Heavy readers (judged – unbelievably – by official bodies as people who buy three or four books a year) rarely read in sequence what they buy or borrow. In the last couple of weeks I’ve got hold of Browning’s ‘Major Works’ (OUP), ‘Remainder’ by Tom McCarthy, ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields, ‘Spunyarn’ by John Masefield, and dug out all of my old copies of W. Somerset Maugham’s novels, a writer I loved about ten years ago and who I haven’t read for years. The Browning and Masefield will have to wait, and the copy of ‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones which I bought months and months ago and which I desperately want to read will have to wait too. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books lying about this flat which I want to read, which I’ve owned for months and years, and which I won’t get round to reading for months or years yet. Heavy reading, committed reading, doesn’t work like that.
So, at the moment I’m working my way through some of the novels I never got round to reading when I went through my Maugham jag when I was in my early twenties. I’ve been spurred to do so by Selina Hastings’ excellent, devastating biography of the man, the last chapters of which have haunted me as little else I’ve read in the last year. In his nineties, his mind completely gone, wizened and sick and brutally exploited by his con-man lover/carer Alan Searle, Maugham seems to have spent his last few years in perfect hell. The image that stays with me is of Maugham’s daughter coming to visit, putting aside the feud that Searle had created for his own financial benefit, and finding her father hunched in a chair, teeth bared, snarling at her and trying to grasp her in his claws. As a younger man, Maugham had been so disciplined, so careful, exercising an iron control over his life and career, terrified at the thought his homosexuality would become public knowledge (he was of the generation of gay men scarred by the Oscar Wilde trial), that there’s something doubly tragic about this final degradation. It’s a very moving conclusion to an incredibly well-researched book.
Maugham, as he admitted himself (with no false modesty), was in the first rank of the second-rate. Influenced by Maupassant and the French realists, his prose style is stripped down and perfunctory, plain as can be. He is a master of narrative, that strange propulsive force that moves a story along, and was unashamedly commercial in his literary instincts. His great success came from the theatre, where he made a fortune from plays that he was broadly indifferent to, and by the 1920s he was the most successful and best-paid author in the world. And yet … There is enough of significance in Maugham’s output not to write him off as middlebrow and of no consequence, a money-grubbing hack. Books like ‘Liza of Lambeth’ and (especially) ‘Of Human Bondage’ are masterpieces of pre-Great War realism, and his later ‘exotic’ novels, like ‘The Painted Veil’, ‘The Narrow Corner’, and ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ help fix a historical period of colonial decay and dissolution as well as Graham Greene did twenty years later. ‘Cakes and Ale’ is one of the best satires of the literary life in the language. Some of his short stories should be set texts in creative writing classes, as they are precision-engineered examples of narrative construction. The persona he developed in his later books, the world-weary narrator ‘W. Somerset Maugham’, who, with gentle irony, recounts the tales he has gathered in his travels, gives a modernist sheen to books that might on the surface seem quaint or pre-lapsarian. He is deeply unfashionable as a writer these days, but then that should really be reason enough to pick up his books.