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The Maugham Enigma by Klaus W. Jonas

The Maugham Enigma

by Klaus W. Jonas

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The Maugham Enigma

Edited by Klaus W. Jonas

The Citadel Press, Hardback, 1954.

8vo. 217 pp.

First published, 1954.


Biographical Sketch

Maugham as I Know Him - Karl G. Pfeiffer [1945]
Mr. Maugham on the Essentials of Writing - Robert Van Gelder [1940]
How to Write - By Maugham - Harry Gilroy [1949]
The Philosopher as Man of Letters - Irwin Edman [1951]

The Exoticism of Somerset Maugham - Leslie A. Marchand [1933]
An Appreciation - Theodore Spencer [1940]
Theme and Variations - Woodburn O. Ross [1947]

Book Reviews - (A) The Dramatist
A Playwright Who Stumbled into Fame - Walter Pritchard Eaton [1908]
Somerset Maugham Himself - Ludwig Lewinsohn [1922]
Our Betters - Richard A. Cordell [1937]
The Constant Wife - Richard A. Cordell [1937]

Book Reviews - (B) The Novelist
As a Realist Sees It - Theodore Dreiser [1915]**
Of Human Bondage, With a Digression on the Art of Fiction - W. Somerset Maugham [1946]
In Vishnu-Land What Avitar? - Maxwell Anderson [1919]**
The Realism of Somerset Maugham - Paul Dottin [1928]
Thomas Hardy Veiled - Mark van Doren [1931]
The Narrow Corner - Richard A. Cordell [1937]
The Technician - Evelyn Waugh [1939]**
Maugham and the Two Myths - David Paul [1946]
Catalina - Orville Prescott [1948]**

Book Reviews - (C) Teller of Tales
Somerset Maugham's Short Stories - Richard A. Cordell [1937]
The Trembling of a Leaf - Richard A. Cordell [1937]
An Author in Evening Dress - Gerald Sykes [1930]
Angry Author's Complaint - Malcolm Cowley [1934]
The Mixture as Before - Victor Pritchett [1940]**

Book Reviews - (D) The Essayist and Author of Travel Books
Maugham's Chinese Sketches - Louise Field [1923]**
Spanish Gold - Graham Greene [1935]**
The Gentleman in the Parlour - Richard A. Cordell [1937]
The Maugham Enigma - Malcolm Cowley [1938]**
An Epicurean on Liberty - Joseph Krutch [1941]
Mr. Maugham's Workshop - Charles Morgan [1950]**



*In square brackets: year of first publication, usually in a magazine. Mr Edman's and Mr Maugham's pieces are the only exceptions; the former was given as an address at the dinner of The National Institute of Arts and Letters at the Knickerbocker Club on October 17, 1950; the latter was Maugham's address on the occasion of his presenting the manuscript of Of Human Bondage to the Library of the Congress.

** Reprinted in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, eds. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, 1987.


If the dust jacket is to be believed, this volume was supposed to be a kind of present for Somerset Maugham's 80th birthday in 1954. Furthermore, the book was supposed to reflect all points of view as regards "one of the most widely read and controversial writers of our time". What a criticism! What a present!

As it can be seen from the table of contents, much of the book consists of contemporary book reviews, mostly of specific books. Today they have only historical value, at best, and if you are interested in the critical attention Maugham received during his lifetime, you had better read The Critical Heritage volume dedicated to him; there the same task has been performed far more thoroughly. I am not sure it makes any sense, though. Even reviewers who have a commendably positive attitude (Cordell, Greene, Waugh, Dottin) are most notable for their extreme superficiality and spectacular missing of the point. Just consider the last paragraph of Mr Waugh's review of Christmas Holiday (1939), referring to the last sentence of the novel in which we are told that "the bottom had fallen out of" Charlie Mason's world:

But what has really happened is that the bottom has fallen out of Mr. Maugham's book in this prodigious piece of bathos. All that inimitable artistry to end in this climax? For what does it amount to? Charley had led what is called a sheltered life, meeting mostly people who led the same kind of life, or who accepted it as normal. In Paris he has been rather roughly introduced to some people with quite different ideas and habits. He must have known, intellectually, that they existed; he must have known that there are head-hunters in Borneo and monks in Tibet and lunatics in asylums who had totally different views of the universe. What was before an intellectual abstraction is now real and concrete to him. All he had learned is the heterogeneity of mankind. It is a valuable lesson; some people never learn it. But his own virtues of kindness and tolerance and humour and honesty are still virtues, and his bed is still as comfortable and his dinner as satisfying, he has not received any compelling call, such as does apparently from time to time change people's lives, to any different destiny. He has lost a friend who, anyway, has not meant much to him in recent years; otherwise he has merely had an instructive and profitable holiday, and he will be just the same kind of fellow in future with a slightly wider and wiser outlook.

May I suggest that Mr Waugh has completely missed the point of the whole novel? To talk at and after dinner about something is one thing. To experience it first hand is quite another story. The people whom Charlie encountered in Paris didn't just have "quite different ideas and habits". They were profoundly different examples of human nature, supposedly from a background not so dissimilar to his own – something which is certainly not true of Tibetan monks or Borneo head-hunters. The experience of dark and vile passions in such "normal" European people is what shocked Charlie, not just profoundly, but both intellectually and emotionally. This last sentence is, in fact, one of Maugham's most chilling conclusions.

For people who happen to be chiefly interested in what Maugham himself wrote, rather than in what others wrote about him, by far the most interesting piece is Of Human Bondage, With a Digression on the Art of Fiction. This is the address in which, in addition to expressing his gratitude to the United States for providing him with a home during the Second World War, Maugham shares some fascinating details about the bibliographical history of Of Human Bondage (1915), including the relationship with its first, immature, much rejected and still unpublished version that was written in 1898 (in Seville) and titled The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey. The piece was published as a pamphlet in 1946 but it is nowadays somewhat scarce and may not be cheap. It is reprinted in the collection of uncollected writings A Traveller in Romance (1984), edited by John Whitehead.

There is some slight merit in the first two sections of the book. The biographical one is a nice introduction to some of Maugham's most characteristic traits as a man and writer. The general criticism is so full of impotent fury that it's actually quite funny.

The rest, apart from a good laugh now and then, is completely useless. Mr Cordell's reviews seem to have been taken from his 1937 book-length study. This I haven't read, but I have read its 1961 revised version and, though I haven't bothered to compare the pieces, I guess they are very similar. I am pleased with Mr Cordell's appreciative attitude, but he is hardly the most perceptive critic in the world. I was curious to read something by Paul Dottin, one of the first critics (since the 1920s) to take Maugham seriously (in France, significantly). So far as I know, his essay here, translated from the French original by Mr Jonas, is the only one available in English. It's mostly concerned with The Painted Veil, it comes from a larger study, and it's impressively unremarkable; an interesting read but nothing more than that. So much for Monsieur Dottin. Louise Field and Orville Prescott have surprisingly positive reactions to some of Maugham's most neglected books, but, really, what's the use of reading their reviews?

The biographical section starts with a most interesting piece by a man against whom I was rather prejudiced. The reason is that, more than a decade later, Mr Pfeiffer wrote one of those books about Maugham with the dangerous subtitle "a candid portrait". Reportedly, Willie was not amused. This book I have never read, but if it's as good as "Maugham – As I Know Him", it is worth reading – if inessential.

In a deceptively naive style, Mr Pfeiffer describes several of his meetings with Maugham – in the course of some two decades or so, mostly in the States but also at the Villa Mauresque – including a great deal about his writing habits, personality, table manners and other such matters. He is not entirely devoid of trivial gossip, but he is pleasantly short of it; occasionally he is charmingly irreverent, as when he remarks that Maugham's conversation contained just as much nonsense as that of most other people, but he is never offensive. That many of Mr Pfeiffer's observations do sound like a cheap paraphrase of Maugham's non-fiction writings is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, this is a nice, if slight, biographical portrait, with some gems that combine humour and insight in a most agreeable manner; here are several examples:

The master stirs a potent Martini. He claims never to drink more than one, and that is true, but it might be added that Maugham's drinks are generous. When I drink only one I do not feel that I have been unduly moderate.

Those who carp at his tremendous financial success, seeing in it as evidence that he has sold his soul to Mammon, overlook the fact that since 1908 he has written what he wanted to write. If his work pleased others, so much to the good; he has certainly not been unhappy over that. But it was first of all to please himself that he wrote.

Among people who know Maugham, there are two widely divergent views of him. Some see him as cynical, disillusioned, and worldly; others as kind, thoughtful, tolerant, at times sentimental. Among those who know him only by his writing the former summary is more popular. An interesting fact about those who disapprove of his view of life is that they seldom express their disapproval by ceasing to read him.

I wonder whether these contradictions are not partly explained by differences among the observers. Maugham does not consider himself cynical. He considers himself realistic.

''How to Write – By Maugham'' is a strange Q&A stuff, the answers being so casual, fluent and easy-going that it's difficult to believe Maugham really gave them. I suppose Mr Gilroy invented them for the sake of the article. He did rather a good job as most answers – though not all – can be corroborated by Maugham's non-fiction writings. Mr Gelder's short essay on the ''essentials of writing'' and Mr Edman's superficial survey of the relationship between philosophy and literature are worth reading but once.

The section with general criticism, referring to Maugham's oeuvre (or at least part of it) and to his place in the history of literature, is simply amazing. Edmund Wilson would have been proud to have penned these profound appreciations. All three pieces were written by professors of English from various American universities. If anything, they are a fine illustration of the very low regard, to say the least, in which Maugham was held by the academic circles at the time. Since then the critical hatchet has mellowed somewhat, but the essential negativity has remained. Thankfully, it is the general reading public, not the coteries of critics, who decide what's to be kept in print. I imagine those academics from the 1940s would have been shocked to find some thirty books by Maugham still in print some seventy years later.

In a nutshell, serious critics and knowledgeable professors wax lyrical how competent a craftsman Maugham is, how extraordinary his skill on purely technical level is, how admirable his dedication to his craft is. He is a superb example of craftsmanship. But otherwise there is little to admire in him. With only one exception, Of Human Bondage of course, his works are shallow and superficial, telling nothing really important about the human condition, jaundiced by his clinical and cynical point of view. And this readability, this commercial success – ah, such deplorable tendencies must, of course, mean that he has prostituted his pen for the dollar, compromised his talents for the cheap accolades of fame. Surely he must have sold his soul to the Devil if he never again produced anything as great as Of Human Bondage.

Now, to tell you the truth, I am tired. I am really tired of fighting against this kind of stuff. In my long forgotten youth, a couple of centuries ago, I used to become livid with rage when reading such attacks on Maugham. In later years I used to laugh a good deal at them, for they seemed to me unintentionally hilarious. Nowadays I merely smile and murmur: "Forgive them, Willie, for they don't know what they're missing." That's why I propose to give you an extensive selection of quotes from these three pieces and refrain from any comments, remarks, discussions, etc., that try to present the case of the defence. I have done that at numerous other places and I am excessively bored with the very thought of doing it again. Therefore, I will restrain myself to short linking notes and you may draw your own conclusions.

But please consider one important caveat. If you are a Maugham neophyte, you read ahead at your own peril. I would certainly suggest reading a sizable portion of Maugham's own books first.

Mr Marchand (b. 1900), an Associate Professor of English in the Rutgers University, is the most positive of the trio academic gurus. Consider this sophisticated and beautifully written evaluation of Maugham's "exotic" fiction:

There are moments in the critical reading of Maugham when the feeling comes over one that he has nothing more than an artifice of psychological profundity cloaking commonplace or melodramatic themes. I shall have occasion to refer to the point again in discussing certain of his exotic stories, but it is as well to consider here this important aspect of his work. Writing that balances so delicately on the edge of the commonplace may well give the critic pause. Is this cynical exposure of the raw and unlovely spots in human nature nothing more than a deliberate catch-penny trick, used to drape with a spurious psychological realism and universal verity both the threadbare themes of melodrama and the naturalist's customary formula? Furthermore, and this is even more disturbing, is he laughing up his cynical sleeve (though not loud enough for anyone to hear since the trick brings him money) at the gullibility of the public and the critics, who are so willing to translate their common desire for the sensational and the shocking into a belief that they are praising literary values?

A little later Mr Marchand answers these formidable questions with a penetrating analysis of Maugham's literary stature:

It is hard enough to lay one's fingers on the individual quality that raises Maugham at his best above the two-dimensioned psychoanalytical fictionists. There is evident in his work at times, it is blindness not to admit, a conscious striving after an effect that is startling or dramatic by the very brazenness of its cynicism. It is evident in the beginning of The Painted Veil and in The Letter as in most of his plays. That is what troubles one who believes there is something of depth and steadfast value in the art and philosophy of Somerset Maugham. How much of the charlatan convinced that he is an honest artist is there in the man? That we cannot know; we can only say that we wish he hadn't done some things – and the wish itself is evidence of our feeling that there is something fundamentally sound and of lasting value inherent in his work. Its proper significance appears only after an acquaintance with his total personality. Then comes the consciousness that the deeper sincerity and analytic power of the writer is something which transcends the tricks of his trade, that his steady and whole vision of life is worth more than the originality of the passing hour.

Theodore Spencer (1902-49) would probably consider the above an empty hero worship. Professor of English (no university given) and author of books on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage, he always keeps his head about writers like Maugham. He is the cool operator. After summarising some of the most often encountered critical onslaughts against Maugham, Mr Spencer shows magnificent magnanimity:

But Maugham deserves better than this, and popular opinion has recognized the fact by not agreeing with the critics. One of Maugham's books, Of Human Bondage, is probably the most universally read and admired of modern English novels, and his plays have more vitality than those of any of his contemporaries, except Shaw. The problem for the anyone trying to judge Maugham's permanent value is to decide whether the critics or the public are right.

I should think it is pretty obvious who's right, but no matter. Mr Spencer, much like Mr Waugh, is awed by Maugham's technical mastery:

This deftness of style is of course closely connected with a technical deftness on a larger scale – the deftness with which Maugham orders his events and manipulates the sequence of his actions. Particularly in such later novels as Cakes and Ale and Christmas Holiday, Maugham carries over into the arrangement of his plot the same studied informality and deliberate casualness which is so characteristic of his verbal style. He moves from one chronological level to another and back again with the agility of an acrobat – and it is a pleasure for anyone concerned with craftsmanship to watch the dexterity of his movements and the niftiness – there is no other word – of his manner. Watching Maugham move about among the elements of his later stories is like watching a fish in the water; both are completely at home. It is this which the critics refer to when they describe him as 'competent'.

[But make no mistake: this "competence" comes at a high price. Mr Spencer knows this well:]

Maugham's later technique is a technique that almost deliberately limits his emotional range; it is admirably adapted for irony, for dispassionate observation, for swift-moving narrative, for a tolerant, common-sense, man-of-the-world point of view. But it is not a technique that is of much use in describing strong feeling of passionate thought; it perhaps defines Maugham's limitations to say that it is impossible to think of any of his later stories (I am excluding Of Human Bondage) as being in any way symbolic of a great or general human condition. [...] Maugham's prose is frequently good but never reaches sublimity. His stories are limited in time and, as it were, limited in space – they have no fourth dimension. It is this deficiency no doubt to which Maugham refers when he says that he has had "small power of imagination".

After discussing Maugham's first person narrator, including some harsh early passages from A Writer's Notebook, Mr Spencer continues his stupendous exploration of Maugham's severe limitations:

The "I" of the later novels, to be sure, is not so harsh as that: he has had his edges rubbed smooth by worldly success, and he is more ready to recognize human goodness. But the basic view is the same, and as a result of Maugham's picture of human nature is, as I have said, limited. It makes one very important omission; it leaves out moral struggle and the grandeur that comes from moral struggle. Maugham's people are swayed by various motives – vanity, passion, ambition – but, since there is no real standard of action in a world that has no meaning, there is nothing for them to aim for, and they are merely to be observed tolerantly and somewhat ironically as they are caught in the current of their desires.

I should have liked to see some examples of writers who are not limited in some way, or some discussion why "moral struggle" and its "grandeur" are of such earth-shaking importance. Never mind. Well, what about Of Human Bondage?

I have excluded Of Human Bondage from the foregoing remarks because it is by common consent Maugham's best novel and the one which gives him a claim to being considered a first-class writer. It remains to be seen whether this claim can be justified.

[After listing the four counts that one is right to expect from great fiction, the last one being "a moral, intellectual, or metaphysical climate", and comparing – unfavourably, of course – Philip and Mildred with Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Mr Spencer delivers his final estimation, starting with Philip's realising the meaninglessness of life:]

Obviously this kind of resolution lacks the intensity of a tragic resolution, and the success of Of Human Bondage as a whole is a limited success. [...]... is not one of those novels which press us urgently into new areas of awareness; it merely fills out, in its moving, efficient, and vivid way, those areas of awareness which we already possess. Superior as it is to anything else Maugham has written, it is still, to use his own words, an 'easel picture' and not a 'fresco'.

So much for Of Human Bondage. Next Mr Spencer graciously concedes that The Summing Up, "an admirable book", might also survive the test of time. Let us, however, not forget that:

...it, too, is not the work of an imaginative mind; its philosophy is the philosophy of the present and the practical – it does not play with original concepts or mould any unity that does not already exists.

After that Mr Spencer finishes with a superb example of regal condescension:

But if we are to exclude Maugham from the very top rank of contemporary writers, that does not mean that we can dismiss him entirely. His honesty, his craftsmanship, and is admirable gifts for arousing interest and holding attention make him the kind of writer whom it is always a pleasure, and sometimes a stimulus, to read. If literature is to flourish, there must always be, in any given generation, a number of writers who take their work seriously as a craft, who look with unfailing curiosity and interest at human behaviour, and who consider the description of that behaviour one of the chief justifications for living. Writers of this kind are essential both for keeping our sensitivities alive and for preserving that common basis of value and tradition which must always be the groundwork for writing of the superior kind. Among such writers Maugham holds a high place, and to deny him our respect were to deny respect to the art he has served so long and so well.

Enter Woodburn O. Ross (b. 1905), a Professor of English in the Wayne University, Michigan. This is the fellow who is destined to put the record straight, to bring the critical symphony to a rousing coda. He would not succumb to the pusillanimity of his two colleagues. He starts right from the beginning, no words wasted:

Few contemporary authors have been praised as highly and condemned as completely as has W. Somerset Maugham. A recent critic enthusiastically says that today he is "perhaps the most creative talent in the field of the English novel". Another, while granting Maugham's talent, suggests that sinister influences have vitiated his abilities, a suggestion with which a great many competent readers, I think, would agree. "It is indisputable", he writes, "that Mr. Maugham, despite the authorship of one novel of almost universal appeal, ceased some time ago to be a force and was bought, as it were... What metamorphosis took place? What happened? Were his desires worldly from the start; was he fired originally with no artist's longing to see and make, but with an earthling's lust to dine well and glitter? Or was a man of genius, a virgin heart, seduced by the great world of riches and power?"

It is worth noting, as does Mr Jonas in a footnote, that this gem of quotation is from the review by Gerald Sykes, also reprinted in the volume. As for Mr Ross, after an extensive discussion of Maugham's early novels and the very generous assessment that nothing he wrote until 1912 "gave him any substantial claim to fame", he tackles Of Human Bondage with a vengeance:

Considered as a whole, the book is great, I think, because Maugham for the first time brings into clear focus the deterministic implications of his formula and because he successfully projects his psychological determinism against the background of a mechanistic, naturalistic interpretation of life.

How's that again? Never mind. See what follows:

But to consider it as fictionalized autobiography is to make it appear a much more immediate and direct reflection of experience than it is. Theodore Dreiser, for instance, in his excellent review of the book which appeared in The New Republic, seems to regard it as a kind of spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It is, of course, nothing of the sort, as this discussion has shown. It is calculated and artificial; but the calculation which produced it was born of experience in writing and the artifice is the artifice which creates the illusion of reality.

Of Human Bondage was not at all a work of great promise. It was a fulfilment of a promise made fifteen years before. From the beginning Maugham had seen human beings in a certain way, and he had now achieved, I think, the most perfect expression of his insight of which he was capable. But, though the play was over, the curtain refused to come down. Maugham was a professional writer, and a professional writer must keep on writing. His attitudes, however, did not change, except in one respect, which I shall mention presently, and he did not develop new, significant ramifications of his ideas to which he must give expression.
And the result? He has constantly repeated himself and has written nothing since which approaches the quality of his great work. But the answer to the charge that he sold himself out is that, on the contrary, he wrote himself out.

After an analysis of stunning brevity – nine novels in little over a page – Mr Ross switches to the short stories:

On the whole, critics have not been too highly impressed by Maugham's short stories. The reason is perhaps inherent in the very themes which he uses. If he is to exhibit unexpected aspects of the conduct of human beings who are gnawed upon by some passion, the natural denouement of his stories is the performance of a surprising act or the revelation of some shocking quality of the soul. The climax of The Letter, for instance, is the revelation that Leslie Crosbie's life has been adulterous almost from the beginning of her marriage. But it is one thing to introduce at the end of the story a surprising act which illuminates all that has gone before; it is quite another to introduce one which denies all that has gone before. In the latter case, it is likely not to be the interpretation of character but sheer surprise which most impresses the reader. And sheer surprise does not afford adequate intellectual stimulation; it merely represents a source of interest and excitement. [...] And I believe that Maugham's stories suffer from this overemphasis upon surprise to which he is driven and suffer from it, despite his thought-provoking attacks upon conventional judgements and despite the general truth to life of his characterisation.

Lest you think Mr Ross has forgotten the big picture, he immediately launches a large-scale assault:

As one attempts to formulate judgments concerning Maugham's work as a whole, one is struck above all by its limited range. It is restricted both in breadth and depth.

It is restricted in breadth. The basic problem which he raises is that of motivation of human choices. His solution, sometimes presented more or less tentatively, is that of the determinist; men choose what they do because they must. This kind of answer, though important – it denies free will – leaves altogether too much unsaid. When Maugham finds the ultimate causes of human choices to lie in the nature of things, he is thinking of the causative aspects of whole, vague, interacting psychological and environmental complexes. He is never specific. Concerning profound causes of particular psychological states in his characters he has nothing to say. And these vague complexes which in a sense are ultimate causes find expression in his works only in a very narrow range of actions. As we have seen, he uses countless modifications of a set formula; and, until lately, he has applied this formula principally to certain kinds of sexual frustrations or to needs for creative expression in the arts. How much of the broad human scene is omitted is evident.


Just as Maugham's important comments upon life are limited in area, they are limited in depth. I have said that even in his most serious moments he is not concerned with profound causes of the psychological states of his characters. I do not mean that he does not provide adequate motivation for particular acts. He does. But he neglects what lies behind the immediate motive.


In other words, when it comes to dealing with basic psychological states, Maugham does not interpret; he reports. He gives his readers no genuine insight into the fundamental – and consequently the most interesting and important – reasons for his characters' conduct. This is not to say that Maugham is merely a reporter. But the interpretation of life he offers is extracted from unaccountable, or unaccounted-for, patterns of behaviour. His vision does not extend far beyond his formula.


His basic strength is shown by the remarkably persuasive and integrated expression of his formula which he achieved in Of Human Bondage. But his weakness was predicted by his long inability to bring it into satisfactory focus and is demonstrated by his subsequent incapacity to transcend it and enlarge his view of life. It is not primarily a facile willingness to meet the demands of the vulgar but rather an inability to expand the insights of his youth which is responsible for the dissatisfaction which many intelligent readers feel with his work. He has never escaped the young man who studied medicine at St. Thomas' Hospital in the late nineteenth century.

So, to really admire Somerset Maugham one has to be "vulgar" and "unintelligent"? So be it.

Among the shorter reviews, there are also several impressively angry attempts to demolish Maugham's more or less complete works as unworthy of the attention of any respectable and reasonable human being. In this category Malcolm Cowley (b. 1898), "author, critic, editor", takes the palm. His "Angry Author's Complaint" purports to be a review of East and West (1934), the first volume of Maugham's complete short stories which collects together his first five mature collections, altogether thirty pieces. Though far from complete, this book does contain most of his finest short fiction, including virtually all exotic and Ashenden tales. Mr Cowley's tirade is sure to raise your appreciation on another level:

His first efforts in the new form were theatrical, in the bad sense, and even though Rain is better than the others, it does not stand rereading; for once we know that the harlot is going to triumph over the missionary, we lose interest in both of them; they are wax figures without life of their own. Making people live in short stories is a different problem from making them live on the stage, and Maugham took three of four years to solve it.

One has vastly more respect for his recent work after reading the early stories in which he fumbled with human motives and tried to impress his audience by giving them surprise endings in the O. Henry manner (see
Red and Honolulu) and bucketsful of South Sea atmosphere sloshed on like whitewash. He doesn't have to use tricks today; he is easy, natural, convincing, and is quite possibly, the best plain storyteller writing in English.


No, there is something else in this book that ends by making some of its readers impatient and angry with the author, even though they started with the friendliest feelings. It is a quality hard to define, one that belongs, I think, to the moral background. Reading these thirty stories one after another is like sitting for a long time in a room where people are playing bridge and gossiping in even voices. The room may be east or west, London or Singapore, but the people in it are always the same: they are the Britons of good family who administer the Empire under the direction of its actual rulers.
Here Maugham is at home... It would be wrong to pick a quarrel with him for writing about these people, since an author is wise to select the subjects that he knows best. But it is a little shocking to find that he shares their prejudices against rebels and intellectuals and people who travel second class or have a dash of native blood in them. He wasn't like that originally, not if I remember Of Human Bondage. It is still worse, however, to find that after living among these people and becoming one of them in spirit, a self-made philistine, he really doesn't like them. He has no sympathy for his characters, but only tolerance mingled with easy cynicism. His stories are full of wise saws, of the sort that are spoken by old broken men in chimney corners. "It is strange that men, inhabitants for so short a while of an alien and inhuman world, should go out of their way to cause themselves so much unhappiness". Well, it is strange, isn't it? "Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep". Well, you might get angry for a change; and perhaps you might find that remarks like this are the best clue to the quality that makes Maugham's stories disliked by so many readers. If he insists on being patronizing, smugly and insultingly tolerant toward humankind in general, he can scarcely complain because the critics are supercilious toward a single member of that absurd and pitiful race.

Staggering! Mr Cowley is also the author of the piece that gives the title of the anthology. This is supposed to be a review of The Summing Up and it starts with a beautiful explanation what "The Maugham Enigma" actually is:

There is a Somerset Maugham enigma, one that has always puzzled me. Why has he never written another book that was half as good as Of Human Bondage?
More than a collection of separate works, he has produced a unified body of work, an oeuvre, something that very few living writers have achieved in our language. Yet there has been a suspicion among critics that the oeuvre was artificial and the production of a second or third-rate artist. The critics have usually been unjust to Maugham; they have neglected his great achievement as a craftsman. [...] Why did he write one book that was full of candour and human warmth? Why did he never climb back to the same level?

What is Mr Cowley's answer after reading The Summing Up? Well, he sees two major reasons: 1) no other work was that close to Maugham's heart; and 2) he was cut off from his raw material by success, exactly as he writes in his spiritual autobiography. I may again congratulate myself on my refusal to expose the glaring falsity of both "reasons". After all, I have at least some traces of dignity. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | May 12, 2012 |
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