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Ten Novels and Their Authors

by W. Somerset Maugham

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1825100,124 (4.16)16
Maugham's studies of the lives and masterpieces of ten great novelists are outstanding examples of literary criticism at its finest. Afforded here are some of the formulae of greatness in the genre, as well as the flaws and heresies which enfeeble it. Written by a master of fiction, Ten Novels and Their Authors is a unique and invaluable guide.… (more)
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W. Somerset Maugham

Great Novelists and Their Novels

John C. Winston, Hardback, [1948].

8vo. 245 pp. First edition. Ink portraits by Robert W. Arnold.

Contents

“The Ten Best Novels in the World”
Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace
Honoré de Balzac and Old Man Goriot
Henry Fielding and Tom Jones
Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice
Stendhal and The Red and the Black
Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights
Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary
Charles Dickens and David Copperfield
Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov
Herman Melville and Moby Dick
Postscript

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

This is not a review but a brief comparison with Ten Novels and Their Authors (Heinemann, 1954), the revised version of this book. Raymond Toole Stott, Maugham’s most thorough bibliographer[1], considers them the same work and I agree with his assessment. Nevertheless, there are countless differences that might be of interest to students of Maugham.

Both books consist of ten essays flanked by an introduction and a postscript. The latter have different titles (“The Art of Fiction” and “In Conclusion” in 1954) and the former different order (War and Peace last, Tom Jones first), but the overall structure of the book is the same. On the whole, the 1954 essays are longer, separated into sections and somewhat more formal in tone, while their 1948 counterparts are shorter, continuous and more informal in tone. The latter betray some haste in their writing and seem more suitable for publication in periodicals.[2]

The 1954 revisions are numerous and various. Sometimes they consist in ingenious rearrangement of paragraphs which otherwise are nearly word for word the same, sometimes whole new paragraphs are added, and sometimes, perhaps most often, new passages are subtly inserted amidst old material. The nature of the additions covers the whole spectrum from not terribly illuminating biographical background to penetrating observations about the personalities of the ten authors. As a general rule, in 1954 Maugham added to and elaborated upon what he had written in 1948, but occasionally he also cut.

If you have read the 1954 version, this one will be very familiar to you. Maugham’s ideas and opinions are pretty much the same. The genesis of the essays as introductions to editions of the novels abridged by Maugham, his hearty recommendation of the deplorable (in my opinion) practice of skipping, his discussion of the qualities that a good novel should have, the bold speculations about Melville’s repressed homosexuality, the quotes from Jane Austen’s letters and the acute analysis of her sense of humour, Flaubert’s fanatical dedication to literature and the general but full of wisdom observations in the postscript, it’s all here. On the other hand, many of these memorable moments may look sketchy and not fully fleshed out. And a good deal of material simply isn’t here.

The 1948 version lacks many significant passages that can be found only in the revised edition. For instance, the provocative hypothesis about Emily Bronte’s unhappy love affair with another woman (or a girl) that may have induced her to write “this powerful, passionate and terrible book”[3] and the perceptive dissection of Persuasion that explains why Jane Austen was incapable of “being very much in love”[4] are completely missing here. So is the part from the conclusion, as good as some of his “Cosmopolitans”[5], when Maugham imagines a party at which he has entertained his ten guests. The 1954 introduction, “The Art of Fiction”, contains discourses on the different techniques for writing a novel and on the practice of using it for propaganda (taking as a sparing partner H. G. Wells) which are almost entirely absent from “The Ten Best Novels of the World” (note the quotation marks in the table of contents). On the other hand, the 1948 introduction contains a fascinating alternative list of “ten more [novels] that in their different ways are as good as those I have chosen:”

Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
Cousin Bette
The Charterhouse of Parma
Persuasion
Tristram Shandy
Vanity Fair
Middlemarch
The Ambassadors
Gil Blas
[6]

Observant readers will notice that only the second half is by “new” authors; the first five are alternative novels by some of the “chosen ones”. The omission of Dickens, England’s greatest novelist according to Maugham[7], is notable; so is the inclusion of Henry James and The Ambassadors: “I read it again the other day and I was appalled by its emptiness.” So wrote Maugham in 1940.[8] In the same little book, he also said that Anna Karenina “has too much the aspect of a moral tract entirely to please” him and that War and Peace is “incomparably the greater” novel.[9]

Other revealing episodes missing from the 1948 version include, for example, the poignant final paragraph on Melville and the amusing reference to the cutting of Shaw’s plays in Germany. The former I have quoted, but the latter I have only retold. Here is the original, much as I disagree with the last sentence:

One day, many years ago, when we were lunching together, Bernard Shaw told me that his plays were more successful in Germany than they were in England. He ascribed this to the stupidity of the British public and to the greater intelligence of the German. He was wrong. In England he insisted that every word he had written should be spoken. I had seen his plays in Germany; there the directors had ruthlessly pruned them of verbiage unnecessary to the dramatic action, and so provided the public with an entertainment that was thoroughly enjoyable. I did not, however, think it well to tell him this. I know no reason why a novel should not be subjected to a similar process.[10]

In 1948, certain parts were apparently written too late to be made proper use of some sources. In 1954, naturally, they were expanded. A typical example is the hilarious episode with Lady Knatchbull’s notorious letter about Jane Austen. It is added here as a kind of postscript to the essay; some six years later, it is discussed at much greater length. The letter itself is quoted in toto in both books, but only the one from 1948 has this delicious final sentence:

It just shows that you may make a great stir in the world and yet sadly fail to impress the members of your own family.

Other changes are minor but, usually, not without interest. For instance, in 1948 Moby Dick is a “great, a very great book”, but in 1954 it becomes merely a “great book”.[11] In 1948 Maugham says he has read Don Quixote three times from cover to cover, but in 1954 he makes these three times in Spanish and adds twice more in English.[12] The passage about Proust occurs in both introductory essays, and though it is extended in the later version, it is never mentioned, as it is in the early one, that Proust’s monumental novel originally was one of the “Ten Best” but had to be left out because “it would have been impossible, even with drastic cutting, to reduce it to a reasonable size.”[13]

It’s difficult to describe the difference of style which I seem to perceive, that conversational ease in 1948 as opposed to the more formal manner in 1954. I can try to show it by a few quotations of similar passages in both versions. See if you agree with me.

[1948:]
Let me begin by saying, however, that to talk of the ten best novels in the world is to talk nonsense. There are not ten best novels in the world. It may be that there are a hundred, though even of that I am far from sure; if fifty persons, well read and of adequate culture, were to make lists…[14]

[1954:]
Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them. If a hundred persons, well read and of adequate culture, were asked to produce such a list…[15]

[1948:]
Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear: I should have said on the contrary that his ear was very sensitive. Though he spelled erratically and his grammar was sometimes faulty, he had a wonderful sense of rhythm, and the balance of his sentences, however long, is excellent.[16]

[1954:]
Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear; I don’t know what he meant by that. Melville had a true sense of rhythm, and the balance of his sentences, however long, is in general excellent. [17]

[1948:]
No one has ever looked upon Jane Austen as a great stylist. Her spelling was peculiar and her grammar often shaky, but she had a good ear.[18]

[1954:]
Jane Austen was not a great stylist, but she wrote plainly and without affectation.[19]

And one example which, it seems to me, shows the opposite of what I’m arguing. Here the later elaboration sounds natural and spontaneous:

[1948:]
He was really very tactless: he asked Louise Colet on one occasion…[20]

[1954:]
Flaubert prided himself on his frankness; it was indeed brutal. His tactlessness was amazing. On one occasion, he asked Louise…[21]

As an attempt to show how all this works on a slightly larger scale, I invite you to compare the arresting opening of the chapter on Flaubert. The 1948 version runs like this:

Gustave Flaubert was a very unusual man. The French are of the opinion that he was a genius. But genius is a word loosely applied today: the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as an instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention, or discovery; and comparing it with talent, suggests that it achieves its results by instinctive perception and spontaneous activity rather than by processes which admit of being distinctly analyzed. By this standard no century is likely to produce more than three or four geniuses, and it is only to discredit the word to apply it to the composer of agreeable tunes, the writer of lively comedies or the painter of engaging pictures. They are very well in their way and their authors may have talent, which is a fine thing to have and a rare one; but genius is on another plane. If I were pressed to say what genius this twentieth century of ours has produced I think that Albert Einstein is the only name that would occur to me. The nineteenth century was richer; but whether Flaubert can be counted among those who had this special gift the reader of this introduction, bearing in mind the dictionary’s definition, may be able to decide for himself.

One thing admits of little doubt: Flaubert created the modern realistic novel and directly or indirectly has influenced all the writers of fiction since his day. Thomas Mann when he wrote
Buddenbrooks, Arnold Bennett when he wrote Old Wives’ Tale, Theodore Dreiser when he wrote Sister Carrie were following a trail Flaubert blazed. No writer that we know of devoted himself with such a fierce and indomitable industry to the art of literature. It was not with him, as it is with most authors, an activity of paramount importance, but one that allows for other activities which rest the mind, refresh the body or enrich the experience. He did not think that to live was the object of life; for him the object of life was to write: no monk in his cell ever more willingly sacrificed the pleasures of the world to the love of God than Flaubert sacrificed the fulness and variety of life to his ambition to create a work of art.

The sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is and that is why, if he is a good writer, it is well to know what is possible of his personal history. In the case of Flaubert this is peculiarly important. He was born at Rouen…
[22]

Now compare these two and a half paragraphs with the single paragraph in the 1954 edition. Just a few things to notice: the structure is tighter and logically more coherent; the digressive remarks about Flaubert’s genius and influence have disappeared in favour of more relevant matters like romanticism and realism; Flaubert’s psychological sketch is greatly expanded and only the beginning is copied; no reference to the piece being an introduction is made; the first sentence of the new version is basically the same as the last one of the old:

If, as I believe, the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and so it is well to know what is relevant to his personal history, this, as will presently appear, in the case of Flaubert is essential. He was a very unusual man. No writer that we know of devoted himself with such a fierce and indomitable industry to the art of literature. It was not with him, as it is with most authors, an activity of paramount importance but one that allows for other activities which rest the mind, refresh the body and enrich experience. He did not think that to live was the object of life; for him the object of life was to write: no monk in his cell more resolutely sacrificed the pleasures of the world to the love of God than Flaubert sacrificed the fullness and variety of life to his ambition to create a work of art. He was at once a romantic and a realist. Now, at the bottom of romanticism, as I said in speaking of Balzac, is a hatred of reality and a passionate desire to escape from it. Like the rest of the romantics, Flaubert sought refuge in the extraordinary and the fantastic, in the Orient and in antiquity; and yet, for all his hatred of reality, for all his loathing of the meanness, the platitude, the imbecility of the bourgeois, he was fascinated by it; for there was something in his nature that horribly attracted him to what he most detested. Human stupidity had a revolting charm for him, and he took a morbid delight in exhibiting it in all its odiousness. It got on his nerves with the force of any obsession; it was like a sore on the body that is pain to touch and that yet you can’t help touching. The realist in him pored over human nature as though it were a pile of garbage, not to find something he could value, but to show to all and sundry how base, for all their outward seeming, were human beings.

Gustave Flaubert was born at Rouen…
[23]

Both versions of the book have their own pros and cons. The 1948 edition has commendable brevity and casual liveliness that I, personally, happen to prefer to the more measured discourse of the 1954 text. Yet the latter has formal perfection and depth denied to its predecessor. I certainly wouldn’t want to be without all those additions and elaborations. If you want only one book, by all means do get the 1954 edition; it’s the only one widely available anyway.[24] It represents Maugham’s final thoughts and the bonus material, though somewhat superfluous, does contain some fine original touches. On the other hand, if you are seriously interested in Maugham’s working methods, comparing both versions is an engrossing game to play in your spare time.

PS A special bonus of the original edition is the gallery of wonderful ink portraits of the ten authors by Robert W. Arnold. You can see them along with their “originals” here. The 1954 edition contains two epigraphs that are not to be found six years earlier. With typical superciliousness when it comes to the French language, Maugham leaves them without translation:

J’ai toujours aimé les correspondaces, les conversations, les pensées, tous le détails du caractère, des moeurs, de la biographie en un mot, des grands écrivains…
Sainte-Beuve

La première condition d’un roman est d’intéresser. Or, pour cela, il faut illusionner le lectueur à tel point qu’il puisse croire que ce qu’on lui raconte est réellement arrivé.
Balzac[25]

________________________________________________
[1] Raymond Toole Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, revised and extended edition, Kaye & Ward, 1973, A69, pp. 147-9. It remains a mystery why Mr Stott included The Art of Fiction: Introductions to 10 Novels and their Authors (Doubleday, 1955), which appears merely to be the first US edition of the 1954 version, among the collected editions (B24, p. 176). The year and month (September 1948) of publication come from Mr Stott, too. The first edition is copyrighted for 1948 but undated.
[2] Both series did, in fact, appear in periodicals. Nine of the original essays (excluding the one on Tolstoy because there had been a recent article about him in the same magazine) graced the pages of the Atlantic Monthly between November 1947 and July 1948. The revised versions appeared, with unprecedented success, in the Sunday Times between June and October 1954. See Stott, ibid., D161-9 & D181, pp. 212-4.
[3] Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, p. 228. In the earlier book (p. 131) the phrase is “this powerful, terrible book”.
[4] Ibid., p. 59.
[5] W. Somerset Maugham, Cosmopolitans: Very Short Stories, Heinemann/Doubleday, 1936. 29 anecdotal stories from the pages of the Cosmopolitan Magazine.
[6] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 10.
[7] Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1940, p. 39.
[8] Ibid., p. 94.
[9] Ibid., p. 55.
[10] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 4.
[11] Ibid., p. 202; Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 232.
[12] Ibid., p. 4; Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 13.
[13] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 1.
[14] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 2.
[15] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 1.
[16] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 226.
[17] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 194.
[18] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 90.
[19] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 66.
[20] Great Novelists and Their Novels, p. 145.
[21] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 159.
[22] Great Novelists and Their Novels, pp. 137-8.
[23] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. 152-3.
[24] The 1954 edition has through the years been reprinted by several publishers (Pan, Penguin), including, currently, Vintage Classics. The first edition by Heinemann is still very affordable, too. In contrast, the 1948 edition does not seem to have been reprinted at all. The only exception seems to be a Fawcett paperback from 1959 (reprinted in the 1960s with a different cover) under the title W. Somerset Maugham selects The World’s Ten Greatest Novels.
[25] Ten Novels and Their Authors, ibid., p. [vi]. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Jun 28, 2015 |
Edit: these are the novels and authors: Henry Fielding, Tom Jones; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir; Balzac, Le Pere Goriot; Dickens, David Copperfield; Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Melville, Moby Dick; Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights; Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy, War and Peace.

Maugham’s slim collection of critical essays on ten novels and its authors has its origin in an odious enterprise. He begins with the audacious claim that, “Everybody skips, but to skip without loss is not easy……there are few novels which it is possible to read from beginning to end with unfailing interest.” To this end, and at the request of a publisher, Maugham set out a list of what he thought were the ten best novels, and planned, arrogantly, to abridge them for public consumption. Whether this contrary exercise was completed, I do not know. What does survive of it, however, is this collection of essays, intended as an introduction to the abridged volumes. Each essay, focused on one book and its author, takes into scope the lives, other works, contemporaries and criticisms of the author and the book, touches plot and theme and writing, criticises, praises and evaluates the books. In Maugham’s typical style, he writes simply, but with both, generosity and clarity: he praises, but not unduly; he criticises, but not unfairly.

Maugham book-ends his collection of ten essays on his chosen books with two of his own pieces. The first, titled ‘The Art of Fiction’ sets out his view of what constitutes a good novel, and the second, titled ‘In Conclusion’ winds up the themes he identifies with the charming device of placing all his authors in a fictional dinner party. Maugham’s framework is complex, and beautifully written: I would hate to reduce it to a few bullet points, so I shall only point out three things that struck me. Maugham begins, quite categorically, with the assertion that the purpose of fiction is to entertain. He has no truck with HG Wells’ notion that the aim of the novel is to instruct: in fact, Maugham says, “If its aim is to instruct, then it is not a form of art. For the aim of art is to please.” In extenso, he argues that if the purpose of art is to please, this need not be reduced to hedonism, for, “there are pleasures of the mind as well as the body, and if they are not so keen, they are more enduring.” When he wraps up his conclusion, this argument comes full circle: in his evaluation of the lives and learnings of his Ten, he notes that none of them brought any great intellect or learning to their works. “Of course,” he writes, “it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers are intelligent, but they were not strikingly intellectual.” The point, as he goes on to make (beautifully) is that the purpose of novels are to please, not merely sensually, but intellectually, and that this need not reflect itself in instructive history, or politics, or theology, even as they deal with themes of bad, good, right and wrong.

The second point that struck me was Maugham’s approach to the authors themselves He prefaces his comments on the books he has chosen, with brief notes on the lives of the authors themselves, tying together these threads in his conclusion. It is hard to escape concluding, as he did, that none of his authors were paragons – except perhaps for Jane Austen, whom he describes as having “had all the virtues that a woman can have, without being a paragon that no one could put up with.” He is unflinching when it comes to Stendhal’s insecurity, Tolstoy’s moments of rage unreason, or even Dostoevsky’s appalling claim of having assaulted a young child. He sees Melville’s drunkenness and Dosteovsky’s gambling problems, Flaubert’s temper tantrums and Balzac’s vulgarity. And yet, Maugham, with the catholic generosity that seeps through his own work, recognises each of their faults for what they are and appreciates the author – and the writing, all the same. He is unflinching, but also understanding. I am particularly struck by how he writes of the two women he chose: Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen. In both cases, common criticism touches upon their refusal to marry, but to Maugham, there is both, respect for the choices they made, coupled with a tender, unpatronising recognition of the loneliness it must have entailed. With Melville, and with Bronte, he sees with some foresight, the possibility of repressed sexual desires, and evinces sympathy without passing judgment. Even when framing Dostoevsky’s unappealing character, he is able to uncover both the best, as well as the worst. He sees,I think, not only how special these people were, but also, how entirely ordinary, and can therefore, appreciate how unique they were without making false heroes out of them.

The third point that struck me about Maugham’s analysis was how carefully he adhered to the structure he laid out, and how rigorously he analysed the books within it. He begins his essay on the art of fiction with some thoughts on what makes a good novel, identifying the merits of voicing, the need for themes that cannot not only interest a contemporary reader, but also endure, the requirements of coherence and persuasion and how they might be achieved without falling into dullness, and finally, his ultimate requirement, that the novel must ultimately entertain. Each of the ten books he touches upon are evaluated with this framework, and it is very deftly, unobtrusively done, so that you walk away with as complete an impression as possible, without feeling as though you had read an earnest college essay. His gift, also, lies in these wry, sharp asides, these personal delights he takes in the characters he meets: “..with Natasha, Count Rostov’s younger daughter..Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction,” and “David Copperfield shows himself sadly incompetent. He is incapable of coping with a difficulty.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Maugham’s introduction to these ten books. Even if the aim, awfully, was to abridge them, he writes with not just passion for the books he loves, but also with intelligence. He writes, aware of the flaws of the novelists, but with generosity and appreciation of their merits. He refrains from romanticising their lives, sticking, as ever, to earnest practicality, but also with some amount of imagination when attempting to understand their sorrows. And even if his criticism is thorough and comprehensive, what is clearly apparent is that he enjoyed reading these ten books, not once, but repeatedly, and that comes through particularly well.

It’s difficult not to quote large chunks of his book, because he does write so well, but I’ll end with these lines of Maugham’s:

“The artist’s special gift, his talent or, if you wish, his genius is like the seed of the orchid that comes to rest, at haphazard it would seem, upon a tree in the tropical jungle, there to burgeon, deriving no nourishment from it, but from the air, and then to bring forth a strange and beautiful flower; but the tree is cut down to made into logs or floated down the river to a sawmil, and the wood on which grew the rich, fantastic flower is no different from a thousand other trees in the primeval forest.”
1 vote reva8 | Apr 20, 2015 |
Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and their Authors (Vintage Classics, 1954 repr 2001)

This will be a long-ish review, so let me say outright, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and would recommend it.

Maugham’s slim collection of critical essays on ten novels and its authors has its origin in an odious enterprise. He begins with the audacious claim that, “Everybody skips, but to skip without loss is not easy……there are few novels which it is possible to read from beginning to end with unfailing interest.” To this end, and at the request of a publisher, Maugham set out a list of what he thought were the ten best novels, and planned, arrogantly, to abridge them for public consumption. Whether this contrary exercise was completed, I do not know. What does survive of it, however, is this collection of essays, intended as an introduction to the abridged volumes. Each essay, focused on one book and its author, takes into scope the lives, other works, contemporaries and criticisms of the author and the book, touches plot and theme and writing, criticises, praises and evaluates the books. In Maugham’s typical style, he writes simply, but with both, generosity and clarity: he praises, but not unduly; he criticises, but not unfairly.

Maugham book-ends his collection of ten essays on his chosen books with two of his own pieces. The first, titled ‘The Art of Fiction’ sets out his view of what constitutes a good novel, and the second, titled ‘In Conclusion’ winds up the themes he identifies with the charming device of placing all his authors in a fictional dinner party. Maugham’s framework is complex, and beautifully written: I would hate to reduce it to a few bullet points, so I shall only point out three things that struck me. Maugham begins, quite categorically, with the assertion that the purpose of fiction is to entertain. He has no truck with HG Wells’ notion that the aim of the novel is to instruct: in fact, Maugham says, “If its aim is to instruct, then it is not a form of art. For the aim of art is to please.” In extenso, he argues that if the purpose of art is to please, this need not be reduced to hedonism, for, “there are pleasures of the mind as well as the body, and if they are not so keen, they are more enduring.” When he wraps up his conclusion, this argument comes full circle: in his evaluation of the lives and learnings of his Ten, he notes that none of them brought any great intellect or learning to their works. “Of course,” he writes, “it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers are intelligent, but they were not strikingly intellectual.” The point, as he goes on to make (beautifully) is that the purpose of novels are to please, not merely sensually, but intellectually, and that this need not reflect itself in instructive history, or politics, or theology, even as they deal with themes of bad, good, right and wrong.

The second point that struck me was Maugham’s approach to the authors themselves He prefaces his comments on the books he has chosen, with brief notes on the lives of the authors themselves, tying together these threads in his conclusion. It is hard to escape concluding, as he did, that none of his authors were paragons – except perhaps for Jane Austen, whom he describes as having “had all the virtues that a woman can have, without being a paragon that no one could put up with.” He is unflinching when it comes to Stendhal’s insecurity, Tolstoy’s moments of rage unreason, or even Dostoevsky’s appalling claim of having assaulted a young child. He sees Melville’s drunkenness and Dosteovsky’s gambling problems, Flaubert’s temper tantrums and Balzac’s vulgarity. And yet, Maugham, with the catholic generosity that seeps through his own work, recognises each of their faults for what they are and appreciates the author – and the writing, all the same. He is unflinching, but also understanding. I am particularly struck by how he writes of the two women he chose: Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen. In both cases, common criticism touches upon their refusal to marry, but to Maugham, there is both, respect for the choices they made, coupled with a tender, unpatronising recognition of the loneliness it must have entailed. With Melville, and with Bronte, he sees with some foresight, the possibility of repressed sexual desires, and evinces sympathy without passing judgment. Even when framing Dostoevsky’s unappealing character, he is able to uncover both the best, as well as the worst. He sees,I think, not only how special these people were, but also, how entirely ordinary, and can therefore, appreciate how unique they were without making false heroes out of them.

The third point that struck me about Maugham’s analysis was how carefully he adhered to the structure he laid out, and how rigorously he analysed the books within it. He begins his essay on the art of fiction with some thoughts on what makes a good novel, identifying the merits of voicing, the need for themes that cannot not only interest a contemporary reader, but also endure, the requirements of coherence and persuasion and how they might be achieved without falling into dullness, and finally, his ultimate requirement, that the novel must ultimately entertain. Each of the ten books he touches upon are evaluated with this framework, and it is very deftly, unobtrusively done, so that you walk away with as complete an impression as possible, without feeling as though you had read an earnest college essay. His gift, also, lies in these wry, sharp asides, these personal delights he takes in the characters he meets: “..with Natasha, Count Rostov’s younger daughter..Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction,” and “David Copperfield shows himself sadly incompetent. He is incapable of coping with a difficulty.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Maugham’s introduction to these ten books. Even if the aim, awfully, was to abridge them, he writes with not just passion for the books he loves, but also with intelligence. He writes, aware of the flaws of the novelists, but with generosity and appreciation of their merits. He refrains from romanticising their lives, sticking, as ever, to earnest practicality, but also with some amount of imagination when attempting to understand their sorrows. And even if his criticism is thorough and comprehensive, what is clearly apparent is that he enjoyed reading these ten books, not once, but repeatedly, and that comes through particularly well.

It’s difficult not to quote large chunks of his book, because he does write so well, but I’ll end with these lines of Maugham’s:
“The artist’s special gift, his talent or, if you wish, his genius is like the seed of the orchid that comes to rest, at haphazard it would seem, upon a tree in the tropical jungle, there to burgeon, deriving no nourishment from it, but from the air, and then to bring forth a strange and beautiful flower; but the tree is cut down to made into logs or floated down the river to a sawmil, and the wood on which grew the rich, fantastic flower is no different from a thousand other trees in the primeval forest.”
5 vote reva8 | Apr 11, 2015 |
570. The World's Ten Greatest Novels, by W. Somerset Maugham (read 7 Apr 1959) I was sufficiently impressed by this book so that I at once proceeded to read the great books which he picked that I had not already read. I am kind of a sucker for lists such as this book set out. ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 19, 2013 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Ten Novels and Their Authors

Heinemann, Hardback, 1954.

8vo. 306 pp.

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

Contents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Maugham was well aware that the novelist is a “natural propagandist”, as he memorably described him at another place[1]. He lays much greater stress on strong plot and great readability than highbrows normally do, but he insists – to my mind rightly – that there is more than that even in the most preposterous and unrealistic novelist. This is a telling lesson in literary humility, the right dose of which is a highly commendable, but seldom encountered, virtue:

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

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

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

Maugham’s natural modesty prevented him from mentioning some of the great strengths of his position as, so to say, an insider. For example, having practiced the art of fiction for half a century, “I have a notion that I know a good deal more about it than most people” as he put it in the Foreword to his short story collection The Mixture as Before (1940). This vast experience allows Maugham to analyse the creative process inside an author’s mind with perspicacity no critic may even dream of achieving; again, you don’t have to agree with his conclusions to find them fascinating and worth considering. Maugham, also, had a good deal of popular success and this is yet another phenomenon which he addresses (e.g. in the essay about Dickens) with rare insight.[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Maugham’s central premise is the controversial assumption that “the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is”. This method sounds sound enough on the surface, but the results from it usually encompass the whole gamut from penetrating insight to misguided fantasizing. Maugham’s strength is that the former firmly dominates over the latter. Ironically enough, in The Summing Up (1938) he mocked the famous dictum “the style is the man” as one of those dictums that “tell too much to mean a great deal”[3]. Where is Goethe the frigid egotist in his bird-like lyrics, he demanded to know? And yet, Maugham was aware that the idea, though fraud with difficulties, is basically a rewarding one if handled carefully.

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

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

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

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

Pretty much the same is true about this endless searching for homosexual hints in the writings of Somerset Maugham or Oscar Wilde or Tennessee Williams or you name him. All these men were great writers first and then – and only then! – homosexuals, repressed or not. If homosexuality were central to their works, they wouldn’t be what they are – as indeed Tennessee Williams himself once suggested by bluntly stating that homosexuality is just not enough of a subject to base even a single short story on, no matter how fascinating as a subsidiary theme[4]. While reading Moby Dick I will keep in mind Maugham’s notion that Melville was a “repressed homosexual”, but I doubt this would help me to a better understanding of the novel. Nevertheless, Maugham’s conclusion is stirring and, significantly, going quite a bit beyond the homosexual issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

All in all, Somerset Maugham’s Ten Novels and Their Authors is literary criticism at its best: personal, powerful, perceptive, precise. No doubt many professional literary critics would denounce it as the irrelevant ramblings of a second-class writer and a third-class reader. I couldn’t care less. Most of these essays I have read three or four times already; the first and the last one probably more. None has lost its freshness as a superb entertainment or its value as a wise guide to some of the finest novels ever written.

_____________________________________________
[1] Of Human Bondage, With a Digression on the Art of Fiction, Library of Congress, 1946, p. 8.
[2] See also Chapter 48 from The Summing Up, Heinemann/Doubleday, Doran, 1938.
[3] Ibid., Chapter 12.
[4] See the essay “Let Me Hang It All Out”, reprinted in the collection New Selected Essays: Where I Live, ed. John S. Bak, New Directions, 2009. ( )
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