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
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-