Thursday, January 25, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Somerset Maugham, Cosmopolitan and Popular Man of Letters, Born)

January 25, 1874—W. Somerset Maugham, who went from the world’s most popular author in his lifetime to critical neglect afterward, only to experience a more recent partial reputational rebound, was born in the British Embassy in Paris—a foreshadowing of the globe trotting that would take him outside the British Isles for much of his life.

Maugham’s birth occurred in France because his lawyer father worked in the embassy at the time. Later in life, he traveled far from his homeland to see the world, to distance himself from obligations and ties he preferred not to deal with, and to accommodate the legal situation of his longtime lover.

The cosmopolitanism that the author came to first virtually by inheritance, then by preference, turned out to be a boon to his career as well as a personal joy.

The exotic places and unusual people he encountered along the way often showed up, in comparatively disguised form, in the 32 plays, 19 novels, nine volumes of short stories, and assorted essays, travel pieces, and memoirs he turned out in his prolific, 65-year writing career.

In a post from five years ago, I discussed one such novel that reflected his wanderlust and misogyny: The Moon and Sixpence (1919), about an artist who sought in the South Seas creative and sexual freedom away from conventional middle-class mores.

Though Maugham modeled his main character on French painter Paul Gaugain, his protagonist’s dramatic change in life represented a form of wish fulfillment for the novelist, who, after only two years of marriage, wanted no more of his wife Syrie, whom he blamed for trapping him in a loveless marriage.

Brisk sales, a steady stream of residual income from Hollywood adaptations of his works, and personal industry and thrift enabled Maugham to travel frequently to the Far East. They also provided the means for him to live on the French Riviera with personal secretary and lover Gerald Haxton, who had been deported from England on a morals charge.

In addition to cosmopolitanism, two other aspects of Maugham’s background aided him in his writing career: speech and secrets.

Growing up, Maugham would have regarded speaking as a handicap to career advancement or happiness. A severe stutter left him unable to follow his father into the practice of law and increased his social anxiety.

But the resulting preference for listening rather than talking heightened an ear for dialogue that he capitalized on in writing the plays that made his reputation, and his knowledge of three languages—English, French, and German—widened the circle of people to whom he conversed.

Those people held secrets and, by early professional training as a doctor, none of this escaped Maugham’s close observations.

Indeed, because of his same-sex attraction, the writer understood how people sought to conceal these personal blemishes at all costs, through all manner of disguises and identities.

It was great training for his intelligence activities on behalf of Britain in WWI, as well as the spy story collection he wrote inspired by his service, Ashenden (1928), which pioneered the realistic treatment of espionage work that would later be perfected by Graham Greene and John le Carre.

Unable to eye others without illusions, Maugham was similarly unsparing towards himself. Though fascinated by different forms of spirituality (an interest that came to fruition in his 1944 novel The Razor's Edge), he found no ultimate purpose or meaning in life.

Moreover, in his 1938 quasi-memoir, The Summing Up, he seems to have absorbed the increased critical complaint that he was at heart a middlebrow writer who required little intellectual effort from readers, perhaps because of his own limited skills:

“I have had small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories. I have been incapable of those great, sustained flights that carry the author on broad pinions into a celestial sphere. My fancy, never very strong, has been hampered by my sense of probability. I have painted easel pictures, not frescoes.”

Nevertheless, if Maugham rarely indulged in the metaphors and literary allusions so often prized by academics, he influenced writers as diverse as George Orwell, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul in what Orwell called “his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”

Moreover, especially in short stories such as “The Outstation,” “In a Strange Land,” “The Letter,” and “Mackintosh,” he depicted an environment that has increasingly intrigued readers since the success of TV’s “The Jewel in the Crown”: Britons at the far edges of their country’s empire, yielding, despite the exotic environment around them, to boredom, drink, lust, and the temptations of power.

No comments: