Thursday, November 5, 2009

Somerset Maugham and a warning that first impression might well not be all the are cracked up to be

Radio 4’s Book Of The Week this week is The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. I’ve so far only read a few of Maugham’s short stories, although a few months ago I bought and briefly started The Painted Veil, mainly, I think, because it had just been made into a film, and although I didn’t at the time carry on with it, I shall finish it. I have seen none of his plays, and I don’t think they are even performed anymore. I have seen one of the films based on his short story The Letter, which I enjoyed immensely. But did not know a lot of Maugham, except - and this knowledge was based purely on the scraps of hearsay which come our way - that he was ‘queer’ and ‘not very nice’ and that he died an embittered man. Then there are the pictures of him as an old man, his lined face apparently conveying a distain for more or less everything.
I also knew that he held a somewhat odd position in the literary world in that, born in the 19th century and living to a ripe old age, he straddled two worlds. In his work he also held a somewhat odd position. He said of himself that he was in the first rank of second-raters, which I think is Maugham being rather harsh on himself. He became very wealthy, but as far as I can see deservedly so. He was immensely disciplined, and according to Hastings’ biography, when he had finally settled into the Villa Mauresque in (on?) Cap Ferrat, every day - including Sundays and birthdays - he rose, had breakfast and then wrote from eight until noon. He also wrote everything in longhand and given his rather large body of work, I find that sheer professionalism wholly admirable. Overall, I am now rather puzzled by the somewhat disparaging impression I have of Maugham, one which I more or less adopted wholesale merely because it was the one everyone seems to have had. I think the world, or rather the British world, decided that despite his talent, output, work and wealth, Maugham was, at heart, a wrong ’un for a few essentially trivial reasons. First, however broadminded we Brits like to think we are, we get rather sniffy when someone of Maugham’s fame and stature decides he would prefer to settle abroad. Abroad, for Brits is for visiting and sneering at. (Anyone who has visited one of the very many Mediterranean resorts popular with Brits and sees how whole communities have been transformed into tacky outposts of little Britain will know that the Brits are only prepared to accept ‘abroad’ on their own terms. Cala Llonga was a case in point.) But Maugham, who loved travelling and went all over the world, decided he wanted to make his home in the South of France. Then there was the fact the Maugham was ‘queer’. In recent years, Britain has finally grown up on the matter of homosexuality and now longer persecutes those of its kind who are born homosexual. In fact, if anything we have swung to the opposite extreme and are now expected to celebrate gayness in all its myriad manifestations. But that acceptance - describing it as a ‘tolerance’ of homosexuality, as some still do, is horribly patronising, although the attitude conveyed by the use of the word ‘tolerance’ still prevails - is a very recent development, and although every adult knew of ‘queer’ friends, acquaintances and relatives, they were, in the great and dishonorable tradition of British hypocrisy regarded as outcasts. So the impression I inherited was that Maugham, not to put too fine a point on it, was something of a monster.
One thing he did was, it has to be said, rather vindictive: his daughter Liza sued him after he sold a collection of paintings, some of which were meant to be passed on to her when he died. She won her suit and an angry Maugham then declared publicly that he was not her biological father and disinherited her. It might well be true that he was not her father as her mother, Syrie Wellcome, the former wife of the chap who founded the pharmaceutical firm, put it about rather a lot, but if he wasn’t he had never mentioned it before. He had eventually married Syrie after she became pregnant with Liza, and if he was not the father, or even suspected he was not the father, he would hardly have done that. His angry response was not nice, but on the other hand if those of us who had acted in ways in similarly bad ways in the course of our lives were obliged to leave the room, the room would soon be empty.
I started listening to Radio 4’s readings from Hastings’ biography on Monday, and managed to capture all so far. And the picture of Maugham that emerged is of a far more pleasant character. He had an unhappy childhood and developed a stammer. Once he had qualified as a doctor, he was said to have had rather a gentle bedside manner and took and interest in all his patients, especially the dirt-poor ones from Lambeth. When war broke out he was a highly celebrated and wealthy popular playwright whose worked was being staged on both sides of the Atlantic, yet he voluntarily served with the ambulance brigade, putting his medical training to good use. (He has ceased working as a doctor years earlier. Later, after that service was curtailed by ill-health, and after he had recuperated, he again served his country, this time working for the secret service in Geneva and later in Russia. He was said to be charming company, was very good-looking and was socially popular. He is said by Hastings to have been very good with children. His candid self-appraisal as a first-rate second-rater speaks of a modesty and honesty which I like to feel is wholly in keeping with his disciplined professionalism. He was no glutton, but kept himself trim by swimming, playing tennis, walking and playing golf. He seems rather to have been put upon by the two major lovers he had, Gerald Haxton and Alan Searle, but he bore it stoically.
Now, I know that all this doesn’t necessarily add up to a row of beans as far as a man’s moral worth is concerned, but it is all rather at odds with the conventional picture I somehow acquired of Maugham the Monster and what Hastings writes in something of a revelation. The picture I now get of Maugham is of a man I should liked to have met and whose company I think I might have enjoyed and respected. If I didn’t have enough books already which are waiting to be read, not least Maugham’s own The Painted Veil, I would buy Hastings’ biography. She wrote a very good one of Evelyn Waugh.

1 comment:

  1. I think I read a review of Maugham’s most recent biography. If nothing else, it was intolerant of the number of rent boys bought in for his parties in later years – probably Alan Searl’s fault. It’s possible that the British ex-pat culture held enormous sway when they came home to retire. The ex-pats would have been seriously upset by the 1920’s life-styles exposed in his short stories – especially as they would have easily identified the characters and their real life counterparts.

    As a more recent analogy, why do you think there were hardly any books written about Colditz, except for Pat Reid’s? As one ex-Colditz PoW said to me, “Life was pretty bloody – not the sort of thing you talk about. Pat Reid went absolutely beyond the pale when he wrote that book about us. He was not a gentleman.”

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