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The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (edition 2010)

by Selina Hastings

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153578,096 (4.14)19
Waldstein's review
Selina Hastings

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

John Murray, Paperback, 2010.

8vo. 614 pp.

First published in 2009.

Contents

1. A Blackstable Boyhood
2. At St Thomas's Hospital
3. A Writer by Instinct
4. Le Chat Blanc
5. England's Dramatist
6. Syrie
7. Code Name 'Sommerville'
8. Behind the Painted Veil
9. 'A World of Veranda and Prahu'
10. Separation
11. The Villa Mauresque
12. Master Hacky
13. The Teller of Tales
14. An Exercise in Propaganda
15. The Bronzino Boy
16. Betrayal

Acknowledgements
Notes [pp. 539-582]
Select Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Index

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

I have to start by admitting that I am greatly prejudiced: in favour of Somerset Maugham himself and against biographies of him. There is no point in beating about the bush, so I might just as well say that I have been appalled by the three previous biographies of Maugham I have read: Ted Morgan's hatchet job Maugham: A Biography (1980), Robert Calder's epitome of homosexual obsession Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989) and Jeffrey Meyers's copy-paste hackwork Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004). Of these three gentlemen, only Robert Calder has made a genuine attempt to understand Maugham, both the man and the writer, but his work is fatally compromised by relentless harping on sexual matters, as regards both the man and the writer. Ted Morgan obviously wrote his book because he relishes digging skeletons out of people's cupboards and gossiping about dirty details. And as far as Jeffrey Meyers is concerned, I surmise he wrote his book simply for the sake of completeness, an addition to his already impressive list of biographies of Maugham's contemporaries (Mansfield, Hemingway, Conrad and Orwell, among others), so his work is expected to be the superficial junk which in fact it is.

So it is hardly surprising that I have looked askance at The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings, the last full scale biography of the great writer so far, still hot from the press: first published last year in hardcover and just reprinted in paperback. Indeed, I was even more prejudiced against Selina's book for its very title does smack of cheap sensationalism. On the whole, I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised. Selina's work is exactly what two and a half stars rating out of five tells you mathematically - average. Which is indeed a great achievement since all other members of the quartet Maugham biographers are way below the average. The lady has put the gentlemen to shame.

To begin with, Selina has a great deal of sympathy and compassion for Maugham; Mr Meyers is deficient in both and Mr Morgan is completely devoid of them. Selina's biography is packed with details and follows Maugham's life almost month by month, hardly in less detailed a fashion than either Calder or Morgan (whose books are way longer than Meyers's). Some reviews had led me to believe that Selina's treatment of Maugham's works is far from satisfactory, but I am not sure this corresponds with the truth. Selina certainly does not have the depth and the erudition of Calder, but neither does she suffer from his stupendous homosexual obsession; her analyses are superior, if slightly, to those of Messrs Morgan and Meyers, both of whom have little, if any, idea of Maugham's literary output and its significance.

I cannot bring myself to say that Selina's biography of Maugham is a really good one but it is certainly the best, or the least worst perhaps, among the four full scale attempts written so far.

The main fault all four biographies of Maugham share is that they all are largely superfluous, at least as far as I am concerned. The definitive (auto)biography of Somerset Maugham has already been written by the author himself. It took him more than 60 years and more than 40 volumes to complete. If you want a graphic representation, imagine a gigantic parabola with The Summing Up (1938) at its top (this is oversimplification of course: both halves of the parabola would by no means be identical). Everybody really seriously interested in Maugham should read first and foremost these books, together with the fascinating prefaces most of them have. Sure they lack tons of insignificant details and do contain quite a few wrong years, but the most important events of Maugham's life are there and so, more importantly, is a complete picture of his personality.

All Maugham biographers agree that Maugham's public persona was entirely different than the man in private. That may well have been so, but his public persona has nothing to do with his books - for there the real expression of his character lies: not in the books about Maugham but in the books by Maugham. His candour and sincerity have seldom been appreciated but very often grossly underrated by biographers and critics alike; and sometimes by his own friends, too.

Another thing the quartet biographers agree with is that Maugham was a complicated man, by which they simply mean that he had great defects. Sure he had - but no more than you and I. At the same time he had the determination, the resolution, the talent, the will and the character - or in short: the genius - to make a great and inspiring work of art out of his life. That's something I certainly don't have, and if you're reading these lines that sure means you don't have it either. With some help from Mr Maugham, there is no reason why both of us should not achieve something of his greatness ''in the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life'' (A Writer's Notebook, 1949).

Having said that, let's take a closer look at Selina's book, trying to explain why - provided that one is only superficially interested in Maugham - her biography is the one to have, and why, had the other three attempts never existed, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham would hardly have ranked even as average. From reading countless reviews of Maugham biographies by ordinary people, I am firmly under the impression that these fellows rarely read such books with any prior knowledge of Maugham and his works searching for new and stimulating insights - as I do - but quite on the contrary indeed: the majority are fascinated by trifles, especially the glamour of Maugham's really wide circle of glittering acquaintances or his notoriously unrestrained sexual escapades. Selina does deliver the goods in this respect all right, but not nearly with such glorious gusto as her male colleagues do.

To start with, it is indeed a little baffling why Selina wrote that biography at all. One of the most serious flaws of the book is that it hardly tells anything new, least of all any secrets. With the possible exception of Mr Meyers, whose book is fairly short, Messrs Morgan and Calder did not leave a single stone unturned as far as Maugham's life in facts and figures, sexual and otherwise, is concerned. Selina just repeats: the blissful beginning of Maugham's childhood in Paris, its harrowing end in Whitstable, the enchanting Heidelberg year, the student years at St Thomas, the first novel, the first visit to Spain, and so on and so forth until the old age; the same old incidents, people and, for the most part, judgements; even the same quotations from many of Maugham's works: you are sure to find a whole page with the famous love scene from Cakes and Ale, one of the most explicit in Maugham's oeuvre. There are numerous excerpts of letters from Maugham to important people in his life - Gerald Kelly, William Heinemann, Eddie Knoblock, Bertram Alanson, among others - which I do not remember to have read before, but though they corroborate quite a few well known facts, they scarcely add anything new.

The only thing that might possibly justify the writing of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, except a desire to capitalise on Maugham's ever strong status of notoriety, is Selina's desire to set the record straight. There is no evidence for any such intention of hers as regards the latter but, consciously or not, at least to some extent she has done so.

It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the advantage of Selina's biography over the three previous ones, but if one must use but one word, it is this: balance. Although Selina certainly shares some of the common prejudices about Maugham, her account of his life and character is on the whole more sensible and better balanced than any that the three aforementioned gentlemen could provide. Of course when Maugham's life is under scrutiny, the sexual element cannot but loom large and it is this which most often causes the greatest distortion. Selina spends considerable time discussing it and she never misses to describe vividly the homosexual underground in any of the places Maugham loved to visit, be it London, Paris or Capri, but she exercises an admirable restraint which is generally unknown among Maugham biographers. Though she is as prejudiced as anybody against Maugham's notorious late and still unpublished in book form memoirs Looking Back (1962), Selina quotes extensively from them and never doubts their veracity. That's saying a great deal, it seems to me.

The usual clichés - the long shadow of Oscar Wilde, the sexual frustration of Maugham's marriage and the sexual bliss of his relationship with Gerald Haxton - are here all right, but Selina somehow manages not to emphasise them out of any proportion, which is quite often the case with Messrs Morgan, Meyers and Calder. It is a tribute to common sense that Selina is almost entirely free (save, I think, only for the short story "Red") of the usual crap about homosexual hints in Maugham's works.

Despite an impressive list of names in the Acknowledgements section and more than 40 pages of notes, the amount of original research Selina has done for this book remains elusive. Obviously, she has done some and there is at least one astonishing discovery between these pages: Maugham's unpublished and unproduced early play Mrs Beamish; Selina claims that the manuscript is currently in the Library of Congress (p. 146). This play, if it exists, is indeed an extraordinary discovery for neither the other three biographers, nor Mander and Mitchenson in their magisterial study Theatrical Companion to Maugham (Rockliff, 1955), mention anything about it. So far the only such play - never produced and never published - known to exist among Maugham's was The Road Uphill (1924), with plot much later to be reworked in The Razor's Edge (1944), one of Maugham's most successful novels. Thus the number of Maugham's full length plays swells to 30. But the great research ends here.

There are numerous dubious claims in the book which are both unsourced and unsupported by any evidence. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that Maugham should have written plays in which his characters usually suffer from venereal diseases back in Heidelberg (p. 34), because at this time he had not yet become a medical student. This information Selina could have obtained from one place only and that is Maugham himself in his preface to Liza of Lambeth (written for its inclusion in The Collected Edition, 1934), where Maugham mentions this amusing detail but makes clear that these harrowing dramas were written between his 18th and 21st year, that is when he already was a medical student in St Thomas. It is certainly suspicious, too, that during those student years Maugham read in Russian (p. 40), though he certainly read widely in English, French, German and, most probably, Italian. I am not at all sure about this ''self-disgust'' (p. 17) in his childhood that continued later in his life, either. Equally unsubstantiated and, frankly, hard to believe are Selina's statements that Maugham ''more than once'' hit his wife (p. 315) or that he ''valued his [Gerald's] intelligence, very much relying on the younger man's critical opinion of his work.'' (p. 315); I should love to see anything that even remotely suggests that Gerald Haxton had any critical opinion, much less one that Maugham should have relied on.

Just by the way, one of the leitmotivs in Selina's book seems to be the popular cliché about Maugham's perpetual unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. As if there was another opportunity! This is an essential characteristic of genius. Can you imagine a Michelangelo or a Beethoven satisfied with their life or with their works, which are indeed the same thing? I wonder why nobody notices that this negative attitude towards life, putative or not, diminished neither Maugham's remarkable productivity nor his constant striving to improve his writing. Quite on the contrary actually: if anything, it stimulated both.

Not only does Selina not give sources for most of what she relates without quotation marks, but I suspect she quotes her eminent predecessors in the field of Maugham biography much less often than she should. Apparently, she is capable of meticulous research. At one place she takes Beverly Nichols's A Case of Human Bondage (1966), ostentatiously a defence of Syrie but a bitter attack on Maugham as well, and shows quite splendidly that the book is a biased and unreliable source. I wish she had been so critical and open about her sources in general. More often than not, she is not. Sometimes this is the case even when Maugham's writings are the source in question. The notorious accident with the jade necklace is related in detail (p. 319), how he brought the bijou for his wife from the Far East but she later sold it in Paris, lied to the insurance company that she had lost it in order to get the money from the insurance, and then lied to her husband to evade his anger; in the end, Syrie escaped the court by the skin of her teeth. The story is related by Maugham in Looking Back and there has never been shown any proof that it is untrue, nor has anybody, Selina included, claimed so. She might just as well have mentioned where the story, and so many other stories, really come from and how reliable they are.

The book's notes are the strangest I have ever seen. They are collected in the end and separated into chapters, which is of course quite usual, but are not numbered, which is indeed very unusual; instead, the page numbers and the first words of a quotation are given before the source. I can't imagine why such laborious stratagem should have been used, unless it was deliberately applied to cover sloppy research, or lack of such. This indeed seems to be the case here. The notes consist entirely of sources for direct quotes - from Maugham's letters or published works, seldom from other books - and guess what: yes, there are even quotations which are left unsourced. Some of them are rather intriguing, like Maugham's - presumably, at least - remark that his French teachers in Canterbury could not have ''got a cup coffee in the restaurant in Bologne'' (p. 25); I would be most curious to know where this charming trifle comes from, but Selina apparently thinks the matter is irrelevant. At another place she relates Maugham's reaction at his brother's surprise when he found he had such a dashing lover as the Princess Alexandra Kropotkin: ''He simply couldn't believe I was fucking anyone so grand.'' (p. 160); Selina rightly observes that Maugham has put it ''somewhat indelicately'', but she forgets to tells us where exactly he did so.

I would not venture to guess how many more such dubious quotations there are; I shudder to think how much of the main narrative might have been compiled on hearsay. It is entirely different matter, and one infinitely more complicated, that the book is full of quotes from numerous other people who express wildly different opinions which are almost never examined critically.

Finally, to finish with Selina's amateurish research, if it may be thus called, there are some glaring factual errors in the book. To take few instances, her claim that Maugham's early one-act farce Mademoiselle Zampa has never been published (p. 84, footnote) is quite ridiculous indeed. There is no publication edition, that's true, but the piece has been published at least twice under the title A Rehearsal: first in Sketch (1905) and almost 80 years later even in book form, namely in A Traveller in Romance (1984, ed. John Whitehead). Selina's foray into symbolism with the remarkable hypothesis about the pearl necklace symbolising ''sexual licentiousness and betrayal'' (p. 319) in Maugham's stories "Mr Know-All" and "A String of Beads" is perhaps intriguing. But her statement that the two pieces are separated in time by ''nearly twenty years'' is preposterous: as a matter of fact, the two short stories appeared in magazines within two years, in 1925 and in 1927 respectively. Nor are there seven stories The Casuarina Tree (1926); the collection contains exactly six stories, plus preface and postscript. Nor was in Ah King (1933) one of the earliest significant attempts of Maugham for first person narrative; leaving aside the collection with the telling title Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931), three stories of which were written between 1923 and 1926, that is certainly even before the earliest of the stories in Ah King, Maugham had actually written short story masterpieces in the first person singular as early as 1921.

Such claims do make me wonder how well Selina knows Maugham's works. Nit-picking of minor mistakes, yes, but the bigger ones are just one step away. Fortunately, should they exist, they would surely be concerned with insignificant and mundane details. Personally, I don't particularly care how many London houses Maugham changed through the years or how much he was paid for this screen adaptation or that stage production.

It may be mentioned in passing that the amount of detail in the book is quite impressive but sometimes excessive and often unnecessary. Here and there long strings of names or abundance of figures make certain passages all but unreadable. Well, some people might find number of copies in first editions or prices of houses illuminating.

There is a curiously widespread notion that a biography of an artist should concentrate largely, if not exclusively, on his life, leaving his work in the background, to be discussed in separate books by other specialists. This is nonsense. Can you imagine a biography of Liszt or Wagner without their music? Of course not! Certainly, a biography must not turn into critical study, musical or literary or whatever you like, but I should think that the life and the work must be present in equal amounts. Must there be an excess, I would much sooner have more to read about an artist's creations than about his ordinary doings.

Contrary to what some people, biographers included, might think, Somerset Maugham did not live his life craving for public recognition or critical acclaim, always looking for pecuniary benefits or indulging in wild homosexual adventures. All these things were parts of his life - and all were of relatively minor importance. Somerset Maugham lived to write. Yes, it is that simple. It is lamentably often that the lives of the great are viewed only on the level of gossip and innuendo about sexual viciousness or defects of character. I daresay few people have suffered more than Maugham in this respect. He always was an extremely subjective writer, as the critics like to say, which simply means that his personality was stamped on absolutely everything he ever wrote; not to mention his open confession that he always used living models and real incidents for his characters and his stories. Unfortunately, Maugham biographers as a rule grossly underestimate his imagination and his powers of invention, thus reducing his works to a little more than reportage. Nothing is further from the truth, and this is obvious to everyone who cares to read Maugham carefully. Clearly, his life and works are closely related and must be viewed together. But one has to be careful when using one's powers of inference.

Selina's discussion of Maugham's works is rather a mixed bag. On the one hand, she is commendably comprehensive: pretty much everything Maugham ever wrote, published or not, is discussed at one place or another. She is wonderfully free of the ridiculous passion for searching hidden homosexuality between the pages. But it is very seldom that Selina comes with something fresh and insightful. One of the these rare instances concerns the short story "The Creative Impulse", a devastating satire of London literary society concentrated on how the famous crime novel The Achilles Statue by the extremely respectable Mrs Albert Forrester came to be written. I know I will re-read this delightful story with different state of mind next time, and no doubt will enjoy it more knowing that the Statue of Achilles in Hyde Park not only really exists but it is one of London's most famous homosexual areas. Such details do help one to appreciate the real power of Maugham's satire. Broadly speaking, Selina is also fairly free from other mistake biographers often make: endless quotations from reviews and even more endless comparisons with another writers; only few times does she slip into these unfortunate activities.

On the other hand, however, Selina falls all too eagerly into at least two other common traps for biographers: plot descriptions and searching for real foundations behind stories or characters. When I write a review of Maugham's book, I always take a good deal of trouble not to spoil the pleasure of those who have yet to read the work in question. Not so Selina. She describes the plots of every novel and every play, and of good many short stories too, in intolerable detail; needless to say, such descriptions are excruciatingly tedious for those who have read the original works and of great disservice for those who have not. It is admirable to be able to compress Of Human Bondage in three pages, but the 700 of the original certainly are infinitely more rewarding. Selina's plot summaries of Maugham's plays are especially hideous, giving absolutely no idea about the sparkle, vivacity and charm most of these gems have. This is also true of her quotations, perhaps the most extraordinary example is Maugham's greatest masterpiece for the stage, The Circle (1921), where one of the main characters (Clive Champion-Cheney, or just C.-C.) is not even mentioned, let alone some of his unforgettable lines quoted. Here are few examples of what I mean:

ELIZABETH: You won't be cross with me?
C.C.: How old are you?
ELIZABETH: Twenty-five.
C.-C.: I'm never cross with a woman under thirty.

C.-C.: It's a matter of taste. I love old wine, old friends and old books, but I like young women. On their twenty-fifth birthday I give them a diamond ring and tell them they must no longer waste their youth and beauty on an old fogey like me. We have a most affecting scene, my technique on these occasions is perfect, and then I start all over again.

C.-C.: My dear Arnold, we all hope that you have before you a distinguished political career. You can't learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.
ARNOLD: But supposing it doesn't come off? Women are incalculable.
C.-C.: Nonsense! Men are romantic. A woman will always sacrifice herself if you give her the opportunity. It is her favourite form of self-indulgence.
ARNOLD: I never know whether you're a humorist or a cynic, father.
C.-C.: I'm neither, my dear boy; I'm merely a very truthful man. But people are so unused to the truth that they're apt to mistake it for a joke or a sneer.


Then there is the never-ending game called ''Guess the real person behind the fictional character'' which Maugham biographers simply love. Some people find such information insightful and improving their appreciation. I don't. I cannot bring myself to regard seriously such speculations. For my part it is quite enough to know that Maugham's plots and characters are firmly based on reality; that's perfectly sufficient to add this special kind of compelling poignancy which no degree of verisimilitude can replace. But I don't see how, for instance, the story of Maugham's affair with Sue Jones makes Rosie from Cakes and Ale any more real or more adorable; nor can I see how Maugham's own childhood, closely related as it may be in Of Human Bondage, makes the suffering of Philip Carey any more poignant or harrowing for the reader. To my mind Maugham's works are entirely self-sufficient and do not in the least need that kind of stuff. The best insight into them I get by an occasional re-reading. It is astonishing how different an experience reading a novel by Maugham may be in different periods of my life separated by no more than just a few years. The insight, so to say, lies inside.

Moreover, many of these conjectures are completely unsubstantiated, to put it mildly. At least I do not know of a single piece of evidence about Maugham's homosexual relationship in school with a boy named Ashenden to have been the basis of the degrading affair with Mildred from Of Human Bondage. Not that it much matters, but such speculations not only often run wild, but they actually show great disrespect for Maugham's self-confessed method of creating his characters as composites of traits from different people. Selina often claims that such-and-such character is a portrait of so-and-so. This is just not serious. Even Ashenden who is obviously modelled on Maugham himself is difficult to be accepted as an auto portrait, even flattering one as the writer himself suggested once. It is even more suspicious that Rowley from Up at the Villa is a portrait of Gerald Haxton.

But the real bombshell in this category certainly is Selina's claim that Stroeve, the absurd and foolish painter from The Moon and Sixpence, is modelled on Hugh Walpole; it is hardly surprising that in this case, as in the others, no piece of evidence is ever produced. The Stroeve-Walpole case is indeed ludicrous. It is now generally accepted that Roy from Cakes and Ale was based - please note: based - on Hugh Walpole, for Maugham himself admitted as much in 1950. Now, please read both novels and tell me what Stroeve and Roy have in common. That's right: absolutely nothing. How Selina got such a crazy idea in her head I can't even imagine.

Leaving such embarrassing conjectures aside, I cannot but be struck how extremely trite and superficial Selina's analyses are. Whether discussing Maugham's longest and most personal novel, namely Of Human Bondage, or a very short story designed for light entertainment like "Mr Know-All", Selina seems perfectly incapable of noticing anything but the obvious; the unusual parallel, the perceptive observation or the stimulating remark are completely beyond her abilities. But, then again, this is perhaps inevitable, because Maugham always took an enormous amount of trouble to attain the greatest possible degree of lucidity, clarity and precision in his prose so that every intelligent reader who reads him conscientiously should be able, not only to understand everything, but to grasp the deeper philosophical issues which Maugham always was concerned with.

Coming back to Selina, she also has some very interesting judgements, as The Moon and Sixpence being a ''minor novel'' (p. 246) for example. Her chief argument, it seems, is that the novel's public appeal has always been greater than its critical acclaim. Fascinating, indeed! I should have thought exactly the opposite: universal appeal and lasting popularity make a novel important and, ultimately, a literary classic, not the dubious honour of being praised by this or that coterie of critics.

I have heard a great deal of superlatives about Selina's writing style and the stupendous readability of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. I can't say I am impressed with either. The writing is competent, certainly, but also humourless and dry; the text is literally bursting with quotations and commas which often make the reading pretty hard. Occasionally, Selina is apt to use an extremely formal language quite out of place. This is of course a well-known method to be incredibly amusing - Maugham was master of it himself - but in Selina's hands it sounds pompous and pretentious. One can't very well imagine how Maugham's aunt accepted his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, ''at his own inflated valuation'', and the adjective ''prelapsarian'' is more prone to use of dictionary than evocative of tropical islands. She finishes her discourse of the short story "The Vessel of Wrath" thus (p. 327):

...the comedy lying in the reversal of expectation, of the nice juxtaposition of the unadmitted lust of the respectable spinster and the surprising conversion to sobriety and domesticity of the bum.

The story has a great deal of comedy, to be sure, but if there is any in the stiff formality of the above passage, I am not aware of it. Speaking of short stories, Selina's account of the most famous of them, "Rain", even smacks of vulgarity: Reverend Davidson's praying is tastelessly described as being done with ''an almost orgiastic fervour'' (p. 217). The authoress reaches her peak of awkward affectation when she mentions the mosquito nets during one of Maugham's travels in the tropics and how the ''insects diabolically penetrated'' them (p. 213). Selina, my dear, you must be joking, right?

Indeed, the readability of the book varies greatly: the first chapters are positively gripping, and so are Maugham's initial affairs with Syrie and Gerald which could be made into excellent short stories with few minor touches; but Maugham's bohemian life in Paris in the early 1900s, his spy adventures and his tropical journeys are amazingly dull. This is also sometimes the case with Selina's descriptions of places where she is yet again prone to excessive detail, though not without certain evocative power. The long, extremely long list of Maugham's friends and acquaintances is generally exemplary handled, with succinct physical descriptions and few bits of history, digressions being rare and to an acceptable degree.

Maugham's two most important relationships in his life, those with Syrie and Gerald, is one place where Selina's treatment is, I admit, impeccable. She gives extensive family background which goes to explain quite a lot about the mental instability of Maugham's wife and the passion for dissipation Gerald so obviously had. It might outrage some people, but on the whole Selina's portrayal of Syrie confirms Maugham's from Looking Back, namely that of a vacuous, hysterical, oppressive and dishonest woman; her treatment of Gerald is candid but sympathetic, perfectly recognising how indispensable he was for Maugham. As far as Alan Searle is concerned, he gets it in his neck which I think is somewhat unfair; whatever his motives might have been, Alan never left Maugham until his death and indeed was as indispensable for him during the last twenty years of his life as Gerald had been for the previous thirty. It is also worth noting that Selina never loses sight of Maugham's brothers whose respectability and conventionality make for some fascinating contrasts.

The bibliography is short and rather indifferent, but it is of some interest since it lists more or less all books of Maugham, including some of the most popular collected editions of his plays and short stories. Interestingly, his anthologies and the few important books published posthumously are also included. The lovers of modern paperbacks might be delighted also to discover which titles were reprinted by Vintage a decade or so ago. The bibliography of major books about Maugham also seems fairly comprehensive, though the important critical study of John Whitehead Maugham: A Reappraisal (Barnes and Noble, 1987) is missing. It would have been truly nice had both bibliographies been annotated, and it would have shown how familiar with his subject Selina really is, but it was not to be.

All in all, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings is a comprehensive account of Maugham's life in terms of financial situation, marital complications, homosexual affairs and last - and unfortunately least - literary output. It is competently, if not brilliantly, written and fairly readable, if far from absorbing. I can well imagine how one who has never read any of the other three biographies of Maugham may be quite impressed with Selina's enormous amount of detail. In fact, the strength of her book, if any, lies not in the details - both Morgan and Calder have these too - but in the more balanced and sympathetic approach towards the man, and to some extent to the writer as well.

The fatal flaw of Selina's work is her almost complete lack of appreciation of Maugham's literary career; seldom does she mention Maugham's extraordinary ability to create alive characters or his philosophical depth, let alone his versatility in different genres. His incredible evolution of style is barely, if at all, mentioned: it is duly noted that Maugham's first journey through the South Seas in 1916/17 resulted in his renewed interest in the short story and finally the publishing of The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), but from reading Selina's chapter one would never guess that there is any other difference but the locale in comparison with the previous collection which had appeared 22 (!) years earlier. This is the same as describing the Himalayas as ''a region of gently rolling hills''.

Ultimately, Selina's narrative gets bogged down either into mundane details or into futile speculations of little or no importance about the essence of Maugham. I am pleased with her sympathy and understanding as well as lack of malice and vitriol - a great improvement over previous biographies indeed - but am also disappointed by her passion for commonplace incidents and pedestrian literary analyses. If you want only one biography of Somerset Maugham, this is the one to have; you needn't waste your time with Messrs Morgan, Meyers and Calder; they can hardly offer you some trivia Selina doesn't have, but they sure as heck can fill your head with tons of silly preconceptions and petty prejudices. If you want to know Somerset Maugham intimately, take a look at the Select Bibliography of his books and start navigating Amazon and Abebooks. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Oct 10, 2010 |
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I am an enormous fan of Somerset Maugham; one of the happiest days in my life as a reader came when I was in London a few years ago, and I stumbled across the complete works in hardbook in a second-hand shop on the Charing Cross Road. I was supposed to be travelling light, but ended up putting all twenty-six volumes into my suitcase and carrying the rest of my holiday luggage home in Tesco bags.

I didn't know much of his life, however, until I read Hastings's account, and I am rather glad that this was my first exposure to the real Maugham, given the controversy that surrounds his other biographers.

Hastings gives everything that I would have asked in her book, including a detailed and intriguing life history, peppered with quotes from Maugham and his contemporaries, and analyses of his most major works. As an aspiring writer myself it was especially interesting to learn what had inspired Maugham to create his best works of fiction, and how he developed as a writer.

The close attention to detail did have one drawback, and by necessity. The last chapters are almost intolerably sad, as we see Maugham accelerate into old age, lose his lover, Gerald Haxton, and be betrayed by his closest friend, Alan Searle. I have not been this moved by a book since I finished Bolano's 2666, and had this biography been a work of fiction I imagine I might have enjoyed it - and been saddened - just as much. ( )
1 vote soylentgreen23 | Oct 4, 2011 |
What a sad life. Nothing to be envious about, really miserable.
  allsun | Mar 10, 2011 |
Selina Hastings

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

John Murray, Paperback, 2010.

8vo. 614 pp.

First published in 2009.

Contents

1. A Blackstable Boyhood
2. At St Thomas's Hospital
3. A Writer by Instinct
4. Le Chat Blanc
5. England's Dramatist
6. Syrie
7. Code Name 'Sommerville'
8. Behind the Painted Veil
9. 'A World of Veranda and Prahu'
10. Separation
11. The Villa Mauresque
12. Master Hacky
13. The Teller of Tales
14. An Exercise in Propaganda
15. The Bronzino Boy
16. Betrayal

Acknowledgements
Notes [pp. 539-582]
Select Bibliography
Illustration Credits
Index

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

I have to start by admitting that I am greatly prejudiced: in favour of Somerset Maugham himself and against biographies of him. There is no point in beating about the bush, so I might just as well say that I have been appalled by the three previous biographies of Maugham I have read: Ted Morgan's hatchet job Maugham: A Biography (1980), Robert Calder's epitome of homosexual obsession Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989) and Jeffrey Meyers's copy-paste hackwork Somerset Maugham: A Life (2004). Of these three gentlemen, only Robert Calder has made a genuine attempt to understand Maugham, both the man and the writer, but his work is fatally compromised by relentless harping on sexual matters, as regards both the man and the writer. Ted Morgan obviously wrote his book because he relishes digging skeletons out of people's cupboards and gossiping about dirty details. And as far as Jeffrey Meyers is concerned, I surmise he wrote his book simply for the sake of completeness, an addition to his already impressive list of biographies of Maugham's contemporaries (Mansfield, Hemingway, Conrad and Orwell, among others), so his work is expected to be the superficial junk which in fact it is.

So it is hardly surprising that I have looked askance at The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings, the last full scale biography of the great writer so far, still hot from the press: first published last year in hardcover and just reprinted in paperback. Indeed, I was even more prejudiced against Selina's book for its very title does smack of cheap sensationalism. On the whole, I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised. Selina's work is exactly what two and a half stars rating out of five tells you mathematically - average. Which is indeed a great achievement since all other members of the quartet Maugham biographers are way below the average. The lady has put the gentlemen to shame.

To begin with, Selina has a great deal of sympathy and compassion for Maugham; Mr Meyers is deficient in both and Mr Morgan is completely devoid of them. Selina's biography is packed with details and follows Maugham's life almost month by month, hardly in less detailed a fashion than either Calder or Morgan (whose books are way longer than Meyers's). Some reviews had led me to believe that Selina's treatment of Maugham's works is far from satisfactory, but I am not sure this corresponds with the truth. Selina certainly does not have the depth and the erudition of Calder, but neither does she suffer from his stupendous homosexual obsession; her analyses are superior, if slightly, to those of Messrs Morgan and Meyers, both of whom have little, if any, idea of Maugham's literary output and its significance.

I cannot bring myself to say that Selina's biography of Maugham is a really good one but it is certainly the best, or the least worst perhaps, among the four full scale attempts written so far.

The main fault all four biographies of Maugham share is that they all are largely superfluous, at least as far as I am concerned. The definitive (auto)biography of Somerset Maugham has already been written by the author himself. It took him more than 60 years and more than 40 volumes to complete. If you want a graphic representation, imagine a gigantic parabola with The Summing Up (1938) at its top (this is oversimplification of course: both halves of the parabola would by no means be identical). Everybody really seriously interested in Maugham should read first and foremost these books, together with the fascinating prefaces most of them have. Sure they lack tons of insignificant details and do contain quite a few wrong years, but the most important events of Maugham's life are there and so, more importantly, is a complete picture of his personality.

All Maugham biographers agree that Maugham's public persona was entirely different than the man in private. That may well have been so, but his public persona has nothing to do with his books - for there the real expression of his character lies: not in the books about Maugham but in the books by Maugham. His candour and sincerity have seldom been appreciated but very often grossly underrated by biographers and critics alike; and sometimes by his own friends, too.

Another thing the quartet biographers agree with is that Maugham was a complicated man, by which they simply mean that he had great defects. Sure he had - but no more than you and I. At the same time he had the determination, the resolution, the talent, the will and the character - or in short: the genius - to make a great and inspiring work of art out of his life. That's something I certainly don't have, and if you're reading these lines that sure means you don't have it either. With some help from Mr Maugham, there is no reason why both of us should not achieve something of his greatness ''in the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life'' (A Writer's Notebook, 1949).

Having said that, let's take a closer look at Selina's book, trying to explain why - provided that one is only superficially interested in Maugham - her biography is the one to have, and why, had the other three attempts never existed, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham would hardly have ranked even as average. From reading countless reviews of Maugham biographies by ordinary people, I am firmly under the impression that these fellows rarely read such books with any prior knowledge of Maugham and his works searching for new and stimulating insights - as I do - but quite on the contrary indeed: the majority are fascinated by trifles, especially the glamour of Maugham's really wide circle of glittering acquaintances or his notoriously unrestrained sexual escapades. Selina does deliver the goods in this respect all right, but not nearly with such glorious gusto as her male colleagues do.

To start with, it is indeed a little baffling why Selina wrote that biography at all. One of the most serious flaws of the book is that it hardly tells anything new, least of all any secrets. With the possible exception of Mr Meyers, whose book is fairly short, Messrs Morgan and Calder did not leave a single stone unturned as far as Maugham's life in facts and figures, sexual and otherwise, is concerned. Selina just repeats: the blissful beginning of Maugham's childhood in Paris, its harrowing end in Whitstable, the enchanting Heidelberg year, the student years at St Thomas, the first novel, the first visit to Spain, and so on and so forth until the old age; the same old incidents, people and, for the most part, judgements; even the same quotations from many of Maugham's works: you are sure to find a whole page with the famous love scene from Cakes and Ale, one of the most explicit in Maugham's oeuvre. There are numerous excerpts of letters from Maugham to important people in his life - Gerald Kelly, William Heinemann, Eddie Knoblock, Bertram Alanson, among others - which I do not remember to have read before, but though they corroborate quite a few well known facts, they scarcely add anything new.

The only thing that might possibly justify the writing of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, except a desire to capitalise on Maugham's ever strong status of notoriety, is Selina's desire to set the record straight. There is no evidence for any such intention of hers as regards the latter but, consciously or not, at least to some extent she has done so.

It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the advantage of Selina's biography over the three previous ones, but if one must use but one word, it is this: balance. Although Selina certainly shares some of the common prejudices about Maugham, her account of his life and character is on the whole more sensible and better balanced than any that the three aforementioned gentlemen could provide. Of course when Maugham's life is under scrutiny, the sexual element cannot but loom large and it is this which most often causes the greatest distortion. Selina spends considerable time discussing it and she never misses to describe vividly the homosexual underground in any of the places Maugham loved to visit, be it London, Paris or Capri, but she exercises an admirable restraint which is generally unknown among Maugham biographers. Though she is as prejudiced as anybody against Maugham's notorious late and still unpublished in book form memoirs Looking Back (1962), Selina quotes extensively from them and never doubts their veracity. That's saying a great deal, it seems to me.

The usual clichés - the long shadow of Oscar Wilde, the sexual frustration of Maugham's marriage and the sexual bliss of his relationship with Gerald Haxton - are here all right, but Selina somehow manages not to emphasise them out of any proportion, which is quite often the case with Messrs Morgan, Meyers and Calder. It is a tribute to common sense that Selina is almost entirely free (save, I think, only for the short story "Red") of the usual crap about homosexual hints in Maugham's works.

Despite an impressive list of names in the Acknowledgements section and more than 40 pages of notes, the amount of original research Selina has done for this book remains elusive. Obviously, she has done some and there is at least one astonishing discovery between these pages: Maugham's unpublished and unproduced early play Mrs Beamish; Selina claims that the manuscript is currently in the Library of Congress (p. 146). This play, if it exists, is indeed an extraordinary discovery for neither the other three biographers, nor Mander and Mitchenson in their magisterial study Theatrical Companion to Maugham (Rockliff, 1955), mention anything about it. So far the only such play - never produced and never published - known to exist among Maugham's was The Road Uphill (1924), with plot much later to be reworked in The Razor's Edge (1944), one of Maugham's most successful novels. Thus the number of Maugham's full length plays swells to 30. But the great research ends here.

There are numerous dubious claims in the book which are both unsourced and unsupported by any evidence. It is highly unlikely, for instance, that Maugham should have written plays in which his characters usually suffer from venereal diseases back in Heidelberg (p. 34), because at this time he had not yet become a medical student. This information Selina could have obtained from one place only and that is Maugham himself in his preface to Liza of Lambeth (written for its inclusion in The Collected Edition, 1934), where Maugham mentions this amusing detail but makes clear that these harrowing dramas were written between his 18th and 21st year, that is when he already was a medical student in St Thomas. It is certainly suspicious, too, that during those student years Maugham read in Russian (p. 40), though he certainly read widely in English, French, German and, most probably, Italian. I am not at all sure about this ''self-disgust'' (p. 17) in his childhood that continued later in his life, either. Equally unsubstantiated and, frankly, hard to believe are Selina's statements that Maugham ''more than once'' hit his wife (p. 315) or that he ''valued his [Gerald's] intelligence, very much relying on the younger man's critical opinion of his work.'' (p. 315); I should love to see anything that even remotely suggests that Gerald Haxton had any critical opinion, much less one that Maugham should have relied on.

Just by the way, one of the leitmotivs in Selina's book seems to be the popular cliché about Maugham's perpetual unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. As if there was another opportunity! This is an essential characteristic of genius. Can you imagine a Michelangelo or a Beethoven satisfied with their life or with their works, which are indeed the same thing? I wonder why nobody notices that this negative attitude towards life, putative or not, diminished neither Maugham's remarkable productivity nor his constant striving to improve his writing. Quite on the contrary actually: if anything, it stimulated both.

Not only does Selina not give sources for most of what she relates without quotation marks, but I suspect she quotes her eminent predecessors in the field of Maugham biography much less often than she should. Apparently, she is capable of meticulous research. At one place she takes Beverly Nichols's A Case of Human Bondage (1966), ostentatiously a defence of Syrie but a bitter attack on Maugham as well, and shows quite splendidly that the book is a biased and unreliable source. I wish she had been so critical and open about her sources in general. More often than not, she is not. Sometimes this is the case even when Maugham's writings are the source in question. The notorious accident with the jade necklace is related in detail (p. 319), how he brought the bijou for his wife from the Far East but she later sold it in Paris, lied to the insurance company that she had lost it in order to get the money from the insurance, and then lied to her husband to evade his anger; in the end, Syrie escaped the court by the skin of her teeth. The story is related by Maugham in Looking Back and there has never been shown any proof that it is untrue, nor has anybody, Selina included, claimed so. She might just as well have mentioned where the story, and so many other stories, really come from and how reliable they are.

The book's notes are the strangest I have ever seen. They are collected in the end and separated into chapters, which is of course quite usual, but are not numbered, which is indeed very unusual; instead, the page numbers and the first words of a quotation are given before the source. I can't imagine why such laborious stratagem should have been used, unless it was deliberately applied to cover sloppy research, or lack of such. This indeed seems to be the case here. The notes consist entirely of sources for direct quotes - from Maugham's letters or published works, seldom from other books - and guess what: yes, there are even quotations which are left unsourced. Some of them are rather intriguing, like Maugham's - presumably, at least - remark that his French teachers in Canterbury could not have ''got a cup coffee in the restaurant in Bologne'' (p. 25); I would be most curious to know where this charming trifle comes from, but Selina apparently thinks the matter is irrelevant. At another place she relates Maugham's reaction at his brother's surprise when he found he had such a dashing lover as the Princess Alexandra Kropotkin: ''He simply couldn't believe I was fucking anyone so grand.'' (p. 160); Selina rightly observes that Maugham has put it ''somewhat indelicately'', but she forgets to tells us where exactly he did so.

I would not venture to guess how many more such dubious quotations there are; I shudder to think how much of the main narrative might have been compiled on hearsay. It is entirely different matter, and one infinitely more complicated, that the book is full of quotes from numerous other people who express wildly different opinions which are almost never examined critically.

Finally, to finish with Selina's amateurish research, if it may be thus called, there are some glaring factual errors in the book. To take few instances, her claim that Maugham's early one-act farce Mademoiselle Zampa has never been published (p. 84, footnote) is quite ridiculous indeed. There is no publication edition, that's true, but the piece has been published at least twice under the title A Rehearsal: first in Sketch (1905) and almost 80 years later even in book form, namely in A Traveller in Romance (1984, ed. John Whitehead). Selina's foray into symbolism with the remarkable hypothesis about the pearl necklace symbolising ''sexual licentiousness and betrayal'' (p. 319) in Maugham's stories "Mr Know-All" and "A String of Beads" is perhaps intriguing. But her statement that the two pieces are separated in time by ''nearly twenty years'' is preposterous: as a matter of fact, the two short stories appeared in magazines within two years, in 1925 and in 1927 respectively. Nor are there seven stories The Casuarina Tree (1926); the collection contains exactly six stories, plus preface and postscript. Nor was in Ah King (1933) one of the earliest significant attempts of Maugham for first person narrative; leaving aside the collection with the telling title Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931), three stories of which were written between 1923 and 1926, that is certainly even before the earliest of the stories in Ah King, Maugham had actually written short story masterpieces in the first person singular as early as 1921.

Such claims do make me wonder how well Selina knows Maugham's works. Nit-picking of minor mistakes, yes, but the bigger ones are just one step away. Fortunately, should they exist, they would surely be concerned with insignificant and mundane details. Personally, I don't particularly care how many London houses Maugham changed through the years or how much he was paid for this screen adaptation or that stage production.

It may be mentioned in passing that the amount of detail in the book is quite impressive but sometimes excessive and often unnecessary. Here and there long strings of names or abundance of figures make certain passages all but unreadable. Well, some people might find number of copies in first editions or prices of houses illuminating.

There is a curiously widespread notion that a biography of an artist should concentrate largely, if not exclusively, on his life, leaving his work in the background, to be discussed in separate books by other specialists. This is nonsense. Can you imagine a biography of Liszt or Wagner without their music? Of course not! Certainly, a biography must not turn into critical study, musical or literary or whatever you like, but I should think that the life and the work must be present in equal amounts. Must there be an excess, I would much sooner have more to read about an artist's creations than about his ordinary doings.

Contrary to what some people, biographers included, might think, Somerset Maugham did not live his life craving for public recognition or critical acclaim, always looking for pecuniary benefits or indulging in wild homosexual adventures. All these things were parts of his life - and all were of relatively minor importance. Somerset Maugham lived to write. Yes, it is that simple. It is lamentably often that the lives of the great are viewed only on the level of gossip and innuendo about sexual viciousness or defects of character. I daresay few people have suffered more than Maugham in this respect. He always was an extremely subjective writer, as the critics like to say, which simply means that his personality was stamped on absolutely everything he ever wrote; not to mention his open confession that he always used living models and real incidents for his characters and his stories. Unfortunately, Maugham biographers as a rule grossly underestimate his imagination and his powers of invention, thus reducing his works to a little more than reportage. Nothing is further from the truth, and this is obvious to everyone who cares to read Maugham carefully. Clearly, his life and works are closely related and must be viewed together. But one has to be careful when using one's powers of inference.

Selina's discussion of Maugham's works is rather a mixed bag. On the one hand, she is commendably comprehensive: pretty much everything Maugham ever wrote, published or not, is discussed at one place or another. She is wonderfully free of the ridiculous passion for searching hidden homosexuality between the pages. But it is very seldom that Selina comes with something fresh and insightful. One of the these rare instances concerns the short story "The Creative Impulse", a devastating satire of London literary society concentrated on how the famous crime novel The Achilles Statue by the extremely respectable Mrs Albert Forrester came to be written. I know I will re-read this delightful story with different state of mind next time, and no doubt will enjoy it more knowing that the Statue of Achilles in Hyde Park not only really exists but it is one of London's most famous homosexual areas. Such details do help one to appreciate the real power of Maugham's satire. Broadly speaking, Selina is also fairly free from other mistake biographers often make: endless quotations from reviews and even more endless comparisons with another writers; only few times does she slip into these unfortunate activities.

On the other hand, however, Selina falls all too eagerly into at least two other common traps for biographers: plot descriptions and searching for real foundations behind stories or characters. When I write a review of Maugham's book, I always take a good deal of trouble not to spoil the pleasure of those who have yet to read the work in question. Not so Selina. She describes the plots of every novel and every play, and of good many short stories too, in intolerable detail; needless to say, such descriptions are excruciatingly tedious for those who have read the original works and of great disservice for those who have not. It is admirable to be able to compress Of Human Bondage in three pages, but the 700 of the original certainly are infinitely more rewarding. Selina's plot summaries of Maugham's plays are especially hideous, giving absolutely no idea about the sparkle, vivacity and charm most of these gems have. This is also true of her quotations, perhaps the most extraordinary example is Maugham's greatest masterpiece for the stage, The Circle (1921), where one of the main characters (Clive Champion-Cheney, or just C.-C.) is not even mentioned, let alone some of his unforgettable lines quoted. Here are few examples of what I mean:

ELIZABETH: You won't be cross with me?
C.C.: How old are you?
ELIZABETH: Twenty-five.
C.-C.: I'm never cross with a woman under thirty.

C.-C.: It's a matter of taste. I love old wine, old friends and old books, but I like young women. On their twenty-fifth birthday I give them a diamond ring and tell them they must no longer waste their youth and beauty on an old fogey like me. We have a most affecting scene, my technique on these occasions is perfect, and then I start all over again.

C.-C.: My dear Arnold, we all hope that you have before you a distinguished political career. You can't learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.
ARNOLD: But supposing it doesn't come off? Women are incalculable.
C.-C.: Nonsense! Men are romantic. A woman will always sacrifice herself if you give her the opportunity. It is her favourite form of self-indulgence.
ARNOLD: I never know whether you're a humorist or a cynic, father.
C.-C.: I'm neither, my dear boy; I'm merely a very truthful man. But people are so unused to the truth that they're apt to mistake it for a joke or a sneer.


Then there is the never-ending game called ''Guess the real person behind the fictional character'' which Maugham biographers simply love. Some people find such information insightful and improving their appreciation. I don't. I cannot bring myself to regard seriously such speculations. For my part it is quite enough to know that Maugham's plots and characters are firmly based on reality; that's perfectly sufficient to add this special kind of compelling poignancy which no degree of verisimilitude can replace. But I don't see how, for instance, the story of Maugham's affair with Sue Jones makes Rosie from Cakes and Ale any more real or more adorable; nor can I see how Maugham's own childhood, closely related as it may be in Of Human Bondage, makes the suffering of Philip Carey any more poignant or harrowing for the reader. To my mind Maugham's works are entirely self-sufficient and do not in the least need that kind of stuff. The best insight into them I get by an occasional re-reading. It is astonishing how different an experience reading a novel by Maugham may be in different periods of my life separated by no more than just a few years. The insight, so to say, lies inside.

Moreover, many of these conjectures are completely unsubstantiated, to put it mildly. At least I do not know of a single piece of evidence about Maugham's homosexual relationship in school with a boy named Ashenden to have been the basis of the degrading affair with Mildred from Of Human Bondage. Not that it much matters, but such speculations not only often run wild, but they actually show great disrespect for Maugham's self-confessed method of creating his characters as composites of traits from different people. Selina often claims that such-and-such character is a portrait of so-and-so. This is just not serious. Even Ashenden who is obviously modelled on Maugham himself is difficult to be accepted as an auto portrait, even flattering one as the writer himself suggested once. It is even more suspicious that Rowley from Up at the Villa is a portrait of Gerald Haxton.

But the real bombshell in this category certainly is Selina's claim that Stroeve, the absurd and foolish painter from The Moon and Sixpence, is modelled on Hugh Walpole; it is hardly surprising that in this case, as in the others, no piece of evidence is ever produced. The Stroeve-Walpole case is indeed ludicrous. It is now generally accepted that Roy from Cakes and Ale was based - please note: based - on Hugh Walpole, for Maugham himself admitted as much in 1950. Now, please read both novels and tell me what Stroeve and Roy have in common. That's right: absolutely nothing. How Selina got such a crazy idea in her head I can't even imagine.

Leaving such embarrassing conjectures aside, I cannot but be struck how extremely trite and superficial Selina's analyses are. Whether discussing Maugham's longest and most personal novel, namely Of Human Bondage, or a very short story designed for light entertainment like "Mr Know-All", Selina seems perfectly incapable of noticing anything but the obvious; the unusual parallel, the perceptive observation or the stimulating remark are completely beyond her abilities. But, then again, this is perhaps inevitable, because Maugham always took an enormous amount of trouble to attain the greatest possible degree of lucidity, clarity and precision in his prose so that every intelligent reader who reads him conscientiously should be able, not only to understand everything, but to grasp the deeper philosophical issues which Maugham always was concerned with.

Coming back to Selina, she also has some very interesting judgements, as The Moon and Sixpence being a ''minor novel'' (p. 246) for example. Her chief argument, it seems, is that the novel's public appeal has always been greater than its critical acclaim. Fascinating, indeed! I should have thought exactly the opposite: universal appeal and lasting popularity make a novel important and, ultimately, a literary classic, not the dubious honour of being praised by this or that coterie of critics.

I have heard a great deal of superlatives about Selina's writing style and the stupendous readability of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. I can't say I am impressed with either. The writing is competent, certainly, but also humourless and dry; the text is literally bursting with quotations and commas which often make the reading pretty hard. Occasionally, Selina is apt to use an extremely formal language quite out of place. This is of course a well-known method to be incredibly amusing - Maugham was master of it himself - but in Selina's hands it sounds pompous and pretentious. One can't very well imagine how Maugham's aunt accepted his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, ''at his own inflated valuation'', and the adjective ''prelapsarian'' is more prone to use of dictionary than evocative of tropical islands. She finishes her discourse of the short story "The Vessel of Wrath" thus (p. 327):

...the comedy lying in the reversal of expectation, of the nice juxtaposition of the unadmitted lust of the respectable spinster and the surprising conversion to sobriety and domesticity of the bum.

The story has a great deal of comedy, to be sure, but if there is any in the stiff formality of the above passage, I am not aware of it. Speaking of short stories, Selina's account of the most famous of them, "Rain", even smacks of vulgarity: Reverend Davidson's praying is tastelessly described as being done with ''an almost orgiastic fervour'' (p. 217). The authoress reaches her peak of awkward affectation when she mentions the mosquito nets during one of Maugham's travels in the tropics and how the ''insects diabolically penetrated'' them (p. 213). Selina, my dear, you must be joking, right?

Indeed, the readability of the book varies greatly: the first chapters are positively gripping, and so are Maugham's initial affairs with Syrie and Gerald which could be made into excellent short stories with few minor touches; but Maugham's bohemian life in Paris in the early 1900s, his spy adventures and his tropical journeys are amazingly dull. This is also sometimes the case with Selina's descriptions of places where she is yet again prone to excessive detail, though not without certain evocative power. The long, extremely long list of Maugham's friends and acquaintances is generally exemplary handled, with succinct physical descriptions and few bits of history, digressions being rare and to an acceptable degree.

Maugham's two most important relationships in his life, those with Syrie and Gerald, is one place where Selina's treatment is, I admit, impeccable. She gives extensive family background which goes to explain quite a lot about the mental instability of Maugham's wife and the passion for dissipation Gerald so obviously had. It might outrage some people, but on the whole Selina's portrayal of Syrie confirms Maugham's from Looking Back, namely that of a vacuous, hysterical, oppressive and dishonest woman; her treatment of Gerald is candid but sympathetic, perfectly recognising how indispensable he was for Maugham. As far as Alan Searle is concerned, he gets it in his neck which I think is somewhat unfair; whatever his motives might have been, Alan never left Maugham until his death and indeed was as indispensable for him during the last twenty years of his life as Gerald had been for the previous thirty. It is also worth noting that Selina never loses sight of Maugham's brothers whose respectability and conventionality make for some fascinating contrasts.

The bibliography is short and rather indifferent, but it is of some interest since it lists more or less all books of Maugham, including some of the most popular collected editions of his plays and short stories. Interestingly, his anthologies and the few important books published posthumously are also included. The lovers of modern paperbacks might be delighted also to discover which titles were reprinted by Vintage a decade or so ago. The bibliography of major books about Maugham also seems fairly comprehensive, though the important critical study of John Whitehead Maugham: A Reappraisal (Barnes and Noble, 1987) is missing. It would have been truly nice had both bibliographies been annotated, and it would have shown how familiar with his subject Selina really is, but it was not to be.

All in all, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings is a comprehensive account of Maugham's life in terms of financial situation, marital complications, homosexual affairs and last - and unfortunately least - literary output. It is competently, if not brilliantly, written and fairly readable, if far from absorbing. I can well imagine how one who has never read any of the other three biographies of Maugham may be quite impressed with Selina's enormous amount of detail. In fact, the strength of her book, if any, lies not in the details - both Morgan and Calder have these too - but in the more balanced and sympathetic approach towards the man, and to some extent to the writer as well.

The fatal flaw of Selina's work is her almost complete lack of appreciation of Maugham's literary career; seldom does she mention Maugham's extraordinary ability to create alive characters or his philosophical depth, let alone his versatility in different genres. His incredible evolution of style is barely, if at all, mentioned: it is duly noted that Maugham's first journey through the South Seas in 1916/17 resulted in his renewed interest in the short story and finally the publishing of The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), but from reading Selina's chapter one would never guess that there is any other difference but the locale in comparison with the previous collection which had appeared 22 (!) years earlier. This is the same as describing the Himalayas as ''a region of gently rolling hills''.

Ultimately, Selina's narrative gets bogged down either into mundane details or into futile speculations of little or no importance about the essence of Maugham. I am pleased with her sympathy and understanding as well as lack of malice and vitriol - a great improvement over previous biographies indeed - but am also disappointed by her passion for commonplace incidents and pedestrian literary analyses. If you want only one biography of Somerset Maugham, this is the one to have; you needn't waste your time with Messrs Morgan, Meyers and Calder; they can hardly offer you some trivia Selina doesn't have, but they sure as heck can fill your head with tons of silly preconceptions and petty prejudices. If you want to know Somerset Maugham intimately, take a look at the Select Bibliography of his books and start navigating Amazon and Abebooks. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Oct 10, 2010 |
I've read only the first 150 pages and bogged down. It deals with his lonely childhood, his stammer, his emotional vulnerability, and his many secret relationships. Perhaps I'll return to it. ( )
1 vote | flashflood42 | Oct 5, 2010 |
I have actually only read about 5 Somerset Maugham novels - (I have 2 more on tbr) - but I bought this large biography, as I had read 2 other brilliant literary biography's's by Selina Hastings. This is also excellent, Selina Hastings manages to bring her subject faithfully to life, and I came to really love Williie Maugham. Some of the people he was constantly surrounded by were not quite so lovable. Maugham's extreme loathing of his wife Syrie - often seems out of all proportion, and yet I found myself able to sympathise with him a bit even over his terrible failure as a husband and father. His activities with British intelligence during the two wars is fascinating as was his extensive travels. Maugham rubbed shoulders with many famous names over his long life, and included in this biography are fascinating anecdotes, and excerts from letters that well demonstrate the circles in which he moved and the affection with which he was held by most. Alongside Maugham and his friends we meet, Noel Coward, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Hugh Walpole, and Winson Churchill. The book comes to a rather sad conclusion however, as Maugham in his nineties, his mind somewhat gone, was dreadfully betrayed by someone who had been close to him for years, this betrayal ruined Maugham's last few years, and destroyed his relationship with his only daughter. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Apr 7, 2010 |
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