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Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers
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Somerset Maugham: A Life

by Jeffrey Meyers

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Jeffrey Meyers

Somerset Maugham: A Life

Alfred A. Knopf, Hardback, 2004.

8vo. xvi+411 pp. First Edition.

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I wish I could give more credit to this book because it is relatively enjoyable read and contains lots of interesting biographical data about Somerset Maugham. It is also researched well. But I cannot give more than one star and now I will try to explain why that is so.

Mr. Meyers has a lot of judgments about both Maugham's work and personality which don't seem to rest on any foundation. And who cares of his personal opinion? Despite his relatively positive attitude he very often indulges in futile comparisons with Conrad and Lawrence about their putative influence. It seems that Maugham is nothing more than a ''Conradian'' projection, or maybe a bunch of D. H. Lawrence's ideas. He thinks that he knows every thought that has ever occurred to Maugham and everything about the development of his characters. But all these are just speculations. Nothing more, nothing less, and completely useless.

Have we read the same books? Sometimes I am inclined to think that Maugham biographers have never read any of his books, or at least never read them seriously. They think that all in Maugham's life was determined by hate for his wife and trying to conceal his homosexuality. This may have been so, I don't know, but many of their conclusions about the influence of these two factors over his oeuvre are simply ridiculous. Back to Mr Meyers. Despite his touching defense of Maugham's (in)famous memoir Looking Back or the damning criticism of Noel Coward's pathetic attempts to satirize Maugham, Mr Meyers fails completely, to my mind at least, to show how unique a writer and a man Somerset Maugham really was.

Mr Meyers' analysis of, for example, The Narrow Corner is outrageous and preposterous. Where have you seen a homosexual relationship between Dr Saunders and Ah Kay, and between Fred and Erik, Mr Meyers? Where have you seen a love story between Fred and Louise? He thinks that the novel is one of Maugham's finest but writes such a nonsense about it. The novel is indeed brilliant but I have never been able to bother myself with homosexuality in it. It is a story about pure goodness and pure idealism, about courage and cowardice, about human frailty and human spirit.

What about Cosmopolitans? Mr Meyers tells us directly that this short story collection is much inferior to all previous ones and that the only outstanding story in it is ''Mr Know-All''. And that's a perfect nonsense, too. ''Mr Know-All'' is a brilliant story but there are at least five or six more which are as great. Indeed, ''A Friend in Need'', ''The Verger'', ''Loiuse'', ''Salvatore'', ''A String of Beads'', ''The Ant and the Grasshopper'', ''The Luncheon'', ''The Wash Tub'', and ''Social Sense'' are among Maugham's best short stories - perfect in structure, witty, amusing, and thought-provoking, even in this limited size. In the preface (have you read this, Mr Meyers?) to the volume Maugham explains that these are anecdotes written on a magazine commission and the themes in them were chosen carefully as not to require any elaboration. That makes any comparison with the other stories of Maugham - much longer and complicated in terms of both plot and characters - simply ridiculous.

I daresay that if Maugham had not been the man he was - with all his troubled sexuality and vicissitudes of his life - he wouldn't have been the writer he was. But let's not try to deduct from this everything about his personality and works. And one last advice to the readers of this biography - first read the books of Somerset Maugham, and then, if you want to learn a bit more about him (only a bit, alas) read this book. One of its gravest disadvantages is that it contains the plots of almost all Maugham's works and if you read it before these works, you will be deprived of an essential part of the delight that Maugham's fiction can offer you. And you also will be greatly prejudiced about Maugham's work after reading Meyers' and that's certainly not something desirable.

Read Maugham's short stories and decide for yourself. If you like them, go on with his novels, plays, essays and travel books. If you don't, then don't read him at all. Leave Mr Meyers for the end, if you really want to learn few facts more about the really extraordinary life of this really great man and great writer. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 17, 2009 |
Poor Somerset Maugham: Not only did he not get his due from critics in his lifetime, but he also hasn't attracted the right biographer in the nearly four decades since his death.

For all of Meyers' obviously sincere advocacy of Maugham, he does not seem to be on his subject's wavelength, either as a person or as an author, and it is perhaps this poor match that makes this one of the most dissapointing of his more than a dozen biographies, many if not most of which I have admired and enjoyed. There is a hurried quality to the narrative, even a hint of impatience at times
added by danielx | editSF Gate, Martin Rubin (Sep 3, 2012)
 
added by danielx | editNew York times, Brooke Allen (Dec 4, 2010)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375414754, Hardcover)

He was an instinctive and magnificent storyteller, with a talent also for success. Of Human Bondage was his masterpiece; The Razor’s Edge his most spectacular best-seller. He lived nearly ninety-two years, wrote seventy-eight books (forty million sold worldwide) and once had four plays running in London simultaneously. “Rain,” reflecting his fascination with the South Seas, is among the most widely read stories of our time.

In World War I, he performed expertly and courageously as ambulance driver and as secret agent in Samoa and Russia. Eventually he knew “everybody”: Britain’s, Hollywood’s and literature’s royalty. He was seen as formidable, a cynic and the very emblem of worldliness. He wrote constantly about social and sexual entanglements but, in a closeted age, was increasingly secretive about his own–loving men, wanting to love women.

To the extraordinary life of Somerset Maugham and his development as a writer, Jeffrey Meyers brings all his gifts as biographer: of Hemingway (“simply the best book there is on Hemingway” –J. F. Powers), of Orwell (“moving and edifying” –Paul Theroux) and of D. H. Lawrence (“probably the best biography of him” –Times Literary Supplement).

Telling Maugham’s story, from his sad, orphaned childhood in the small English coastal town of Whitstable, through his Paris years and his wandering years, to his luxurious, indeed glamorous, old age at the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat, Meyers reveals much that is new–about Maugham’s days at Heidelberg and on Capri, his medical training, his wartime espionage, his quarrels with D. H. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, his friendship with Noël Coward, and about his longtime lover, Gerald Haxton. He writes of Maugham’s encounters with Winston Churchill, E. M. Forster, the Sitwells, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson and the Windsors; of his affairs with four attractive and accomplished women; of his torturous ten-year marriage to one of them–Syrie, who became a celebrated decorator–and his wish to marry the actress Sue Jones, gentle, loving and promiscuous, who was his model for Rosie Driffield in Cakes and Ale.

Meyers describes Joseph Conrad’s influence on Maugham and Maugham’s on George Orwell and V. S. Naipaul. He provides a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and complex man whose talent has held and dazzled a cultivated audience from the late Victorian era to the twenty-first century.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:47:37 -0400)

"Telling Maugham's story, from his sad, orphaned childhood in the small English coastal town of Whitstable, through his Paris years and his wandering years, to his luxurious, indeed glamorous, old age at the Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat, Meyers reveals much that is new - about Maugham's days at Heidelberg and on Capri, his medical training, his wartime espionage, his quarrels with D. H. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, his friendship with Noel Coward, and about his longtime lover, Gerald Haxton. He writes of Maugham's encounters with Winston Churchill, E. M. Forster, the Sitwells, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson and the Windsors; of his affairs with four attractive and accomplished women; of his torturous ten-year marriage to one of them - Syrie, who became a celebrated decorator - and his wish to marry the actress Sue Jones, gentle, loving and promiscuous, who was his model for Rosie Driffield in Cakes and Ale." "Meyers describes Joseph Conrad's influence on Maugham and Maugham's on George Orwell and V. S. Naipaul. He provides a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and complex man whose talent has held and dazzled a cultivated audience from the late Victorian era to the twenty-first century."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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