Have any of you cyberspace wanderers read Somerset Maugham? If so, I’d love to know your opinion of his work. Maugham is a writer who, to me, is full of contradictions. Incredibly popular in the first half of the 20th century — his biographer states that during his lifetime Maugham was the most famous writer in the world — today he is little read and many of his novels are now out of print. Despite his enormous successes (his work was frequently adapted for TV and movies, he once had four London theater productions running at once and every novel seemed to be a best seller), Maugham himself was quite modest about his talents. The literary critics of his day mostly shared Maugham’s opinion on this point; one flatly described his output as “second rate” and without exception the literary establishment preferred the more experimental works of Maugham’s contemporaries such as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Wolf.
And yet ….. could so many readers be that wrong? Wolf and Conrad are fabulous artists, truly among the greats writing in English but ….. don’t you think there is (or should be) a place in the pantheon for someone with a knack for telling an interesting story really, really well, particularly if it has a well done twist or an exotic setting, as Maugham’s novels frequently do? Nor can Maugham’s talents be totally disregarded; his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, regularly pops up on any list of the 20th century’s greatest novels. Even by my late teens and early twenties, however, Maugham’s literary star was fading fairly rapidly. Nevertheless his novels were still easily available and I, being, as usual a bit behind the curve went through quite a Maugham phase. I loved his short stories, went through several of the novels in rapid succession and did multiple re-reads of Of Human Bondage, which I regarded as one of the most moving and profound novels that had come my way (remember, I was very young and quite uncritical). And then — well, I just drifted away to newer, trendier writers, all the while retaining fond memories of Maugham’s works. A few years ago I noticed that at least some of the novels were being reprinted, with these really neat covers (see the beginning of my post!) and I decided I owed it to myself to re-stock my book stash with these neat new editions of my old favorite’s works. And then — the books just sat there, catching dust, while I somehow never quite got around to reading them. When I decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, well, a Maugham novel was a natural choice, wasn’t it? As I explained in a previous post, participating in the Challenge just seemed a perfect time to see if the old Maugham magic still worked for me.
For my literary experiment, I selected Cakes and Ale, which I had never read, rather than Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Age, or The Moon and Sixpence, which I had. I wanted to read something new and that was regarded as one of Maugham’s better novels. The story revolves around issues associated with posthumous fame, literary reputation and how survivors shape (and frequently distort) the narrative of their loved ones’ lives. The novel opens with the death of Edward Driffield, one of the last of the great Victorian novelists. Driffield’s very proper widow (and second wife) has devoted herself to polishing the rough edges off her working class husband and to cultivating a carefully edited version of a great man of letters. Now that Driffield is dead, she has no intention of relinquishing her efforts and has hired a sycophantic novelist acquaintance to write a carefully crafted version of the great man’s life. A prime area for revision, in her opinion, concerns Driffield’s early life with Rosie, the beautiful, free spirited barmaid who was his first wife and the inspiration of his greatest novels.
Maugham gives you the story in flashbacks through the recollections of his narrator, who as a young boy knew Driffield as a penniless and unrespected writer, with a habit of skipping out on his rent. The narrator is also a great admirer (and eventual lover, among many) of the warm-hearted, shrewd and captivating Rosie; when she absconds to New York with her chosen favorite among her pack of admirers the narrator is almost as heart-broken as Driffield himself. Needless to say, the second Mrs. Driffield has no intention of publicizing these events and will go to considerable trouble to suppress them from her edited version of the great man’s life.
So, the great question — after so many years away from Maugham’s work, did the magic hold? Well, yes and no. Maugham is quite a story-teller and knows how to throw the reader a curve ball that, while consistent with the story, adds a bit of interest and excitement. In what is perhaps a disturbing example of my own arrested development, I also found that I enjoyed Maugham’s tone of detached, slightly ironic cynicism almost as much now as did when I was much, much younger. And, although Maugham doesn’t offer any penetrating psychological insights into his characters, making them a tad two-dimensional, Rosie is a great creation — funny, shrewd and full of life. Maugham’s musings on literary fame (which work would survive time, which wouldn’t) made the novel drag a bit at times; also, Maugham’s contemporaries no doubt enjoyed his thinly veiled portrayals of some of his fellow novelists much more than I did (Driffield, for example, is apparently based loosely on Thomas Hardy; Driffield’s sycophantic biographer on Horace Walpole, the details of whose career I had to gleam from Wiki). Maugham’s treatment of an issue that interests me greatly — the biographer’s art of emphasizing certain aspects of his subject’s life, while downplaying others, and the factors dictating his/her choices — is, shall I say, pretty superficial (for a far more perceptive fictional treatment of these issues, read Penelope Lively’s fantastic novel, According to Mark). Nevertheless, C&A was a quick, fun read that offered a fair amount of entertainment for a minimal amount of effort. Will I continue my trip down the somewhat overgrown, semi-deserted Maugham highway? Yes, but the journey isn’t a high priority right now.
Finally a brief word or two about Maugham’s life, which in many respects is as interesting and exotic as the best of his novels. He had a disastrous and unloving childhood, worked in intelligence during WWII, traveled extensively (and exotically), lived lavishly and juggled a manipulative and neurotic wife with several male lovers. He was, in short, a biographer’s dream and Selina Hastings does his life justice. If you’re interested and don’t have time for her biography, I’d recommend the New Yorker’s very good discussion of Maugham’s life and literary reputation.
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