Som­er­set Maugham’s nov­els brought him fame but he was at his best when he kept things short

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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