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A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
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A Writer's Notebook (original 1949; edition 2009)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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239348,266 (4.07)6
Member:Waldstein
Title:A Writer's Notebook
Authors:W. Somerset Maugham
Info:Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2001. 8vo. xvi+333 pp. Original preface by Maugham [vii-xvi]. First published by Heinemann, 1949.
Collections:Somerset Maugham, Maugham Non-Fiction (inactive), Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Maugham Non-Fiction, Maugham Prefaces

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A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham (1949)

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A compilation of notes kept over his lifetime and published just before Maugham's death. Though there were some pearls of wisdom and insightful comments on writing it was his commentary on daily life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he observed during his travels that was the most compelling thing about the book. From pre-WWII Britain, WWI France, the SOuth Pacific during WWI and wartime WWII USA his was a casual observers dry English wit and sensibility. His sign off about old age at the end was a fitting ending to an interesting and enjoyable book. Going to read more Maugham. ( )
  JBreedlove | Dec 11, 2011 |
W. Somerset Maugham

A Writer's Notebook

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2001.

8vo. xvi+333 pp. Original preface by Maugham [vii-xvi].

First published by Heinemann, 1949.

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

This is not a book at all, but the material for a book.

This is how Somerset Maugham starts a preface written in 1935 for the inclusion of his first mature travel book, the collection of notes On A Chinese Screen (1922), in The Collected Edition of his works. But this sentence might very well have been written about A Writer's Notebook as well. For it is neither a journal nor a diary, as some people who have no idea what they are talking about claim; it is just that: a material for a book, only it actually contains material for a good many books. It is a collection of notes which Maugham used to jot down in order to use in his work later. Some he did use, others he didn't.

It is highly significant that A Writer's Notebook was first published in 1949, one year after Maugham's retirement from writing fiction with his last novel, Catalina (1948). Only then did he deign to publish, after rigorous selection, this collection of notes, many of which are highly revealing for his creative process. If this book has any defect, this is the fact that the notes are organized by year only, and since they often have nothing to do with one another and there is no such thing as index, one needs to be quite familiar with the contents if one wants to find something particular. Indeed, it is rather unfortunate that in some editions (Vintage Classics included) the notes are printed without any space between them which may well lead one to think that the ''chapters'' of the book are continuous narratives, whereas there is in fact no such thing here.

I surmise for people who are not at all familiar with Maugham's life and work, such at first glance desultory collection of notes would not make a particularly appealing read. For all those seriously interested in the art of fiction and the art of living, the book may well give something valuable to ponder about. But for seasoned Maugham admirers I have no hesitation to describe A Writer's Notebook as priceless. For not only does it give an unparalleled insight into Maugham's workshop, but it also reflects a good many sides of his complicated yet compelling personality and gives precious first hand evidence about quite a few significant events in his life.

I think the first thing that impresses me in this book is the scope of time it encompasses: from 1892, when Maugham was an 18 years old lad and a completely obscure medical student, until 1949, when he was 75, the most celebrated writer of fiction in the English speaking world and, quite separately, had enjoyed quite a fame as a dramatist. As a matter of fact, the notes end in 1944 with a piece Maugham wrote by way of postscript, for he had the intention to publish his notes long before they appeared in print and he knew pretty well when he was going to end his career as a novelist. In 1949, he added another epilogue piece and the fascinating preface. The latter is a beautifully written discourse centered around Jules Renard's Journal and, just by the way, it makes several intriguing parallels between the men of letters in France and in England.

In the end of this preface, Maugham explains with his usual and so often underestimated frankness that he publishes this book because he is interested ''in the technique of literary production and in the process of creation'', and that happens also to interest a good many other people. He also confesses that he would have looked to it as an ''impertinence'' to have published such a book when he was at the height of his literary activity. Last but not least, he mentions what had been omitted from his notes prior to publication, like a great deal of early dialogues for unwritten plays or the whole of On A Chinese Screen for instance. We may be grateful that Somerset Maugham chose to publish what he did, and regretful because, reportedly, lots of priceless notes never saw the light of the printed page.

Just like the span of time, the variety of subjects is immense: character sketches, descriptions of nature, travel impressions, philosophical reflections, anecdotes, aphorisms, epigrams. These are occasionally spiced up with short but very amusing comments printed in italics and added by Maugham freshly before publication. Very roughly and entirely for the sake of convenience, A Writer's Notebook may be separated into three parts: early notes which are the most diverse of all but consist primarily of rather short aphorisms and epigrams, taken from 1892 until 1908, when Maugham became the most famous dramatist in England and, apparently, had no time for jottings anymore; notes from the beginning of the First World War in 1914 until the beginning of the Second one in 1939, which are almost entirely dedicated to Maugham's constant travels all around the globe; and notes from 1941 until 1949, which are almost exclusively concerned with philosophical reflections and social observations, the latter largely, and amusingly, confined to America. Taken together all these notes give a comprehensive view how Maugham's personality and creative genius developed through the years which is without analog in his oeuvre, except for The Summing Up (1938) of course.

When Maugham honestly admits in the preface that he had chosen not to omit a number of early remarks and reflections that now seem to him ''exaggerated and foolish'' - and in the preface to The Partial View (1954) he goes even further calling his young self ''dogmatic, intolerant and conceited'' - this was no mere pose. They surely are and he certainly was. But there are among them many charming trifles, some of which indeed are among Maugham's quotes most often to be found throughout Internet; few people know that the (future) great writer was 18, 22 and 27 years old, respectively, when he penned them:

Considering how foolishly people act and how pleasantly they prattle, perhaps it would be better for the world if they talked more and did less.

At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too much, and talk well but not too wisely.

If forty million people say a foolish thing does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

Among such flippant remarks, however, there are some unusually perceptive and profound ones for so tender an age. It is dead obvious from them that Somerset Maugham must have been a very serious young man indeed! Back in his student years he was already very much interested in the same matters of eternal speculation that were to occupy his mind and his works for the rest of his long, varied and extremely productive life. I very much doubt that many 22 year old lads today have similar reflections about love or Christianity:

In love one should exercise economy of intercourse. None of us can love for ever. Love will be stronger and will last longer if there are impediments of its gratification. If a lover is prevented from enjoying his love by absence, difficulty of access, or by the caprice or coldness of his beloved, he can find a little consolation in the thought that when his wishes are fulfilled his delight will be intense. But love being what it is, should there be no hindrances, he will pay no attention to the considerations of prudence; and his punishment will be satiety. The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.

It is doubtless true that we owe many of our virtues to Christianity, but it is equally true that we owe to it some of our vices. The love of self is the mainspring of every man's action, it is the essence of his character; and it is fair to suppose that it is necessary for his preservation. But Christianity has made a vice of it. It has decided that man should have neither love, nor care, nor thought for himself, but only for his soul, and by demanding of him that he should behave otherwise than as his nature prompts, has forced him into hypocrisy. It has aroused a sense of guilt in him when he follows his natural instincts, and a feeling of resentment when others, even though not at his expense, follow theirs. If selfishness were not regarded as a vice no one would be more inconvenienced by it than he is by the Law of Gravity; no one would expect his fellow-men to act otherwise than according to their own interests; and it would seem reasonable to him that they should behave as selfishly as in point of fact they do.

Extremely penetrating and thought-provoking reflections, to put it mildly and to my mind at least, no matter how cynical or callous or superficial they may look to some more sensitive readers. Perhaps there is some truth in the myth about Maugham's perpetual unhappiness, which in his late years has even been likened to misery by envious hacks who thus try to compensate for their own insignificance. Maugham's life was much too varied and full, his work was much too great a passion and at the same time a solace to allow any misery to take place. If Maugham had indeed been unhappy, he must have been so all his life; not for any other reason but because, as these early notes amply testify, he was one of these men who simply cannot be happy. They are highly intelligent and have restlessness of mind that constantly forces them to ask the same old questions that have been asked since the beginning of the world by saints, mystics, philosophers and wise men but have never been answered satisfactorily. Such people, for better or for worse, can never fit in the normal society which all but detests strong individuality and personal independence. But, then again, perhaps the quest for these answers in itself is the thing and the only happiness there is for such incandescent personalities. At any rate, it is somewhat striking that at 24 Maugham should have written a sentence like that:

The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.

Also back to Maugham's student years can be traced two of his attitudes that have won him a great deal of notoriety: his misogyny and his atheism. There are some particularly harsh remarks about both among his early notes. But when one quotes them one must always, absolutely always, discuss them in the context of Maugham's entire life and complete works; not to mention that one must also take into account the very early age they were made at. Otherwise they might give one a grossly warped view of Maugham's beliefs and character. The fact that a good many writers of whole books about Maugham have done so is at their own expense, and a very poor excuse to repeat their inane mistake indeed.

The misogynistic attitude of Maugham is like his homosexuality: a fact of minor importance that has been exaggerated to a ridiculous degree. If one looks at Maugham's early notes only, one may well be appalled by his apparent hatred for the fair sex, though a little more careful reading reveals an almost constant streak of facetiousness. Consider the following notes which all date from the time when Willie Maugham was not yet 25:

The Professor of Gynaecology. He began his course of lectures as follows: Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.
I thought it a prettily-balanced sentence.


A woman may be as wicked as she likes, but if she isn't pretty it won't do her much good.

If women exhibit less emotion at pain it does not prove that they bear it better, but rather that they feel it less.

No man in his heart is quite so cynical as a well-bread woman.

An acquaintance with the rudiments of physiology will teach you more about the feminine character than all the philosophy and wise-saws in the world.

Etc., etc., etc.

But this all too obvious misogyny is quite at odds with pretty much the complete works of Somerset Maugham. True, his female characters never were epitomes of saintliness, but that's precisely what makes them so interesting and, above all, so believable. But what makes them truly compelling is Maugham's attitude to them. For all his misogyny, as Anthony Curtis has very shrewdly pointed out, Maugham had ''the most remarkable empathy with the sex.'' His heroines may well be foolish (Kitty Fane), promiscuous (Rosie Gann), hypocritical (Julia Lambert), bitchy (Isabel Bradley), nymphomaniac (Bertha Craddock) or cynical (Louise) but they could always count on Maugham's compassion, understanding and sympathy. Even the disgusting Mildred Rodgers is never all black or all of a piece, not to mention that her egoism and callousness always have a perfect match in Philip Carey's servility and masochism. Even when women cause tragedies, or commit shocking crimes, or indulge in incestuous relationships, or kill themselves under tragic circumstances, Maugham never judge or condemn them; he always is content to understand.

And this superficial survey of the female characters in his fiction does not even take into account the wise and full of common sense women of the world, like Miss Ley or Norah Nesbit for instance, or the long line of charming ladies with much more redeeming qualities than many women in the real life, like Catalina or Betty Weldon-Burns to name but two, not to mention the extraordinary number of captivating females in Maugham's plays: from Lady Frederick to Constance Middleton, for well over two decades in almost every play of Maugham an irrestitible lady could be found. When all is said and done, Maugham's so called misogyny is a little more than pure myth.

Strangely enough, exactly the same is true about Maugham's most notorious quality - his cynicism - which also has a very solid base in his early notes. Quite a few of the them deal with unworthy motives behind apparent goodness, the essential dishonesty of human relations, the selfish base of altruism, love as a mere trick for propagation of species and so on and so forth. Yet again though, if one looks in Maugham's later works, one may well be ''shocked'' to discover that a great many years after these notes were jotted down Maugham came to value human goodness as the most precious thing a human being can possess; a virtue way above beauty, truth or love; the real purpose of great art and the rare gift for its appreciation. In the end, Maugham's notorious cynicism is in fact far more balanced a view of human nature than most people who never bother to read him carefully think.

What about of Maugham's atheism? Not only was it a fact, but actually the lack of religious belief was one of the most consistent beliefs throughout his life. In his early notes it is quite brutal indeed:

I'm glad I don't believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness, I think that no belief can be more ignoble.

Or is it that the missionaries think that God will condemn to endless torment all who do not share their particular beliefs? No wonder they think you're cursing and swearing when you say, Good God!

Such an attitude may not be appealing to tender devotees, like Graham Greene for instance, but neither is it devoid of common sense, cynical as it may seem to some:

The belief of God is not a matter of common sense, or logic, or argument, but of feeling. It is as impossible to prove the existence of God as to disprove it. I do not believe in God. I see no need of such an idea. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I find the notion of future punishment outrageous and of future reward extravagant. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live; I shall return to the earth I came from. Yet I can imagine that at some future date I may believe in God; but it will be as now, when I don't believe in Him, not a matter of reasoning or of observation, but only of feeling.

Men, commonplace and ordinary, do not seem to me fit for the tremendous fact of eternal life. With their passions, their little virtues and their little vices, they are well enough suited to the workaday world; but the conception of immortality is much too vast for beings cast in so small a mould. I have more than once seen men die, peacefully or tragically, and never have I seen in their last moments anything to suggest that their spirit was everlasting. They die as a dog dies.

It is a revealing experience to compare these notes with the ones made more than four decades later, in 1941, when Maugham was in his late sixties. His style has become much more refined and exquisite, but his atheism - though he always described himself as agnostic - is as fierce and implacable as ever:

They ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to him and I don't know what else; it seems to me so strange that they never credit him with common-sense or allow him tolerance. If he knew as much about human nature as I do he'd know how weak men are and how little control they have over their passions, he'd know how full of fear they are and how pitiful, he'd know how much goodness there is even in the worst and how much wickedness in the best. If he's capable of feeling he must be capable of remorse, and when he considers what a hash he's made in the creation of human kind can he feel anything but that? The wonder is that he does not make use of his omnipotence to annihilate himself. Perhaps that's just what he has done.

But why should man be humble when he comes face to face with God? Because God is better and wiser and more powerful than man? A poor reason. No better than that my maid should humble herself before me because I'm white, have more money and am better educated than she is. I should have thought it was God who would have cause to be humble when he reflects upon what an indifferent job he has made in the creation of a human being.

Somerset Maugham lost his faith in the Christian God somewhere in his adolescence and never regained it, nor did he find any other religious system more acceptable. Religious maniacs may sneer at such views and bask in their supposed spiritual elevation, but I find Maugham's arguments not only disturbing and shattering, but also compelling and convincing. He could never understand how God, in a pretty shameful alliance with the Church, could claim such nonsense that pleasure is harmful or that suffering ennobles. Maugham saw a great deal of both and knew pretty well that both precepts are hokum. Nor could he reconcile himself to the existence of God who is less tolerant than himself, much less could he understand the compatibility of an all-powerful and all-good deity with all misery, pain and suffering in the world. There is something disconcertingly inspiring in the consistency of Maugham's atheism and something not a little disquieting in his strong argumentation.

Those early notes in A Writer's Notebook, for all their superficiality and dogmatism from time to time, are a most thorough guide to the formation of one of the most fascinating personalities in the history of literature. By the age of 30, Maugham had already had his views of life and human nature fully formed, but they never were rigid and immutable: some, like his atheism, never changed a bit; others, like his misogyny, cynicism and appreciation of art, changed almost out of recognition. By way of a little diversion, these early pages also contain a good deal of jottings in search of the rich and florid writing style that was popular at the time. Fortunately for Maugham, and for the world literature, he recognised his limitations early in his life and afterwards aimed at simplicity and lucidity - areas in which he has hardly been equalled, let alone surpassed. That's why it is indeed diverting for one to see the most odious purple patch written by no other but Somerset Maugham himself.

The ''second part'' of A Writer's Notebook, that is the notes made between 1914 and 1940, are the best possible illustration of another phenomenon that has become synonymous with the name of Somerset Maugham: his passion for travel. Probably no other writer has ever travelled more than Maugham did. Travel changed his outlook to an unprecedented degree, more than any other single factor in his life. It gave his work cosmopolitan nature and worldliness that have become all but Maugham's trade mark. Perusing his travel impressions is a most absorbing business full of insight about Maugham's personality and especially about his work, much of which was firmly rooted in fact and greatly inspired by travel.

The First World War was by far the most eventful time in Maugham's whole life. On a more personal level, he married, became a father and met his lifelong companion, secretary and lover, Gerald Haxton; you won't find a single line about all that among the notes of course; Maugham was always most reticent about his private life - as every fairly normal man should be. On a professional level though, Maugham had to remember some of his medical skills in the beginning of the war when he was sent in France (1914), and later he played dangerous spy games in Petrograd (1917) where he was sent with the impossible mission to stop the Bolsheviks. The former experience is supplied with just a few notes but they describe the horrors of the war so graphically that I am glad there are no more of them; the latter event, however, has an abundant amount of notes which deal in a most perceptive, if not at all flattering, way with the Russian psyche and the Russian literature. Those who expect mundane details from Maugham's spy missions would surely be disappointed, those interested in human nature are bound to be fascinated.

It is not an accident that one of the years in the book most abundantly full of notes is 1916. In this year Maugham made his first journey to the tropics, to the South Seas to be exact, which later in the 1920s was followed by several others, each lasting for at least several months. Their impact on Maugham could hardly be overestimated: no fewer than 3 novels, 3 short collections and 2 travel books of his works have entirely tropical settings, dealing with extremes of human behaviour unknown in the European or American societies. Even though all notes that were later incorporated into Maugham's travel books are of course omitted, there is still plenty of fascinating descriptions of mysterious places and, above all, colourful characters.

Sometimes one can literally see how some of Maugham's most famous short stories emerged from these notes. The most notable example is of course his most celebrated story - ''Rain'' - whose main characters' physical descriptions Maugham took word for word from his notebook; but for the rest he exercised a great deal of invention, imagination and sense for dramatic climax. Interestingly, these few notes about ''Rain'' were published by Maugham as early as 1934 when he included them in his absorbing preface to East and West, the first volume with his collected short stories. Among the notes here one can also meet the real life predecessor of Alban from ''The Door of Opportunity'', better known under the catchy nickname Powder-Puff Percy, or the scanty facts on which Maugham constructed few others of his famous exotic stories, like ''Before the Party'' and ''Red'' for example.

What becomes immediately apparent to anybody who reads these pages and is already familiar with the final products is the immense power of what Maugham himself confessed to be poor: his imagination. He always claimed that he never wrote anything from scratch; he always needed an incident or a character to fire his creative process. But if he didn't disingenuously omit any additional notes which he used about writing of these short stories, not impossible but surely unlikely, Somerset Maugham must indeed have been capable of flights of imagination he was never given a proper credit for, not to mention his superb psychological insight which could have come only from himself.

As for the variety of locales, it is quite enough to make one dizzy. Only in the Far East and the South Seas, together with Maugham one may visit Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Borneo, Sarawak, Thursday Island and many, many other rather obscure places. These notes are also the primary source of some of the most famous incidents in Maugham's life which all his biographers invariably quote word by word, like his nearly being drown in a tidal wave (1922), or his acquiring the so called ''Gauguin-on-glass'' (1916) which was to adorn his study in the Villa Mauresque for many years. They make as compelling a read as any short story; indeed, the former incident, or accident, became the basis for one: ''The Yellow Streak''.

Together with Maugham, one may also visit Chicago (1919) where he gives an almost revolting description of a slaughter-house in which ''hog follows hog with a mechanical regularity which reminds one of the moving steps of an escalator''; I guess some tender vegetarian souls might feel quite sick after reading this. Maugham's visit to the grim St. Laurent de Maroni (1936), the French penal settlement in South America, is also documented here and one could easily recognise some material that was later used in Maugham's two short stories set in this cheerless and depressing place: ''A Man with a Conscience'' and ''An Official Position''. His only travel to India in the winter in 1938 is also described memorably and later proved indispensable for Maugham's last major novel, The Razor's Edge (1944), and especially for his essay ''The Saint'' from Points of View (1958). In the end of ''1938'' comes one of Maugham's most famous quotes:

Wellington is supposed to have said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton. It may be that the historians of the future will say that India was lost in the public schools of England.

Two more notes about the ''second part'' must be made. In the end of the ''1929'' there is something that must be seen to be believed: the one and only case in the whole of Maugham's published writings of - poetry. It is a short, most intense and passionate love poem, most probably dedicated to Gerald Haxton, though Maugham is of course silent on the subject. The critics are always apt to dismiss it as ''rather poor verse'', but I find the piece very moving. It must also be stressed that in this ''second part'', though travel takes by far the largest part of the notes, profound and stirring reflections are not missing at all. Two of my personal favourites are Maugham discussing two of his most cherished topics: the writer's craft and the work of art, written in 1930 and 1933, respectively:

It is essential for a writer unceasingly to study men, and it is a fault in me that I find it often a very tedious business. It requires a great deal of patience. There are of course men of marked idiosyncrasy who offer themselves to your observation with all the precision of a finished picture, they are 'characters', striking and picturesque figures; and they often take pleasure in displaying their peculiarity, as though they amused themselves and they wanted you to share their amusement. But they are few. They stand out of the common run and have at once the advantage and disadvantage of the exceptional. What they have in vividness they are apt to lack in verisimilitude. To study the average man is an affair of quite another sort. He is strangely amorphous. There is someone there, with a character of his own, standing on his own feet, with a hundred peculiarities; but the picture is hazy and confused. Since he does not know himself, how can he tell you anything about himself? However talkative, he is inarticulate. Whatever treasures he has to offer you he conceals with all the more effectiveness that he does not know they are treasures. If you want to make a man out of these crowded shadows, as a sculptor makes a statue from a block of stone, you want time, patience, Chinese ingenuity and a dozen qualities besides. You must be ready to listen for hours to the retailing of second-hand information in order at last to catch the hint or the casual remark that betrays. Really to know men you must be interested in them for their own sake rather than for yours, so that you care for what they say just because they say it.

The Work of Art. When I watch the audience at a concert or the crowd in the picture gallery I ask myself sometimes what exactly is their reaction towards the work of art. It is plain that often they feel deeply, but I do not see that their feeling has any effect, and if it has no effect its value is slender. Art to them is only a recreation or a refuge. It rests them from the work which they consider the justification of their existence or consoles them in their disappointment with reality. It is the glass of beer which the labourer drinks when he pauses in his toil or the peg of gin which the harlot takes to snatch a moment's oblivion from the pain of life. Art for art's sake means no more than gin for gin's sake. The dilettante who cherishes the sterile emotions which he receives from the contemplation of works of art has little reason to rate himself higher than the toper. His is the attitude of the pessimist. Life is a struggle or a weariness and in art he seeks repose or forgetfulness. The pessimist refuses reality, but the artist accepts it. The emotion caused by a work of art has value only if it has an effect on character and so results in action. Whoever is so affected is himself an artist. The artist's response to the work of art is direct and reasonable, for in him the emotion is translated into ideas which are pertinent to his own purposes, and to him ideas are but another form of action. But I do not mean that it is only painters, poets and musicians who can respond profitably to the work of art; the value of art would be much diminished; among artists I include the practitioners of the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life.

The first of these is another proof for Maugham's genuine humility, something he is virtually never given any credit for, since even in his late fifties he continued to study assiduously the human beings around him; as a matter of fact, he continued doing so until the end of his life. The second excerpt is, I believe, Maugham's earliest declaration in print of his dismay with the once popular conception of ''art for art's sake'' and his own mature view that the value of art lies in the effect on character which leads to right action and, ultimately and hopefully, to human goodness. In Don Fernando (1935) and especially in The Summing Up (1938) Maugham was to write a great deal on the subject; so did he in one of his few essays not connected with writing or writers but dedicated to Kant and aesthetics instead: Reflections on a Certain Book from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952).

But probably my favourite quote in this ''second part'', if not in the whole book, is one of the most remarkable examples of Maugham's amazing candour and singularly great ability for dispassionate self-analysis, coupled with exactly the right doses of modesty and humility. This is a true gem that might have been taken from The Summing Up (1938), had it not been written twenty years earlier, in 1917. The last sentence is indeed something like my personal motto:

My native gifts are not remarkable, but I have a certain force of character which has enabled me in a measure to supplement my deficiencies. I have common-sense. Most people cannot see anything, but I can see what is in the front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating. For many years I have been described as a cynic; I told the truth. I wish no one to take me for other than I am, and on the other hand I see no need to accept others' pretences.

The ''last part'' of A Writer's Notebook are actually only the notes under ''1941'' as well as the two pieces that were written in 1944 and 1949 and serve as a kind of postscript. The former is the longest and most note-productive year in the book after 1916, but unlike the earlier one, 1941 is entirely occupied with observations, thoughts and reflections instead with travel impressions. Indeed, all notes from that year were written in America where Maugham was doing his best to relax having fled from France on the board of a collier with 500 or so other British subjects and having survived a good many bombings in London. In addition to the disconcerting yet exhilarating musings on God's contradictions quoted in the beginning, there is a lot more to enjoy here. Like some of the most often quoted and wittiest thoughts of Maugham:

I made up my mind long ago that life was too short to do anything for myself that I could pay others to do for me. I would now except shaving. I am amazed when I see busy men, who tell you their time is valuable, expose themselves on six days a week to the long, tedious and elaborate operation that American barbers have made of it.

There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be able to tell you what mutton tastes like. It is enough if he eats a cutlet. But he should do this.

Plumbing. When you consider how indifferent Americans are to the quality and cooking of the food they put into their insides, it cannot but strike you as peculiar that they should take such pride in the mechanical appliances they use for its excretion.

Gushing, she said to me: 'What does it feel like to be famous?'
I suppose I've been asked the question twenty times and I never could think how to answer, but to-day, too late, it suddenly occurred to me.
'It's like having a string of pearls given you. It's nice, but after a while, if you think of it at all, it's only to wonder if they're real or cultured.'
And now that I have my reply ready I don't expect anyone will ever put the question to me again.


Here is also one of the very few examples in Maugham's oeuvre when he wrote, not about the individual, but about the masses and touched on politics. As a rule of thumb, Maugham was never really good in such analyses and for my part I am glad he always had the common sense not to waste his time with politics. But this is not to say that the little he did write on the subject is to be dismissed lightly. Certainly, this passage on democracy is worth a serious pondering:

I wonder that the people who are concerned for the survival of democracy are not anxious at the inordinate power it gives to oratory. A man may be possessed of a disinterested desire to serve his country, he may have wisdom and prudence, courage and a knowledge of affairs, he will never achieve a political position in which he can exercise his powers unless he has also the gift of the gab. [...] ...but is it not frightening that the indispensable qualification a politician needs to conduct the complicated business of a modern nation is a voice that sounds well over the air or the knack of inventing striking phrases? It is only a happy accident if he combines these gifts with common-sense, integrity and foresight. The appeal of oratory is not to reason, but to emotion; one would have thought that when measures that may decide fate of a nation are under consideration it was pure madness to allow opinion to be swayed by emotion rather than guided by reason. Democracy seldom had a ruder shock than when a phrase - you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold - nearly put an ignorant and conceited fool in the White House.

But surely Somerset Maugham was at his element only when he dealt with the personality of the individual, though on a grand scale, if I may put it that way. In the same 1941 comes also his searing observation about humility which I dare consider profound:

Humility is a virtue that is enjoined upon us. So far as the artist is concerned, with good reason; indeed, when he compares what he has done with what he wanted to do, when he compares his disappointing efforts with the great masterpieces of the world, he finds it the easiest of virtues to practice. Unless he is humble he cannot hope to improve. Self-satisfaction is fatal to him. The strange thing is that we are embarrassed by humility in others. We are ill at ease when they humble themselves before us. I don't know why this should be unless it is that there is something servile in it which offends our sense of human dignity. When I was engaging two coloured maids to look after me the overseer of the plantation who produced them, as a final recommendation, said: 'They're good niggers, they're humble.' Sometimes when one of them hides her face with her fingers to speak to me or with a little nervous giggle asks if she can have something I've thrown away, I'm inclined to cry: 'For heaven's sake don't be so humble.'
Or is it that humility in others forces upon us the consciousness of our own unworthiness?


The last few pages of A Writer's Notebook, that is the postscript written in 1944 and its supplement added five years later, are immensely affecting. They form a poignant and most suitable coda to a compelling volume. Maugham describes ruefully how he spent alone his seventieth birthday and for the most part of this piece he is naturally occupied with the somewhat forbidding matter of old age. But he also speculates about the nature of the soul, the possibility of reincarnation and some of his literary works. With regard to the soul, Maugham postulates again here his view that it must have some foundation in the physical substance of the body, though he is fully aware that most people shrink from such a notion; indeed, the critics have speedily proclaimed Maugham for mere materialist not in the least interested in matters of the spirit. Nothing could be further from truth - but try to explain this to people who spend their lives digging skeletons from other people's cupboards in order to compensate for their own inferiority complexes.

Finally, in these last pages one may see, yet again, how Maugham designed the pattern and fulfilled it. Sometimes I am inclined to think that Maugham is a little disingenuous about this famous pattern of his; I wonder if he didn't fit the pattern to life already lived. But there is evidence that this was not the case, and some of it is here: in 1944 Maugham, having just finished The Razor's Edge, speaks of three more novels he was to write before call it a day; although he was doubtful that he would ever write them, five years later two of these were indeed already written and published; needless to say, they were exactly the ones he had envisaged: a miracle story in XVI century Spain (Catalina) and a story about Machiavelli's intrigues with Cesare Borgia (Then and Now). The last novel - a slum one like his first, 50 years ago - he declared that he would leave unwritten. He was as good as his word. As always.

One of the characteristics of a great book certainly is the fact that it makes any reviews perfectly superfluous. It is entirely self-sufficient. It must be experienced personally and intimately. Such a book A Writer's Notebook is. Its wealth of creative insights, amusing anecdotes, confidential confessions, profound observations is simply staggering and inexhaustible. I can go on quoting and musing over it for ages to come. It is one of these books that one can always pick up, open at random and immerse oneself; one of these books that can always bear yet another round of re-reading, of few compelling pages here or a couple of paragraphs there. And you may rest assured that you will not be quite the same afterwards. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 6, 2010 |
From 1892 to 1949, Somerset Maugham recorded his thoughts and observations in this journal, which confirms his acute vision and his outstanding ability as a creative artist. "The Writer's Notebook" contains his notes while a medical student in London and follows his career as he travelled around the world developing his incomparable talent. At times light-hearted, occasionally barbed, this is a revealing and curiously intimate collection of the sketches and ideas of one of literature's most compelling personalities.
2 vote antimuzak | Nov 14, 2005 |
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In loving memory of my friend
Frederick Gerald Haxton
1892-1944
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The Journal of Jules Renard is one of
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Considering how foolishly people act and how pleasantly they prattle, perhaps it would be better for the world if they talked more and did less.

At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too much, and talk well but not too wisely.

If forty million people say a foolish thing does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

In love one should exercise economy of intercourse. None of us can love for ever. Love will be stronger and will last longer if there are impediments of its gratification. If a lover is prevented from enjoying his love by absence, difficulty of access, or by the caprice or coldness of his beloved, he can find a little consolation in the thought that when his wishes are fulfilled his delight will be intense. But love being what it is, should there be no hindrances, he will pay no attention to the considerations of prudence; and his punishment will be satiety. The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.

It is doubtless true that we owe many of our virtues to Christianity, but it is equally true that we owe to it some of our vices. The love of self is the mainspring of every man's action, it is the essence of his character; and it is fair to suppose that it is necessary for his preservation. But Christianity has made a vice of it. It has decided that man should have neither love, nor care, nor thought for himself, but only for his soul, and by demanding of him that he should behave otherwise than as his nature prompts, has forced him into hypocrisy. It has aroused a sense of guilt in him when he follows his natural instincts, and a feeling of resentment when others, even though not at his expense, follow theirs. If selfishness were not regarded as a vice no one would be more inconvenienced by it than he is by the Law of Gravity; no one would expect his fellow-men to act otherwise than according to their own interests; and it would seem reasonable to him that they should behave as selfishly as in point of fact they do.

The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.

The Professor of Gynaecology. He began his course of lectures as follows: Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.
I thought it a prettily-balanced sentence.

A woman may be as wicked as she likes, but if she isn't pretty it won't do her much good.

If women exhibit less emotion at pain it does not prove that they bear it better, but rather that they feel it less.

No man in his heart is quite so cynical as a well-bread woman.

An acquaintance with the rudiments of physiology will teach you more about the feminine character than all the philosophy and wise-saws in the world.

I'm glad I don't believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness, I think that no belief can be more ignoble.

Or is it that the missionaries think that God will condemn to endless torment all who do not share their particular beliefs? No wonder they think you're cursing and swearing when you say, Good God!

he belief of God is not a matter of common sense, or logic, or argument, but of feeling. It is as impossible to prove the existence of God as to disprove it. I do not believe in God. I see no need of such an idea. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I find the notion of future punishment outrageous and of future reward extravagant. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live; I shall return to the earth I came from. Yet I can imagine that at some future date I may believe in God; but it will be as now, when I don't believe in Him, not a matter of reasoning or of observation, but only of feeling.

Men, commonplace and ordinary, do not seem to me fit for the tremendous fact of eternal life. With their passions, their little virtues and their little vices, they are well enough suited to the workaday world; but the conception of immortality is much too vast for beings cast in so small a mould. I have more than once seen men die, peacefully or tragically, and never have I seen in their last moments anything to suggest that their spirit was everlasting. They die as a dog dies.

They ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to him and I don't know what else; it seems to me so strange that they never credit him with common-sense or allow him tolerance. If he knew as much about human nature as I do he'd know how weak men are and how little control they have over their passions, he'd know how full of fear they are and how pitiful, he'd know how much goodness there is even in the worst and how much wickedness in the best. If he's capable of feeling he must be capable of remorse, and when he considers what a hash he's made in the creation of human kind can he feel anything but that? The wonder is that he does not make use of his omnipotence to annihilate himself. Perhaps that's just what he has done.

But why should man be humble when he comes face to face with God? Because God is better and wiser and more powerful than man? A poor reason. No better than that my maid should humble herself before me because I'm white, have more money and am better educated than she is. I should have thought it was God who would have cause to be humble when he reflects upon what an indifferent job he has made in the creation of a human being.

Wellington is supposed to have said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton. It may be that the historians of the future will say that India was lost in the public schools of England.
It is essential for a writer unceasingly to study men, and it is a fault in me that I find it often a very tedious business. It requires a great deal of patience. There are of course men of marked idiosyncrasy who offer themselves to your observation with all the precision of a finished picture, they are 'characters', striking and picturesque figures; and they often take pleasure in displaying their peculiarity, as though they amused themselves and they wanted you to share their amusement. But they are few. They stand out of the common run and have at once the advantage and disadvantage of the exceptional. What they have in vividness they are apt to lack in verisimilitude. To study the average man is an affair of quite another sort. He is strangely amorphous. There is someone there, with a character of his own, standing on his own feet, with a hundred peculiarities; but the picture is hazy and confused. Since he does not know himself, how can he tell you anything about himself? However talkative, he is inarticulate. Whatever treasures he has to offer you he conceals with all the more effectiveness that he does not know they are treasures. If you want to make a man out of these crowded shadows, as a sculptor makes a statue from a block of stone, you want time, patience, Chinese ingenuity and a dozen qualities besides. You must be ready to listen for hours to the retailing of second-hand information in order at last to catch the hint or the casual remark that betrays. Really to know men you must be interested in them for their own sake rather than for yours, so that you care for what they say just because they say it.

The Work of Art. When I watch the audience at a concert or the crowd in the picture gallery I ask myself sometimes what exactly is their reaction towards the work of art. It is plain that often they feel deeply, but I do not see that their feeling has any effect, and if it has no effect its value is slender. Art to them is only a recreation or a refuge. It rests them from the work which they consider the justification of their existence or consoles them in their disappointment with reality. It is the glass of beer which the labourer drinks when he pauses in his toil or the peg of gin which the harlot takes to snatch a moment's oblivion from the pain of life. Art for art's sake means no more than gin for gin's sake. The dilettante who cherishes the sterile emotions which he receives from the contemplation of works of art has little reason to rate himself higher than the toper. His is the attitude of the pessimist. Life is a struggle or a weariness and in art he seeks repose or forgetfulness. The pessimist refuses reality, but the artist accepts it. The emotion caused by a work of art has value only if it has an effect on character and so results in action. Whoever is so affected is himself an artist. The artist's response to the work of art is direct and reasonable, for in him the emotion is translated into ideas which are pertinent to his own purposes, and to him ideas are but another form of action. But I do not mean that it is only painters, poets and musicians who can respond profitably to the work of art; the value of art would be much diminished; among artists I include the practitioners of the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life.

My native gifts are not remarkable, but I have a certain force of character which has enabled me in a measure to supplement my deficiencies. I have common-sense. Most people cannot see anything, but I can see what is in the front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating. For many years I have been described as a cynic; I told the truth. I wish no one to take me for other than I am, and on the other hand I see no need to accept others' pretences. 

I made up my mind long ago that life was too short to do anything for myself that I could pay others to do for me. I would now except shaving. I am amazed when I see busy men, who tell you their time is valuable, expose themselves on six days a week to the long, tedious and elaborate operation that American barbers have made of it.

There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be able to tell you what mutton tastes like. It is enough if he eats a cutlet. But he should do this.

Plumbing. When you consider how indifferent Americans are to the quality and cooking of the food they put into their insides, it cannot but strike you as peculiar that they should take such pride in the mechanical appliances they use for its excretion.

Gushing, she said to me: 'What does it feel like to be famous?'
I suppose I've been asked the question twenty times and I never could think how to answer, but to-day, too late, it suddenly occurred to me.
'It's like having a string of pearls given you. It's nice, but after a while, if you think of it at all, it's only to wonder if they're real or cultured.'
And now that I have my reply ready I don't expect anyone will ever put the question to me again.

I wonder that the people who are concerned for the survival of democracy are not anxious at the inordinate power it gives to oratory. A man may be possessed of a disinterested desire to serve his country, he may have wisdom and prudence, courage and a knowledge of affairs, he will never achieve a political position in which he can exercise his powers unless he has also the gift of the gab. [...] ...but is it not frightening that the indispensable qualification a politician needs to conduct the complicated business of a modern nation is a voice that sounds well over the air or the knack of inventing striking phrases? It is only a happy accident if he combines these gifts with common-sense, integrity and foresight. The appeal of oratory is not to reason, but to emotion; one would have thought that when measures that may decide fate of a nation are under consideration it was pure madness to allow opinion to be swayed by emotion rather than guided by reason. Democracy seldom had a ruder shock than when a phrase - you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold - nearly put an ignorant and conceited fool in the White House. 

Humility is a virtue that is enjoined upon us. So far as the artist is concerned, with good reason; indeed, when he compares what he has done with what he wanted to do, when he compares his disappointing efforts with the great masterpieces of the world, he finds it the easiest of virtues to practice. Unless he is humble he cannot hope to improve. Self-satisfaction is fatal to him. The strange thing is that we are embarrassed by humility in others. We are ill at ease when they humble themselves before us. I don't know why this should be unless it is that there is something servile in it which offends our sense of human dignity. When I was engaging two coloured maids to look after me the overseer of the plantation who produced them, as a final recommendation, said: 'They're good niggers, they're humble.' Sometimes when one of them hides her face with her fingers to speak to me or with a little nervous giggle asks if she can have something I've thrown away, I'm inclined to cry: 'For heaven's sake don't be so humble.'

Or is it that humility in others forces upon us the consciousness of our own unworthiness?
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From 1892, when he was eighteen, until 1949, when this book was first published, Somerset Maugham kept a notebook. It is without doubt one of his most important works. Part autobiographical, part confessional, packed with observations, confidences, experiments and jottings it is a rich and exhilarating admission into this great writer's workshop

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:24 -0400)

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