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The Summing Up (original 1938; edition 2019)
by W. Somerset Maugham (Author)
The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham (Author) (1938)
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[From The Summing Up, The Literary Guild of America, 1938; i, 1; iii-v, 7-13:]
This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. In one way and another I have used in my writings whatever has happened to me in the course of my life. Sometimes an experience I have had has served as a theme and I have invented a series of incidents to illustrate it; more often I have taken persons with whom I have been slightly or intimately acquainted and used them as the foundation for characters of my invention. Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other. It would not interest me to record the facts, even if I could remember them, of which I have already made a better use. They would seem, moreover, very tame. I have had a varied, and often an interesting, life, but not an adventurous one.
In this book I am going to try to sort out my thoughts on the subjects that have chiefly interested me during the course of my life. But such conclusions as I have come to have drifted about my mind like the wreckage of a foundered ship on a restless sea. It has seemed to me that if I set them down in some sort of order I should see for myself more distinctly what they really were and so might get some kind of coherence into them. I have long thought that I should like to make such an attempt and more than once, when starting on a journey that was to last for several months, have determined to set about it. The opportunity seemed ideal. But I have always found that I was assailed by so many impressions, I saw so many strange things, and met so many people who excited my fancy, that I had no time to reflect. The experience of the moment was so vivid that I could not attune my mind to introspection.
I have been held back also by the irksomeness of setting down my thoughts in my own person. For though I have written a good deal from this standpoint I have written as a novelist and so in a manner have been able to regard myself as a character in the story. Long habit has made it more comfortable for me to speak through the creatures of my invention. I can decide what they would think more readily than I can decide what I think myself. The one has always been a pleasure to me; the other has been a labour that I have willingly put off.
An occasional glance at the obituary column of The Times has suggested to me that the sixties are very unhealthy; I have long thought that it would exasperate me to die before I had written this book and so it seemed to me that I had better set about it at once. When I have finished it I can face the future with serenity, for I shall have rounded off my life's work. I can no longer persuade myself that I am not ready to write it, since if I have not by now made up my mind about the things that seem of importance to me there is small likelihood that I shall ever do so. I am glad at last to collect all these thoughts that for so long have floated at haphazard on the various levels of my consciousness. When they are written down I shall have finished with them and my mind will be free to occupy itself with other things. […] When I have finished this book I shall know where I stand. I can afford then to do what I choose with the years that remain to me.
It is inevitable that in it I should say many things that I have said before; that is why I have called it The Summing Up. When a judge sums up a case he recapitulates the facts that have been put before the jury and comments on the speeches of counsel. He does not offer new evidence. And since I have put the whole of my life into my books much of what I have to say will naturally have found a place in them. There are few subjects within the compass of my interests that I have not lightly or seriously touched upon. All I can attempt to do now is to give a coherent picture of my feelings and opinions; and here and there, maybe, to state with greater elaboration some idea which the limitations I have thought fit to accept in fiction and in the drama have only allowed me to hint at.
This book must be egoistic. It is about certain subjects that are important to me and it is about myself because I can only treat of these subjects as they have affected me. But it is not about my doings. I have no desire to lay bare my heart, and I put limits to the intimacy that I wish the reader to enter upon with me. There are matters on which I am content to maintain my privacy. No one can tell the whole truth about himself. It is not only vanity that has prevented those who have tried to reveal themselves to the world from telling the whole truth; it is direction of interest; their disappointment with themselves, their surprise that they can do things that seem to them so abnormal, make them place too great an emphasis on occurrences that are more common than they suppose. Rousseau in the course of his Confessions narrates incidents that have profoundly shocked the sensibility of mankind. By describing them so frankly he falsified his values and so gave them in his book a greater importance than they had in his life. They were events among a multitude of others, virtuous or at least neutral, that he omitted because they were too ordinary to seem worth recording. There is a sort of man who pays no attention to his good actions, but is tormented by his bad ones. This is the type that most often writes about himself. He leaves out his redeeming qualities, and so appears only weak, unprincipled, and vicious.
I write this book to disembarrass my soul of certain notions that have hovered about in it too long for my comfort. I do not seek to persuade anybody. I am devoid of the pedagogic instinct, and when I know a thing never feel in myself the desire to impart it to others. I do not much care if people agree with me. Of course I think I am right, otherwise I should not think as I do, and they are wrong, but it does not offend me that they should be wrong. Nor does it greatly disturb me to discover that my judgment is at variance with that of the majority. I have a certain confidence in my instinct.
I must write as though I were a person of importance; and indeed, I am – to myself. To myself I am the most important person in the world; though I do not forget that, not even taking into consideration so grand a conception as the Absolute, but from the standpoint of common sense, I am of no consequence whatever. It would have made small difference to the universe if I had never existed. Though I may seem to write as though significance must necessarily be attached to certain of my works, I mean only that they are of moment to me for the purpose of any discussion during which I may have occasion to mention them. I think few serious writers, by which I do not mean only writers of serious things, can be entirely indifferent to the fate that will befall their works after their death. It is pleasant to think, not that one may achieve immortality (immortality for literary productions lasts in any case but a few hundred years, and then is seldom more than the immortality of the school-room) but that one may be read with interest by a few generations and find a place, however small, in the history of one’s country’s literature. But so far as I am concerned, I look upon this modest possibility with scepticism. Even in my life I have seen writers who made much more stir in the world of letters than ever I have, sink into oblivion.
If in the following pages I seem to express myself dogmatically, it is only because I find it very boring to qualify every phrase with an “I think” or “to my mind”. Everything I say is merely an opinion of my own. The reader can take it or leave it. If he has the patience to read what follows he will see that there is only one thing about which I am certain, and this is that there is very little about which one can be certain.
[From A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday & Company, 1949, “1944”, pp. 351, 360:]
By way of postscript. Yesterday I was seventy years old. As one enters upon each succeeding decade it is natural, though perhaps irrational, to look upon it as a significant event. When I was thirty my brother said to me: ‘Now you are a boy no longer, you are a man and you must be a man.’ When I was forty I said to myself: ‘That is the end of youth.’ On my fiftieth birthday I said: ‘It’s no good fooling myself, this is middle age and I may just as well accept it.’ At sixty I said: ‘Now it’s time to put my affairs in order, for this is the threshold of old age and I must settle my accounts.’ I decided to withdraw from the theatre and I wrote The Summing Up, in which I tried to review for my own comfort what I had learnt of life and literature, what I had done and what satisfaction it had brought me.
Ten years ago I set down haltingly in The Summing Up such impressions and thoughts as experience, reading and my meditation had occasioned in me concerning God, immortality and the meaning and worth of life, and I do not know that on these matters I have since then found cause to change my mind. If I had to write it over again I should try to deal a little less superficially with the pressing subject of values and perhaps find something less haphazard to say about intuition, a subject upon which certain philosophers have reared an imposing edifice of surmise, but which seems to me to offer as insecure a foundation for any structure more substantial than a Castle in Spain as a ping-pong ball wavering on a jet of water in a shooting-gallery.
[Preface to The Partial View, Heinemann, 1954, p. vii:]
I wrote The Summing Up twenty years ago. I never read any of my books if I can help it, but this one I had to re-read because I was told that in the printing of several new editions a number of misprints had crept in. I found that on the whole I had not much changed my mind on those great subjects of human meditation, the existence of God, immortality and the meaning and worth of life. In The Summing Up I tried to review for my own comfort what I had learned of life and literature, what I had done and what satisfaction it had brought me.
Recommended by Dad
It is somewhat ironic that Maugham composed this semi-autobiographical novel when he was only about a half way through his career as a writer; however, he was not to know that, and the piece proves enlightening all the same.
Maugham was a playwright before a novelist, and he dissects the theatre with a keen sense of how things work and where things can so easily go wrong. I love the idea, talking about his triumphs as a novelist, that it is important to fly from success rather than build on it - it avoids becoming typecast or boring as a writer.
The final chapters, on Maugham's philosophical beliefs, certainly explained a lot about Larry Darrell in 'The Razor's Edge', so adding to my enjoyment and appreciation of that novel.
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Autobiographical without being an autobiography, confessional without disclosing his private self, The Summing Up, written when Maugham was sixty-four, is an inimitable expression of a personal credo. It is not only a classic avowal of a professional author's ideas about style, literarture, art, drama and philosophy, but also an illuminating insight into this great writer's craft.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.912Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 1901-1999 1901-1945
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Maugham writes first about his writing, beginning with his plays and then his novels and short stories. He considers certain other writers who had a lasting influence on literature and more recent writers who influenced him: some literary criticism. Then he finishes with his observations about his well-travelled and well-read life and what he has taken from Theology and Philosophy, in about the last third of the book. He comes across as rather modest and very forthright. Although Maugham relates some of his formative life experience, this not an autobiography.
The writing about writing was moderately interesting to me, not a writer, but should put this into five-star range for a reader who is a writer. The last third of the book was very well done from the perspective of an old man who has a similar temperament to Maugham and has taken about the same lessons from life. ( )