SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
Somerset Maugham’s novels brought him fame but he was at his best when he kept things short
Somerset Maugham was a brilliantly successful novelist, reputedly the biggest earner since Dickens, and some of his books have entered the cultural subconsciousness: Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and, most renowned of all, Of Human Bondage. But his abilities lent themselves more to the short form of fiction; his novels (like Dickens’s) contain too many longueurs, and he is not adept at devising a structure that supports many tens of thousands of words.
It was, perhaps, that failing that caused some critics (notably Lytton Strachey) to dismiss him as a second-rater, albeit a good one. His vast readership didn’t seem to notice the flaws, which led some critics to assume he was a middlebrow writer for middlebrow people. To be fair, some of his short stories, first collected in a definitive three-volume edition in the early Fifties, when Maugham said he would not be writing any more, are pretty limp. But there are enough that are highly original and superbly observed to make Maugham merit the reputation accorded him by Cyril Connolly, who thought Somerset Maugham the best English short-story writer of the 20th century.
Maugham is a master of the episode. He takes moments that would not lend themselves to a novel and makes them into miniature fables. He does this with the aid of his other great gift: characterisation. He is especially expert at describing types. His characters are instantly comprehensible, either because they are drawn from real life, or have been exploited by other writers with whom Maugham’s readers were already familiar (again, Dickens did this, especially in his earlier works: The Pickwick Papers is pure picaresque). This doesn’t make Maugham a genius; but it does show he understood what drew his readers into a story.
Maugham thought his finest short story was Rain, about an American prostitute who falls foul of a missionary in Samoa. Sadie, the prostitute, is a colourful figure, but no less is Davidson, the fire-and-brimstone Man of God who seeks not just to reform her, but to have her sent back to San Francisco, where she is facing three years in prison. In many of Maugham’s stories, there is either a narrator, whose persona is often little different from the author’s, or a wise third-party observer, who is also Maughamlike in providing a sage, almost omniscient view. In Rain, that part is played by MacPhail, a doctor, who sympathises with the prostitute and censures Davidson for his paradoxically un-Christian approach to this fallen woman.
But then Maugham uses a device that comes in enough of his short stories that it is a cliché: the twist. Just when one thinks Sadie is off to San Francisco, at Davidson’s insistence, to redeem herself in God’s eyes by completing her prison sentence, Davidson cuts his throat: he has succumbed to her charms. It reminds us that nothing can be taken at face value. Maugham did not believe in God, and his treatment of the missionary is what one should expect of a writer who saw religion as a vehicle for cant and self-righteousness.
Maugham claimed his work as a doctor in the Eighties – a calling he abandoned as soon as he achieved success as a writer – had allowed him to observe all sections of society closely enough to write about them almost with intimacy. He was most at ease, though, with the cosmopolitan, moneyed types he met on his travels, and with his own class in England – both of which he presents to perfection in The Alien Corn, about a young man who wants to be a pianist but lacks the talent. There is a twist I shan’t reveal, as the story demands reading; but there is also a strange sub-plot, as the pianist’s rich parents have gone to lengths to disguise their Jewishness, which their son wishes to embrace.
Having read most of Maugham’s stories over the years, one stands out, and that is The Kite, which the narrator says is “an odd story”; and yet it is a story of an ordinary family, one of whose members forms an extraordinary attachment, in the way the English often do to their hobbies. It shows, more than anything else I have read by Maugham, his deep humanity, a quality that his shyness, and his oblique approach, otherwise go to enormous lengths to conceal.
S FOR SUCCESSSomerset Maugham was master of the episode