Friday, April 17, 2015

If there were ever a good argument for not living too long, it might well be William Somerset Maugham

My reading for the next few months seems to be settled. Amazon’s Buy With 1-Click facility is lethal: a brief second’s enthusiasm for a book or a CD can ensure that within days you have books and CDs coming out of your arse, though I am pleased to say I haven’t yet regretted a single purchase, though I do have quite a few books still to be read.

The most recent arrivals from Amazon are four volumes of Somerset Maugham short stories, the biography of the man by Selina Hastings and, most recently - obviously courtesy of Buy With 1-Click one of his novel’s, The Magician. I had previously bought The Painted Veil after watching the film with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, but I never finished it.

At the time I thought the writing rather flat and that although Maugham undoubtedly had a gift for dialogue - a greater gift than many writers I’ve so far read - other facets of his novel writing weren’t on par and seemed merely to serve the purpose of getting the story and the reader from one piece of
dialogue to another. Perhaps he was a better short story writer than novelist. So far I’ve read only six or seven of his many stories, and it does seem to me that his style is more suited to short fiction than novels (although The Painted Veil is so far the only one of his novels I’ve attempted).

Earlier today, I read on someone’s else blog his prose style described as ‘simplistic’ (although whether the writer in fact meant merely ‘simple’ or indeed wanted to call it ‘simplistic’ I don’t know, as all too often people do upgrade ‘simple’ to ‘simplistic’, obviously oblivious to the fact that they mean rather different things). His style most certainly straightforward, too straightforward for many these days when we are said to now to have become so accustomed to ‘modern’ writing and ‘experimentation’ that and ordinary, unadorned, straightforward style is regarded as a little second-rate. Perhaps.

But even though the style is in no way astounding, it is effective, and it is, perhaps, because that style is so unassuming and doesn’t draw attention to itself that his observations and depiction of character are so telling. And they do contain some real gems, of which, in my view, this is one. It is from one of his Malay stories, The Back Of Beyond:

Oh, my dear boy, one mustn’t expect gratitude. It’s a thing that no one has a right to. After all, you do good because it gives you pleasure. It’s the purest form of happiness there is. To expect thanks for it is really asking too much. If you get it, well, it’s like a bonus on shares on which you have already received a dividend; it’s grand, but you mustn’t look upon it as your due.’

I haven’t yet started the Selina Hastings biography yet, but I did hear an adaptation of it for Radio 4’s Book Of The Week, and it mentioned a certain irony about Maugham. Oddly, and because he was a big name in the early to middle part of the 20th century but went on to live well into late 80s, he was something of a curio in his latter years, apparently a wizened, unpleasant old man living in the South of France.(I have previously blogged about him here and here.)

He was nicknamed The Lizard, because many thought he looked like one in his dotage, and his vast body of work, though still respected and bought, was regarded as a tad old hat and from an earlier
age by more ‘modern’ writers and the literary parasites who make their living commenting on and deciding these things.

He, who once regarded himself as three-quarters heterosexual and a quarter ‘queer’ - his description - but later revised that and said it was the other way around - had also gained an unenviable reputation as being a louche old lecher in whose company no good-looking young man was safe (though many, admittedly, didn’t want to be safe and were quite happy to trade sexual favours for a place at the great, and rich’ man’s table in the South of France).

All in all he doesn’t sound to pleasant. And yet, according to Hastings, he could be extraordinarily kind and generous. Are both - being a gay old lecher and being kind - mutually exclusive, you might now be asking. Well, of course, not. My point is that being regarded as rather passé in the last two decades of his life - and quite possibly rather gaga - and having been encouraged by his unscrupulous lover, one Alan Searle, to disinherit his daughter and make him, Searle, his sole heir, he did not, as we say, have a very good press at all. But that, it would seem, is a shame in that his undoubted good qualities were and are simply overlooked.

I am here merely repeating what I remember of the radio version of Hastings’ biography (and which I described here in an earlier entry), and I look forward to reading the book proper. But it does seem to me that there was a good deal more to Maugham than we now seem to accept, especially if the above quotation is anything to go by. Because it does strike very much as Maugham dropping the writer’s pose and speaking from his heart.

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