The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Secret Lives (2)

It’s never a good thing to have your worst enemy write the preface to your novel, but that is precisely what happened when Gore Vidal penned the introduction to the Modern Library’s edition of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It’s funny in a way. The two men never got along—perhaps because each understood the other all too well—and it seems a strange kind of irony that Vidal was allowed to introduce Maugham’s famous novel. Because it’s Vidal, the comments are biting and nasty.

Consider this statement about Maugham’s prose: “…the plain style can help the dishonest, pusillanimous writer get himself off every of ideological or ethical hook. Just the facts, ma’am. In this regard, Hemingway, a literary shadow self to Maugham, was our time’s most artful dodger, all busy advancing verbs and stony nouns. Surfaces coldly rendered. Interiors unexplored. Manner all.” Or, consider this quote from Edmund Wilson, which Vidal throws in for good measure, in case anyone had any doubts about what he thinks of Maugham: “The language is such a tissue of clichés that one’s wonder is finally aroused at the writer’s ability to assemble so many and his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way.” Truly disparaging stuff.

Of course, this accurately sums up Somerset Maugham’s writing style, but in a rather unflattering way. His prose is unadorned and plain to the point of being flat and ugly. No one is arguing this. Still, I think both Vidal and Wilson secretly admired Maugham because he managed to achieve something neither of them could—he was wildly successful as a writer and, consequently, lived exactly as he pleased.

Naturally, I don’t agree with either Vidal or Wilson. Just because Maugham had limited resources as a writer does not mean he wasn’t good. Quite the contrary. Despite his weaknesses in style and plotting and abundantly self-conscious workmanlike effort, Maugham was brilliant. His portraits of women, in particular, are inspired and complete—better than anything Henry James achieved—and his instinctive knowledge of the limitless capacity of human beings to cause harm (I’m thinking of Vidal and Wilson here) was something he knew his readers must never forgot.

August 29, 2010   Comments Off on Secret Lives (2)

Secret Lives (1)

I’m reading The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. In a way, it is a less literary biography than A Great Unrecorded History, though Hastings makes up for it with a very fluid writing style that is as captivating as Moffat’s. Both Maugham and Forster were gay (though I suppose Maugham was technically bisexual) and both were writers. There the similarities end. Aside from their fame, the two men could not have been more different. Somerset Maugham decided to become a writer as an act of will, whereas Forster, a genius, was born one. It doesn’t make Maugham any less interesting, however. In many ways, his life was an adventure of a much grander scale than Forster’s. Not because he was larger than life, but because he was intensely curious about the roots of human depravity and explored it vicariously in his writing. His weakness as a writer was that he couldn’t help telling us why.

I happen to like Maugham and have since I read everything I could get my hands on in the summer between high school and college. My summer instructor saw a similarity in writing styles and suggested I read him. In a way, Maugham was perfect for a teen about to enter college.

The really wonderful thing about Hastings is that like Moffat, she likes her subject and understands him in a way that, perhaps, a man cannot. He has a keen understanding of women and responds to men in a way that a woman might. Of course, we didn’t know this until recently when his secret life became known. I find that it makes Maugham’s writing more understandable, not less, whereas understanding Forster’s homosexuality made his most perfect fiction a kind of abberation. Odd how these things go.

August 20, 2010   Comments Off on Secret Lives (1)

Thank God for Genius!

After graduating from high school, I took a summer writing course from a surprisingly enlightened teacher in a nearby city. I wanted to be ready for freshman English in college. He insisted we study grammar for a couple of weeks before we began to write. That summer was the first time in my life I had ever diagrammed an English sentence. The teacher liked my writing and said I might be interested in reading Somerset Maugham, since our styles were similar. Between softball games, which were my passion at the time, swimming, my girlfriend, and working for my father, I read Maugham, starting with his short stories. I read all four volumes and then began working on his novels and his two autobiographies. I liked how cynical he was about those in positions of authority in the church, how he saw sexual relationships between men and women, and his knowledge and love for the Orient. Mostly, I liked his style, which was direct and expressive, though in an understated way. When I read Maugham’s The Summing Up that summer, it surprised me that he considered himself a writer of the second tier.

Now, of course, I can easily see his shortcomings. While reading The Painted Veil recently (about a woman who engages in a destructive clandestine affair), I could see all the high notes Maugham wanted to hit—having his heroine fall in love with her husband again after the affair, having her nurse him when he had cholera, and having her lose him in the end—but he couldn’t quite hit them. Of course, it’s fatal for a writer to set up expectations for the reader that he can’t reach. There is inevitable disappointment. Despite this, The Painted Veil is a quite wonderful novel, much better than the film of the same name with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

It has been said of William Faulkner that he never achieved the goals he set for himself in any of his novels. If you read them carefully, you can see that this is true. Even the beautiful bumble of The Sound and the Fury falls short of his wonderfully mad notion of creating a tale told by an idiot. But there is something transcendental about Faulkner’s so-called failures that Somerset Maugham could never achieve. What is this magic Faulkner possesses? This obsession with flying with wings attached with sealing wax? It’s like the difference between the staid and proper Salieri in Milos Forman’s film Amadeus and the brilliant Mozart. Salieri, no matter how much he prayed for genius, never received it.

Of course, as a writer, I’m not even of the second tier. Maugham is as far above me as Faulkner is above Maugham. My pile of work will go unread and disappear with the trash when my wife dies. But this is as it should be. It is just and right that we be measured by a standard that is not ours, and, also, that we accept this, no matter how painful it might be. If only the fictional Salieri had understood this and appreciated himself better. Thank God for genius. It is the standard that allows the rest of us to be ourselves.

June 9, 2009   1 Comment