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W. Somerset Maugham by M.K. Naik
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W. Somerset Maugham

by M.K. Naik

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W. Somerset Maugham is one of the 20th century’s most popular and prolific writers, a man whose work has thrilled and entertained countless millions of readers. Literary lions such as he are considered fair game by self- appointed critics who seek to advance their small careers by criticizing the work of eminent writers of great talent and accomplishment. Mr. Naik's book is a narrow and pedantic critique of Maugham’s literary contributions. Its author seeks to analyze Maugham’s works along an alleged spectrum between two parameters that he labels as “cynicism” and “humanitarianism,” features that he believes reflect a “deep- seated conflict” in Maugham’s writing.

Mr. Naik begins with a brief summary of Maugham’s life, to put the author’s writing into biographical context. The effort is perfunctory, and overlooks significant events and such major figures as Maugham’s long- term companion Gerald Haxton. (The latter oversight may be for the better, as the author’s amateur psychologizing is not extended to his subject’s sexuality). Mr. Naik then proceeds to discuss in turn (a) Maugham’s early novels and plays; (b) Of Human Bondage (which he thinks shows undeniable “humanitarianism” despite its lack of a “positive creed”); (c) novels of Maugham’s middle phase (where cynicism allegedly comes to the fore); and (d) the later novels (in which Naik thinks Maugham’s cynicism is “tempered by mellowness.”) Regarding the later novels, Naik opines: “Regardless of the(ir) virtuosity and readability… their lack of penetration and power robbed the author of any positive achievement in the last phase of his career.” Clearly Mr. Naik does not consider Maugham’s best- selling The Razor’s Edge to be a positive achievement.

Of Maugham’s short stories, Naik believes that they “present a fairer, more balanced, and a more humane picture of life and human nature than his novels and his dramas….” However, in his view, limitations of the stories include their dearth of poetic language, the absence of romance, the scarcity of warmth, and the absence of any attempt at innovation. Thus, Mr. Naik criticizes Somerset Maugham for not being the particular sort of writer Naik would have preferred him to be. Among Naik’s conclusions are that “(I)n the prime of his career, Maugham surrendered himself to cynicism. He stifled the humanitarian in himself quite early… (H)e learned to be on his guard against emotion, as well as against life and the world; he learned to be suspicious of the motives of men; he learned not to sympathize with or to blame men, but only to be amused at their foibles; he became an cynically indifferent spectator of life.” Such sophomoric conjecture is unworthy of print. Apparently Mr. Naik considers himself qualified to infer how his subject's personality was shaped, and the deep psychological reasons as to why he wrote as he did. Among literary critics, hubris has no bounds.

Readers who love the work of Somerset Maugham will find little value in Mr. Naik’s perspective. To be fair, at times I find his observations to be on the mark. However, more often his points seem heavy - handed and obtuse. Naik is like the proverbial carpenter who, equipped only with a hammer, sees everything as a nail. With a perspective limited to the aforementioned two parameters (cynicism and so-called humanitarianism), he judges all of Maugham’s works within their narrow confines. Thus, he overlooks the many other attributes of Maugham’s fiction and non- fiction, including humor, irony, wit, compassion, self- deprecation, mystery, fear, surprise, excitement, shame, terror, guilt, longing, hope, desire, poignancy, and regret, not to mention the value of his writing as entertainment. Naik is often tone – deaf to the subtlety and charm of his subject’s work. A case in point is Maugham’s wickedly wonderful ending to Liza of Lambeth, one that could have been written by Gustav Flaubert in its juxtapositions of pathos, satire, and ironic social commentary. In a gross misreading, Naik takes episode of Liza's death as a literal portrayal of “the rough humor of the slums” – as if Maugham’s novel was a documentary instead of an entertaining work of fiction.

M.K. Naik’s book is the sort of work that leads the general reader to wonder what the point is of literary criticism. Three copies of Naik’s book exist at Library Thing. In contrast, by the 1970s, 40 million copies of Maugham's books had been printed. Critics come and go. Great writers live on indefinitely. ( )
2 vote danielx | Dec 26, 2012 |
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