Saturday, November 26, 2016

Maugham: A Biography by Ted Morgan

It’s always a dangerous thing: reading a biography of an artist whose art you admire. You’re bound to discover things about the person that will color your interpretation of the art forever after.

Later he took a six-month appointment as an inpatient clerk. He spent the morning in the wards with the house physician, writing up cases and making tests. He found that the male patients were easier to get along with than the females, who were often querulous and ill-tempered, and complained to the hard-working nurses. This at least is the way he saw it, for already he was displaying a tendency toward misogyny. Women, going back to his mother, were a disappointment, an unreliable species. They never lived up to one’s expectations. He rarely missed a chance to make unpleasant remarks about them and he admired the remark with which his professor of gynecology began his first lecture: “Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year, and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.”

This excerpt, obviously from the time that the young William Somerset Maugham was studying to be a doctor, is one of many in this biography attesting to his misogyny. And indeed, as I found myself reading The Razor’s Edge a few months later, the memory of this passage and the many like it colored my interpretation of his prose. Maugham--at least in the guise of his self-titled narrator in that famous novel--is dismissive and shallow in many of his descriptions of Isabel Bradley. Is it Maugham the narrator showing contempt for Isabel, or is it Maugham the author showing contempt for women? Watch for my upcoming post on that novel. You’ll have to be your own judge.

Another deep impression left upon me is how old and out of time Maugham became as he continued to live and produce while so many of his contemporaries ceased and died. In many ways his true heyday was in the earliest part of the 20th century, writing plays and stories with a sense of propriety appropriate for the previous age.

Maugham was Edwardian in the deepest sense. This was the period of history that put its stamp on him. Throughout his life he maintained an Edwardian set of assumptions. He was a facade person. Propriety was all-important. He went to the right tailor, belonged to a club, and was scrupulously courteous. In his writing he often used such Edwardian expressions as “sexual congress” and “unmitigated scoundrel.” In one of his best known stories, “The Letter,” he used the Edwardian convention of the compromising document.

His belief in a society governed by principles of decorum comes out in stories such as “The Treasure,” where a bachelor, a perfect gentleman who has a perfect servant, sleeps with her in a moment of weakness. They then revert to their previous relationship. “He knew that never by word or gesture would she ever refer to the fact that for a moment their relations had been other than master and servant.” This was the Edwardian sensibility in full flower.

So this is the portrait of Maugham I have been given--a woman-hating phony, for whom appearance is so much more important than substance.

Yet, to judge him by the fiction he wrote, it would seem that such an existence tortured him.

Behind the mask of the Edwardian gentleman there hid the alienated, mother-deprived outsider who lacked a secure grip on his identity. As he said, “The accident of my birth in France … instilled into me two modes of life, two liberties, two points of view [and] prevented me from ever identifying myself completely with the instincts and prejudices of one people or the other.” He pretended to be heterosexual, whereas his deepest sympathies lay elsewhere. He was not what he seemed, and it is no wonder that many of the characters in his short stories are not what they seem.

In “The Lion’s Skin” a perfect English gentleman married to an American heiress and living on the Riviera is found out to be the son of a waiter. When his house catches fire he goes in to save his wife’s Sealyham, as a gentleman would, and is killed: “Bob Forestier had pretended for so many years to be a gentleman that in the end, forgetting that it was all a fake, he had found himself driven to act as in that stupid, conventional brain of his he thought a gentleman must act.” ...

Like … a whole gallery of his characters, Maugham’s life was one of partial concealment.

And his fiction, of course, is an appropriate lens to use to understand the heart of the artist. As Maugham himself said in one of his letters:

My own impression is that most of what one writes is to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical, not the actual incidents always, but always the emotions. Anyhow we are able to fouter ourselves of the world at large--when one has to suffer so much it is only fair that one should have the consolation of writing books about it.

And it is, I think, their emotional truth, not the litany of events, that make much of Maugham’s fiction so compelling. It was interesting on many levels to learn through reading this biography that Maugham found his first success in writing plays, not novels, and that, to him, the form of drama was much more restrictive of the things he wanted to say.

Drama was a damnable business, he said, the plots were arbitrary, the characters were obvious. In writing a novel one did not have to make these wholesale surrenders. One could be a subtle as life itself.

In retrospect it seems obvious. In plays, character dialogue can only advance the plot; while in novels, the inner lives of characters can advance themes. And, in the best of novels, all four devices are combined into a narrative and thematic whole.

As Maugham does brilliantly in his most famous and most personal work.

Maugham’s first choice of title, a quotation from Isaiah, “Beauty from Ashes,” had already been used, and so he changed it to Of Human Bondage, one of the books in Spinoza’s Ethics. This was the novel he had written to free himself of his obsessions, on the “misery loves company” theory that when private feelings were made public, they ceased to be his. Thirty years later, however, when he was asked in New York to read the first chapter for a recording for the blind, he broke down and could not finish. Publication had not provided that thorough a catharsis.

But it was all there: the loss of his mother, the breakup of his home, the years at the vicarage, the wretchedness of his school years, the stammer transposed into a clubfoot, the happy times in Heidelberg, the year in Paris, and medical school. “It is not an autobiography,” he wrote, “but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate.”

For the first and last time Maugham dropped the mask. Gone was the pose of Edwardian gentleman, of “The Jester,” of epigrams to amuse society women. Here was the painful reality of the cripple, who carried through life a feeling of apartness, friendless and longing for friends, but perversely compounding his alienation by his own aloofness. Here was the true condition of life, not success or invitations to the right homes or scores of admirers, but bondage. Philip Carey is in bondage to his physical defect, to his upbringing, and to the woman who mistreats him. The novel’s theme is his struggle to free himself.

I read Of Human Bondage in high school, and I remember my English teacher’s love of the novel better than I remember the novel itself. So while reading Maugham, while I was on vacation in Gatlinburg, I ventured out to find a tattered copy of the novel in a used book store in Cosby, Tennessee, and immediately put it back on my to-read list.

The Moon and Sixpence

Of course, pending my re-reading of Of Human Bondage, my favorite Maugham work is The Moon and Sixpence, so I was especially interested to see how that work was handled in this biography. Generally speaking, Maugham is often given the backward compliment of being a “superb craftsman,” implying that he is not truly a “great artist,” and The Moon and Sixpence seems to be one of the primary witnesses for the prosecution in that case. In reporting the critical reaction to the novel, the biographer Morgan slips easily between the voices of the reporter and the narrator, telling us what critics thought, but not always putting it in quotation marks.

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham’s view of women was given its fullest airing. They were the enemies of creative life, parasitic and manipulative, sapping the strength of men. In Charles Strickland, who says that “women are very unintelligent,” he found an outlet for his gall. When Gauguin’s wife read the book, however, she said that she did not find a single trait of Strickland’s that had anything in common her with husband. Of course, to have found Maugham’s portrait a good likeness would have been to admit that she had married a scoundrel.

Nor did those who knew it recognize Maugham’s Tahiti. One got no impression from the book that it had been colonized by the French, was the chief of the Society Islands, could be reached by steamship, and had a newspaper and a radio station. A novelist of course is not bound to paint an accurate portrait.

Thanks for throwing that last line in, Morgan. Criticizing The Moon and Sixpence for not accurately portraying Gauguin and Tahiti is a little like criticizing Moby-Dick for not accurately portraying the captain of the whaleship Essex and Nantucket. Accurate portrayals aren’t exactly the point.

The book’s real weakness lay elsewhere: in its failure to live up to the principle stated by the critic Richard Blackmur that “the intelligence must always act as if it were adequate to the problems it aroused.” Maugham presents Strickland as a great painter and a genius but is unable to do more than tell us that this is the case. The only clue to Strickland’s genius is that it is a sudden force that overwhelms him. “I tell you I’ve got to paint,” he says. “I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly; he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” The only way Maugham can show genius at work is by making Strickland boorish, as if greatness were somehow synonymous with bad manners. A more convincing book about a painter was Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, which showed the complicated processes of a gifted painter’s mind. With Gully Jimson, the reader knows that he was in the presence of a great painter. Maugham did not even come close.

Katherine Mansfield cited this flaw in the novel when she reviewed it in The Athenaeum on May 9, 1919: “We must be shown something of the workings of his [Strickland’s] mind; we must have some comment of his upon what he feels, fuller and more exhaustive than his perpetual ‘Go to hell.’ It is simply essential that there should be some quality in him revealed to us that we may love, something that will stop us for ever from crying: ‘If you have to be so odious before you can paint bananas--pray leave them unpainted.’”

This criticism is a little more learned and serious, but it actually misses the same kind of point that the first criticism about accurate portrayals did. The power of The Moon and Sixpence is simply not dependent on whether or not Strickland is a great painter. That’s not the point. In fact, the way I read it, novel is MORE powerful if Strickland is assumed NOT to be a great painter.

Because, ultimately, The Moon and Sixpence is not a novel about a brilliant painter who abandons the conventions and commitments of domestic life to pursue his fevered vision with full force. It is a novel about a popular author who wishes he could abandon the conventions and commitments of his professional life and pursue his own fevered vision with full force.

As the narrator muses during a climactic scene with Strickland:

Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

It’s not about painting. It’s about writing. Not Strickland. Maugham. And, most decidedly, not the Maugham tarred with the brush of Edwardian sensibilities.

And the bitterest tragedy of all is that Maugham, the man or the artist, is no Charles Strickland.

“There is no such thing as inspiration. At least if there is I have not discovered it. There is, instead, dedication and complete absorption in your craft. I am a self-made writer. I started with a poor prose style, and had to fine it down as best I could. You must appreciate right from the start that writing is a profession like Medicine or the Law … I keep the same regular hours today as I did when I was a medical student. I suppose you could say that today, the public are my examiners.”

This taken from a letter Maugham had written: advice to a young and admiring novelist. Charles Strickland does not view his art as a profession; it is a calling. The goal is not competent prose after years of clock-punching practice. The goal is release; release of the amoral spirit of truth and beauty that crouches beneath the surface of every attempt at art.

Maugham's Genius

Maugham’s genius, I think, when he is able to show it, is not in writing prose that allows that amoral spirit to dance, but in writing prose that is able to seamlessly merge theme and plot. It’s a subtle talent, not always recognized, and with plenty of restrictions on form and content. Maugham’s fiction, as he admits in the following passage, does not preach.

Sixty was an age for assessment. As the list of his published works grew longer with each new book, Maugham asked himself where he stood in the English literature of his time. He felt that he was not taken seriously by critics, and it pained him. He saw himself as isolated, excluded from the lists of best novelists and the “Whither literature?” symposiums. In 1925, when Virginia Woolf attacked Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, and listed the significant writers as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, she did not even mention Maugham, so easy was he to overlook.

There was a “Maugham problem,” one that he was all too conscious of. He tried to dismiss it with the explanation that he was a teller of tales: “Though I am not less concerned than another with the disorder of the world, the injustice of social conditions, the confusion of politics, I have not thought the novel was the best medium for uttering my views on these subjects; unlike many of my more distinguished contemporaries I have felt no inclinations to preach or prophesy.”

Maugham’s preaching on these subjects, if it happens at all in his fiction, comes through his use of plot, not polemic, and that, I believe, is infinitely harder for an author to achieve. In his own regard, after all, Maugham had many admirers among his fellow authors.

Over the years his books were reviewed by important writers who found much to praise. As early as 1905 Virginia Woolf liked his Land of the Blessed Virgin, and thirty-two years later she praised The Summing Up. The success of Of Human Bondage was made by Theodore Dreiser’s tribute. Maxwell Anderson praised The Moon and Sixpence, and Rebecca West found several of his stories “admirable.” L. P. Hartley and William Plomer called him a great short-story writer. Victor Sawdon Pritchett said he was “the most readable and accomplished English short-story writer of the serious kind alive.” Graham Greene said he was “a writer of great dedication,” and Elizabeth Bowen said he was a “first-rate professional writer.” Stephen Vincent Benet called Of Human Bondage a masterpiece. Evelyn Waugh said he was “the only living studio-master under whom one can study with profit.” His fan club included Alec Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Frank Swinnerton, Glenway Wescott, Jerome Weidman, S. J. Perelman, S. N. Behrman, James Michener, Christopher Isherwood, and Raymond Chandler. The great Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said Maugham was one of his favorite writers. One unexpected fan--considering the difference in their views on life--was George Orwell, who wrote in an autobiographical note: “The writers I care most about and never grow tired of are Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Samuel Butler, Zola, Flaubert, and among modern writers James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”

Straightforwardly and without frills. Yes, of course, Maugham’s fiction is that. But look beneath the surface. There is something deeper there, isn’t there? Am I the only one who sees it?

Because I’m sorry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone can read a novel like The Moon and Sixpence and not think that the author is preaching. Charles Strickland is an electric current, the elemental force that any artist fears to embrace, but is unable to release once clutched.

Maugham’s least successful works, I think, are the more overtly philosophical ones. As mentioned earlier, I just finished reading The Razor’s Edge not long ago and was less than impressed. The preaching was almost too subtle there, and the numerous characters distracted me on first read from understand which philosophical archetype was really the hero of the tale.

Another curious title in this model, which I have not yet read, seems to be The Narrow Corner.

The Narrow Corner, set in the Dutch East Indies island of Banda Neira (Twin Islands), which Maugham called Kanda Meira, was a philosophical novel disguised as a thriller. The title came from the Roman emperor and stoic Marcus Aurelius: “Short therefore is man’s life, and narrow is the corner wherein he dwells.” Maugham’s stoic was Dr. Saunders, struck from the register for unethical practice and settled in the East, where he smokes opium and observes life with detached benevolence, expounding the author’s view that “life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous; but oddly enough most misfortunes have their compensations, and with certain humour and a good deal of horse-sense one can make a fairly good job of what is after all a matter of very small consequence.”

Again, the preaching there seems much closer to the surface and, at least in the case of my experience with The Razor’s Edge, less connected to the progress and resolution of the plot.

Maugham's Other Problem

But Maugham remained an admired author throughout his long and productive career. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the following anecdote.

To celebrate the occasion [of Maugham’s eightieth birthday], and as a surprise for Maugham, Heinemann commissioned the English writer Jocelyn Brooke to put together a Festschrift. Brooke asked some thirty British and American writers to contribute. Their replies, some evasive, some direct, give an idea of how ungrateful some of Maugham’s writer friends were, and, more generally, how some of his contemporaries felt about him.

Compton Mackenzie, to whose symposium on music Maugham had cheerfully contributed in the thirties, pleaded overcommitment. So did Noel Coward, whose career Maugham had pushed by praising him and writing a preface for the American edition of Bitter Sweet and Other Plays. William Plomer, who had sent Maugham several of his books and received encouraging letters in reply, and who had in a review of the short-story collection Ah King written that Maugham’s stories “are among the best now being written,” said: “I’m not a great fan of his and I don’t know his work well.” Evelyn Waugh, who had been a guest at the Mauresque, replied with a printed card that said: “Mr. Evelyn Waugh greatly regrets that he cannot do what you so kindly suggest.” Rosamond Lehmann, whose novel A Dusty Answer Maugham had admired, and who had been a guest at the Mauresque, where Maugham offered advice about her unhappy love affair with the poet C. Day Lewis, said: “I quite see that you do not want what you call eloges but I should not feel free to write critically about him under these circumstances.” Vita Sackville-West, the wife of Harold Nicolson, a frequent guest at the Mauresque, said: “I don’t think I had better do so, partly because I could not make it sufficiently enthusiastic for a birthday tribute, and partly because I have the reverse of admiration for his personal character. This of course is just between you and me.” Peter Quennell, whom Maugham saw on the Riviera and thought of as a friend, pleaded overcommitment. The oldest friend of all, his Mediterranean neighbor Max Beerbohm, did not reply to Brooke’s request.

And on and on like that for another long paragraph or two. There were so many refusals, Morgan tells us, that eventually the project was scrapped. Even those few who responded positively admitted that they had an extremely difficult time “grinding out” enough words about Maugham the writer to make an adequate essay.

This is not a writer well esteemed by his contemporaries and peers. Morgan calls them ungrateful, but I think it may be more complicated than that. Even if they respected and admired his ability to tell simple and straightforward stories, few, it seemed, wanted to be associated with him. Perhaps this was because, by all published accounts, Somerset Maugham was a miserable human being, with tastes and behaviors that lived on the fringes of polite society.

Maugham did not like or understand Mexico, and he abandoned the idea of a novel set there. He needed the contrast between the transplanted British colonial and an exotic foreign setting. If only Mexico had been a British colony. “Mexico City is not thrilling and I do not think we shall stay here long,” he wrote Knoblock. “My chief object, of course, was to find material for stories, and so far I can see there is not the smallest likelihood of it … it is exasperating to have come so far and feel that one is wasting one’s time.” Mexico City did, however, offer a few pleasures, among them the boys Gerald brought back for his employer. One of them was a thin, large-eyed child who said he was fourteen. He undressed in Maugham’s hotel bedroom, knelt to say his prayers, and crossed himself before getting into bed.

Teenage male prostitutes, it seems, were one of Maugham’s guilty pleasures, and he built up quite a familiarity with some. Once, after introducing one to his twenty-year-old nephew, Robin, Maugham wound up chiding his relative for falling in love with the professional.

“Last night Laurent told me that he loved me,” [said Robin].

“And you believed him,” [said Maugham]. “You poor idiot! Don’t you realize that he says that to every one of his clients? The boy may well be attracted to you, but that’s because you’re lucky enough to have an extremely well-formed body. However, that’s not the reason he lets you fuck him all night. He lets you have him because each time he goes with you, I pay him his standard tariff--which, in fact, is almost the equivalent of three pounds. The boy’s nothing more than an accomplished little prostitute. The fact that he has persuaded you to believe that he’s in love with you has annoyed me quite considerably. I refuse to allow you to make a complete fool of yourself while you’re staying under my roof.” Shaking with anger, Maugham told his nephew that he would never see Laurent again.

I certainly don’t mean to pass any moral judgments on Maugham for his homosexuality, nor even to mock the decisions he made throughout his life to keep the orientation secret from others and from himself. But there is a certain ruthlessness with which Maugham pursued his sexual gratifications, and a certain horror, I think, embedded in his pretext that such ruthlessness was an accurate measure of enlightenment in others.

This conclusion, however, may simply be a symptom of Morgan’s source material, which is frustratingly short on insights into Maugham’s artistic process and long on his social appearances and engagements.

Lord Maughan came to spend a week over his brother’s seventy-sixth birthday. He was eighty-four, and age had not improved his humor. He disapproved of the festivities arranged by his younger brother’s friends and neighbors to celebrate his birthday. Baron von Seidlitz gave the birthday dinner at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. The menu was poached salmon hollandaise, chicken Souvaroff, asparagus, and a pistachio dessert, washed down with Krug 1938 and Hospices de Beaune 1929. Lord Maugham had an attack of gout, which did nothing to make him more agreeable.

This is a frightfully typical paragraph in this book--biography by calculator and scrapbook invitation. Contrast this amount of detail about which food and wine was served at a dinner party to the details we get about some of Maugham’s artistic works.

In April there appeared Up at the Villa, a novel that Maugham had apparently written several years earlier.

Apparently? You’re the biographer, Morgan. What can we hope to learn about this artist if even you didn’t know he was working on a new novel before its publication date?

What Fiction Teaches

And yet, despite the warts this biography revealed about itself and about Maugham the human being, there is still something about his fiction that can’t be denied. On that family vacation in Gatlinburg, my ten-year old niece--as smart and precocious as they come--was talking about her school work at the dinner table one night, and expressed bafflement over the requirements she had already been given to read fiction.

“What am I supposed to learn from a bunch of made-up stories?”

Her bookish uncle couldn’t resist the bait. “There are things you can learn from fiction that you can’t learn from anything else,” I told her.

“Oh, yeah?” she challenged. “Like what?”

“The futility of all human endeavor,” I told her without missing a beat, enjoying the delicious confusion that all children show when jarringly confronted with grown-up nihilism. But the next day, I stumbled across an even better answer to my niece’s question in a Maugham-authored epigram to one of the chapters in Morgan’s biography.

I think there is in the heroic courage with which man confronts the irrationality of the world a beauty greater than the beauty of art.

Well said, Willie. Maybe someday you’ll speak to my niece the same way you speak to me.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. I'm agree with the points that you've shared.

  2. There are different gifted experts which are the pride of our nation and visit site to get more info. Getting ready makes this gifted specialist to push ahead and display their ability.