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2 February 2021

From the NS archive: An appreciation of Somerset Maugham

6 January 1934: Somerset Maugham approaches his 60th birthday.

By Anonymous

In this appreciation, from the “Miscellany” pages of the magazine in the mid-1930s, an anonymous correspondent writes on the great success of the English author Somerset Maugham, who was at the time in the prime of his career. After serving for the Red Cross and later the secret services in the First World War, Maugham travelled in Asia; his experiences formed the basis for much of his work thereafter (he had a “second wind”, says our correspondent). Maugham should not, perhaps, be as popular as he is, given his pessimistic temperament. But “he believes that emotional honesty is… the best policy”, and is not stirred by sycophancy: what this great writer loves more than anything is the power of a good story.

***

Of course he has his blind spots, and his (sometimes unnecessary) negations are obstinate. He has found his success, and the good things it has brought him, a considerable salve for the inevitable disappointments of life. He knows the difference between fame and notoriety; but he also knows that he has sometimes written extremely well. Like every author he likes flattery when judiciously applied; unlike many, he is nauseated when it is not. Praise, apt or fulsome, cannot alter a jot his own estimate of his achievements.

He has no illusions – not even about himself. One source of satisfaction in reading him is that his work is that of a man who has taken his own measure. You are safe with him. What he has observed, he puts down clearly; he never tries to conciliate the reader. He believes that emotional honesty is, for the writer at any rate, the best policy, though in the humbugging world that may be far from holding good. This is one of life’s aspects which he resents most. He comes down hard upon self-deceivers of all sorts, and to catch them in unbecoming attitudes gives him joy. It is safer not to try too hard to be good, we are not naturally so – far from it, and the effort to be too unselfish, pure, sympathetic, only adds, as a rule, to our invincible egotism the disgrace of hypocrisy: such appears to be his general verdict on human nature. He allows a certain beauty, and still more a real pathos, to genuine passion; he does not often find himself impelled to believe in love.

It is curious that Mr Somerset Maugham has been, and should still be, an exceedingly popular author, since neither his temperament nor his outlook comports with popularity. He is not good-natured, expansive, optimistic, romantic or soothing. His humour is sardonic; his attitude towards the virtuous mistrustful. He is inclined to think of life as a losing game played against an adversary bound to win – even if a player moves with the most circumspect and selfish caution. It only shows that the public, to its credit, appreciates good story-telling, even when the spirit which informs it is repugnant to its usual preferences. Mr Maugham has always been careful to give the public, whether he had been writing for the stage, for the magazines or for the publishers, a good story. On that point he is thoroughly in sympathy with the public himself; he loves a good story. He knows how to tell one. Among the many he has written are a few unforgettable ones which any master of that art would be glad to sign.

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As a dramatist he knows that situation is more important than character-drawing or a philosophy of life; as a storyteller, that in print character is more generally interesting than atmosphere – with the result that in both these departments of the art of fiction his work has been popular. From the first he was determined to succeed. (He is a most pertinacious man.) As soon as he discovered that he could write, he resolved to make a success of a profession for which he had abandoned the career of medicine, and sat down to write clever, efficient plays. He had a very small capital and on it he lived sparingly. With Lady Frederick came prosperity. He soon had three plays running in London at the same time.

Neither poverty nor prosperity altered his view of life. This he continued to express more completely in his fiction, while continuing to write entertaining comedies. Of Human Bondage was his high mark in serious realism. During the last 15 years he has written as much to please himself as the public. Even his plays have grown grimmer and grimmer.

He has carefully guarded his lines of communication, but he has advanced steadily in his proper direction. The public have followed him. The majority of readers has been joined, too, by those who never expected much of the popular dramatist. Cakes and Ale was to the taste even of les jeunes feroces, whose astonishment at its being well-written must have amused Mr Maugham, who knows so much about the art of writing that he discovered early that certain refinements of it belonged to the province of poetry, and were not for him – at least during his early and middle periods. He aimed at a prosaic efficiency, hoping only to attain such graces as are consequent upon it. Latterly, however (read the travel-pictures in The Gentleman in the Parlour), he has permitted himself to describe scenes with a sensibility which has informed the texture of his style.

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Mr Maugham is a long-distance runner. When travel gave him new subjects for stories after the war, he had “a second wind”. Perhaps he will have a third. His attitude towards experience has been marked by an artist’s detachment, but until lately he has shown little of an artist’s feeling for words. It would not be so surprising if he proceeded now to choose subjects with a view to virtuosity. The development of Henry James was in this direction; there are signs that it may prove also the direction of Somerset Maugham’s.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)