PRINCE OF STO­RY­TELLERS

W. Som­er­set Maugham, who died 50 years ago, has suf­fered a stag­ger­ing de­cline in lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion. That is a mis­take, ar­gues Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When I was nine or 10 years old, be­fore I had any taste for adult books, my mother used to tell me the plot­lines of W. Som­er­set Maugham sto­ries. Sto­ries about kites, about women who had borne chil­dren to enemy sol­diers, sto­ries full of the pang and drama and fatal­ity of a world that was only a fa­ble to me, like pol­i­tics and war. And Maugham’s books, well some of them, sat on my par­ents’ book­shelf along with the Shake­speare and the Agatha Christies and my mother’s copy of Thack­eray’s Van­ity Fair.

Maugham did not die un­til 1965, 50 years ago — in fact the an­niver­sary was De­cem­ber 16, last Wed­nes­day — but who would have thought his star would fall the way it did?

The man who died af­ter the hey­day of Ten­nessee Wil­liams and Arthur Miller, a decade or more af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of The Catcher in the Rye and Lucky Jim, was once thought of as one of the clas­sic writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury.

Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, no less, de­clared him one of his favourite writ­ers (al­most as if he found in Maugham the pri­mal im­pulse to­wards nar­ra­tive that his mas­ter, Jorge Luis Borges, had found in GK Ch­ester­ton and Robert Louis Steven­son). Ge­orge Or­well said Maugham was “the mod­ern writer who in­flu­enced me most”. And Cyril Con­nolly, the great­est shirt­sleeves English critic and lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist of his gen­er­a­tion, said of The Ra­zor’s Edge, pub­lished in 1944, 50 odd years af­ter Maugham started, “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.”

The Ra­zor’s Edge: that’s the one about the good-look­ing young air­man who has been through World War I and comes out with a look of in­no­cence as well as a yearn­ing to find wis­dom. There’s the girl who wants to mother him, the old cul­ti­vated Euro­pean-style Amer­i­can who sets things in mo­tion and the nov­el­ist fig­ure (he’s even called Maugham at one point) who meets th­ese up­per-class Yan­kees and who fore­shad­ows this tale of pos­si­ble en­light­en­ment with a quotation from the Upan­ishads about sal­va­tion be­ing hard, like ne­go­ti­at­ing the edge of a ra­zor. The novel was filmed in 1946 with Ty­rone Power and Anne Bax­ter. Lis­ten to the author­ity of the open­ing pages: I have never be­gun a novel with more mis­giv­ing. If I call it a novel, it is only be­cause I don’t know what else to call it. I have lit­tle story to tell and I end nei­ther with a death nor a mar­riage. Death ends all things and so is the com­pre­hen­sive con­clu­sion of a story but mar­riage fin­ishes it very prop­erly too and the so­phis­ti­cated are ill-ad­vised to sneer at what is by con­ven­tion termed a happy end­ing. It is a sound in­stinct of the com­mon peo­ple which per­suades them that with this all that needs to be said is said.

This is noth­ing if not art­ful, but we have come far from the “sound in­stinct of the com­mon peo­ple” and you have the feel­ing that if Maugham is still read it’s be­cause peo­ple stum­ble on him in their par­ents’ book­shelves or lis­ten to the rec­ol­lected plea­sures of old timers.

Yet Of Hu­man Bondage, pub­lished 100 years ago, the one about the young doc­tor and the street girl, filmed in 1934 with Les­lie Howard and Bette Davis, came in at No 66 when the Mod­ern Li­brary of Amer­ica was tal­ly­ing the great nov­els of the 20th cen­tury. This is the book Maugham says he was happy to ac­cept the con­sen­sus on, that it was his finest work, though his own spe­cial af­fec­tion was for (1930).

Of Hu­man Bondage fic­tion­alises ma­te­rial close to Maugham’s ex­pe­ri­ence. He stud­ied medicine and, if he did not have a club foot like his pro­tag­o­nist Philip Carey, he did have a stam­mer, which was a sore trial to him. Of Hu­man Bondage is Maugham’s bil­dungsro­man and it is the book in which he demon­strated — in a way that was much more self-ev­i­dent to the Or­wells or Con­nollys than it is to peo­ple to­day — that English fic­tion could be writ­ten with the ap­par­ent con­ver­sa­tional ease, the el­e­gant, all­but-invisible plain style that the French had per­fected in the late 19th cen­tury. It’s also a book in which Maugham gives form to the dif­fer­ent hap­pen­stances of a par­tic­u­lar life with an ef­fect of ef­fort­less nat­u­ral­ism.

Maugham had an easy route into the tra­di­tion of that style — apart from his con­sid­er­able tal­ent — be­cause he spent his early child­hood in Paris and was bilin­gual so he avoided a lot of the tra­di­tional cir­cum­lo­cu­tory sludge of the Ed­war­dian and early 20th-cen­tury English novel. But Gra­ham Greene at the height of his pow­ers, with his con­sum­mate ease and ap­par­ent sim­plic­ity, would prob­a­bly not have writ­ten as he did with­out Maugham.

Cakes and Ale

It seems a bit un­fair that the au­thor of a novel such as The Moon and Six­pence (1919) should (at least to some ex­tent) have fallen out of hu­man ken. This is Maugham’s painter novel, the one loosely based on the life of Paul Gau­gin. It is a book that tends to have an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ef­fect on read­ers who see in it the way in which art can shine through the tra­vails and sor­didi­ties and be­tray­als of or­di­nary life.

It’s an­other book where a nar­ra­tor watches the artist from afar — sees his moral lim­i­ta­tions, his inar­tic­u­late­ness and how he ex­hibits the down­side of a dull mid­dle-class ve­neer, which in one as­pect the book is a great kick against.

The Moon and Six­pence is a novel that pits the life of the artist against the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of ev­ery­day life in a way that is ro­man­tic and re­al­is­tic. It comes across as hav­ing a cred­i­ble ex­oti­cism be­cause of Maugham’s ca­pac­ity to trans­fig­ure the ghast­li­ness of suf­fer­ing life while also giv­ing the trans­for­ma­tions of art a con­text that qual­i­fies them but also presents them with an ef­fort­less sense of drama and with a great nar­ra­tive curve of un­pre­dictabil­ity.

That’s part of Maugham’s deep charm, which is very eas­ily dis­missed by a world that has learned his lessons and takes them too much for granted: he can present dra­matic ac­tion in fic­tional form with a spec­tac­u­lar qual­ity that nev­er­the­less com­pels con­sent even when it has melo­dra­matic el­e­ments.

This makes him, in a way that can seem more mun­dane than he is, a kind of Shake­speare of the ev­ery­day. He is a supreme en­ter­tainer in nar­ra­tive form, a nat­u­ral prince among sto­ry­tellers who has a com­pelling sense of the glo­ries of sto­ry­telling that is at the same time cir­cum­scribed and dis­ci­plined by an ef­fect of real­ism.

As a style this was vastly in­flu­en­tial on the mid-20th-cen­tury novel, on the ex­pert com­mand of con­tour we take for granted in the Ir­win Shaws of yes­ter­year con­sumed by our par­ents like box set tele­vi­sion.

It’s a qual­ity that’s writ­ten all over one of the most at­trac­tive of Maugham’s nov­els and his favourite Cakes and Ale. If The Moon and Six­pence is Maugham’s Gau­guin book, Cakes and Ale is a story that de­rives an as­pect of its sto­ry­line from the life of Thomas Hardy.

A lit­er­ary barfly is com­mis­sioned to write a bi­og­ra­phy of a great, humbly born nov­el­ist of the late Vic­to­rian pe­riod by the writer’s some­what glacial widow. He jumps at the chance and en­lists the aid of the nar­ra­tor (that Ashen­den fig­ure who re­curs through­out Maugham as an al­ter ego of the nov­el­ist as a nar­ra­tor and also, at times, a spy). This nar­ra­tive in­tel­li­gence knows all about the great nov­el­ist and the par­tic­u­lar in­ti­ma­cies that feed his art.

Part of the elab­o­rate and skilful drama of Cakes and Ale is the cat and mouse game be­tween the nar­ra­tor of the novel and the wouldbe nar­ra­tor of the great nov­el­ist’s life. And at the cen­tre of the story the Maugham fig­ure knows is the saga of Rosie Driffield, the first wife, the woman of warmth and hu­man com­forts who min­is­tered to the great man as no one else could. This is the story that is re­vealed and con-

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.