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Strictly Personal by W. Somerset Maugham
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Strictly Personal (edition 1942)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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Member:Waldstein
Title:Strictly Personal
Authors:W. Somerset Maugham
Info:Heinemann, Hardback, 1942. 8vo. vi+196 pp. First English edition. Letter to Eddie Marsh. Chapter 15 omitted. First published by Doubleday Doran, 1941.
Collections:Somerset Maugham, Maugham Non-Fiction (inactive), Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Maugham Non-Fiction, Memoirs

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Strictly Personal by W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham

Strictly Personal

Heinemann, Hardback, 1942.

8vo. vi+196 pp. First English edition. Letter to Eddie Marsh. Chapter 15 omitted.

First published by Doubleday, Doran, 3 September 1941.

===========================================

Strictly Personal is surely one of Somerset Maugham's most forgotten books today. It is long since out of print and indeed has fallen into obscurity of which it is unlikely ever to emerge. Pity. For it is a fine piece of non-fiction which is unique in Maugham's huge oeuvre. It surely has much more substance than the one quote often extracted from it:

If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.

Mundane matters first. Strictly Personal was first published in the New World by Doubleday, Doran on 3 September 1941. The First edition is today pretty scarce and monstrously expensive for the simple reason that it was limited to only 515 copies, numbered and signed by the author. It must have been expensive at the time, too: $6. Two days later came the First Trade edition which was just a separate impression from the same forms, but it also was less luxuriously bound and non-signed of course; it cost $2,50. Interestingly, the First English edition did not appear until six months later: March 1942, by Heinemann. This is unusual for Maugham books and gives credence to his own claim that initially he had no intention of publishing the book in England. This information comes from the letter to Sir Edward Marsh K.C.V.O. (whatever that means), one of the few people for whom Maugham had an unqualified respect, which is included in the English edition by way of preface; it is missing from the American one which, as some kind of compensation, contains a passage* that was censored by Heinemann as a bit too prone to bring a libel action. This must have been the first time in forty years – since Mrs Craddock, first published in 1902, but written earlier – when Maugham's writing ''enjoyed'' such treatment. The book was serialised in The Saturday Evening Post on March 22, 29, and April 5, 12, 1941 under the suitable title Novelist's Flight from France. It is worth noting that articles with material from Strictly Personal appeared in Redbook as early as September 1940.

What is far more fascinating about Strictly Personal is that this is the only case when Maugham really did write an autobiography; except, perhaps, his late and fabulously notorious memoirs Looking Back (1962) that were never published in book form; contrary to the popular belief, The Summing Up (1938) has nothing to do with autobiography, at least not with the modern, obsessed with trivial facts and figures, idea of (auto)biography. The second reason for Strictly Personal being unique among Maugham's works is that it is the only one, if I may put it that way, anti-propaganda book he ever wrote.

Typically in his style, Maugham insists on letting his readers know what they are in for as soon as possible. In the letter to Eddie Marsh, he mentions that the following book is nothing more than description of his activities during the first 15 months or so of the war. Small and insignificant as these may seem at first glance, Maugham thought them worth his while to write them down, and I am glad he did. The book begins in a leisurely manner that is all but deceptive; it might even have been Maugham's deliberate trick. He describes in detail his villa on the Riviera and his garden, he pokes fun at his servants and their trifle amours, he is obviously fond of telling us of the ''simple'' life he and his many guests led there in the summer of 1939; by the way, to the best of my belief, this is the first of his books in which Maugham mentions Gerald Haxton by name, gently calling him ''my friend and secretary'' – but I hasten to add for all those interested in dirty stories that the details of their relationship end here.

The book is simply inexhaustible source of compelling trivia about Maugham, given first hand and not at all so insignificant as it may seem at first glance. In addition to a great deal about Maugham's villa and his servants, one may also learn a lot about his beloved, never fewer than four but sometimes as many as ten, dachshunds. If I ever had any doubt that Wagner was Maugham's favourite composer, I became completely convinced when he shared the precious bit of information that all his dogs were given Wagnerian names: Erda, Elsa, etc. It is significant that Maugham describes the saintly Elsa from Lohengrin as ''exasperating heroine'' – which indeed she is. It is curious to know that your favourite writer was a great fan of one of your favourite composers; it certainly gives a good deal of food for thought, but here is not the place to elaborate on that. Of the other charming little details about Maugham that one can learn from this book, perhaps the most interesting is that during the Second World War Maugham flew for the first time in his life. This auspicious event happened on one small and ''very rickety'' R.A.F. plane which took him across the Channel in weather much too bad for a first flight. Maugham must have remembered for a long time the words of the pilot before he took off: ''Well, I'll start, but I don't know if I shall be able to land.''

In addition to a good deal of Maugham trivia, there are dispersed throughout the volume delightful anecdotes how Maugham spent a night in the house of Martel, the most famous brandy merchant in the world, or in a ''chateau in the wilderness'' that was a perfect setting for a Balzac's novel. Perhaps the most comic of these scenes is the one that tells how Maugham saved one woman, an exceptional conversationalist, from her disgraceful company for a few days only to remark wryly in the end that he would never do such thing again – nor did he. Such candidate short stories make diverting read all right, but they are by far not the main theme here.

Many writers have dismissed Strictly Personal as just another of Maugham's patriotic chores, an exercise in pure propaganda that deserves but little attention. In that they have shown a strange lack of insight, or perhaps they never really read the book carefully. Few of them seem to have thought about the title of the book: Maugham could never have chosen such a title for a propaganda work, nor would those who had commissioned it have allowed publication under such title. Much more plausible theory is that Strictly Personal is a manifestation of sincere patriotic feeling; though not something much associated with somebody born, largely grown up and lived a good deal of his life in France, a streak of English patriotism must surely have been part and parcel of Somerset Maugham's complex personality. But I don't think it was the main reason for writing that book. My own theory, which I intend to try to prove here, is that Maugham wrote Strictly Personal as sort anti-propaganda. In other words, he wrote it as a response to his earlier and purely propagandist book France at War (1941), extolling the courage of the French and their great power to resist the German invasion, but unfortunately published just three months before the fall of France. It must have been an awkward situation for Maugham. He of all people should have sensed the weaknesses of the French. He probably did, but he couldn't tell the truth because he wasn't writing for himself; he was writing propaganda on commission.

So in Strictly Personal Maugham, as far as my own theory goes, intended to set the record straight. And he did. Not the least amusing thing about this book is the fact that it contains also the contents of France at War, much shortened of course. It is obvious that Maugham did have a genuine affection for the French and he probably had some faith in their power to resist the Germans, but his tone here is way better balanced than in the earlier book. Even Monsieur Dautry, the fascinating Minister of Armaments, whom Maugham describes here as memorably as in France at War, and who was the only man according to the great writer whose stature was not tarnished by the fall of France, did not altogether escape criticism: Maugham flatly says that later he thought it a mistake to force the people in the factories to work twelve hours a day for months. He condemns mercilessly the gross ineptitude and lack of humanity of the French in their shameful treatment of the refugees from Alsace and Lorraine. Few times, indeed, Maugham said almost point blank that in his earlier work he was at pains how to reconcile sincerity with objectivity. Certainly, the picture he draws here of the French, their army and their navy, is not an entirely negative one, but it is much more ambiguous, and therefore more sensible and more convincing, than the limitless praise in France at War. Of course, it was easier to write about all these things after the fall of France, but that hardly changes the contrast between the books.

Also, it is not a little amusing to read Maugham's account of some indignation among the French that his propaganda book caused, especially in the navy where they felt offended that Maugham should remark on the slovenly appearance of the crews, quite unlike their spruce British counterparts, and on their attachment to home and family more than to their ship. It is curious to speculate that even in a piece of pure propaganda Maugham could not altogether shake off his natural sincerity in writing. Small wonder that he was a bad propagandist. But of course it could not have been otherwise. No writing can be successful unless it is first honest. And natural propagandist was precisely what Maugham never was.

Everybody who is willing to accuse Maugham of too much – or too less – British patriotism should remember that the book was intended for the American public. And they should read carefully, for the whole picture is neither simple nor one-sided. There is a withering account of London shortly before the German offensive, bursting with life, with theatres and night clubs in full swing, not to mention the character sketch of Chamberlain whom Maugham declared vain, inept and overpraised. Another pretty scathing picture of the British, at least of the British army, comes from the French themselves. Apparently, Maugham was commissioned to do a survey about how the British support is looked upon in France and he got some quite negative answers, later to be included in a private report as well as in this book. Never one to beat about the bush, Maugham explains in his usual clear, logical and lucid way why the French were dissatisfied with the British help they received and what exactly in the behaviour of the British troops they disapproved of. His sharp eye for observation misses nothing: the levity and flippancy of his compatriots, their passion for playing games which was all but incomprehensible to the French, even the fact that they were officially allowed to stay in the cafes until later. Above all, Maugham is convinced that the chief cause for resentment was that the British soldiers were much better paid; they spent their money generously and the French people loved them for that. But their French colleagues almost hated them for the same reason. Though Maugham naturally has a good deal of sympathy for his compatriots and he always tries to excuse them, I suppose such pages didn't make particularly entertaining read in England at the time. Strange that Heinemann did not censor them, too. But there are many passages in which Maugham's British patriotism flourishes unhampered, like his waxing enthusiastic about the pilots in R.A.F or extolling the heroic spirit and great courage of the British people, this time rightly as it turned out.

But if I want to be honest – and I do – I have to say that my aforementioned theory is not at all that sound as I might have made it look. Chapter 30 (or 31 in the American edition) is of great importance about that, for it is entirely dedicated to the French collapse. Maugham starts tentatively, admitting his ''obtuseness'' and consoling himself that even far more knowledgeable fellows in England did not expect so shameful a fall from France. He even states that what he wrote in France at War were impressions recorded ''as honestly as I could'' and he wouldn't write these lines if he wasn't sure of his facts for nobody wants to be accused of lack of perspicacity or poor judgement; he of course mentions that he writes this with heavy heart for he owes a great deal to the French people, culture and literature. He then goes on to give an unusually acrimonious account of the French resistance; the low morale of the army, the incompetence of the officers, the pettiness of the politicians, nobody is spared some extremely severe observations.

So it is possible that, despite the untypical style for him, Maugham wrote with more sincerity in France at War than I think. He might have been genuinely taken in. Later, understandably, he was frustrated and angry at the French for their miserable performance and this might have been the real reason for his wanting to set the record straight.

If Strictly Personal has any weakness, these are some of the final chapters which suspiciously smack of propaganda, which is of course another crack in my so-called theory. Since the book, admittedly, was written for the American audience, and by that time Maugham had already started to write propaganda articles for American magazines with not so different contents, one wonders if he was not at least partly trying to raise the American awareness of the heroic British defence of their island just as earlier during the war he tried to boost the British interest in the French military effort. Maugham spends quite a bit of space talking about the (real or imaginary) dangers of the so called Fifth Column or indulging in social and political discourses he was never entirely convincing about. Still, he is worth reading all the same, at least for the haunting descriptions of the London bombings and the shrewd observations about the general defects of the British, most notably their snobbishness which existed not only in the upper and middle strata of the society, but also among the working classes, too. But I hasten to add that whatever defects the book may have, they are very minor ones indeed, and do not detract significantly from its value.

If I have given the impression that Strictly Personal is almost solely concerned with French and British politics, military stuff and the like, I have done the book a grave injustice. There is much more in it than that. Indeed, the climax of the volume is Maugham's dangerous escape from France when it became evident that there is no other way. The atmosphere of anxiety and the twenty days in a collier together with hundreds of British refugees are depicted with all of Maugham's remarkable narrative skills and amazing powers of observation. But he also shows great empathy for his subject. Those who often accuse Maugham of coldness and lack of compassion should read these pages; they may well change their mind. There is material here for at least a dozen short stories and several novels. Indeed, there are few instances which, had they been written a decade or so earlier, might well have been included in Cosmopolitans, Maugham's volume of ''very short stories'' written on commission to be printed on two opposite pages of the eponymous magazine.

Yet again I am struck by Maugham's singular candour and his simply astonishing ability to look inside himself, analysing his emotions, fears and hopes with scientific precision and impartiality. His insecurity whether this precarious flight was worth while at all is brilliantly conveyed; his farewell to his beloved villa is deeply moving. There are lines here as revealing about Maugham's personality as anything. It was not for nothing that this book was called Strictly Personal:

Ever since I was nearly drowned in Borneo I have had an unreasonable horror of death by drowning: unreasonable, I say, because on that occasion I was so exhausted by the effort of keeping afloat that I wanted nothing more than the rest of death. I felt no fear. I had had a long life, I had done pretty well all the things I wanted to do, and in the few years that remained to me I could look forward only to the gradual failing away of my powers and the gradual decrease of my capacity of enjoyment; I wondered if it was worth while to make a further effort or if it would not be more sensible to call it a day. I had upstairs in my bedroom a little tube of sleeping pills which I knew would bring me the release I sought. But on the other hand there was an even chance of getting through, I knew that my death would grieve one or two persons who were fond of me, I had still several books to write, and I did not really want to lose those last few years of my life when I could sit back, having finished my long labour, and for the first time indulge myself without qualms of conscience in the luxury of leisure. I had borne a good deal of pain in my day, and I didn't suppose it took more than a minute or two to drown. I made up my mind the risk was worth taking.

Little did Maugham know that he had more than twenty years to live and a good many novels, short stories and essays more to write.

Maugham’s experiences on Saltersgate, the collier which took him and 500 other British subjects away from France, is graphically and movingly described. So much so that he later made it the subject of his BBC talk that was even published in a small volume called The English Spirit under the title Twenty Days in a Ship . The account in the book is of course much more detailed and combines in a most adroit way poignant and even heart-rending episodes with some very funny or even downright hilarious ones. Always greatly interested in people, Maugham had to deal here with a number of queer characters, and his penetrating powers of observation had quite a feast with them. Some of these persons, indeed, are absolutely unforgettable. I had to remind myself constantly that I was reading non-fiction. This is Maugham the story teller at his very best:

Altogether four persons went out of their minds. One of them, a man between forty and fifty, was an ex-officer, and I think he lost his reason owing to a sudden and enforced deprivation of alcohol. He was quite harmless and used to wander about in fantastic clothes that he had somehow got hold of. One day he plastered his chest with decorations he had made out of pieces of paper and with a rolled-up sunshade that represented a swagger stick reviewed his regiment. He went up to a startled group sitting on the bulwarks and said:
''Your buttons aren't polished. Perfectly disgraceful''
Then he turned to an imaginary officer behind him and in a barking voice asked him what the devil he meant by not seeing that his men were properly turned out. Once, draped in blankets, he saw himself as an Arab sheik standing proudly on the ramparts of his citadel; he scanned the desert for the oncoming hordes and shouted superbly ''Let'em all come.'' On another occasion he was the squire of dames, and when some woman got up from the deck to change her seat insisted on carrying her knitting for her and with old-world courtesy arranged her cushion when she sat down again. He was probably the happiest man on board, for he lived in a world of illusion. It was a sad day for him when we arrived in Gibraltar and he was able to get a bottle of whiskey; he recovered his wits, such as they were, and re-entered the grim world of reality.


I am sorry Maugham never wrote a short story about this character. It would have been a gem. And there were other colourful and really very odd personalities aboard. One butler to a neighbour on the Riviera never ceased to bring his mistress a cup of tea, or brush his clothes, or polish his shoes, as if the circumstances of their voyage were perfectly natural. Nothing could disturb his serenity. When there was great agitation due to a fear of submarine in the proximity, he would ask: ''Will you have your tea now, madam, or will you wait till the excitement subsides?'' Then there was an Australian who was probably the most ingenious person Maugham ever knew. He could, and did, make a most practical use of everything around and it was he, Maugham generously admitted, who made most of his journey tolerable. One night the writer woke up only to find that his Australian companion had put his blanket over him and was smoking cigarettes because he was too cold to sleep.

But the journey was not such a fun as all that. For twenty days the refugees were allowed to land only once, in Gibraltar and for a few hours, just enough to take a bath and buy some provisions. Indeed, in the beginning they were under the impression that in Gibraltar their troubles – after five days in sea – would be over and another ship, much better equipped for the purpose, would take them to England. Nothing of the kind happened. In Gibraltar they were told that they must continue in the same collier until they reached the Dover cliffs. Though commendable effort had been done to clean the ship, it still had coal dust everywhere; within few days everybody got black; washing was a luxury and it required a hard stomach to wash with a water that had been used by 50 or 100 persons before; the food was scarce and hard. There was one woman who died on the shore while waiting for the ship, another went incoherent aboard; one old woman, apparently sent to death by her daughter and son-in-law, became maudlin and was transferred in the ship hospital – where she died in the company of one young couple who had the saddest honeymoon that can be imagined. A shroud was made for the old lady, she was buried in the sea and the whole convoy stopped for one minute. Not out of respect for the dead, but for fear that the corpse might foul the propeller.

Graphic and harrowing, sad and poignant, amusing and entertaining, propagandist and honest, political and social, evocative and moving, affecting without being in the least affected, Strictly Personal is probably the most underrated book among Maugham's forty volumes or so. It goes without saying that it is absolutely indispensable for serious Maugham admirers; not only does it deal with very important period of his life and contains tons of fascinating trifles about his lifestyle, but it is also extremely revealing for Maugham's character and outlook during the war. I surmise those who are interested how the most horrible military conflict in human history affected the civilian population in France and England, or how these two countries tried to preserve their independence in those momentous times, would also find the book interesting, though it is by no means an exhaustive account in these aspects and readers are wise to accept Maugham's most military pages with a pinch of salt. Since Strictly Personal is above all an extremely personal book, it remains valuable mostly for Maugham fans. But for them it is indeed priceless.

=================================================​

* This passage is actually whole chapter - the fifteenth - in which Maugham draws a not exactly flattering portrait of a slush British journalist, popular specialist in writing nonsense for vacuous lady magazines, whom he met by chance in Nancy. John Whitehead has cast doubt on the veracity of this story and has claimed that George Potter, fictional name given by Maugham, is in fact Godfrey Winn. Be that as it may, it is a pity that the chapter was omitted from the English edition. It has as fine a conversation as in a well-crafted play and is not a little revealing about Maugham's views of writing and writers. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 12, 2010 |
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If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.

Ever since I was nearly drowned in Borneo I have had an unreasonable horror of death by drowning: unreasonable, I say, because on that occasion I was so exhausted by the effort of keeping afloat that I wanted nothing more than the rest of death. I felt no fear. I had had a long life, I had done pretty well all the things I wanted to do, and in the few years that remained to me I could look forward only to the gradual failing away of my powers and the gradual decrease of my capacity of enjoyment; I wondered if it was worth while to make a further effort or if it would not be more sensible to call it a day. I had upstairs in my bedroom a little tube of sleeping pills which I knew would bring me the release I sought. But on the other hand there was an even chance of getting through, I knew that my death would grieve one or two persons who were fond of me, I had still several books to write, and I did not really want to lose those last few years of my life when I could sit back, having finished my long labour, and for the first time indulge myself without qualms of conscience in the luxury of leisure. I had borne a good deal of pain in my day, and I didn't suppose it took more than a minute or two to drown. I made up my mind the risk was worth taking.

Altogether four persons went out of their minds. One of them, a man between forty and fifty, was an ex-officer, and I think he lost his reason owing to a sudden and enforced deprivation of alcohol. He was quite harmless and used to wander about in fantastic clothes that he had somehow got hold of. One day he plastered his chest with decorations he had made out of pieces of paper and with a rolled-up sunshade that represented a swagger stick reviewed his regiment. He went up to a startled group sitting on the bulwarks and said:

''Your buttons aren't polished. Perfectly disgraceful''

Then he turned to an imaginary officer behind him and in a barking voice asked him what the devil he meant by not seeing that his men were properly turned out. Once, draped in blankets, he saw himself as an Arab sheik standing proudly on the ramparts of his citadel; he scanned the desert for the oncoming hordes and shouted superbly ''Let'em all come.'' On another occasion he was the squire of dames, and when some woman got up from the deck to change her seat insisted on carrying her knitting for her and with old-world courtesy arranged her cushion when she sat down again. He was probably the happiest man on board, for he lived in a world of illusion. It was a sad day for him when we arrived in Gibraltar and he was able to get a bottle of whiskey; he recovered his wits, such as they were, and re-entered the grim world of reality.
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