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Ten Novels and Their Authors (edition 1954)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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143283,153 (4.35)7
Member:Waldstein
Title:Ten Novels and Their Authors
Authors:W. Somerset Maugham
Info:Heinemann, Hardback, 1954. 8vo. 306 pp. First Edition. First published as Great Novelists and Their Novels, 1949. Revised and expanded as Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954.
Collections:Somerset Maugham, Maugham Non-Fiction (inactive), Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Maugham Non-Fiction, Essays, Maugham's ''Ten Best'', Dickens, Austen, Melville, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Bronte_E, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Fielding

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Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

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I was sufficiently impressed by this book so that I at once proceeded to read the grat books which he picked that I had not aready read. I am kind of a sucker for lists such as this book set out. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 19, 2013 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Ten Novels and Their Authors

Heinemann, Hardback, 1954.

8vo. 306 pp.

First published as Great Novelists and Their Novels, 1949.
Revised and expanded as Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954.

Contents

1. The Art of Fiction
2. Henry Fielding and Tom Jones
3. Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice
4. Stendhal and Le Rouge et le Noir
5. Balzac and La Pere Goriot
6. Charles Dickens and David Copperfield
7. Flaubert and Madame Bovary
8. Herman Melville and Moby Dick
9. Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights
10. Dostoyevsky and The Brothers Karamazov
11. Tolstoy and War and Peace
12. In Conclusion

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

'Tis a pity that of all nearly forgotten books by Somerset Maugham this is among the most forgotten ones. Many people familiar with but a few novels and perhaps some of the short stories probably don't even know that late in his life Maugham wrote a number of essays. Most of these, naturally enough, deal with writing and writers. Three full-length collections appeared in the 1950s. This is certainly one of the best.

To begin with several caveats, it is by no means necessary to share all of Maugham's notions or the controversial origins of these essays in order to profit greatly from them.

For these ten pieces started as introductions to abridged versions of the ten novels, a barbarous practice which Maugham defends on the shaky grounds that plays are cut in performance and why not do the same with novels. Sounds convincing but is actually spurious. Willie didn't sense the snag here, which is strange because he was a brilliant dramatist as well.

Drama and novels are vastly different forms of fiction. Plays are written to be spoken on stage in front of a live audience; reading them is a kind of anomaly. It's very difficult even for the best dramatists not to write some superfluous stuff on paper: of course it will be cut if it doesn't come off in performance. But novels are written to be read, at leisure and generally alone. This is an entirely different form of communication, and it may contain parts which require some time for proper assimilation. To cut drama is a dangerous enough business. To abridge novels (and classics at that) is, if not sacrilege, at all events a delicate art indeed.

(By the way, from the introductory essay of this book comes the famous story with Maugham, Shaw and the foreign cutting of the latter’s plays. Well, maybe it's not that famous. But it should be. Willie and GBS once had a lunch together during which the iconoclastic Irishman complained that his plays are perpetually more successful in Germany than in England. Shaw being Shaw, he explained the paradox with the greater intelligence of the German audience. Willie kept silent but here he reveals the secret. He had seen Shaw's plays produced in Germany: they were riotously successful because producers and directors cut all the verbiage without ceremony; Shaw wouldn’t allow this in England but nobody asked him about productions on the other side of the Channel.)

Oddly enough, not only is Maugham well aware of how thorny the problem is, but he does mention that he couldn't imagine how a single page might be omitted from "so enchanting a novel" as Pride and Prejudice or so "tightly constructed" one as Madame Bovary. What abridged editions did he prepare then? Apparently he did some for they were published by Winston in the late 1940s; the early versions of the essays appeared in magazines as well as collected in book form at about the same time. All these abridged editions are nowadays spectacularly out of print, but it might be worthwhile, out of sheer curiosity, to dig out some of them.

Again in the introductory essay Maugham expounds the similarly hideous practice of skipping – which is of course linked with the abridgment. “Everybody skips”, Maugham grandly tells us, and since even the greatest novels do contain some “dead wood”, it follows that skipping is a virtue. He even goes as far as suggesting – a rare instance of intellectual snobbery in Maugham – that most readers who are bad skippers would benefit if the skipping is done for them by someone of “tact and discrimination”. Well, this doesn’t hold water, either.

Now, I do skip too – but only in highly specialized non-fiction. When you are reading a scientific paper from your own area you can safely allow yourself to skip the “Introduction”; further sections like “Materials and Methods”, “Results” and “Discussion” are far more interesting and entirely self-sufficient. Even less specialized non-fiction in book form is delightfully suitable for skipping: no one in his right mind reads from cover to cover the phone book. But how on earth does one skip in fiction? And what’s the guarantee that, even if you favour skipping, you’d choose to skip the same things as an editor of “tact and discrimination”? If you’re going to skip, I suggest you’d better not read the book at all. “There is no obligation to read a work of fiction” – now here Maugham is dead right.

Despite such sharp disagreements, and there is a fair number of them in the ten essays as well, this is a truly great book. (Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this rare kind of book is that disagreements with the author are every bit as exciting and productive as agreements.) Everybody seriously interested in the art of fiction ought to read it. The eponymous introductory essay and the vastly amusing “In Conclusion” are worth the price of admission alone: both are among the wisest, wittiest, most sensible and most unpretentious reflections about writers of fiction and their brainchildren. None of the ten essays, despite Maugham’s sometimes devastating criticisms, fails to make me eager to read the novel in question. That I have so far read but one out of ten is my fault, not his.

“The Art of Fiction” is a pure masterpiece. I can only wish there were more literary critics who write with Maugham’s impeccable clarity, openly admitted partiality, amusing allusions and endearing sense of intimacy. He makes no bones that a novel should be read above all as a form of intelligent entertainment: an outrageous anathema in academic circles. Despite warm and life-long friendship with H. G. Wells, Maugham never had patience with his views of the novel as the supreme propaganda weapon (very much akin to Shaw’s opinion of drama). Willie would have none of this preaching behind the veil of fiction:

I think it is an abuse to use the novel as a pulpit or a platform and I believe readers are misguided when they suppose they can thus easily acquire knowledge. It is a great nuisance that knowledge can only be acquired by hard work. It would be fine if we could swallow the powder of profitable information made palatable by the jam of fiction. But the truth is that, so made palatable, we can't be sure that the powder will be profitable, for the knowledge the novelist imparts is biased and thus unreliable; and it is better not know a thing at all than to know it in distorted fashion. There is no reason why a novelist should be anything but a novelist. It is enough if he is a good novelist. He should know a little about great many things, but it is unnecessary, and sometimes even harmful, for him to be a specialist in any particular subject. He need not eat a whole sheep to know what mutton tastes like; it is enough if he eats a chop. Then, by applying his imagination and his creative faculty to the chop he has eaten, he can give you a pretty good idea of an Irish stew; but when he goes on from this to broach his views on sheep-raising, the wool industry and the political situation in Australia, it is wise to accept them with reserve.

Yet Maugham was well aware that the novelist is a “natural propagandist”, as he memorably described him at another place. He lays much greater stress on strong plot and great readability than highbrows normally do, but he insists – to my mind rightly – that there is more than that even in the most preposterous and unrealistic novelist. This is a telling lesson in literary humility, the right dose of which is a highly commendable, but seldom encountered, virtue:

The fact remains that to describe a novelist as a mere storyteller is to dismiss him with contumely. I venture to suggest that there is no such creature. By the incidents he chooses to relate, the characters he selects and his attitude towards them, the author offers you a criticism of life. It may not be a very original one, or very profound, but it is there; and consequently, though he may not know it, he is in his own modest way a moralist. But morals, unlike mathematics, are not a precise science. Morals cannot be inflexible for they deal with the behaviour of human beings, and human beings, as we know, are vain, changeable and vacillating.

As always, Maugham is completely honest with his readers. He frankly admits that he judges all these novels from a specialized point of view, that of a practicing novelist, and thus may not do them full justice. It should not be forgotten, however, that critics fail to do this just as often, if not indeed more often, than creative writers. Or in Maugham’s words:

A novelist, I have written these essays from my own standpoint. The danger of this is that the novelist is very apt to like best the sort of thing he does himself, and he will judge the work of others by how nearly they approach his own practice. In order to do full justice to works with which he has no natural sympathy, he needs a dispassionate integrity, a liberality of spirit, of which the members of an irritable race are seldom possessed. On the other hand, the critic who is not himself a creator is likely to know little about the technique of the novel, and so in his criticism he gives you either his personal impressions, which may well be of no great value, unless like Desmond McCarthy he is not only a man of letters but also a man of the world; or else he proffers a judgement founded on hard and fast rules which must be followed to gain his approbation. It is as though a shoemaker made shoes only in two sizes and if neither of them fitted your foot, you could for all he cared go shoeless.

Maugham’s natural modesty prevented him from mentioning some of the great strengths of his position as, so to say, an insider. For example, having practiced the art of fiction for half a century, “I have a notion that I know a good deal more about it than most people” as he put it in the Foreword to his short story collection The Mixture of Before (1940). This vast experience allows Maugham to analyse the creative process inside an author’s mind with perspicacity no critic may even dream of achieving; again, you don’t have to agree with his conclusions to find them fascinating and worth considering. Maugham, also, had a good deal of popular success and this is yet another phenomenon which he addresses (e.g. in the essay about Dickens) with rare insight. (See also Chapter 48 from The Summing Up, 1938.)

Finally in this magisterial introductory essay, Maugham powerfully defends his (in some cases too brutally) critical attitude. Having listed all qualities of the good novel – a theme of broad human appeal, coherent and persuasive story, convincing and vivid characters – he no longer wonders that even the greatest novels are imperfect. But he does wonder that they “are not more imperfect than they are”. The passage about the justification of negative criticism cannot be bettered; it’s a refreshing breeze through the stifling vapours of adulation.

I have not hesitated to point out the defects as well as the merits that I see in these various novels, for nothing is of greater disservice to the general reader than the indiscriminate praise that is sometimes bestowed on certain works that are rightly accepted as classics. He reads and finds that such and such a motive is unconvincing, a certain character unreal, such and such episode irrelevant and a certain description tedious. If he is of an impatient temper, he will cry that the critics who tell him that the novel he is reading is a masterpiece are a set of fools, and if he is of a modest one, he will blame himself and think that it is above his head and not for the likes of him; if, on the other hand, he is by nature dogged and persistent he will read on conscientiously, though without enjoyment. But a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it doesn't give the reader that, it is, so far as he is concerned, valueless. In this respect every reader is his own best critic, for he alone knows what he enjoys and what he doesn't. I think, however, that the novelist may claim that you do not do him justice unless you admit that he has the right to demand something of his readers. He has the right to demand that they should possess the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages. He has the right to demand that they should have sufficient imagination to be able to interest themselves in the lives, joys and sorrows, tribulations, dangers and adventures of the characters of his invention. Unless a reader is able to give something of himself he cannot get from a novel the best it has to give. And if he isn't able to do that, he had better not read it at all. There is no obligation to read a work of fiction.

Note the nearly imperceptible switching from the functions of the critic to the obligations of the reader. Note also the emphasis on “with” in the phrase “with pleasure”. Maugham seldom italicized words, so when he did we should pay special attention to them.

These are but a few of the more prominent ideas in the opening essay. There are many others, most of them no less important, but the desire to keep these desultory notes more or less reasonable in length precludes further discussion. Suffice it to say that “The Art of Fiction” consists of some of the finest twenty pages in Maugham’s oeuvre. It is the perfect hors d'oeuvre.

“In Conclusion” starts hilariously. Maugham imagines a party on which he has entertained all ten of “his” authors (including the two authoresses) and he spends some time discussing their conversations and attitudes. So Dostoyevsky told dirty stories to the horrified Emily Brontë; Jane Austen, preparing a full report for Cassandra, summed-up succinctly and with her inimitable yet merciless humour all participants; and Charles Dickens felt rather uncomfortable in the garrulous company of the three Frenchmen, Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert, who were convinced that nothing of any artistic value, certainly no literature, could come from the misty Albion. Such charmingly preposterous speculations quickly turn into very serious matters indeed.

Maugham discovers some startling similarities. One or two exceptions aside, he reaches the conclusion that all these great writers, despite their enormous vitality, powers of observation and sheer genius for creating living people on the pages, were intellectually and culturally rather mediocre, indifferent prose stylists and desultory readers, and all came from middle-class families without any writing traditions whatsoever. These are all generalizations, of course, and none of them is more than partly true. But if you choose to believe that Maugham’s great experience as prolific writer of fiction and indefatigable reader matters, all points are well worth considering.

It’s no use quoting passages here. One has to quote the complete essay. There’s hardly a superfluous word in it. Still, have a look at those few short excerpts:

What is it that must be combined with the creative instinct to make it possible for a writer to produce a work of value? Well, I suppose it is personality. It may be a pleasant or an unpleasant one; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by some idiosyncrasy of nature, the writer is enabled to see in a manner peculiar to himself. It doesn’t matter if he sees in a way that common opinion regards neither just nor true.

[…]

They appear to have taken little interest in any art other than their own. Jane Austen confessed that concerts bored her. Tolstoy was fond of music and played the piano. Stendhal had a predilection for opera, which is the form of musical entertainment which affords pleasure to people who don’t like music. He went to the Scala every night when he was in Milan to gossip with his friends, have supper and play cards, and, like them, gave his attention to what was happening on the stage only when a famous singer sang a well-known aria. He had equal admiration for Mozart, Cimarosa and Rossini.

[…]

Of course, it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers were intelligent; but they were not strikingly intellectual. Their naïveté, when they deal with general ideas, is often startling. They accept the commonplaces of the philosophy current in their day, and when they put them in use in their action, the result is seldom happy. The fact is, ideas are not their affair, and their concern with them, when they are concerned with them, is emotional.

The ten essays on this most colourful bunch of novelists – two women and eight men, nine nineteenth-century guys and one from the eighteenth century, four English subjects, three Frenchmen, two Russians and one American – are all longish pieces that combine lots of biographical background with reflections on the novel in question. Quite often other works are mentioned and far from seldom they also enjoy pithy remarks about their place in the author’s life. And it should be added that even in the most extreme cases of negative remarks, Maugham never denies the greatness of these writers or the classical status of their works. Nor is he insensitive to their usually harrowing lives. Just consider his final paragraph on Herman Melville:

When one reads, and re-reads, Moby Dick, it seems to me that one gets a more convincing, a more definite, impression of the man than from anything one may learn of his life and circumstances; an impression of a man endowed by nature with a great gift blighted by an evil genius, so that, like the agave, no sooner had it put forth its splendid blooming than it withered; a moody, unhappy man tormented by instincts he shrank from with horror; a man conscious that the virtue had gone out of him, and embittered by failure and poverty; a man of heart craving for friendship, only to find that friendship too was vanity. Such, as I see him, was Herman Melville, a man whom one can only regard with deep compassion.

It may in passing be noted that the essays are rife with spoilers. These range from important plot details (actually quite unimportant for spoiling the experience) to extensive psychological dissections of the main characters (and here one should be careful not to be influenced too much about works one hasn’t read yet). Even though the ratio read:unread is in my case the dismal 1:9, I guarantee that Maugham’s elegant, witty and shrewd essays work in both directions. In the single “mission accomplished” case – which is Pride and Prejudice, by the way – his foray inside Jane’s mind both stimulated me to read her novel and at the same time improved my appreciation of it.

Maugham’s central premise is the controversial assumption that “the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is”. This method sounds sound enough on the surface, but the results from it usually encompass the whole gamut from penetrating insight to misguided fantasizing. Maugham’s strength is that the former firmly dominates over latter. Ironically enough, in The Summing Up (1938) he mocked the famous dictum “the style is the man” as one of those dictums that “tell too much to mean a great deal”. Where is Goethe the frigid egotist in his bird-like lyrics, he demanded to know? And yet, Maugham was aware that the idea, though fraud with difficulties, is basically a rewarding one if handled carefully.

The only drawback of these essays worth mentioning is, as it might be expected, a direct consequence of the central premise. In short, the biographical background is sometimes excessive, something which is actually a characteristic weakness in many of Maugham’s essays. Do we really need to know so much about the affair of Charles Dickens with Ellen Ternan? If it illuminates in some special way David Copperfield or any other work of “England’s greatest novelist”, I am certainly not aware of it. That said, to know about Melville’s itinerant lifestyle or harrowing family problems is indeed an illuminating knowledge, and so is, to take another example, the thorough discussion of the lives of Jane Austen and especially of the Brontë family.

The book is so rich and stimulating that even remotely in-depth discussion of its contents is out of the question in a single review. I would rather prefer to make use of each essay in the separate review of the novel in question. In fact, I have done so with Pride and Prejudice and, Maugham being the strongest recommendation to read these novels, I will no doubt repeat the exercise with the other nine works. I don’t believe in mantras like “just basic culture demands that you must read this book”. To my mind, this is nonsense. A lifetime is not enough to acquire such culture in the first place. So I’d rather concentrate on parts that I can identify better with and probably benefit more from. A recommendation from Maugham is as good as any classical status – and probably better than many.

By far the most famous and often quoted passage is, of course, the one that hails Melville to have been a “repressed homosexual”. Willie’s case is weak. It rests primarily on gorgeous descriptions of male beauty. If only he had known what trouble he brought on his head! Please note: on his head, not on Melville’s. To the present day “serious” critics and biographers quote similar descriptions from Maugham’s works (classic examples: the short story “Red”, the novel The Narrow Corner) as a rock-solid proof how his world-wide-secret homosexuality surfaces up in his fiction. Even if so, why this matters for a fuller and more mature understanding of the Maugham canon I have never been able to comprehend.

The best I can say about homosexuality in fiction is that it occasionally affords me a good deal of harmless amusement. It happens now and then people to scan the list of my favourite authors and seeing at least three “outright homosexuals” (whatever that means), put on a charming smile on their faces and ask: “Are you gay?” I already have a ready answer: “I wish I were” (which is true). “But aren’t you?”, the other party insists, the smile becoming even more charming. “Come on, don’t be shy! Confess!” I’d love to. But there is nothing to confess.

Pretty much the same is true about this endless searching for homosexual hints in the writings of Somerset Maugham or Oscar Wilde or Tennessee Williams or you name him. All these men were great writers first and then – and only then! – homosexuals, repressed or not. If homosexuality were central to their works, they wouldn’t be what they are – as indeed Tennessee Williams himself once suggested by bluntly stating that homosexuality is just not enough of a subject to base even a single short story on, no matter how fascinating as a subsidiary theme. While reading Moby Dick I will keep in mind Maugham’s notion that Melville was a “repressed homosexual”, but I doubt this would help me to a better understanding of the novel. Nevertheless, Maugham’s conclusion is stirring and, significantly, going quite a bit beyond the homosexual issue:

The sexual proclivities of an author are no business of his readers, except in so far as they influence his work, as in the case with Andre Gide and Marcel Proust; when they do, and the facts are put before you, much that was obscure or even incredible may be made plain. If I have dwelt on this idiosyncrasy of Melville’s, it is because it may account for his dissatisfaction with married life; and it may be that a sexual frustration occasioned the change in him which has puzzled all those who have interested themselves in them. The probabilities are great that his moral sense prevailed; but who can tell what instincts, perhaps even unrecognized and, even if recognized, angrily repressed and never, except perhaps in imagination, indulged in – who can tell, I say, what instincts may dwell in a man’s being which, though never yielded to, may yet have an overwhelming effect on his disposition?

Needless to say, I don’t think the above has any relevance to Maugham and his own works. His other notoriously famous homosexual reference, about El Greco in Don Fernando (1935), is far more interesting and potentially personal. But that’s another story for another review.

While we are on the homo-topic in this book, it is worth mentioning that Maugham suggests that Emily Brontë might have been something of a lesbian. Of course he didn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, but he made his point perfectly clear. The case is, to say the least, tenuous: as likely to be swept off by other hypotheses as a spider web in a hurricane. In a nutshell, Maugham speculates, on no evidence but her poetry and her only novel, that the nineteen-years-old Emily fell passionately in love with another woman (or a girl) while she was teaching at the girls’ school in Law Hill, near Halifax. The rest, which is part of the final paragraph, may be left in Maugham’s eloquent and powerful prose (note the reference to El Greco):

It was the only love of her life. It may well be that the unhappiness it caused her sufficed to implant the seed in the fruitful soil of her tortured sensibility which enabled her to create the strange book we know. I can think of no other novel in which the pain, the ecstasy, the ruthlessness of love have been so powerfully set forth. Wuthering Heights has great faults, but they do not matter; they matter as little as the fallen tree-trunks, the strewn rock, the snow-drifts which impede, but do not stem, the alpine torrent in its tumultuous course down the mountain-side. You cannot liken Wuthering Heights to any other book. You can liken it only to one of those great pictures of El Greco in which in a sombre, arid landscape, under clouds heavy with thunder, long emaciated figures in contorted attitudes, spell-bound by an unearthly emotion, hold their breath. A streak of lightning, flitting across the leaden sky, gives a mysterious terror to the scene.

I remain a sceptic for I do think that Maugham tends to overestimate the impact of sexuality; he has some highly speculative ruminations how “highly sexed” were the two most famous among the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily. But I would rather agree with Audrey Hepburn that “sex is overrated”. Then again, it may be that Wuthering Heights does justify Maugham’s naughty treatment of it; I don’t know about that, not yet. It may also be, of course, that Audrey and I are plain wrong.

Maugham’s ambivalent attitude is generally commendable but sometimes tends to be a little extreme. Dickens is a case in point. Just about the only positive thing he says about his illustrious colleague is that he is “immensely amused” by his humour. Otherwise Charles receives a number of heavy blows in his apparently indestructible chin. To begin with, his pathos left Maugham “cold”, including the famously heartrending scene in which David seeks the protection of his aunt Betsy Trotwood. The characters are based on exaggeration of their foibles and are more humours than characters. Then, his novels on the whole are naïve and all but adolescent when compared to the great French and Russian masters. Finally and most brutally, to get back to the feeble pathos:

I have no doubt that Dickens was sincere, but it was an actor’s sincerity; and that, perhaps, is why now, no matter how he piled up the agony, we feel that his pathos was not quite genuine and so are no longer moved by it.

I haven’t read a single word by Dickens – yet – but am already intensely curious how much I would agree with Maugham on that point. It seems to me, purely speculatively, that on his humour alone Dickens’ enormous popularity could not have survived till the present day, although this may well have been enough to create it during his lifetime. In any case, this is a fine example how even Maugham’s most negative comments can be stimulating.

At one place in the same essay Maugham spends considerable amount of space arguing that the celebrated childhood’s work in the blacking factory probably was not nearly as harrowing as Charles later made it in his autobiographical writings, David Copperfield included. Here Maugham makes an impressive, very well-stocked with persuasive arguments, case. But it is difficult, nay impossible, not to wonder whether Maugham didn’t do something similar in his own autobiographical novel. Was his childhood in Whitstable as bleak as presented in Of Human Bondage (1915)? Or did he exaggerate to obtain certain dramatic effect as he thinks Dickens did before him? Interesting debating point.

(Probably no, he didn’t. The two episodes, to begin with, are only superficially related. Dickens spent a relatively short time in the factory and was paid handsomely for his work there, nor was children’s labour unusual in those pre-Victorian times. Maugham’s case was very different indeed. Unlike Dickens, whose close family was merely humiliated by his father’s dishonesty and imprisonment, Maugham lost both of his parents before he was ten – and he lost them completely because they died – so he had to spend years in the oppressive household of his pious uncle, so different than the carefree atmosphere of his early childhood in Paris. In both cases, however, the episodes had profound effects on the writer’s personalities.)

Quite apart from any insight into the art of fiction in general or of those ten writers in particular, there are on these pages quite a lot of general reflections on human nature that easily count as some of the most thought-provoking penned by Maugham. Consider several random examples:

Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest; it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him.

Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure him this way and that. He is made from elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form plausible harmony.

Nothing, I suppose, exasperates a woman more than the sexual desire for her of a man who is physically repellent to her, and when, to put it bluntly, he will not take no for an answer, she may very well come to hate him.

But there is nothing men lie about so much as about their sexual life,...


[On the imperfections of Melville’s culture:]
His early education was slight and, as often happens in such cases, he did not quite assimilate the culture he acquired in later years. Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of a growing boy; it is not an ornament to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich your soul.

He would not have been the first man to find that he loved his wife more when he was parted from her than was with her, and that the expectation of sexual congress was more exciting than the realisation.

Like many another member of the gentle sex, she seems to have been ready enough to accept the perquisites of her position, but saw no reason why she should be asked to give anything in return.

Genius is a word that is very loosely used nowadays. It is ascribed to persons to whom a more sober judgement would be satisfied to allow talent. Genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated; genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects. But what is genius?

He had passed his life in the pursuit of happiness, and had never learnt that happiness is best attained when it is not sought; and, moreover, is only known when it is lost. It is doubtful whether anyone can say "I am happy"; but only "I was happy". For happiness is not well-being, content, heart's ease, pleasure, enjoyment: all these go to make happiness, but they are not happiness.


All these and quite a few others are so adroitly integrated into the biographies that it’s not a little crass to extract them like that. But they do show what – well, what should be clear anyway. Though he is quite informative and packed with mundane details taken from various biographies, Maugham’s writing seldom constitutes entirely of dry and dull listing of facts. Far from it. The writer’s personality, with its mysterious strangeness and complicated relationship to his or her works, is constantly kept a shrewd eye on.

All in all, Somerset Maugham’s Ten Novels and Their Authors is literary criticism at its best: personal, powerful, perceptive, precise. No doubt many professional literary critics would denounce it as the irrelevant ramblings of a second-class writer and a third-class reader. I couldn’t care less. Most of these essays I have read three or four times already; the first and the last one probably more. None has lost its freshness as a superb entertainment or its value as a wise guide to some of the finest novels ever written. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Nov 28, 2012 |
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I should like to tell the reader of this book how the essays it contains came to be written.
Quotations
[The Art of Fiction]

I have not hesitated to point out the defects as well as the merits that I see in these various novels, for nothing is of greater disservice to the general reader than the indiscriminate praise that is sometimes bestowed on certain works that are rightly accepted as classics. He reads and finds that such and such a motive is unconvincing, a certain character unreal, such and such episode irrelevant and a certain description tedious. If he is of an impatient temper, he will cry that the critics who tell him that the novel he is reading is a masterpiece are a set of fools, and if he is of a modest one, he will blame himself and think that it is above his head and not for the likes of him; if, on the other hand, he is by nature dogged and persistent he will read on conscientiously, though without enjoyment. But a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it doesn't give the reader that, it is, so far as he is concerned, valueless. In this respect every reader is his own best critic, for he alone knows what he enjoys and what he doesn't. I think, however, that the novelist may claim that you do not do him justice unless you admit that he has the right to demand something of his readers. He has the right to demand that they should possess the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages. He has the right to demand that they should have sufficient imagination to be able to interest themselves in the lives, joys and sorrows, tribulations, dangers and adventures of the characters of his invention. Unless a reader is able to give something of himself he cannot get from a novel the best it has to give. And if he isn't able to do that, he had better not read it at all. There is no obligation to read a work of fiction.

A novelist, I have written these essays from my own standpoint. The danger of this is that the novelist is very apt to like best the sort of thing he does himself, and he will judge the work of others by how nearly they approach his own practice. In order to do full justice to works with which he has no natural sympathy, he needs a dispassionate integrity, a liberality of spirit, of which the members of an irritable race are seldom possessed. On the other hand, the critic who is not himself a creator is likely to know little about the technique of the novel, and so in his criticism he gives you either his personal impressions, which may well be of no great value, unless like Desmond McCarthy he is not only a man of letters but also a man of the world; or else he proffers a judgement founded on hard and fast rules which must be followed to gain his approbation. It is as though a shoemaker made shoes only in two sizes and if neither ot them fitted your foot, you could for all he cared go shoeless.

The fact remains that to describe a novelist as a mere storyteller is to dismiss him with contumely. I venture to suggest that there is no such creature. By the incidents he chooses to relate, the characters he selects and his attitude towards them, the author offers you a criticism of life. It may not be a very original one, or very profound, but it is there; and consequently, though he may not know it, he is in his own modest way a moralist. But morals, unlike mathematics, are not a precise science. Morals cannot be inflexible for they deal with the behaviour of human beings, and human beings, as we know, are vain, changeable and vacillating.

When I consider how many obstacles the novelist has to contend with, how many pitfalls to avoid, I am not surprised that even the greatest novels are imperfect; I am only surprised that they are not more imperfect than they are.

What it all comes down to is the question whether the novel is a form of art or not. Is its aim to instruct or to please? If its aim is to instruct, then it is not a form of art. For the aim of art is to please. [...] But it is a truth that shocks a good many people, since Christianity has taught them to look upon pleasure with misgiving as snare to entangle the immortal soul. It seems more reasonable to look upon pleasure as a good, but to remember that certain pleasures have mischievous consequence and so may more wisely be eschewed. There is a general disposition to look upon pleasure as merely sensual, and that is natural since the sensual pleasures are more vivid than the intellectual; but that is surely an error, for there are pleasures of the mind as well as of the body, and if they are not so keen, they are more enduring.

I think it is an abuse to use the novel as a pulpit or a platform and I believe readers are misguided when they suppose they can thus easily acquire knowledge. It is a great nuisance that knowledge can only be acquired by hard work. It would be fine if we could swallow the powder of profitable information made palatable by the jam of fiction. But the truth is that, so made palatable, we can't be sure that the powder will be profitable, for the knowledge the novelist imparts is biased and thus unreliable; and it is better not know a thing at all than to know it in distorted fashion. There is no reason why a novelist should be anything but a novelist. It is enough if he is a good novelist. He should know a little about great many things, but it is unnecessary, and sometimes even harmful, for him to be a specialist in any particular subject. He need not eat a whole sheep to know what mutton tastes like; it is enough if he eats a chop. Then, by applying his imagination and his creative faculty to the chop he has eaten, he can give you a pretty good idea of an Irish stew; but when he goes on from this to broach his views on sheep-raising, the wool industry and the political situation in Australia, it is wise to accept them with reserve.

The novelist is at the mercy of his bias. The subjects he chooses, the characters he invents and his attitude towards them are conditioned by it. Whatever he writes is the expression of his personality and it is the manifestation of his innate instincts, his feelings and his experience. However hard he tries to be objective, he remains the slave of his own idiosyncrasies. However hard he tries to be impartial, he cannot help taking sides. He loads his dice. [...] Henry James insisted again and again that the novelist must dramatize. That is a telling, though perhaps not very lucid, way of saying that he must arrange his facts in such a manner as to capture and hold your attention. So, if need be, he will sacrifice verisimilitude and credibility to the effect he wants to get. That, as we know, is not the way a work of scientific or informative value is written. The aim of the writer of fiction is not to instruct but to please.

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[Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice]

Miss Austen had a sharp tongue and a prodigious sense of humour. She liked to laugh, and she liked to make others laugh. It is asking too much of the humorist to expect him - or her - to keep a good thing to himself when he thinks it. And, heaven knows, it is hard to be funny without being sometimes a little malicious. There is not much kick in the milk of human kindness. Jane had a keen appreciation of the absurdity of the others, their pretensions, their affectations and their insincerities; and it is to her credit that they amused rather than annoyed her. She was too amiable to say things to people that would pain them, but she certainly saw no harm in amusing herself at their expense with Cassandra [her sister]. I see no ill-nature even in the most biting of her remarks; her humour was based, as humour should be, on observation and mother-wit.

Jane Austen shared the opinions common in her day and, so far as one can tell from her books and letters, was satisfied with the conditions that prevailed. She had no doubt that social distinctions were of importance, and she found it natural that there should be rich and poor. Young men, as was right and proper, obtained advancement in the service of the King by the influence of powerful friends. A woman's business was to marry, for love certainly, but in satisfactory conditions. This was in the order of things, and there is no sign that Miss Austen saw anything in it to object to.

I do not believe that Miss Austen was capable of being very much in love. If she had been, she would surely have attributed to her heroines a greater warmth of emotion than in fact she did. There is no passion in their love. Their inclinations are tempered with prudence and controlled by common sense. Real love has no truck with these estimable qualities.

Her close relations, to whom she read her novels, were charmed by them, but she was as sensible as she was modest, and she may well have decided that their appeal was only to persons who were fond of her, and had, perhaps, a shrewd idea who the models of her were. The author of the Memoir [her brother Henry] rejects emphatically that she had such models and Dr, Chapman [famous Jane Austen expert] seems to agree with him. They are claiming for Jane Austen a power of invention which is frankly incredible. All the greatest novelist, Stendhal and Balzac, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dickens and Thackeray, have had models from whom they created their characters. It is true that Jane said: ''I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A., or Colonel B.'' There the significant word is only. As with every other novelist, by the time her imagination had worked on the person who had suggested the character, he was to all intents and purposes her own creation; but that is not to say that he was not evolved from an original Mr. A. or Colonel B.

I will only quote what Sir Walter Scott had to say; it is characteristically generous: ''that young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow I can do myself like anyone going; but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.''

It is odd that that Sir Walter should have omitted to make mention the young lady's most precious talent: her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same sort of story in all her books, and there is no great variety in her characters. They are very much the same persons, seen from a somewhat different point of view. She had common sense in a high degree, and no one knew better than she her limitations. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. As was first pointed out by Dr. Chapman, she never attempted to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in nature of things she could never have heard.

At the time she wrote, it was thought far from lady-like to do so. Monk Lewis observed: ''I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously.'' The novel was a form held in scant esteem, and Miss Austen was herself not a little perturbed that Sir Walter Scott, a poet, should write fiction.

Professor Garrod, a learned and witty critic, has said that Jane Austen was incapable of writing a story, by which, he explains, he means a sequence of happenings, either romantic or uncommon. But that is not what Jane had a talent for, and not what she tried to do. She had too much sense, and too sprightly a humour, to be romantic, and she was interested not in the uncommon, but in the common. She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit.

The great mass of readers, I believe, has accepted Pride and Prejudice as her masterpiece, and in such case I think it well to accept their judgement. What makes a classic is not that it is praised by critics, expounded by professors and studied in schools, but that large number of readers, generation after generation, have found pleasure and spiritual profit in reading it.

She liked Elisabeth best of all her heroines. ''I must confess,'' she wrote, ''that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.'' If, as some have thought, she was herself the original for her portrait of Elisabeth - and she has certainly given her own gaiety, high spirit and courage, wit and readiness, good sense and right feeling - it is perhaps not rash to suppose that when she drew the placid, kindly and beautiful Jane Bennet she had in mind her sister Cassandra. [...] There is, perhaps, some exaggeration in the drawing of Lady Catherine and Mr Collins, but to my mind little more than comedy allows. Comedy sees life in a light more sparkling, but colder, than that of common day, and a touch of exaggeration, that is, of farce, is often no disadvantage. A discreet amount of farce, like sprinkle of sugar on strawberries, may well make comedy more palatable. With regard to Lady Catherine, one must remember that in Miss Austen's day rank gave its possessors a sense of immense superiority over persons of inferior station; and they not only expected to be treated by them with utmost deference, but were. In my own youth I knew great ladies whose sense of importance, though not quite so blatant, was not far removed from Lady Catherine's. And as for Mr. Collins, who has not known, even to-day, men with that combination of obsequiousness and pomposity? That they have learnt to screen it with a front of geniality only makes it more odious.

She is apt to use the word of Latin origin rather than the homely English one. It gives her phrase a slight formality which is far from unpleasant; indeed, it often adds point to a witty remark, and a demure savour to a malicious one. Her dialogue is probably as natural as dialogue could then be. To us it may seem somewhat stilted.

There is one merit which Miss Austen has and which I have almost omitted to mention. She is wonderfully readable - more readable than some greater and more famous novelists. She deals, as Walter Scott said, with commonplace things, ''the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life''; nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.

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[Herman Melville and Moby Dick]

His early education was slight and, as often happens in such cases, he did not quite assimilate the culture he acquired in later years. Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of a growing boy; it is not an ornament to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich your soul.

The sexual proclivities of an author are no business of his readers, except in so far as they influence his work, as in the case with Andre Gide and Marcel Proust; when they do, and the facts are put before you, much that was obscure or even incredible may be made plain. If I have dwelt on this idiosyncrasy of Melville’s, it is because it may account for his dissatisfaction with married life; and it may be that a sexual frustration occasioned the change in him which has puzzled all those who have interested themselves in them. The probabilities are great that his moral sense prevailed; but who can tell what instincts, perhaps even unrecognized and, even if recognized, angrily repressed and never, except perhaps in imagination, indulged in – who can tell, I say, what instincts may dwell in a man’s being which, though never yielded to, may yet have an overwhelming effect on his disposition?

When one reads, and re-reads, Moby Dick, it seems to me that one gets a more convincing, a more definite, impression of the man than from anything one may learn of his life and circumstances; an impression of a man endowed by nature with a great gift blighted by an evil genius, so that, like the agave, no sooner had it put forth its splendid blooming than it withered; a moody, unhappy man tormented by instincts he shrank from with horror; a man conscious that the virtue had gone out of him, and embittered by failure and poverty; a man of heart craving for friendship, only to find that friendship too was vanity. Such, as I see him, was Herman Melville, a man whom one can only regard with deep compassion.

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[Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights]

Wuthering Heights is an extraordinary book. For the most part, novels betray their period, not only in the manner of writing common to the time at which they were written, but also by their concurrence with the climate of opinion of their day, the moral outlook of their authors, the prejudices they accept or reject. […] But Wuthering Heights is an exception. It is related in no way to the fiction of the time. It is a very bad novel. It is a very good one. It is ugly. It has beauty. It is a terrible, an agonizing, a powerful and a passionate book.

It must be admitted that it is badly written. The Brontë sisters did not write well. Like governesses they were, they affected the turgid and pedantic style for which the word literatise has been coined. The main part of the story is told by Mrs Dean, a Yorkshire maid of all work like the Brontës’ Tabby; a conversational style would have been suitable; Emily makes her express herself as no human being could. Here is a typical example: ‘I tried to smooth away all disquietude on the subject, by affirming, with frequent iteration, that that betrayal of trust, if it merited so harsh an appellation, should be the last.’ […] She does not read a letter, she peruses an epistle; she doesn’t send a letter, but a missive. She does not leave a room, she quits a chamber. She calls her day’s work her diurnal occupation. She commences rather than begins. People don’t shout or yell, they vociferate; nor do they listen, they hearken. There is pathos in this parson’s daughter striving so hard to write in a lady-like way, only to succeed in being genteel. Yet one would not wish Wuthering Heights to have been written with grace: it would be none the better for being better written. Just as in one of those early Flemish pictures of the burial of Christ the anguished grimaces of the emaciated creatures concerned, their stiff, ungainly gestures, seem to add a greater horror, a matter-of-fact brutality, to the scene, which makes it more poignant, more tragic, than when the same event is pictured in beauty by Titian; so there is in this uncouth stylization of the language something which strangely heightens the violent passion of the story.

I do not suppose that Emily Brontë deliberately thought out how to get a unit of impression into a straggling story, but I think she must have asked herself how to make it coherent; and it may have occurred to her that she could best do this by making one character narrate the long succession of events to another. It is a convenient way of telling a story, and she did not invent it. Its disadvantage is that it is impossible to maintain anything like a conversational manner when the narrator has to tell a number of things, descriptions of scenery for instance, which no sane person would think of doing.

[…]

But more than that, I think the method she adopted might have been expected of her, when you consider her extreme, her morbid, shyness and her reticence. […] By having the story in its beginning told by Lockwood, and unfolded to Lockwood by Mrs Dean, she hid herself behind, as it were, a double mask.

[…]

And why did Emily need to hide herself when she wrote this powerful, passionate and terrible book? I think because she disclosed in it her innermost instincts. She looked deep into the well of loneliness in her heart, and saw there unavowable secrets of which, notwithstanding, her impulse as a writer drove her to unburden herself. […] I am willing to believe that she found in the stories of mystery, violence and horror of the German romantic writers something that appealed to her own fierce nature; but I think she found Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the hidden depths of her own soul. I think she was herself Heathcliff, I think she was herself Catherine Earnshaw. Is it strange that she should have put herself into the two chief characters of her book? Not at all. We are none of us all of a piece; more than one person dwells within us, often in uncanny companionship with his fellows; and the peculiarity of the writer of fiction is that he has the power to objectify the diverse persons of which he is compounded in individual characters: his misfortune is that he cannot bring to life characters, however necessary to his story they may be, in which there is no part of himself. That is why the younger Catherine in Wuthering Heights is unsatisfactory.

Wuthering Heights is a love story, perhaps the strangest that was ever written, and not the least strange part of it is that the lovers remain chaste. […] One wonders why those two people who were consumed with love did not, whatever the poverty that might have faced them, run away together. One wonders why they didn’t become real lovers. It may be that Emily’s upbringing caused her to look upon adultery as an unforgivable sin, or it may be that the idea of sexual intercourse between the sexes filled her with disgust. I believe both the sisters were highly sexed. Charlotte was plain, with a sallow skin and a large nose on one side of her face. She had proposals of marriage when she was obscure and penniless, and at that period a man expected his wife to bring a portion with her. But beauty is not the only thing that makes a woman attractive; indeed, great beauty is often somewhat chilling: you admire, but are not moved. If young men fell in love with Charlotte, a captious and critical young woman, it can surely have only been because they found her sexually attractive, which means that they felt obscurely that she was highly sexed. She was not in love with Mr Nicholls when she married him; she thought him narrow, dogmatic, sullen and far from intelligent. It is clear from her letters that after she married him she felt very differently towards him; for her they are positively skittish. She fell in love with him, and his defects ceased to matter. The most probable explanation is that those sexual desires of hers were at last satisfied. There is no reason to suppose that Emily was less highly sexed than Charlotte.

But though, as I have said, it is conceivable that Emily constructed Wuthering Heights entirely out of her own fantasies, I do not believe it. I should have thought that it was only very rarely that the fruitful idea that will give rise to a fiction comes to an author, like a falling star, out of the blue; for the most part, it comes to him from an experience, generally emotional, of his own, or, if it is told him by another, emotionally appealing; and then his imagination in travail, character and incidents little by little grow out of it, until at length the finished work comes into being. Few people, however, know how small a hint, how trivial to all appearances an occurrence, may be that will serve to set the spark that will kindle the author’s invention. When you look at the cyclamen with its heart-shaped leaves surrounding a profusion of flowers, their careless petals wearing a wilful look as though they grew haphazard, it seems incredible that this luscious beauty, this rich colour, should have come from a seed hardly larger than a pin’s head. So it may be with the productive seed that will give rise to an immortal book.

In 1845, three years before her death, she wrote a poem called The Prisoner. So far as is known, she had never read the works of any of the mystics, yet in these verses she so describes the mystical experience that it is impossible to believe that they do not tell of what she knew from personal acquaintance. She uses almost the very words that the mystics use when they describe the anguish felt on the return from union with the Infinite:

Oh dreadful is the check – intense the agony –
When the ear begins to hear, the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

These lines surely reflect a felt, a deeply felt, experience. Why should one suppose that Emily Brontë’s love poems were no more than a literary exercise? I should have thought they pointed very clearly to her having fallen in love, to her love having being repulsed, and then to her having been bitterly hurt. She wrote these particular poems when she was teaching at a girls’ school at Law Hill, near Halifax. She was nineteen. There was little chance of her meeting men there (and we know how she fled from men), and so, from what we surmise of her disposition, it is likely enough that she fell in love with one or other of the mistresses, or with one of the girls. It was the only love of her life. It may well be that the unhappiness it caused her sufficed to implant the seed in the fruitful soil of her tortured sensibility which enabled her to create the strange book we know. I can think of no other novel in which the pain, the ecstasy, the ruthlessness of love have been so powerfully set forth. Wuthering Heights has great faults, but they do not matter; they matter as little as the fallen tree-trunks, the strewn rock, the snow-drifts which impede, but do not stem, the alpine torrent in its tumultuous course down the mountain-side. You cannot liken Wuthering Heights to any other book. You can liken it only to one of those great pictures of El Greco in which in a sombre, arid landscape, under clouds heavy with thunder, long emaciated figures in contorted attitudes, spell-bound by an unearthly emotion, hold their breath. A streak of lightning, flitting across the leaden sky, gives a mysterious terror to the scene.

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[Charles Dickens and David Copperfield]

For my part, I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart. I hasten to qualify that. He had a generous heart, a passionate sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and, as we know, he took a persistent and effective interest in social reform. But it was an actor’s heart, by which I mean that he could feel intensely an emotion that he wished to depict in the same way as an actor playing a tragic part can feel the emotion he represents. ‘What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?’ […] I have no doubt that Dickens was sincere, but it was an actor’s sincerity; and that, perhaps, is why now, no matter how he piled up the agony, we feel that his pathos was not quite genuine and so are no longer moved by it.

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[In Conclusion]

What is it that must be combined with the creative instinct to make it possible for a writer to produce a work of value? Well, I suppose it is personality. It may be a pleasant or an unpleasant one; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by some idiosyncrasy of nature, the writer is enable to see in a manner peculiar to himself. It doesn’t matter if he sees in a way that common opinion regards neither just nor true.

[…]

They appear to have taken little interest in any art other than their own. Jane Austen confessed that concerts bored her. Tolstoy was fond of music and played the piano. Stendhal had a predilection for opera, which is the form of musical entertainment which affords pleasure to people who don’t like music. He went to the Scala every night when he was in Milan to gossip with his friends, have supper and play cards, and, like them, gave his attention to what was happening on the stage only when a famous singer sang a well-known aria. He had equal admiration for Mozart, Cimarosa and Rossini.

[…]

Of course, it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers were intelligent; but they were not strikingly intellectual. Their naïveté, when they deal with general ideas, is often startling. They accept the commonplaces of the philosophy current in their day, and when they put them in use in their action, the result is seldom happy. The fact is, ideas are not their affair, and their concern with them, when they are concerned with them, is emotional.

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[Miscellaneous]

Genius is a word that is very loosely used nowadays. It is ascribed to persons to whom a more sober judgement would be satisfied to allow talent. Genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated; genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects. But what is genius?

He had passed his life in the pursuit of happiness, and had never learnt that happiness is best attained when it is not sought; and, moreover, is only known when it is lost. It is doubtful whether anyone can say "I am happy"; but only "I was happy". For happiness is not well-being, content, heart's ease, pleasure, enjoyment: all these go to make happiness, but they are not happiness.

One of the odd things about Stendhal is that though he was always on the watch lest anyone made a fool of him, he was constantly making a fool of himself.

Like many another member of the gentle sex, she seems to have been ready enough to accept the perquisites of her position, but saw no reason why she should be asked to give anything in return.

But there is all the difference between loving and being in love. It is possible to love without desire, but without desire impossible to be in love.

Passion may be false, trivial or unnatural, but, if violent enough, is not without some trace of grandeur.

He would not have been the first man to find that he loved his wife more when he was parted from her than was with her, and that the expectation of sexual congress was more exciting than the realisation.

Is it rash to assume that when a practised writer says a thing, he is more likely to mean what he says than what his commentators think he means?

...like many another self-educated man, he attached an exaggerated importance to the knowledge he had so painfully acquired and could not resist the temptation to parade it,...

According to your proclivities, you may take a snow-clad Alpine peak, as it rises to the empyrean in radiant majesty, as symbol of man's aspiration to union with the Infinite; or since, if you like to believe that, a mountain range may be thrown up by some violent convulsion in the earth's depths, you may take it as a symbol of the dark and sinister passions of man that lour to destroy him; or, if you want to be in the fashion, you may take it as a phallic symbol.

...as we know, Christian charity has always been able to make allowances for a lot of good honest hatred,...

But beauty is not the only thing that makes a woman attractive; indeed, great beauty is often somewhat chilling: you admire, but are not moved.

Flaubert prided himself on his frankness; it was indeed brutal.

But there is nothing men lie about so much as about their sexual life,...

She was one of those writers, far from rare in the world of letters, who suppose that push and pull are an adequate substitute for talent;

No novel is entirely free of improbabilities, and to the more usual ones readers have become so accustomed that they accept them as a matter of course. The novelist cannot give a literal transcript of life, he draws a picture for you which, if he is a realist, he tries to make life-like; and if you believe him he has succeeded.

The particular value attached of virginity is a fabrication of the male, due partly to superstition, partly to masculine vanity, and partly, of course, to a disinclination to father someone else's child. Women, I should say, have ascribed importance to it chiefly because the value men place on it, and also from fear of consequences. I think I am right in saying that a man, to satisfy a need as natural as eating his dinner when he is hungry, may have sexual intercourse without any particular feeling for the object of his appetite; whereas with a woman sexual intercourse, without something in the nature, if not of love, at least of sentiment, is merely a tiresome business which she accepts as obligation, or from the wish to give pleasure.

Nothing, I suppose, exasperates a woman more than the sexual desire for her of a man who is physically repellent to her, and when, to put it bluntly, he will not take no for an answer, she may very well come to hate him.

Now, owing to the invention of contraceptives, the high value that was once placed on chastity no longer obtains. Novelists have not been slow to notice the difference this has made in the relations of the sexes and so, whenever they feel that something must be done to sustain the reader's flagging interest, they cause their characters to indulge in copulation. I am not sure they are well advised. Of sexual intercourse Lord Chesterfield said that the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable: if he had lived to read modern fiction he might have added that there is a monotony about the act which renders the reiterated narration of it excessively tedious.

Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest; it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him.

Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure him this way and that. He is made from elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form plausible harmony.

Dostoevsky had a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual value of suffering, and thought that by the willing acceptance of it one atoned for one's sins, and so reached happiness. From this the surprising inference seems to emerge that, since it gives rise to suffering and suffering leads to happiness, sin is necessary and profitable. But was Dostoevsky right in thinking that suffering cleanses and refines the character? [...] So far as physical suffering is concerned, my experience is that long and painful illness makes people querulous, egoistic, intolerant, petty and jealous. Far from making them better, it makes them worse. Of course I know that there are some, and I have known one or two myself, who in a long and distressing illness, from which recovery was impossible, have shown courage, unselfishness, patience and resignation; but they had those qualities before. The occasion revealed them. There is spiritual suffering too. No one can have lived long in the world of letters without having known men who had enjoyed success and then, for one reason or another, lost it. It made them sullen, bitter, spiteful and envious. I can think of only one case in which this misfortune, accompanied as it is by humiliations which only those who have witnessed them know, has been borne with courage, dignity and good humour. The man of whom I speak no doubt had those qualities before, but the mask of frivolity he wore prevented one from discerning them. Suffering is part of our human lot, but that does not make it any less evil.

To the human intelligence the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good seems incompatible with the existence of evil. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head. Ivan tells Alyosha a horrible story. A little serf boy, a child of eight, threw a stone and by accident lamed his master's favourite dog. His master, owner of great estates, had the child stripped naked and made to run; and as he ran he set his pack of hounds on him and he is torn to pieces before his mother's eyes. Ivan is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world God created. He insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God either is evil or does not exist. Dostoevsky never wrote with greater power than in this piece; but having written it, he was afraid of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to what with all his heart he wished to believe, namely that the world, for all its evil, is beautiful because it is creation of God. He hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.
The problem of evil still awaits solution, and Ivan Karamazov's indictment has not yet been answered.
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Feel free to merge the original title with all alternative ones mentioned in the Common Knowledge (and there may well be others in existence). Compared to the 1949 original, the 1954 version contains a new concluding chapter, considerable revisions of the introductory one, and various additions of biographical material and re-arrangements in the ten essays. However, Raymond Toole Stott, Maugham's most authoritative bibliographer, considers them the same book. I suppose he is justified in doing so.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0330254979, Paperback)

Maugham's studies of the lives and masterpieces of ten great novelists are outstanding examples of literary criticism at its finest. Afforded here are some of the formulae of greatness in the genre, as well as the flaws and heresies which enfeeble it.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:36 -0400)

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