Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Books of Criticism on W. Somerset Maugham

Following some previous posts, here are the last old volumes on English Literature recovered from storage. We will be looking at the entries of W. Somerset Maugham, which are brief in these few books.

A Short History of English Literature by Sir Ifor Evans
A Short History of English Literature
Sir Ifor Evans

Evans, Ifor, Sir. A Short History of English Literature. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962.

Popularity sometimes affects the judgements of critics in estimating the worth of a writer, and no modern author has suffered in this way as much as W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874). His early novels, which included Liza of Lambeth (1897), were realist studies of London life, but in his later novels he has used China and Malaya as his background in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), and The Painted Veil (1925). These, and a number of other novels and volumes of short stories, should have established him as a writer of importance, but criticism has often neglected him. His early studies in Maupassant gave him an admirable economy in narrative, while his attachment to French literature helped him to exclude sentimentality from his work and to deal with sexual relations with an unabashed frankness which English readers find disconcerting. He conveys no message, as do so many of his contemporaries, and when life appears in unpleasant patterns he records them without apology. His realism has often been mistaken for cynicism, but it is well to remember that in his prose he has the unaffected strength of Swift; and that something of Swift's vision, without Swift's disgust at life, can be found in his work. (183)

In a previous post, we have looked at the extract on Maugham from Evans in which his comment may seem peevish. In this earlier book, first published in 1940, Evans appears to be more sympathetic to Maugham's literary merits and his unfavourable treatment by the critics on the whole.

His later opinion, as we can only venture to guess, could be due to his change of mind or lack of space.

Gross, John. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969.

The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters by John Gross
The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters
John Gross

Gosse also retained the friendship of figures as different as Lord Haldane and Chesterton. Maugham described him as the most amusing talker he had ever met. (181)

Unfortunately, Maugham would seem ill-fitted into Gross's consideration as a "Man of Letters."

Priestley, J. B. Literature and Western man. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969.

Literature and Western Man by J. B. Priestley
Literature and Western Man
J. B. Priestley

In English the most satisfying war literature did not come from the novelists. Few established novelists – though we must not forget Ford Madox Ford, whose war novels are his best – were on active service, but Maugham made good use of his intelligence work in Ashenden, Hugh Walpole wrote what is probably his most durable piece of story-telling, The Dark Forest, out of his experience at the Russian Front, and Compton Mackenzie risked prosecution by recounting, truthfully yet with great humour, what he did for the war in the Eastern Mediterranean. (379)

Ford, Boris, ed. The Pelican Guide to English Literature. 7. The Modern Age. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974.

The Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. 7. The Modern Age by Boris Ford
The Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. 7. The Modern Age
Boris Ford

Here, in this interest in, this impact of, the continental model, is a basic and enduring new influence. Zola's L'Assommoir (1877) was the detailed model not only of the Victorian melodrama Drink (1879: arranged by Charles Reade) but also for George Moore's A Midsummer's Wife (1888), the first serious attempt in English at fiction like Zola's and to some extent (though the influence of Dickens is also asserting itself) for Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897). (64–5)

When we turn from the plays of Shaw to those of his contemporaries and successors who used the naturalistic convention to depict and discuss society and its problems, we find little of permanent interest. Much work, like that of Barrie or Coward, for example, is merely sentimental, frivolous, or trivial. Attempts by such writers as Galsworthy, Maugham, Birdie, or Priestley to deal with serious themes seem already dated. There is a good deal of honest and earnest work, some flashes of humour and fantasy, and useful discussion – for Shaw's success undoubtedly opened the theatre doors to the drama of ideas – but there is nothing truly creative. These writers all handle ideas we have heard before, and manipulate situations and feelings already familiar. They are not trivial, they do not lack a "worthy purpose", but they are not creative. If effective enough in the theatre, their works do not repay reading; their dialogue is for the most part invincibly dull: words fail them. (231)

[Interesting point, but then we will have to ask ourselves what the purpose of drama is.]

"Our problem should be", he [T. S. Eliot] wrote in The Possibility of a Poetic Drama, "to take a form of entertainment of a crude sort and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art". The list of characters in The Family Reunion, for example, would suit a play by Maugham or Coward or Rattigan; it is patently "a play about modern educated people". (234)

This is worth more thoughts; if the modern educated people, supposedly including the educated author himself, were considered "a crude sort," it is worth asking who were the more artistic.

Hemmings, F. W. J., ed. The Age of Realism. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974.

The Age of Realism by F. W. J. Hemmings
The Age of Realism
F. W. J. Hemmings

If the novel were not to remain stalled, it was clearly imperative that novelists should retreat from his doctrinal cul-de-sac and see what else they might find to do besides composing dispassionate factual accounts of miscellaneous social environments. Of course, the realist tradition did not die away completely: it continued to evolve, not only Russia, as we have already seen, but elsewhere as well, in England with Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and Somerset Maugham, in the United States with Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair, and in Spain and Portugal with Blasco Ibañez and Ferreira de Castro. But the characteristic art of the more forward-looking masters of prose narrative in the twentieth century owed very little to realism; its roots can be traced, rather, to a searching critique of the objective, pseudo-scientific norms of the preceding age. (365)

I have some difficulties thinking about Maugham's novels as strictly belonging to realism. Although yes, definitely, that he portrays the society that he knows and lives in, one has to admit that the stories that he tells are by no means what one sees in everyday life. There is something strangely exotic and unfamiliar, though the emotions one may relate to. I would tend to think that here Hemmings is referring to Liza of Lambeth, and perhaps some early productions.

How to cite this:

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