Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Ten Novels and Their Authors - W. Somerset Maugham

cover of Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954, by W. Somerset Maugham
Ten Novels and Their Authors 1954

Ten Novels and Their Authors (London: Heinemann, 1954)


In this post, I will look at the first edition of this collection of essays that W. Somerset Maugham has written about ten authors of his choice. A most remarkable study by Maugham and a very enjoyable read.

Great Novelists and Their Novels (Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1948)


This is the title of the first American edition of the collection of the essays on the ten authors, later revised into a much better and extended version in 1954 as the book shown in this post. These essays act as introduction to the editions of the respective novels, abridged and edited by Maugham himself.

Thus, except if you are collecting the book for its sake, the 1954 English edition would be a better choice.

Ten Novels and Their Authors


The ten novels chosen by Maugham are:
  • Tom Jones
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Le Rouge et le Noir
  • Le Père Goriot
  • David Copperfield
  • Madame Bovary
  • Moby Dick
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • War and Peace

As preface, Maugham writes about "The Art of Fiction" recounting how these essays came about and his own formulation of the art of writing novels. To him, the most important is the enjoyment that the reader can get from reading a book of fiction, without which, a novel has lost its most basic function.

Maugham makes a very astute comment as a reader, that through reading a writer's work, one denotes the writer's personality. This provides the key to many of his observations.

Maugham claims that he is able to provide a different viewpoint from academic critics about the art of fiction as a writer himself and he definitely shows this in his essays. From his analysis, one learns a lot about the construction of a story and the characters in it.

I haven't finished the whole book, but for example, his chapter on Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights is superb, if one permits such a superlative and means it. Anyone who has attempted such a concise, to the point, and extremely readable biography about any author will realize the difficulties. Though without extensive quotes and footnotes, one can see the necessary scholarly undertaking that Maugham has done to be able to write the essay.

On the Media page, you will find a most interesting interview of Maugham with Malcolm Muggerich, presumably for the promotion of this volume. Maugham reiterates that his choice is naturally and inevitably arbitrary.


A Word About My First Edition


I bought my copy for practically nothing. Shipping was seven times the price of the book, so you can imagine. It turns out that I get one extremely interesting.

The book appears to be a gift from a friend and there are a few lines of dedication, from which it turns out that the former owner of this book (the receiver of this gift) was Isaiah Berlin —another extraordinary person—, who is mentioned by Maugham on p. 280.

As literature students well know, very rarely does one come across a book that is both insightful, informative, well-written, and enjoyable. I can count those with my fingers, no need for the toes. This is truly a rare gem.



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