Friday, 22 March 2013

W. Somerset Maugham and His World

W. Somerset Maugham and His World

Raphael, Frederic. W. Somerset Maugham and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

After reading Robin Maugham's account of his uncle, the beginning of this book is inevitably dull, but the readers get their reward by persevering. A lot of factual information and repeated episodes about Maugham is recounted in a very dry manner at the beginning, but then the book picks up its pace.

Raphael offers some interesting observations of Maugham from his friends and acquaintances, such as the impressions of Frieda (who observed in their meeting in Mexico that Maugham was a sad man and her husband a genius) and D.H. Lawrence. However, one thing that I have found from my readings on Maugham is that it seems so tempting for his critics to assume a condescending manner, which, I cannot help but think that Maugham's cynicism must have driven to a lot of people's home and when Maugham's witty repartee is guaranteed to be out of the question, they have their fun with him.

Raphael seems to be a little obsessed with Maugham's homosexuality, which is used to explain everything that the author cannot explain, and I cannot help but think, again, with remarks such as this: "The freemasonry which the self-righteous find so deplorable, in Jews or homosexuals, can be a powerful source of both generosity and insight" (78), that the homosexuals (and the Jews) are nothing but second class human beings. Of course we are talking about the 70s, so my judgement may be too harsh.

I also feel that it is little like the weather forecast, that nobody praises when it is accurate, but everyone complains when the prediction is wrong. When Maugham is not up to the mark, it is unfortunate; when he is up to the mark, it is dismissed as too perfect. It seems that he never finds the right balance.

Certainly this book contains more information on the early years of Maugham which is not in Robin's book and Raphael intends to link his personal life to the production of his work. Maugham the professional writer stands out.

On one occasion Raphael, in order to illustrate that Maugham had rigidified and stopped moving with his time, uses Maugham's employment of "omnibus" as an example: "His vocabulary becomes dated (till the end of his life Maugham spoke of 'the omnibus')" (70). I haven't taken note of the omnibuses during my reading; however, there is a passage in Cakes and Ale (1930) that tells otherwise; Maugham was narrating an event during the time when his alter ego, Willie Ashenden, was studying medicine in London, presumably, towards the end of the nineteenth century:
"I [Allgood Newton] suppose your youth inclines you to what my good Dizzy named in an unlucky moment the gondola of London."  
"I'm going to take a bus," I answered. 
"Oh? Had you proposed to go by hansom I was going to ask you to be good enough to drop me on your way, but if you are going to use the homely conveyance which I in my old-fashioned manner still prefer to call an omnibus, I shall hoist my unwieldy carcase into a four-wheeler." (216-17).
I happen to come across a passage in one of the essays, "Augustus," in The Vagrant Mood in which Maugham mentions an anecdote; because it is so humorously written I prefer not to ruin it by paraphrasing:
On another occasion when I told him [Augustus Hare] I had been somewhere by bus, he said stiffly: "I prefer to call the conveyance to which you refer an omnibus"; and when I protested that if he wanted a cab he didn't ask for a cabriolet, "Only because people are so uneducated today they wouldn't understand," he retorted. (47)
This was published in 1952, but this is an account of an incident in Maugham's youth since Hare died in 1903. I wonder if by any chance Raphael gets confused by Willie Ashenden and Allgood Newman, or Maugham and Hare, which can easily happen when one goes through a lot of data.

All in all, this is a distant Maugham, a subject to be analysed which is quite devoid of flesh and blood. Nevertheless, there is information which would be of interest to his readers and some illustrations of places that he had visited and anecdotes which surround the "Master", as they started calling him besides the "Old Party".

Related Posts:

Somerset and All the Maughams

W. Somerset Maugham. A Candid Portrait

Chronicles of Barabbas


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