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Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (edition 1989)

by Robert Calder

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Waldstein's review
Robert Calder

Willie:
The Life of W. Somerset Maugham

Heinemann, Hardback, 1989.

8vo. xviii+429 pp.

First published in 1989.

Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgements
Preface

1. Orphan: 1874-1889
2. Apprentice: 1889-1897
3. Struggles: 1897-1907
4. Syrie and Gerald: 1908-1918
5. Wanderer: 1918-1929
6. The Gentleman in the Villa: 1929-1932
7. Curtain-calls: 1932-1939
8. The Old Party at War: 1939-1946
9. Grand Old Man: 1946-1958
10. The Burden of One's Memories: 1958-1962

Notes
Index

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

This book started so promisingly. As it turned out later, it is just a little better than the average, and appalling, biographical crap about Somerset Maugham.

I frankly admit to having been prejudiced against Mr Calder's book before even opened it. Having read two other full scale biographies of Somerset Maugham, it could hardly have been otherwise. Yet, I have done my best to take the book as dispassionately as possible. First published in 1989, Mr Calder's attempt to encompass Maugham's life and work in one volume fits nicely between Ted Morgan's Maugham: A Biography (1980) and Jeffrey Meyers' Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004); as far as I know the only other detailed biography is the very recently (2009) published The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings which I haven't read yet. The pictorial biographies by Frederic Raphael (W. Somerset Maugham and His World, 1976) and Anthony Curtis (Somerset Maugham, 1978) should naturally be excluded from such company because their forte are the illustrations, not the text. So, where does Mr Calder's attempt fit in the whole picture?

If anything, Mr Calder's biography is certainly superior to Morgan's gossipy hackwork or Meyers' almost amateurish writing. Not much though. Unlike Morgan's superficial view of Maugham's personality and neglect of his works, Mr Calder spends a considerable amount of space discussing both matters, and unlike Meyers, he lacks the drudgery of endless plot retelling without single point of interest. Indeed, the preface of Mr Calder's book is an excellent overview of the literature about Maugham, though only until 1989 of course, in which the author doesn't mince words about Ted Morgan's chief drawback, namely an essential distaste for the subject. Mr Calder certainly is more sympathetic and he understands perfectly well that Maugham's life was inextricably intertwined with his personality and even more so with his work. He probably has as many facts as Morgan does, quite a lot that is, and his research is no less impressive: virtually every quote is supplied with a footnote with the source; most chapters have about 100 of these. It cannot be denied that Mr Calder does have several perceptive passages about Willie the man, who apparently was strikingly different creature than the public persona known worldwide as William Somerset Maugham. Especially his childhood - a strange hybrid of Paris bliss and Blackstable horror - and his early years of struggle are vividly and poignantly described and Mr Calder has something fascinating to say about Maugham's shyness, self-consciousness and insecurity which marked his whole life, and his works as well of course. The big problem is that these valuable insights are greatly diluted with an impossible amount of junk.

To start with the minor faults of Mr Calder's book, though he is quite readable, from time to time he is apt to be very dull indeed. As always, Maugham put it best of all stating once that he had an interesting and varied life, but not an adventurous one. It must have been great fun to live such a life, but reading about it can often be extremely tedious business. It is perhaps inevitable, but occasionally Mr Calder lapses into mechanical narrative of events which sound like a chronology section of a history textbook; not so seldom does he indulges in excruciatingly boring descriptions of dinner parties and such like social activities supplying several lines long lists of guests until he manages to imitate who's who of the celebrity world at the time. The phone book makes far more interesting read. Pretty much the same is often true for Maugham's numerous travels which Mr Calder is prone to describe in the manner of the cheapest travel guides on the market. His striving not to leave a single stone unturned or a mundane detail untold about the great writer may well make his prose occasionally look so vapid that it is hardly readable.

Another caveat is concerned with Mr Calder's research. Spectacular and meticulous as it is, he is inclined just a trifle too often to accept oral testimony at face value, often made decades after the events in question and sometimes even by far not a first hand one: there are cases of the type ''X said to Y but Z overheard and told me''. Surprisingly often Mr Calder remains passive and opinionless, though he sometimes dissects problematic events from several different points of view, once or twice he directly takes Ted Morgan as a sparring partner. Also, I can't help feeling there is certain tendency of idealisation of Alan Searle, Maugham's second long term companion who took the place of Gerald Haxton after his death. Since Searle granted Calder's several interviews, while refusing to cooperate with Morgan, it is only too natural that the author should be less harsh and more sympathetic than it is usual in this case. Last but not least, Mr Calder is not immune to neglect some of Maugham's works, either. The major novels he discusses extensively, in the case of Of Human Bondafe too extensively indeed, obviously taking literally Maugham's famous statement that he had used everything that happened to him in his fiction. But such important novels like Theatre or Christmas Holiday are mentioned in passing, and so are crucial for Maugham's stature as a short story writer collections like Ah King or First Person Singular. Well, perhaps we are well rid of Mr Calder's reflections on these books. It is also striking to note that one of the most often quoted authors among his colleagues in the field of Maugham biography is Frederic Raphael: certainly one of the most indifferent, trashy and meretricious writers about Maugham.

Now, of course, writing a biography of Somerset Maugham is a very tall order. First of all, he was a writer himself - and a professional one at that - who wrote a great deal about himself. Furthermore, he was one of the most celebrated and productive writers of his time, with a writing career including the publishing of 20 novels, 9 short story collections, 24 full length plays, 3 travel books and 10 volumes with essays and memoirs, not to mention that it spanned more than 60 years, the fall of the British empire, two World wars, and the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the gramophone, the telephone and the cinema. Most of his works are subtly veiled versions of his life and character in which the border between fact and fiction is so blurred that it is all but indistinguishable. His personality in private and his public image were worlds apart; so were his two (at least) private lives. Despite his compelling candour, Maugham could sometimes be cunningly disingenuous, artfully evading some hard truths. His oft-repeated claim that he was poor in his youth, for example, is something Mr Calder refers several times to, showing that Maugham was poor only in relation to the glittering society he moved in as a promising young novelist; he was never poor enough as to make both ends meet with difficulty; for one thing, he had 150 pounds per year from his father, and he also made about 100 pounds annually from writing. Nor, probably, was Maugham so little concerned with the lots of criticism he received during his life. This is indeed apparent to everybody who reads him carefully. It is doubtful, however, that Maugham ever took the critics very seriously - and rightly so. In short, Somerset Maugham was a complicated man, a perfect incarnation of the contradictory and unpredictable human nature he was so fond of writing about all his life. And what a life! Back in his youth did Maugham make his famous pattern, then he struggled for a decade until success on the stage gave him financial and, much more importantly, artistic freedom. After that he went to fulfill his pattern and his character in the course of well over half a century. If there ever was such a thing as perfectly lived life, Somserset Maugham must be the most perfect example of it. Yes, it is a difficult subject for a biography all right, much more so since any attempt for telling the life must necessarily include discussion of his complete works. So one must make allowances for unsuccessful attempts. But there is no excuse for those who use Maugham as a scapegoat for their own severe inferiority complex taking a keen pleasure in exposing his defects at expense of his virtues, like Mr Morgan, or those who form a number of wild preconceptions which then try to fit into the author's life, personality and work merely to satisfy their own vanity - like Mr Calder.

Even though Mr Calder's treatment of Maugham's work and personality is a great deal better than that of either Meyers or Morgan, it is not without several grave faults. It is not for nothing that his earlier critical study of the great British writer is called William Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom (1972), for Mr Calder is a little obsessed with freedom which is used a trifle too often to explain how Maugham's literary creations came to this world. Yet, he is often interesting and sometimes compelling on the subject. The real, inexcusable and unforgivable mistake of Mr Calder is his treatment of the two most controversial and complicated matters about Maugham: his homosexuality and his marriage. Certainly, these are matters that must be dealt candidly with in any biography of Maugham. Let's have a closer look how Mr Calder deals with them.

The beginning, as I have already said, was promising, even in terms of homosexuality. Mr Calder makes a commendably scientific attempt to explain Maugham's sexual orientation, its roots in his childhood, the reasons why it should have been such. He examines in detail the long shadow the trial against Oscar Wilde cast over all homosexuals at the time and how in his early years Maugham tried so hard to be heterosexual, reaching his personal culmination with his being a husband and a father. Mr Calder is perhaps a bit too detailed and way too biased, but this is understandable since the matter is important for Maugham's life and his biographer is human after all. Unfortunately, as almost every other writer about Maugham, Mr Calder grossly overemphasizes the matter attaching to it importance which is simply out of proportion, not to say incompatible with any fairly normal mind. By ''normal'' I do not mean ''heterosexual'' of course, but a mind not inclined to overlook spiritual matters at the expense of the sexual ones, be the latter physical or mental. But this is precisely what Mr Calder most unfortunately does. When he gets to the delicate topic of how Maugham's homosexuality surfaced up in his writings, I think I can safely say that nobody has ever written greater nonsense that Mr Calder did in this biography. It passes belief how he could think seriously and sincerely enough about such incredible rubbish as to publish it. Alas, he seems to be honest about all that crappy stuff.

I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps it is better to do so with the author's own words. In a remarkable imitation of common sense, Mr Calder states at one place that:

Any attempt to identify elements of homosexuality in Maugham's works must necessarily be conducted with great caution and a recognition that his main purpose was never the exploration of the homosexual consciousness. The importance of Mildred is not that she represents a male or female object of infatuation, but that she is in either case a powerful and destructive form of emotional enslavement. Fred Blake is attracted to Christessen primarily by his idealism and goodness, and the homosexual appeal is secondary. Larry Darrell's search is for spiritual liberation in Indian mysticism, not in some satisfaction of homosexual instincts. A complete re-reading and revision of Maugham will not therefore uncover a canon of homosexual works.

(The homosexual appeal between Fred and Christessen is not ''secondary'', Robert. It is imaginary.)

But then he claims that, on the other hand, there are more homosexual traits in Maugham's works than is generally acknowledged, making the most preposterous claim that heterosexual readers may well be unaware of them. And then, paragraph after paragraph, Mr Calder goes on to make a really amazing hash of the whole thing. Of course the gorgeous descriptions of male characters like Red or Neil MacAdam from the eponymous stories are here, but what they themselves have to do with homosexuality is still beyond me. Personally, though a male, I do like male bodies too; and I guess if I see a half naked field worker with perfect body I would exclaim just like Maugham once reportedly did: My God, what beauty! But this is not necessarily linked with any sexual attraction. Mr Calder's examples about the Lord Mountdrago, where the main character recounts a dream in which he did horrible things for which people were banished from the society, and especially the incestuous relationship in The Book-Bag being of a homosexual nature are even more, to put it mildly, far-fetched and unconvincing. It might of course have been that Maugham really did consciously put these hints in his works and he did think of them as homosexual ones; that is not impossible, though it certainly is implausible. What Mr Calder seems completely unable to comprehend is that the physical beauty of Red or Neil MacAdam, or the nightmares of Lord Mountdrago, have a great deal of dramatic significance for the stories but are by no means of central importance for their value. To harp repetitively on these putative homosexual elements robs Maugham's works of their complexity and philosophical depth. It makes them sound like a cheap form of escapist porn, or a masturbation exercise in short fiction if you like - for this is precisely how Mr Calder sounds quite often. Nothing could be further from the truth than making mere pegs for hanging homosexual fantasies out of Maugham's stories, as anybody but Mr Calder who ever read these works with an unprejudiced eye knows perfectly well.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite his very sensible statement which I have quoted, Mr Calder shamelessly and obscenely speculates about Larry Darrell and Elliott Templeton from The Razor's Edge both being homosexuals - which is very, very tenuous, at best. He even has the audacity, quoting one Edith Oliver's review from 1986 revival of The Circle, to claim that Arnold and Clive Champion-Cheney are actually homosexual characters, too. Well, his quoted ''argumentation'' about Arnold is certainly weak but the one about Clive is perfectly ridiculous. Just imagine the fellow who has a most amusing speech how he likes old friends, old books but young women, and how he deftly manages affairs with an endless streak of young ladies being a homosexual!

Finally, there is of course The Narrow Corner which is traditionally viewed as one of Maugham's most explicitly homosexual novels, and what a crap all that stuff is! Mr Calder yet again surpassed in the field of the nonsensical everybody before or after him, including the cheap vulgarity of Frederic Raphael. He quotes at length one of the most powerful passages from the novel which describes the relationship between Fred and Erik, namely how the former was under the spell of the latter's natural goodness, and indeed this is what their spontaneous friendship is made of. It is rather a complicated affair, but it is also entirely spiritual in nature and has absolutely no homosexual elements whatsoever in it! Yet, Mr Calder assures us that no other heterosexual relationship in the novel reached the heights of this one. It seems that the author regards any relationship between male characters as homosexual, no matter the nature. Finally, I came to think I really misunderstand the term ''homosexual''. So I asked the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

homosexual, noun
a person, usually a man, who is sexually attracted to people of the same sex [my italics, of course].

Nowhere in The Narrow Corner, or anywhere else in Maugham's fiction for that matter, is there any explicit hint about any sexual relationship between people of the same sex. All that stuff about thinly veiled homosexual affairs in Maugham's works is nothing but the sick, perverse and revolting fancy of his biographers. Nothing more, nothing less. Even if Maugham really thought of that idiotic stuff while he was writing, I cannot for the life of me believe that he was not infinitely more concerned with far more serious topics. What sense it makes to dwell on these next to nonexistent links I really have no idea.

One feels compelled to ask Robert Calder: if the homosexual matters in Maugham's works are not the main ones, as you do state, why on earth do you spend so much time discussing them? Why do you try, consciously or not, to reduce Maugham's writings to little more than porn stuff under cover?

But Mr Calder goes even further suggesting that the ''homosexual interplay'' between Fred and Erik in The Narrow Corner functions at a ''high level''. Again quoting the moronic remarks of Mr Raphael, he reaches the profound conclusion that Maugham, apparently influenced by the philosophy of G. E. Moore, thought of goodness as mystical experience surely connected with beauty, especially male beauty - which naturally is just another disguise of homosexuality. Now I really am dumbfounded and speechless!

Last but not least, Mr Calder has saved his greatest surprise for the final: how Maugham's homosexuality is reflected in his total output. Now, this is a real gem! Mr Calder cites some psychiatric authority, Leopold Bellak by name, who had made and published a ''scientific'' study of 30 random short stories by Maugham finding a number of specific for homosexuals traits expressed in them, apparently indiscernible for heterosexual readers not having a PhD in psychiatry. Later the psycho was surprised to find - and Mr Calder is truly astonished - that his conclusions are perfectly in line with Maugham's life and character. Well, leaving aside whether psychiatry is a science at all and how objective it is, this fantastic trash was published in 1963 when Maugham was still alive but already senile; more importantly though, by then a good many biographical sketches, articles and such like about him had been published and it is totally inconceivable that this psychotic didn't know anything about Maugham before making his ''objective'' study. Just another example how people form preconceptions about something or somebody based on gossipy rumours and then try to justify them, whereas in fact it should be exactly the opposite. Mr Bellak even hoped that Maugham could undergone psychoanalysis which ''would have enhanced his greatness as a writer by increasing his emotional range'' because - of course, everybody knows that - the generally negative critical view of Maugham is due to ''his emotional constraint''. It is downright unbelievable how far some people - be they psychotic fellows or envy-ridden biographers - could go simply to make themselves a little more important in the eyes of others.

Mr Calder finishes his disgusting ''analysis'' with the positively ludicrous claim that probably a tremendous harm was done to Maugham's creativity when he was restricted in his writings not to express openly his homosexuality. He even quotes the nasty remark of Robin Maugham that his uncle Willie could have written a great novel had he been allowed to give free reign of his homosexuality. Apparently, Somerset Maugham never wrote a great novel. Mr Calder finely notices the ''deliberate restraint'' in Maugham's writings, but it never occurs to him that it might have been due to other reasons than homosexuality, like Maugham's very early formed and rather sceptical, of cynical if you like, view of human nature as a very complex business in which nothing should be taken at face value. More importantly, this notorious restraint may well have been result of Maugham's unwillingness to judge and condemn his fellows; his main desire was always to understand them. Indeed, as always Maugham recognised his limitations better than anybody else and did write about them in The Summing Up with simplicity and candour unknown to his biographers. And if this book has any restraint at all, this is solely because Maugham thought his private and intimate life is nobody's business but his own - and dead right he was.

Of course it is a well known fact that Maugham was predominantly, if not indeed entirely, homosexual, and his words (caveat: quoted by Robin Maugham!) that he tried to persuade himself that he was three quarters normal and one quarter queer while it really was the other way round are well known. But to draw from this such conclusions about his total output is perfectly despicable business, not to mention its absolute meaninglessness for it is everything but convincing. Using the same method, after reading this biography one could say about Mr Calder that he is a homosexual whose quest for freedom has not been so successful and that's why he writes about somebody who did succeed in this endeavour. But such statement would make no sense whatsoever, and nobody cares a rap about Mr Calder anyway. Certainly, one can't write about Somerset Maugham without discussing his homosexuality. It is part and parcel of him. But spending page after page on this matter, elaborating one dirty fantasy after another, diminishing more or less his complete oeuvre as nothing but a veiled form of homosexual escapism has exactly the opposite effect than the one intended by Mr Calder - it makes the matter far too ridiculous to be believed and it casts an ominously dark shadow on the author's sanity, not to mention his integrity. Unless, of course, the reader reads such biographies only in order to be shocked, not caring a bit about the writer's personality. I surmise this is how most people read such books. Surely sex is very important part of one's life, but so is going to the toilet. Why don't we discuss the latter?

Mr Calder's treatment of Maugham's marriage is no less imposing a catastrophe. He rightly says that it was the biggest mistake in Maugham's life - but his ''perceptive'' remarks on the subject end here. Now comes the ranting. At first place, Mr Calder doesn't seem to understand that Maugham's marriage with Syrie was a not a marriage of convenience, as Glenway Wescott stupidly described it once, but much worse: a marriage of obligation. That it was a perfect disaster there is no doubt, but the real bone of contention is Maugham's attitude to his wife and especially his notorious portrait of her in his memoirs Looking Back, serialised in 1962 and never published in book form. Here, yet again, Mr Calder is only too eager to fall into some of the most usual traps of writing about Maugham. He echoes the famous claim that Maugham felt a strong hatred for his wife long after their divorce, but what evidence there is about that remains a mystery to me. To be sure, there are lots of rumours and gossip though. Mr Calder even claims that Maugham based Kitty Fane from The Painted Veil on his wife, and if he is fairly convincing about the purely physical description, he has no idea how on earth Kitty's spiritual odyssey relates to Maugham's marital affairs. Mr Calder is firm that Maugham did not give Syrie enough credit for she was, mind you, more intellectual and with greater taste for arts than her husband admitted. For this the biographer have two main and rather impressive proofs: Syrie's rich library and her circle of remarkable friends. It never occurs to Mr Calder that these friends might have been swayed by her charm and vivacity, traits she did have and Maugham did recognize, not by her intellect. Even less does Mr Calder think that Syrie might easily have had two very different faces: one for the cream of the London society and one for her husband in private. Such social hypocrisy is a well-known phenomenon and Syrie certainly was big enough a figure, especially as a successful decorator later, to have it. Admittedly, as any other celebrity of course, Maugham did exercise such social duplicity, too; Mr Calder is all too eager to accept this, but he doesn't think it possible that his wife might well have done the same. To finish with Syrie's friends, it should be noted that none of them ever had to live with her - despite his numerous travels, Maugham did live with his wife for years. As for her library, here Mr Calder lapses in spectacular inanity indeed. Not one's library itself, but what use one makes of it is the revealing factor. At best, it is debatable that Syrie made any use of hers.

Then there is Looking Back, by far the most notorious thing Maugham ever wrote. Despite Mr Calder's blunt statement that Maugham's attack on his wife is ''indefensible'', I will make a try to defend him. It is a curious paradox when one comes to think about it: when Maugham writes disparagingly about someone, everybody is outraged and call him most unpleasant things; but when others, biographers especially, write obscene, vulgar and ridiculous crap about Maugham, everybody is willing to accept it as a gospel. Syrie was dead in 1962 and could not defend herself? Who cares! She could have said nothing else but her own version, and nobody - her friends included - would have been able to prove which version is the truer one. As a matter of fact, Maugham was dead too - when obscene details about his private life were exposed by seekers of nasty sensations called ''biographers'' by misusing of the word and only for convenience. What is the justification for that digging of skeletons from Maugham's cupboard? The fact that he himself did dig quite a number in his writings? A poor reason. A pitiful excuse for biographical perversity. Maugham may have done so, of course, but he did not just for his own amusement, but chiefly for his works. And his works are still read, though they are not nearly so popular as they were in his lifetime. Surely, Mr Calder understands that if somebody reads his biography of Maugham 20 years after it was first published, this is not because it has some intrinsic value, but solely because it is concerned with Somerset Maugham and has a good deal of useful facts-and-figures stuff.

So what so terrible did Maugham call Syrie in Looking Back? He said that she had no resources in herself and constantly made him scenes; that she was a snob, a social climber, somewhat dishonest in her business deals and pretty promiscuous. Nothing so terrible it seems to me; all these things indeed are quite true for a good many people, especially women. All right, just like Maugham I may be a misogynist. But it seems to me that Mr Calder is a feminist, at least from time to time. He is even dismayed that Maugham described in his memoirs explicitly how his daughter was born out of wedlock and indeed the whole illicit affair with Syrie prior to their marriage, as if that was any secret by 1962. It is fascinating to observe that, for all his self-righteous indignation at Maugham's treatment of his wife, Mr Calder has some pretty saucy things to say about her, too. At one place he casually remarks that Syrie might have blackmailed Maugham to marry her, threatening to expose his homosexuality to the London society and thus ruining his social life there. At another place, even more casually, just by the way, Mr Calder suggests that it is possible that Syrie used her social connections to secure the banishment of Gerald Haxton, Maugham's lover, from Great Britain. Well, Robert, this stuff is at least as nasty as anything Maugham ever wrote about his wife. If Looking Back is ''bad form'' that ''vilified'' Syrie, what on earth Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham should be called? And the poor woman was not alive to defend her in 1989, either. Moreover, her daughter was indeed very much alive at the time. I shudder to think how she felt reading Mr Calder's innocent accusations of her mother being a marital blackmailer and a weaver of nasty intrigues.

On the top of all that contemptible and priggish writing, not to mention conspicuous lack of integrity, Mr Calder has the astonishing audacity to bluntly accuse Maugham of lying and fabrication. Few times does he claim that Looking Back is ''sexually dishonest''. What does that mean, you might ask? It means, Mr Calder would explain to you, that Maugham describes in detail how his marriage fell to pieces without mentioning at all Gerald Haxton. This is another pretty common leitmotiv among Maugham biographers: Gerald was the driving factor behind the stage which ruined Maugham's idyllic marriage. Never has it passed the brilliant mind of a Maugham biographer that he might possibly, just possibly, overestimate the role of Gerald in this case. Surely, he must have played a part in the story, but had he never existed at all, it is perfectly inconceivable that Maugham's marriage would have survived. The truth is that Maugham was not suited for marital or paternal life at all. Moreover, his character seems to have been absolutely incompatible with that of his wife. That's why his marriage of obligation - a doomed affair by default anyway - was a disaster and certainly the gravest mistake he made in his life. It was the only serious mistake in his pattern, though by far less significant that his biographers would make us believe. Well, nobody's perfect. We all make mistakes. If we are clever, we may learn from them; it is useless to dwell on them. Mr Calder, however, doesn't think so. He continues the ''sexual dishonesty'' case with the suggestion that one rather sordid episode in Looking Back referring to how Maugham and his roommate shared girls may actually be about sharing boys. As usual with such statements, the evidence is all but nonexistent. Any trace of sympathy I might have retained for Mr Calder was completely extinguished when the author bluntly said that the letter Maugham quotes in Looking Back is probably a fabrication, one last piece of fiction. His only argument is that it is highly unlikely that Maugham should have kept a copy from such letter for more than 30 years, especially after the upheaval of the Second World War. Very persuasive proof, indeed! The letter in question is from Maugham to Syrie and is certainly the most brutally candid thing ever published under his name, even though Maugham confesses in his memoirs that he might have toned down some of the expressions. Yet, in this legendary letter Maugham is just as harsh to Syrie as he is to himself. As a matter of fact, it must have wanted a lot of courage to publish such thing. As for the fabrication theory, Mr Calder again shows singular lack of intelligence in making such claim. Even if the letter really was a fabrication - something I personally do not in the least believe, but it is possible of course; after all, Maugham was a story teller - there is no reason to suppose that it did not represent his feelings about and experiences with Syrie very accurately indeed.

Perhaps Mr Calder reaches his own peak of deliberate perversity - and he is really alone there - when he states that Looking Back is ''equally shocking for what it reveals about its author''. He then makes a pathetic and shameful attempt to accuse Maugham of dishonesty in his most honest book: The Summing Up (1938). Mr Calder's argument is that 24 years earlier, only a decade or so after the divorce, Maugham had written calmly about his marriage as if it was just a minor disturbance. But this was a facade, rants Mr Calder further, an illusion which Maugham created to escape the emotional trauma, etc., etc. Does that guy really believe himself? I am not sure which is worse: his being sincere or his being a mere scandal-monger. First of all, both pieces are vastly different in character: the second part of the late memoirs is almost entirely concerned with Maugham's marriage, whereas in his personal essay 24 years earlier he had quite another and much bigger fish to fry. It might well have been that the burden of Maugham's memories had a decisive role in the writing and publishing of Looking Back, it is convincing that so late in his life he might have been a little obsessed with the biggest mistake in his personal life. But this cannot be used to accuse him of hypocrisy 24 years earlier. The decade or so between Maugham's divorce and the Second World War was one of the most stunningly productive in his life; consider that between 1928 and 1940 no fewer than 4 novels, 5 short story collections, 4 plays, one travel book and two books with essays were published under Maugham's name. It is absolutely inconceivable that such stupendous output could have been coupled with such anguish and suffering as are apparent in Looking Back a good many years later. There is every reason to believe that Maugham in 1938 was dead honest and his unfortunate marriage was nothing more than unpleasant but vague recollection from the past. Even if it was an illusion or a facade, which is highly unlikely for it is totally inconsistent with Maugham's personality, it was by all means a sincere one. Mr Calder's tremendous psychological insight misfired pretty badly here. Again. His presumptuous notion that he knows Maugham better than the writer knew himself is just hilarious, not to say conceited and vulgar.

Sadly, in the last chapter Mr Calder's writing falls so short of what might reasonably be expected that it almost ranks with Ted Morgan's nauseating last chapter. Just like his predecessor, Mr Calder takes an almost sadistic pleasure exposing in great detail all scandals from Maugham's last years, together with graphic description of his senility. It makes a revolting read. The last three years of Maugham's life were indeed tragic but they also were small and absolutely insignificant part of his life. Mr Calder might have used the space for giving fuller picture of Maugham's oeuvre, instead wasting it with the horrible spectacle of his deranged mind. To me, even Maugham's senility has always made sense as a fitting conclusion of his pattern. Indeed, it would be surprising if one doesn't get nuts in one's late eighties after so long a life full with such stupendous activity. To Mr Calder's credit, he at least retains some sort of affection, scanty as it is, for Maugham until the end; you're not likely to find such thing in Ted Morgan's bleak pages.

All in all, Robert Calder's Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham is worth reading, at least to see how far prejudice and preconception with regard to Maugham can go, what glorious heights of obscenity and perversity they may reach. The book is a wealth of historical information about an amazing life. Alas, it delivers very little about Maugham the writer or Willie the man, but it must be admitted that it does add something. Unfortunately, these few insightful bits must be sieved through enormous amount of incredible crap, much too often going into sexual or other personal matters not just too much, but in a most fanciful and vulgar way. For real Maugham admirers the value of the book lies chiefly in the description of the great writer's life in facts, figures and glorious detail. The relevant conclusions are almost entirely left to the reader. For those who only want to be shocked by complicated marital affairs and epic sexual escapades, the book makes a compelling read, I guess, though nobody can beat Ted Morgan there.

I am already almost convinced that what can safely be called definitive biography of Somerset Maugham will never be written. One must not expect too much from human nature, right? ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 31, 2010 |
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I really appreciated the prior review as the reviewer obviously knows and cares a lot about Somerset Maugham. I agreed with many of his assessments about this book (the search for "homosexual themes" in Maugham's writings was ridiculous), but I personally did not feel that the book as a whole was egregiously salacious. I did feel that there was much too much detail regarding Maugham's decline--did it add to my knowledge of the man to know that he was incontinent at the end of his life? I also could have done without the outdated psychological analysis regarding the "causes" of Maugham's sexual preferences. In the end, I felt that the author really did try to provide a balanced portrait of Maugham, but not having known anything about the author before I picked up the book, I almost wish I had not read it at all. Apparently there is a new biography of Maugham that has just come out now--I would recommend giving that one a try over this one, which was informative, but dated. ( )
2 vote hvhay | Aug 3, 2010 |
Robert Calder

Willie:
The Life of W. Somerset Maugham

Heinemann, Hardback, 1989.

8vo. xviii+429 pp.

First published in 1989.

Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgements
Preface

1. Orphan: 1874-1889
2. Apprentice: 1889-1897
3. Struggles: 1897-1907
4. Syrie and Gerald: 1908-1918
5. Wanderer: 1918-1929
6. The Gentleman in the Villa: 1929-1932
7. Curtain-calls: 1932-1939
8. The Old Party at War: 1939-1946
9. Grand Old Man: 1946-1958
10. The Burden of One's Memories: 1958-1962

Notes
Index

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

This book started so promisingly. As it turned out later, it is just a little better than the average, and appalling, biographical crap about Somerset Maugham.

I frankly admit to having been prejudiced against Mr Calder's book before even opened it. Having read two other full scale biographies of Somerset Maugham, it could hardly have been otherwise. Yet, I have done my best to take the book as dispassionately as possible. First published in 1989, Mr Calder's attempt to encompass Maugham's life and work in one volume fits nicely between Ted Morgan's Maugham: A Biography (1980) and Jeffrey Meyers' Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004); as far as I know the only other detailed biography is the very recently (2009) published The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings which I haven't read yet. The pictorial biographies by Frederic Raphael (W. Somerset Maugham and His World, 1976) and Anthony Curtis (Somerset Maugham, 1978) should naturally be excluded from such company because their forte are the illustrations, not the text. So, where does Mr Calder's attempt fit in the whole picture?

If anything, Mr Calder's biography is certainly superior to Morgan's gossipy hackwork or Meyers' almost amateurish writing. Not much though. Unlike Morgan's superficial view of Maugham's personality and neglect of his works, Mr Calder spends a considerable amount of space discussing both matters, and unlike Meyers, he lacks the drudgery of endless plot retelling without single point of interest. Indeed, the preface of Mr Calder's book is an excellent overview of the literature about Maugham, though only until 1989 of course, in which the author doesn't mince words about Ted Morgan's chief drawback, namely an essential distaste for the subject. Mr Calder certainly is more sympathetic and he understands perfectly well that Maugham's life was inextricably intertwined with his personality and even more so with his work. He probably has as many facts as Morgan does, quite a lot that is, and his research is no less impressive: virtually every quote is supplied with a footnote with the source; most chapters have about 100 of these. It cannot be denied that Mr Calder does have several perceptive passages about Willie the man, who apparently was strikingly different creature than the public persona known worldwide as William Somerset Maugham. Especially his childhood - a strange hybrid of Paris bliss and Blackstable horror - and his early years of struggle are vividly and poignantly described and Mr Calder has something fascinating to say about Maugham's shyness, self-consciousness and insecurity which marked his whole life, and his works as well of course. The big problem is that these valuable insights are greatly diluted with an impossible amount of junk.

To start with the minor faults of Mr Calder's book, though he is quite readable, from time to time he is apt to be very dull indeed. As always, Maugham put it best of all stating once that he had an interesting and varied life, but not an adventurous one. It must have been great fun to live such a life, but reading about it can often be extremely tedious business. It is perhaps inevitable, but occasionally Mr Calder lapses into mechanical narrative of events which sound like a chronology section of a history textbook; not so seldom does he indulges in excruciatingly boring descriptions of dinner parties and such like social activities supplying several lines long lists of guests until he manages to imitate who's who of the celebrity world at the time. The phone book makes far more interesting read. Pretty much the same is often true for Maugham's numerous travels which Mr Calder is prone to describe in the manner of the cheapest travel guides on the market. His striving not to leave a single stone unturned or a mundane detail untold about the great writer may well make his prose occasionally look so vapid that it is hardly readable.

Another caveat is concerned with Mr Calder's research. Spectacular and meticulous as it is, he is inclined just a trifle too often to accept oral testimony at face value, often made decades after the events in question and sometimes even by far not a first hand one: there are cases of the type ''X said to Y but Z overheard and told me''. Surprisingly often Mr Calder remains passive and opinionless, though he sometimes dissects problematic events from several different points of view, once or twice he directly takes Ted Morgan as a sparring partner. Also, I can't help feeling there is certain tendency of idealisation of Alan Searle, Maugham's second long term companion who took the place of Gerald Haxton after his death. Since Searle granted Calder's several interviews, while refusing to cooperate with Morgan, it is only too natural that the author should be less harsh and more sympathetic than it is usual in this case. Last but not least, Mr Calder is not immune to neglect some of Maugham's works, either. The major novels he discusses extensively, in the case of Of Human Bondafe too extensively indeed, obviously taking literally Maugham's famous statement that he had used everything that happened to him in his fiction. But such important novels like Theatre or Christmas Holiday are mentioned in passing, and so are crucial for Maugham's stature as a short story writer collections like Ah King or First Person Singular. Well, perhaps we are well rid of Mr Calder's reflections on these books. It is also striking to note that one of the most often quoted authors among his colleagues in the field of Maugham biography is Frederic Raphael: certainly one of the most indifferent, trashy and meretricious writers about Maugham.

Now, of course, writing a biography of Somerset Maugham is a very tall order. First of all, he was a writer himself - and a professional one at that - who wrote a great deal about himself. Furthermore, he was one of the most celebrated and productive writers of his time, with a writing career including the publishing of 20 novels, 9 short story collections, 24 full length plays, 3 travel books and 10 volumes with essays and memoirs, not to mention that it spanned more than 60 years, the fall of the British empire, two World wars, and the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the gramophone, the telephone and the cinema. Most of his works are subtly veiled versions of his life and character in which the border between fact and fiction is so blurred that it is all but indistinguishable. His personality in private and his public image were worlds apart; so were his two (at least) private lives. Despite his compelling candour, Maugham could sometimes be cunningly disingenuous, artfully evading some hard truths. His oft-repeated claim that he was poor in his youth, for example, is something Mr Calder refers several times to, showing that Maugham was poor only in relation to the glittering society he moved in as a promising young novelist; he was never poor enough as to make both ends meet with difficulty; for one thing, he had 150 pounds per year from his father, and he also made about 100 pounds annually from writing. Nor, probably, was Maugham so little concerned with the lots of criticism he received during his life. This is indeed apparent to everybody who reads him carefully. It is doubtful, however, that Maugham ever took the critics very seriously - and rightly so. In short, Somerset Maugham was a complicated man, a perfect incarnation of the contradictory and unpredictable human nature he was so fond of writing about all his life. And what a life! Back in his youth did Maugham make his famous pattern, then he struggled for a decade until success on the stage gave him financial and, much more importantly, artistic freedom. After that he went to fulfill his pattern and his character in the course of well over half a century. If there ever was such a thing as perfectly lived life, Somserset Maugham must be the most perfect example of it. Yes, it is a difficult subject for a biography all right, much more so since any attempt for telling the life must necessarily include discussion of his complete works. So one must make allowances for unsuccessful attempts. But there is no excuse for those who use Maugham as a scapegoat for their own severe inferiority complex taking a keen pleasure in exposing his defects at expense of his virtues, like Mr Morgan, or those who form a number of wild preconceptions which then try to fit into the author's life, personality and work merely to satisfy their own vanity - like Mr Calder.

Even though Mr Calder's treatment of Maugham's work and personality is a great deal better than that of either Meyers or Morgan, it is not without several grave faults. It is not for nothing that his earlier critical study of the great British writer is called William Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom (1972), for Mr Calder is a little obsessed with freedom which is used a trifle too often to explain how Maugham's literary creations came to this world. Yet, he is often interesting and sometimes compelling on the subject. The real, inexcusable and unforgivable mistake of Mr Calder is his treatment of the two most controversial and complicated matters about Maugham: his homosexuality and his marriage. Certainly, these are matters that must be dealt candidly with in any biography of Maugham. Let's have a closer look how Mr Calder deals with them.

The beginning, as I have already said, was promising, even in terms of homosexuality. Mr Calder makes a commendably scientific attempt to explain Maugham's sexual orientation, its roots in his childhood, the reasons why it should have been such. He examines in detail the long shadow the trial against Oscar Wilde cast over all homosexuals at the time and how in his early years Maugham tried so hard to be heterosexual, reaching his personal culmination with his being a husband and a father. Mr Calder is perhaps a bit too detailed and way too biased, but this is understandable since the matter is important for Maugham's life and his biographer is human after all. Unfortunately, as almost every other writer about Maugham, Mr Calder grossly overemphasizes the matter attaching to it importance which is simply out of proportion, not to say incompatible with any fairly normal mind. By ''normal'' I do not mean ''heterosexual'' of course, but a mind not inclined to overlook spiritual matters at the expense of the sexual ones, be the latter physical or mental. But this is precisely what Mr Calder most unfortunately does. When he gets to the delicate topic of how Maugham's homosexuality surfaced up in his writings, I think I can safely say that nobody has ever written greater nonsense that Mr Calder did in this biography. It passes belief how he could think seriously and sincerely enough about such incredible rubbish as to publish it. Alas, he seems to be honest about all that crappy stuff.

I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps it is better to do so with the author's own words. In a remarkable imitation of common sense, Mr Calder states at one place that:

Any attempt to identify elements of homosexuality in Maugham's works must necessarily be conducted with great caution and a recognition that his main purpose was never the exploration of the homosexual consciousness. The importance of Mildred is not that she represents a male or female object of infatuation, but that she is in either case a powerful and destructive form of emotional enslavement. Fred Blake is attracted to Christessen primarily by his idealism and goodness, and the homosexual appeal is secondary. Larry Darrell's search is for spiritual liberation in Indian mysticism, not in some satisfaction of homosexual instincts. A complete re-reading and revision of Maugham will not therefore uncover a canon of homosexual works.

(The homosexual appeal between Fred and Christessen is not ''secondary'', Robert. It is imaginary.)

But then he claims that, on the other hand, there are more homosexual traits in Maugham's works than is generally acknowledged, making the most preposterous claim that heterosexual readers may well be unaware of them. And then, paragraph after paragraph, Mr Calder goes on to make a really amazing hash of the whole thing. Of course the gorgeous descriptions of male characters like Red or Neil MacAdam from the eponymous stories are here, but what they themselves have to do with homosexuality is still beyond me. Personally, though a male, I do like male bodies too; and I guess if I see a half naked field worker with perfect body I would exclaim just like Maugham once reportedly did: My God, what beauty! But this is not necessarily linked with any sexual attraction. Mr Calder's examples about the Lord Mountdrago, where the main character recounts a dream in which he did horrible things for which people were banished from the society, and especially the incestuous relationship in The Book-Bag being of a homosexual nature are even more, to put it mildly, far-fetched and unconvincing. It might of course have been that Maugham really did consciously put these hints in his works and he did think of them as homosexual ones; that is not impossible, though it certainly is implausible. What Mr Calder seems completely unable to comprehend is that the physical beauty of Red or Neil MacAdam, or the nightmares of Lord Mountdrago, have a great deal of dramatic significance for the stories but are by no means of central importance for their value. To harp repetitively on these putative homosexual elements robs Maugham's works of their complexity and philosophical depth. It makes them sound like a cheap form of escapist porn, or a masturbation exercise in short fiction if you like - for this is precisely how Mr Calder sounds quite often. Nothing could be further from the truth than making mere pegs for hanging homosexual fantasies out of Maugham's stories, as anybody but Mr Calder who ever read these works with an unprejudiced eye knows perfectly well.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite his very sensible statement which I have quoted, Mr Calder shamelessly and obscenely speculates about Larry Darrell and Elliott Templeton from The Razor's Edge both being homosexuals - which is very, very tenuous, at best. He even has the audacity, quoting one Edith Oliver's review from 1986 revival of The Circle, to claim that Arnold and Clive Champion-Cheney are actually homosexual characters, too. Well, his quoted ''argumentation'' about Arnold is certainly weak but the one about Clive is perfectly ridiculous. Just imagine the fellow who has a most amusing speech how he likes old friends, old books but young women, and how he deftly manages affairs with an endless streak of young ladies being a homosexual!

Finally, there is of course The Narrow Corner which is traditionally viewed as one of Maugham's most explicitly homosexual novels, and what a crap all that stuff is! Mr Calder yet again surpassed in the field of the nonsensical everybody before or after him, including the cheap vulgarity of Frederic Raphael. He quotes at length one of the most powerful passages from the novel which describes the relationship between Fred and Erik, namely how the former was under the spell of the latter's natural goodness, and indeed this is what their spontaneous friendship is made of. It is rather a complicated affair, but it is also entirely spiritual in nature and has absolutely no homosexual elements whatsoever in it! Yet, Mr Calder assures us that no other heterosexual relationship in the novel reached the heights of this one. It seems that the author regards any relationship between male characters as homosexual, no matter the nature. Finally, I came to think I really misunderstand the term ''homosexual''. So I asked the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

homosexual, noun
a person, usually a man, who is sexually attracted to people of the same sex [my italics, of course].

Nowhere in The Narrow Corner, or anywhere else in Maugham's fiction for that matter, is there any explicit hint about any sexual relationship between people of the same sex. All that stuff about thinly veiled homosexual affairs in Maugham's works is nothing but the sick, perverse and revolting fancy of his biographers. Nothing more, nothing less. Even if Maugham really thought of that idiotic stuff while he was writing, I cannot for the life of me believe that he was not infinitely more concerned with far more serious topics. What sense it makes to dwell on these next to nonexistent links I really have no idea.

One feels compelled to ask Robert Calder: if the homosexual matters in Maugham's works are not the main ones, as you do state, why on earth do you spend so much time discussing them? Why do you try, consciously or not, to reduce Maugham's writings to little more than porn stuff under cover?

But Mr Calder goes even further suggesting that the ''homosexual interplay'' between Fred and Erik in The Narrow Corner functions at a ''high level''. Again quoting the moronic remarks of Mr Raphael, he reaches the profound conclusion that Maugham, apparently influenced by the philosophy of G. E. Moore, thought of goodness as mystical experience surely connected with beauty, especially male beauty - which naturally is just another disguise of homosexuality. Now I really am dumbfounded and speechless!

Last but not least, Mr Calder has saved his greatest surprise for the final: how Maugham's homosexuality is reflected in his total output. Now, this is a real gem! Mr Calder cites some psychiatric authority, Leopold Bellak by name, who had made and published a ''scientific'' study of 30 random short stories by Maugham finding a number of specific for homosexuals traits expressed in them, apparently indiscernible for heterosexual readers not having a PhD in psychiatry. Later the psycho was surprised to find - and Mr Calder is truly astonished - that his conclusions are perfectly in line with Maugham's life and character. Well, leaving aside whether psychiatry is a science at all and how objective it is, this fantastic trash was published in 1963 when Maugham was still alive but already senile; more importantly though, by then a good many biographical sketches, articles and such like about him had been published and it is totally inconceivable that this psychotic didn't know anything about Maugham before making his ''objective'' study. Just another example how people form preconceptions about something or somebody based on gossipy rumours and then try to justify them, whereas in fact it should be exactly the opposite. Mr Bellak even hoped that Maugham could undergone psychoanalysis which ''would have enhanced his greatness as a writer by increasing his emotional range'' because - of course, everybody knows that - the generally negative critical view of Maugham is due to ''his emotional constraint''. It is downright unbelievable how far some people - be they psychotic fellows or envy-ridden biographers - could go simply to make themselves a little more important in the eyes of others.

Mr Calder finishes his disgusting ''analysis'' with the positively ludicrous claim that probably a tremendous harm was done to Maugham's creativity when he was restricted in his writings not to express openly his homosexuality. He even quotes the nasty remark of Robin Maugham that his uncle Willie could have written a great novel had he been allowed to give free reign of his homosexuality. Apparently, Somerset Maugham never wrote a great novel. Mr Calder finely notices the ''deliberate restraint'' in Maugham's writings, but it never occurs to him that it might have been due to other reasons than homosexuality, like Maugham's very early formed and rather sceptical, of cynical if you like, view of human nature as a very complex business in which nothing should be taken at face value. More importantly, this notorious restraint may well have been result of Maugham's unwillingness to judge and condemn his fellows; his main desire was always to understand them. Indeed, as always Maugham recognised his limitations better than anybody else and did write about them in The Summing Up with simplicity and candour unknown to his biographers. And if this book has any restraint at all, this is solely because Maugham thought his private and intimate life is nobody's business but his own - and dead right he was.

Of course it is a well known fact that Maugham was predominantly, if not indeed entirely, homosexual, and his words (caveat: quoted by Robin Maugham!) that he tried to persuade himself that he was three quarters normal and one quarter queer while it really was the other way round are well known. But to draw from this such conclusions about his total output is perfectly despicable business, not to mention its absolute meaninglessness for it is everything but convincing. Using the same method, after reading this biography one could say about Mr Calder that he is a homosexual whose quest for freedom has not been so successful and that's why he writes about somebody who did succeed in this endeavour. But such statement would make no sense whatsoever, and nobody cares a rap about Mr Calder anyway. Certainly, one can't write about Somerset Maugham without discussing his homosexuality. It is part and parcel of him. But spending page after page on this matter, elaborating one dirty fantasy after another, diminishing more or less his complete oeuvre as nothing but a veiled form of homosexual escapism has exactly the opposite effect than the one intended by Mr Calder - it makes the matter far too ridiculous to be believed and it casts an ominously dark shadow on the author's sanity, not to mention his integrity. Unless, of course, the reader reads such biographies only in order to be shocked, not caring a bit about the writer's personality. I surmise this is how most people read such books. Surely sex is very important part of one's life, but so is going to the toilet. Why don't we discuss the latter?

Mr Calder's treatment of Maugham's marriage is no less imposing a catastrophe. He rightly says that it was the biggest mistake in Maugham's life - but his ''perceptive'' remarks on the subject end here. Now comes the ranting. At first place, Mr Calder doesn't seem to understand that Maugham's marriage with Syrie was a not a marriage of convenience, as Glenway Wescott stupidly described it once, but much worse: a marriage of obligation. That it was a perfect disaster there is no doubt, but the real bone of contention is Maugham's attitude to his wife and especially his notorious portrait of her in his memoirs Looking Back, serialised in 1962 and never published in book form. Here, yet again, Mr Calder is only too eager to fall into some of the most usual traps of writing about Maugham. He echoes the famous claim that Maugham felt a strong hatred for his wife long after their divorce, but what evidence there is about that remains a mystery to me. To be sure, there are lots of rumours and gossip though. Mr Calder even claims that Maugham based Kitty Fane from The Painted Veil on his wife, and if he is fairly convincing about the purely physical description, he has no idea how on earth Kitty's spiritual odyssey relates to Maugham's marital affairs. Mr Calder is firm that Maugham did not give Syrie enough credit for she was, mind you, more intellectual and with greater taste for arts than her husband admitted. For this the biographer have two main and rather impressive proofs: Syrie's rich library and her circle of remarkable friends. It never occurs to Mr Calder that these friends might have been swayed by her charm and vivacity, traits she did have and Maugham did recognize, not by her intellect. Even less does Mr Calder think that Syrie might easily have had two very different faces: one for the cream of the London society and one for her husband in private. Such social hypocrisy is a well-known phenomenon and Syrie certainly was big enough a figure, especially as a successful decorator later, to have it. Admittedly, as any other celebrity of course, Maugham did exercise such social duplicity, too; Mr Calder is all too eager to accept this, but he doesn't think it possible that his wife might well have done the same. To finish with Syrie's friends, it should be noted that none of them ever had to live with her - despite his numerous travels, Maugham did live with his wife for years. As for her library, here Mr Calder lapses in spectacular inanity indeed. Not one's library itself, but what use one makes of it is the revealing factor. At best, it is debatable that Syrie made any use of hers.

Then there is Looking Back, by far the most notorious thing Maugham ever wrote. Despite Mr Calder's blunt statement that Maugham's attack on his wife is ''indefensible'', I will make a try to defend him. It is a curious paradox when one comes to think about it: when Maugham writes disparagingly about someone, everybody is outraged and call him most unpleasant things; but when others, biographers especially, write obscene, vulgar and ridiculous crap about Maugham, everybody is willing to accept it as a gospel. Syrie was dead in 1962 and could not defend herself? Who cares! She could have said nothing else but her own version, and nobody - her friends included - would have been able to prove which version is the truer one. As a matter of fact, Maugham was dead too - when obscene details about his private life were exposed by seekers of nasty sensations called ''biographers'' by misusing of the word and only for convenience. What is the justification for that digging of skeletons from Maugham's cupboard? The fact that he himself did dig quite a number in his writings? A poor reason. A pitiful excuse for biographical perversity. Maugham may have done so, of course, but he did not just for his own amusement, but chiefly for his works. And his works are still read, though they are not nearly so popular as they were in his lifetime. Surely, Mr Calder understands that if somebody reads his biography of Maugham 20 years after it was first published, this is not because it has some intrinsic value, but solely because it is concerned with Somerset Maugham and has a good deal of useful facts-and-figures stuff.

So what so terrible did Maugham call Syrie in Looking Back? He said that she had no resources in herself and constantly made him scenes; that she was a snob, a social climber, somewhat dishonest in her business deals and pretty promiscuous. Nothing so terrible it seems to me; all these things indeed are quite true for a good many people, especially women. All right, just like Maugham I may be a misogynist. But it seems to me that Mr Calder is a feminist, at least from time to time. He is even dismayed that Maugham described in his memoirs explicitly how his daughter was born out of wedlock and indeed the whole illicit affair with Syrie prior to their marriage, as if that was any secret by 1962. It is fascinating to observe that, for all his self-righteous indignation at Maugham's treatment of his wife, Mr Calder has some pretty saucy things to say about her, too. At one place he casually remarks that Syrie might have blackmailed Maugham to marry her, threatening to expose his homosexuality to the London society and thus ruining his social life there. At another place, even more casually, just by the way, Mr Calder suggests that it is possible that Syrie used her social connections to secure the banishment of Gerald Haxton, Maugham's lover, from Great Britain. Well, Robert, this stuff is at least as nasty as anything Maugham ever wrote about his wife. If Looking Back is ''bad form'' that ''vilified'' Syrie, what on earth Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham should be called? And the poor woman was not alive to defend her in 1989, either. Moreover, her daughter was indeed very much alive at the time. I shudder to think how she felt reading Mr Calder's innocent accusations of her mother being a marital blackmailer and a weaver of nasty intrigues.

On the top of all that contemptible and priggish writing, not to mention conspicuous lack of integrity, Mr Calder has the astonishing audacity to bluntly accuse Maugham of lying and fabrication. Few times does he claim that Looking Back is ''sexually dishonest''. What does that mean, you might ask? It means, Mr Calder would explain to you, that Maugham describes in detail how his marriage fell to pieces without mentioning at all Gerald Haxton. This is another pretty common leitmotiv among Maugham biographers: Gerald was the driving factor behind the stage which ruined Maugham's idyllic marriage. Never has it passed the brilliant mind of a Maugham biographer that he might possibly, just possibly, overestimate the role of Gerald in this case. Surely, he must have played a part in the story, but had he never existed at all, it is perfectly inconceivable that Maugham's marriage would have survived. The truth is that Maugham was not suited for marital or paternal life at all. Moreover, his character seems to have been absolutely incompatible with that of his wife. That's why his marriage of obligation - a doomed affair by default anyway - was a disaster and certainly the gravest mistake he made in his life. It was the only serious mistake in his pattern, though by far less significant that his biographers would make us believe. Well, nobody's perfect. We all make mistakes. If we are clever, we may learn from them; it is useless to dwell on them. Mr Calder, however, doesn't think so. He continues the ''sexual dishonesty'' case with the suggestion that one rather sordid episode in Looking Back referring to how Maugham and his roommate shared girls may actually be about sharing boys. As usual with such statements, the evidence is all but nonexistent. Any trace of sympathy I might have retained for Mr Calder was completely extinguished when the author bluntly said that the letter Maugham quotes in Looking Back is probably a fabrication, one last piece of fiction. His only argument is that it is highly unlikely that Maugham should have kept a copy from such letter for more than 30 years, especially after the upheaval of the Second World War. Very persuasive proof, indeed! The letter in question is from Maugham to Syrie and is certainly the most brutally candid thing ever published under his name, even though Maugham confesses in his memoirs that he might have toned down some of the expressions. Yet, in this legendary letter Maugham is just as harsh to Syrie as he is to himself. As a matter of fact, it must have wanted a lot of courage to publish such thing. As for the fabrication theory, Mr Calder again shows singular lack of intelligence in making such claim. Even if the letter really was a fabrication - something I personally do not in the least believe, but it is possible of course; after all, Maugham was a story teller - there is no reason to suppose that it did not represent his feelings about and experiences with Syrie very accurately indeed.

Perhaps Mr Calder reaches his own peak of deliberate perversity - and he is really alone there - when he states that Looking Back is ''equally shocking for what it reveals about its author''. He then makes a pathetic and shameful attempt to accuse Maugham of dishonesty in his most honest book: The Summing Up (1938). Mr Calder's argument is that 24 years earlier, only a decade or so after the divorce, Maugham had written calmly about his marriage as if it was just a minor disturbance. But this was a facade, rants Mr Calder further, an illusion which Maugham created to escape the emotional trauma, etc., etc. Does that guy really believe himself? I am not sure which is worse: his being sincere or his being a mere scandal-monger. First of all, both pieces are vastly different in character: the second part of the late memoirs is almost entirely concerned with Maugham's marriage, whereas in his personal essay 24 years earlier he had quite another and much bigger fish to fry. It might well have been that the burden of Maugham's memories had a decisive role in the writing and publishing of Looking Back, it is convincing that so late in his life he might have been a little obsessed with the biggest mistake in his personal life. But this cannot be used to accuse him of hypocrisy 24 years earlier. The decade or so between Maugham's divorce and the Second World War was one of the most stunningly productive in his life; consider that between 1928 and 1940 no fewer than 4 novels, 5 short story collections, 4 plays, one travel book and two books with essays were published under Maugham's name. It is absolutely inconceivable that such stupendous output could have been coupled with such anguish and suffering as are apparent in Looking Back a good many years later. There is every reason to believe that Maugham in 1938 was dead honest and his unfortunate marriage was nothing more than unpleasant but vague recollection from the past. Even if it was an illusion or a facade, which is highly unlikely for it is totally inconsistent with Maugham's personality, it was by all means a sincere one. Mr Calder's tremendous psychological insight misfired pretty badly here. Again. His presumptuous notion that he knows Maugham better than the writer knew himself is just hilarious, not to say conceited and vulgar.

Sadly, in the last chapter Mr Calder's writing falls so short of what might reasonably be expected that it almost ranks with Ted Morgan's nauseating last chapter. Just like his predecessor, Mr Calder takes an almost sadistic pleasure exposing in great detail all scandals from Maugham's last years, together with graphic description of his senility. It makes a revolting read. The last three years of Maugham's life were indeed tragic but they also were small and absolutely insignificant part of his life. Mr Calder might have used the space for giving fuller picture of Maugham's oeuvre, instead wasting it with the horrible spectacle of his deranged mind. To me, even Maugham's senility has always made sense as a fitting conclusion of his pattern. Indeed, it would be surprising if one doesn't get nuts in one's late eighties after so long a life full with such stupendous activity. To Mr Calder's credit, he at least retains some sort of affection, scanty as it is, for Maugham until the end; you're not likely to find such thing in Ted Morgan's bleak pages.

All in all, Robert Calder's Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham is worth reading, at least to see how far prejudice and preconception with regard to Maugham can go, what glorious heights of obscenity and perversity they may reach. The book is a wealth of historical information about an amazing life. Alas, it delivers very little about Maugham the writer or Willie the man, but it must be admitted that it does add something. Unfortunately, these few insightful bits must be sieved through enormous amount of incredible crap, much too often going into sexual or other personal matters not just too much, but in a most fanciful and vulgar way. For real Maugham admirers the value of the book lies chiefly in the description of the great writer's life in facts, figures and glorious detail. The relevant conclusions are almost entirely left to the reader. For those who only want to be shocked by complicated marital affairs and epic sexual escapades, the book makes a compelling read, I guess, though nobody can beat Ted Morgan there.

I am already almost convinced that what can safely be called definitive biography of Somerset Maugham will never be written. One must not expect too much from human nature, right? ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 31, 2010 |
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