W(illiam) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)
British novelist, playwright, short-story writer, highest paid author in the world in the 1930s. Despite his popularity, Maugham did not gain serious recognition. This was expressed in his autobiography THE SUMMING UP (1938), that he stood 'in the very first row of the second-raters'. Maugham's skill in handling plot has been compared by critics in the manner of Guy de Maupassant. In many novels the surroundings are international and the stories are told in clear, economical style with cynical or resigned undertone.
"I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. In endeavor to bear my misfortunes with fortitude." (from Creatures of Circumstance, 1947)
W. Somerset Maugham was born in Paris as the sixth and youngest son of the solicitor to the British embassy. He learned French as his native tongue. At the age of 10 Maugham was orphaned and sent to England to live with his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable. Educated at King's School, Canterbury, and Heidelberg University, Maugham then studied six years medicine in London. He qualified in 1897 as doctor from St. Thomas' medical school but abandoned medicine after the success of his first novels and plays.
Maugham lived in Paris for ten years as a struggling young author. In 1897 appeared his first novel, LIZA OF LAMBETH, which drew on his experiences of attending women in childbirth. His first play, A MAN OF HONOUR, was produced in 1903. Four of his plays ran simultaneously in London in 1904. Maugham's breakthrough novel was the semi-autobiographical OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1915), which is usually considered his outstanding achievement. The story follows the childhood, youth, and early manhood of Philip Carey, who is born with a clubfoot. Philip never knew his father and his mother only for a brief space. The real process of his education, after the end of an unsatisfactory social life, begins in Heidelberg. Philip goes to Paris to study art, and at the age of thirty he qualifies as a doctor. Finally he marries Sally Athelny, a normal, healthy, happy girl.
Disguising as a reporter, Maugham worked for British Intelligence in Russia during the Russian Revolution in 1917, but his stuttering and poor health hindered his career in this field. He then set off with a friend on a series of travels to eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands and Mexico. His most famous story, which became the play RAIN and was made into several movies, was inspired by a missionary and prostitute among his fellow passengers on a trip to Pago Pago. In the 1928 he settled in Cape Ferrat in France. His plays, among them THE CIRCLE (1921), a satire of social life, OUR BETTERS (1923), about Americans in Europe, and THE CONSTANT WIFE (1927), about a wife who takes revenge on her unfaithful husband, were performed in Europe and in the United States. Maugham's famous novel THE MOON AND THE SIXPENCE (1919) was the story of Paul Gauguin, a French artist, whose rejection of Western civilization led to his departure for Tahiti. TREMBLING OF A LEAF (1921) included the story 'Rain,' made into a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph in 1922. RAZORS EDGE (1944), about a spiritual quest, was made into film two times. In the story a young American veteran moves through superbly described settings: Italy, London, the Riviera, Montparnasse. He seeks in the end relief in India from the horrors of war and gains a sense of being at one with the Absolute, through the Indian philosophical system known as Vedanta.
As an agent and writer Maugham was a link in a long tradition from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers Graham Greene, John Le Carré, John Dickson Carr, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury. It is said that the modern spy story began with Maugham's ASHENDEN; OR THE BRIRISH AGENT (1928). It was partly based on the author's own experiences in the secret service. Alfred Hitchcock used in his film Secret Agent (1936) specifically the stories 'The Traitor' and 'The Hairless Mexican'. The film was set in Switzerland and in the plot agents kill a wrong man and then they go to after the right. A chocolate factory is used by the crooks' as a headquarters.Maugham believed that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the the normal is in reality the abnormal. In his satirical short story 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' he juxtaposed two brothers, the unscrupulous and carefree Tom and the hardworking, respectable George, who expects that Tom would end in the gutter. However, Tom marries a rich old woman, she dies and leaves him a fortune. "I burst into a shout of laughter as I looked at George's wrathful face. I rolled in my chair, I very nearly fell in the floor. George never forgave me. But Tom often asks me to excellent dinners in his charming house in Mayfair, and he occasionally borrows a trifle from me, that is merely from force of habit." Although he became world famous he was never knighted and his relationship with Gerald Haxton, his secretary, have been subject to speculations. Maugham died in Nice on December 16, 1965. It is said that as he lay dying he asked Sir Alfred Ayer visit him and reassure him that there was no life after death.
A number of Maugham's short stories have been filmed. Quartet (1948) consisted of four stories introduced by the author - 'The Facts of Life', 'The Alien Corn', 'The Kite', and 'The Colonel's Lady.' In 'The Kite' the protagonist, Herbert, starts to fly kites with his parents in childhood. After marriage Herbert continues his hobby, although Betty, his wife, considers it childish. When Herbert wants to buy a new kite, Betty packs his bag and Herbert returns to his parents' house. Betty smashes the kite. The magistrate orders him to pay Betty alimony, twenty-five shillings a week, but Herbert don't obey the order and chooses the prison. "It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it's as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure, And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King's doctors and not all the King's surgeons can rid him of it."
After the 1930s Maugham's reputation abroad was greater than in England. Interest in him revived again in his 80th birthday, which he celebrated by the special republication of CAKES AND ALE (1930), a novel satirizing London literary circles and 'Grand Old Men'. Among the characters are Maugham as Ashenden, Thomas Hardy as Driffield, and Hugh Walpole as Kear. Barbara Belford listed in Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends (1990) Maugham among the lovers of Violet Hunt with such names as H. G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford. The novelist Hugh Walpole portrayed Maugham as the arrogant pessimist in John Cornelius (1937), he appeared as John-Blair-Kennedy in Noel Coward's South Sea Bubble (1956), Leverson Hurle in Gin and Bitters by A Riposte, the homosexual novelist in Noel Coward's Point Valaine (1935), Kenneth Marchal Toomey in Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers (1980), Willie Tower in S.N. Behrman's Jane (1946), and Gilbert Hereford Vaughn in Ada Leverson's The Limit (1911). Maugham collected his literary experiences in THE SUMMING UP (1938), which has been used as a guidebook for creative writing.
"Most people cannot see anything, but I can se what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating."
For further reading: Somerset Maugham: A Guide by L. Brander (1963); Maugham: a Biography by Ted Morgan (1980); The Critical Heritage, ed. by J. Whitehead (1987); The Dramatic Comedy of Somerset Maugham by R.E. Barnes (1990); W. Somerset Maugham by S.W. Archer (1993); An Appointment With Somerset Maugham and Other Literary Encounters by Richard Hauer Costa (1993) - See also: Eric Ambler