In 1897, at the ripe young age of 23, W. Somerset Maugham, published his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth, which became an instant best seller. Though trained in medicine, Maugham abandoned the idea of being a doctor and embraced writing for the rest of his life. By 1916, in the midst of the Great War, he had published ten novels and ten plays and had become famous throughout the world. And yet some of his best work still lay ahead.
He had something of a rocky childhood. His parents died when he was young and his upbringing was entrusted to an uncle who could be rather cold and aloof. As a consequence, Maugham developed both an inferiority complex and a stammer that would plague him to his last days. He married once, to Syrie Wellcome, and had one daughter, but embraced homosexuality from an early age.Over the years he had a number of affairs and two long-term lovers. Maugham became one of the highest paid authors in the world and became such a wealthy man from his novels, short stories, plays, and movie rights, that he bought a nine-acre villa in the south of France and passed the latter part of his life entertaining the rich and famous. He was fond of saying that he and Winston Churchill descended into senility together.
He was caricatured often.
Today Maugham is best known for his novel Of Human Bondage, a decidedly autobiographical work published in 1915. The book is long and complicated, centered on the life of Philip Carey, a medical doctor who has a club foot. He struggles with low self-esteem, falls in love with a waitress who does not reciprocate his feelings, and tries to find some equilibrium in a world that swirls uncontrollably around him. The book was made into three films, of which the last, starring Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak at the peak of their popularity, is probably best known and most often viewed today. It’s not a bad film but, interestingly enough, Harvey and Novak were not the first choices for the parts, and their careers went into decline after its conclusion.
My favorite Maugham novel is The Moon and Sixpence, a shorter and more accessible story based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. Maugham draws two very distinct characters in this book: Charles Strickland, the gifted but highly temperamental artist who produces great works of art but will stab you in the back without hesitation, and Dirk Stroeve, a commercially successful, third-rate painter who worships Strickland and his extraordinary talent. The last part of the novel, when the main character has moved to Tahiti (as did Paul Gauguin in real life), is particularly memorable, painted by Maugham in vivid literary brush strokes.
Maugham’s personal favorite of his novels was Cakes and Ale, a difficult book to summarize. The main character was based on fellow writer Hugh Walpole, although Maugham strenuously denied it at the time. Later he admitted, “Hugh Walpole then was the most prominent member of that body of writers who attempted by seizing every opportunity to keep in the public eye, by getting on familiar terms with critics so that their books may be favorably reviewed, by currying favor wherever it can serve them, to attain a success which their merit scarcely deserves. They attempt by push and pull to make up for their lack of talent.”
Maugham was a cynical man, and much of it is on display in this novel.
As a writer, Maugham’s greatest strength, however, may be the short story. In the latter half of his life he took extended trips abroad, visiting vast reaches of the world to gather material for his works. Consequently, there is an exotic flavor to many of his short stories that is often missing in his novels. Best known are “Red,” Rain,” and “The Sanatorium.” A particular favorite of mine is “The Lotus Eater,” set in Capri, where a tourist meets a British ex-branch manager of a bank who has taken early retirement and is living on that income. The man has enough money to live until the age of sixty, and assumes he will be dead by that time. If not, well, “don’t you think after twenty-five years of perfect happiness one ought to be satisfied to call it a day?” “Perhaps,” the narrator replies, all the while wondering how this scenario will play out. He returns thirteen years later to ascertain what happened, and is confronted with grim results.
An excellent story to check out.
During his lifetime Maugham was considered a second rate intellectual and writer by the literatti. Contemporary writers like H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry James tended to look down their noses at him. The first two enjoyed widespread popularity with their novels and made excellent money, while the third struggled. However, James’s novels are still being read today and his books made into movies; he is held in high esteem by the intelligentsia for his literary realism. I have always found his books to be stultifyingly boring, actually, and generally about “people of quality” who live trivial lives. But that’s just me.
James wandered through the world staying in homes of upper society people and one wonders if he knew or understood anything about the people of lower rank—or if he cared. Maugham, on the other hand, delivers stories that have intricate plots in exotic locations, with vivid, memorable characters. It would be a shame to see his work—particularly his short stories—fall by the wayside.
Maugham was a highly complex man and reading about him is about as interesting as reading his works. An excellent biography is Maugham by Ted Morgan, which was published in 1980. Even though Maugham loved to delve into the seamier side of people, he did not like his own peccadilloes to be put on display. Writers are rarely more interesting than their works, but in this case I would recommend that the reader partake in both.