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Somerset Maugham: A Life

Jeffrey Meyers's biography of Somerset Maugham, new from Alfred A. Knopf, is perused by Charles Wright. logo
An early review of Jeffrey Meyers's Somerset Maugham: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 414 pp., $30) that appeared several weeks ago in The Atlantic Monthly bore the title "Poor Old Willie." In the text beneath that snarky headline, reviewer Christopher Hitchens had almost nothing to say about this compact and interesting new biography. Instead, he seized the moment to accuse the book's subject of "turn[ing] out third-rate prose by the yard" and to carp that a "slight clumsiness...inflected everything Maugham ever wrote." Hitchens dismissed William Somerset Maugham as "Conrad in tweeds" and then, with claws extended to the full, remarked -- in strikingly awkward phrases -- that "[i]f [Maugham] put his genius into his life and [his famed Villa Mauresque on the Côte d'Azur] rather than his work, it was because the former were apter repositories for such talent as he possessed."

From the late Victorian era through the first decade of the reign of Elizabeth II, Maugham produced 19 novels and 31 stage plays plus short stories, screenplays, translations, travel books, essays, and reminiscences. His works were enormously popular and, with the revenues they yielded, the author transformed his Riviera retreat into a show place of antiques and other treasures where he entertained a constant parade of famous, accomplished guests. Like any writer with a vast output, Maugham published works of fluctuating quality. His canon includes fiction of real merit, such as Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage; stories, The Razor's Edge among them, that have inspired generations of readers; and entertainments -- the 1937 novel Theatre comes to mind -- that pack a narrative wallop despite their mediocrity. Hitchens concentrated on the low points in Maugham's fiction, ignoring completely his career as a dramatist. That omission gave the reviewer an unfair advantage in his mean-spirited, hatchet-wielding assessment of a famous writer whose work is currently out of fashion.

The son of English parents, Maugham was born in Paris in 1874 and lived in France without visiting England for his first 10 years. Then, both parents having died, he found himself at the mercy of unsympathetic kinfolk in Whitstable on the North Sea coast of Kent. His English relatives thrust him, without orienting instruction of any kind, into the conformist, hard-knocks environment of an English public school. There -- at King's, Canterbury -- Maugham suffered predictable humiliations at the hands of sporty, chauvinistic classmates and philistine teachers. After four hellish years, he escaped England thanks to a case of pleurisy and finished his secondary education with a private tutor in the altogether more salubrious environment of southern France. Subsequently, he spent a year at Heidelberg University, studied medicine at St. Thomas's Hospital, London, and qualified as a physician in 1897. But, instead of practicing medicine, he forged headlong into a literary career.

Because Maugham wrote many tales set in East Asia, he is associated in readers' minds with the rainy season in Pago-Pago and landmarks like the Raffles Hotel. His actual experience was as exotic as that of the characters he invented. Maugham worked for the Red Cross in Europe during World War I; served Britain, at various times, as a secret agent in Switzerland, Russia, Samoa, and other locales; and spent part of World War II as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Despite his remarkable literary productivity, he found plenty of time for travel, hobnobbing, and screwing around -- not to mention lengthy unions with partners of both sexes, including one marriage that produced a daughter.

For all its glamour, Maugham's story is remarkably poignant and his life was a restless, peripatetic affair. He had a prickly personality and was generally regarded as cold and hard to know. "Like...Billy Budd," writes Meyers (quoting Melville), "Willie 'was apt to develop an organic hesitancy, in fact more or less of a [stammer] or even worse.'" This "was intensified by the death of his parents and exile from Paris, his harsh and loveless life with [his uncle] the vicar [in Whitstable], the bullying of his classmates and cruelty of the oafish schoolmasters, and lasted to the very end of his life." The childhood stammering presaged a lifelong sense of alienation. "With his two native languages, his two nationalities, his two professions (doctor and writer) and his bisexuality," Meyers notes, Maugham "was intensely aware of his...dual character. Like his literary master Joseph Conrad, who called himself 'a Polish nobleman, cased in British tar,' Maugham could say: 'Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.'"

A quarter century has passed since the appearance of Ted Morgan's gargantuan biography of Maugham -- titled, simply, Maugham. Christopher Hitchens's reservations notwithstanding, it's high time for a new one. Jeffrey Meyers has written 43 books, including studies of figures whose lives overlapped Maugham's -- Fitzgerald, Frost, Hemingway, Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few. As a consequence, he's thoroughly conversant in his subject's social and literary milieu. Meyers's resumé even includes a biography of Maugham's idol, Joseph Conrad, and a study called Homosexuality and Literature: 1890-1960. With a doctorate in English from Berkeley and a spouse, Valerie Meyers, who assists in archival research, Meyers operates a biographical industry with a level of productivity that rivals Maugham's.

Maugham died in 1965 and the ranks of his friends and associates have been thinning year by year. In the course of his research, Meyers has outrun the grim reaper to interview many who remember Maugham and have useful information for posterity. The biographer has tracked down previously unknown primary source materials, including what appears to be the first letter Maugham dispatched. Over the years, critics have looked askance at the volume and rapidity of Meyers' biographical yield, but that skepticism is largely unfair. In Somerset Maugham: A Life, he admirably balances a lively narrative of his subject's history and competent if sometimes lightweight literary-critical discourse. His writing throughout is stylish and full of verve.

Meyers is notably insightful about Maugham the dramatist. It was on the stage that this writer, though already a published novelist, found his first substantial success; the year was 1907, the play was Lady Frederick. For the next 25 years or so, Maugham was a prominent figure of the English-speaking theater. His early scripts were spirited comedies, epigrammatic in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and risqué for their time, satirizing the British beau monde. Later, he wrote dramas, including a blistering, post-World War I "state-of-nation" play, For Services Rendered, that's comparable in many ways to Shaw's Heartbreak House.

Jeffrey Meyers
In 1908, when Maugham was 34, his popularity was such that he had four plays running simultaneously in London's West End. The apex of his theater career came 13 years later with The Circle, a brittle comedy of manners that holds its own among the works of Ben Jonson, William Congreve, William Wycherley, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and Noël Coward. In the skill of its structure and the brilliance of its dialogue, The Circle serves as a bridge between the satiric comedy of Wilde in the 19th century and the less arch, more character-driven work of Coward in the 20th century.

Unsatisfied producing what audiences expected of him, Maugham longed to write darker things for the stage, but neither the critics nor the public warmed to his more brooding efforts. At age 59, after two serious plays proved critically and financially disappointing, he gave up the stage, complaining that the dramatic form was too restrictive: "If you have a small, pretty idea for a play, you must pad it out to fill the requisite two and a half hours. If you want to deal with a really big theme, you're perpetually hedged with time limits, cast limits, you have to restrict yourself everywhere." Maugham despaired that, in late middle age, he might no longer be able to connect with theater audiences or to deliver plays that could be widely understood. "The theater is a young person's game," he remarked to an interviewer. To someone else he said, "No author should continue to write plays after he is fifty. He is inviting derision if he does. Fashions change in the theater much more radically and swiftly than they do in other forms of art. You try to adapt yourself to the new mood and only succeed in seeming old-fashioned."

Maugham's theatrical work makes up only a fraction of his multifarious output, but it would have ensured him a prominent place in literary history (or, at least, the history of the English-speaking stage) had he done nothing else. Over the years, his plays -- at least, the comedies -- have been appreciated by both critics and the public in a way that his fiction never was. Maugham was never a favorite of literary critics. Lionel Trilling, for instance, lamented that he "does not sound our depths or invite us to sound his, and quite possibly he has no depths to be sounded." Leon Edel suggested that Maugham's "searching eyes could see all the concrete things but not the deeper emotions." As Maugham acknowledged, there are fashions in the arts, and his work -- even his writing for the theater -- is not currently in favor. But his stronger novels will be read as long as there's interest in the nature of 20th-century letters, and his plays -- not just The Circle but also Our Betters, The Constant Wife, The Letter, and even For Services Rendered -- deserve to be performed.

Meyers suggests that critics such as Edel and Trilling are irrational on the subject of Maugham, attacking him "for not being a different sort of writer -- a Dostoyevsky or a Henry James -- instead of appreciating his extraordinary dramatic and narrative talents." Meyers points out that, "[w]ith his practical, objective, atheistic turn of mind," Maugham never struggled "with existentialism or Freudian analysis, nor did he value complexity for its own sake. He was interested in listening to people's stories, in observing behavior and telling a tale." That's what made him such a compelling dramatist as well as a popular novelist. In Meyers's view, "His canvas was colorful, his characters vivid, his plots excellent" -- to which anyone discussing the plays must add that his dialogue was fresh, vibrant, and provocative.

Maugham's life ended in dementia -- presumably, what we now call Alzheimer's -- and his last years were marred by an obsessive campaign to disinherit his daughter and to secure a larger part of his estate for his male lover. In The Atlantic Monthly, Hitchens focuses on the loopy, decrepit Maugham by starting his review with the opening passage of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, in which the 81-year-old narrator -- a thinly disguised portrait of Maugham -- awakes from an afternoon nap to leer at his much younger "catamite," who is wiggling into "overtight summer slacks." The double entendre in the Atlantic headline "Poor Old Willie" calls attention to Maugham in his dotage: shriveled but intermittently libidinous, paying for affection, and placing his hopes on Swiss rejuvenation treatments concocted from fetal lamb cells. The Maugham that Burgess chronicled in his roman à clef and that Hitchens invokes in his review is part of the picture, but only a small part. Jeffrey Meyers' thorough and engaging biography is a well-timed invitation to consider the rest.

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