Friday, 25 October 2013

"The Sorrows of Autobiography. Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up" by Roger J. Porter

cover of self same songs autobiography performances and reflections. chapter on W. Somerset Maugham
The Sorrows of Autobiography. Somerset Maugham's
The Summing Up

Porter, Roger J. "The Sorrows of Autobiography. Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up." Self-same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections
. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. 67-80.


In this post, I will look at the chapter on Maugham's The Summing Up in this book on autobiographic writings. I dived straightly into the chapter I was interested in without knowing much about the book itself, taking it as a regular academic criticism. The result, I am sorry to say, is distasteful.

The Sorrows of Having Read it


The chapter starts out very promisingly, discussing Maugham's The Summing Up using theory on autobiography, what the reader expects to find in an autobiographical text and how Maugham keeps eluding the revelation of a self that is behind the persona W. Somerset Maugham that he has created. I believe that one achievement of Maugham is his transformation of the genres that he writes in, like the travel writing and the memoirs, restyling them to suit his own purpose.

Porter tries to analyse Maugham's reasons for evasion and how he does so. At first it is interesting to follow him tracing what is not there, soon the reading becomes unsatisfactory. The analysis lacks strength when talking about Maugham's conflict of needing acceptance by the academic and/or intellectual (they are not necessarily inclusive) circle and the public "that he will not speak of his fierce need for recognition because he does not want us to see him struggling with writing. He prefers to have us believe that writing is an easy and natural act" (73). Anyone who is familiar with Maugham's oeuvre will tell you that he is very specific about stating the troubles that he has taken to learn to write well, and the fact that he works very hard on it instead of just letting his inspiration guide him and his natural talent flow is one damning factor for him to be slighted.

You won't find many references in the chapter, except a few mentions of Calder. Somehow you get the feeling that he is mentioned for the sake of needing to make reference to someone other than the author himself, because the quotes are empty.

I was half expecting some comments on Looking Back, since Maugham, on the contrary, was more open there, but no reference is given to this later and more autobiographical text.

Then you come across personal interpretation out of the blue that is not very convincing:
Whatever he has sacrificed by way of idealism, the image of the crowd-pleasing artist prevails and justifies his subordination of the personal. Maugham rationalizes evasions on the grounds that he has always placed his career ahead of integrity. But in resisting the personal Maugham recognizes, perhaps sorrowfully, what is being sacrificed. (73)
I am not sure from where Porter draws this conclusion, but definitely that is what the "sorrows" is about in the title. I think foremost Maugham is a professional writer and he takes his profession very seriously. He is a very private person, which seems hard to be accepted in this age of narcissism that we are living in. In The Summing Up he chooses to talk about a very important part of his life: the writer, and he draws the line there.

Then the chapter continues. Since Maugham is reticent about his life, Porter talks freely about his own to fill in the gaps. The second part of the chapter is all about Porter. Confessions of shameful facts that compensate the reader's voyeurism frustrated by Maugham's silence. Then there are sweeping generalizations about the Japanese, why they love Maugham. I think Porter may like to consider another part of the Japanese culture that is hidden thinly below the reticent surface. A few Japanese movies will suffice to bring that up.

I have not looked at the other chapters, but I realize that the general structure is half about the chosen authors and half about Porter. So, depending on your interest in intimate details and obsessive confessions that litter the Internet, you may find this book interesting.


Self-Same Songs at AbeBooks.com
Self-Same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections at Amazon.com
Self-Same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections (Jewish Writing in the Contemporary World) at AmazonUK

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