of The Razor’s Edge, the narrator worries that his story is unsatisfactory, but muses that all the characters finally “got what they wanted.” The story of Maugham’s life, too, comes to a somewhat unsatisfying end: after this book, published when he was seventy, he did no work of distinction, capping his career with a few lacklustre historical novels (one of which occasioned Edmund Wilson’s diatribe) and a disastrous memoir called Looking Back, which shocked his acquaintances by unearthing sordid details from his marriage, and hastened the decline of his reputation. And yet he, too, seems to have got what he wanted, for what he wanted most of all, it seems, was not to be a genius like Strickland or a wise man like Larry. He wanted, rather, to be recognized—whether through his endlessly amusing plays, the sumptuous hospitality he lavished on his friends, or the novels that, for all their coolly objective prose, bring to life an entire world. Drew Middleton reported, “Just before his 90th birthday, he remarked that his greatest, indeed his only consolation, was the letters that came to him every day from young people all over the world. They were still reading him, he said with a touch of pride.”
Drawing portrait of Somerset Maugham