The works of Somerset Maugham belong to another world; a world dominated by the aftermath and anticipation of two horrific wars, a world where having a title might still matter, a world where there were servants as a matter of course, a world where the rich were idle. Custom and tradition, duty and decadence, the Riviera and the Empire: these are the landmarks that dominate his fictional universe, and have led, in part, to his being somewhat neglected today. In a previous post I called him the literary equivalent of prawn cocktail. But it has also been Somerset Maugham’s lot in the intellectual pecking order to be seen as lightweight. In the 1930s he was the highest paid author in the world, but as ever, popularity came at the cost of serious critical recognition. In his autobiography he declared that he stood ‘in the very first row of the second raters’, a judgement that is as reactionary and simplistic as those that lie at the heart of the misguided interactions between his characters.
Somerset Maugham won literary success initially as a playwright, but it is his novels and short stories for which he is now remembered. His short stories and novellas are often gems of clever plotting whereas his novels seem at first glance to be more languid and digressive. In both instances, however, the motivating force of his writing, and the source of its brilliance, lies in his exquisite characterisation. Somerset Maugham is not a flashy writer; not for him the verbal pyrotechnics of more critically acclaimed authors. Instead his writing style is characterised by a careless elegance, emotional constraint, an admirable transparency and a sharp observer’s eye. Reading his work is like receiving the most engaging letter from an eloquent travelling friend, and he would have made a wonderful blogger. Out of this debonair stance Maugham develops the most evocative portraits of people and places. No one can recount the experience of an early-twentieth century dinner party in Chicago, or the sweltering humidity of a Malayan outpost after the Second World War, or the gaudy brilliance of a smart society lunch on the Riviera like Somerset Maugham can. And growing out of this landscape, like the exotic native species that they are, we find his excessive, flawed, yearning characters, whom he depicts with a gentleman’s compassion and a novelist’s curiosity.
What I love about Somerset Maugham’s characterisation is that he luxuriates in taking time to explore his protagonists, building up a portrait with many layers, each created out of a separate encounter, or a second-hand account of a striking event. One of my favourite novels is The Razor’s Edge, in which a young American, Larry Darrell, is so affected by his experiences in the war (although what happened to him is enigmatically reserved until almost the end of the narrative) that he breaks with the life that custom dictates he should lead and sets off across Europe in search of spiritual enlightenment. Although Darrell is the main protagonist, we as readers rarely accompany him on his spiritual odyssey. Instead we are invited to watch his progress through the eyes of those he leaves behind – the fiancée who loved him and who must struggle to keep true to her own cultural beliefs, and her uncle, one of Maugham’s classic expatriate snobs whose generosity of spirit is matched only by the size of his character defects. It’s a deceptively simple story in which Maugham brings together with incomparable ease a critique and a sympathetic portrayal of both the overwhelming need to fulfil oneself and the equally overwhelming need to abide by society’s strict conventions. Interwoven through the narrative is a clash of cultures, both East against West, and the traditional against the modern. Maugham lived through a time of extreme social change and he documents it with a historian’s accuracy, detailing his character’s struggle to make sense of a new world, whilst clinging resolutely to what they know of the old. It would be all too easy to reduce his protagonists to caricatures of themselves, but I think his craft lies in producing beautifully fleshed out, compassionately drawn, vulnerable, imperfect human beings.
I often think Maugham’s gift lies in making us like people whom ordinarily we would cross the road to avoid, but it could probably be better described as a talent for appreciating the way that a life can be a work of art. For this reason, perhaps, Maugham was drawn to depicting artists in two of his most famous works: Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence. Ever alive to the brute force of the orthodox, Maugham’s narrators are openly fascinated by men (Thomas Hardy and Paul Gauguin) who do not simply resist convention but have never even noticed it, so intense is their concentration on the inner world. But in both these cases, the narratives show how all that is pitifully and yet undeniably human in life – love, the desire for recognition, suffering, comfort, pity, charity, vanity, must pit itself against the artist in the man and demand his attention, one way or another. Ultimately I suppose I love Somerset Maugham’s work because, like him, I find myself hugely curious about how people tick, and curious too as to how everyone conducts the tricky negotiations necessary to find space for their foibles and eccentricities within the strictly regulated business of living. Somerset Maugham’s stories seem to say there is a great art to this, which we all practice every day, and the art in his work is to manage to depict this struggle with such graceful and sympathetic clarity.