Book review

W. Somerset Maugham and His World (Frederic Raphael)

Final Demands put me on a real Raphael kick. We watched Darling; we queued up Eyes Wide Shut in Netflix (haven’t yet watched); and I ordered and promptly read this obscure monograph on Somerset Maugham written in 1977.

I don’t think they produce books like this anymore. It put me in mind of the wonderful (and gloriously full-color) Life & Times books—Curtis International Portraits of Greatness—my parents subscribed to in the mid-sixties which my brother and I voraciously devoured, learning much about Elizabeth I, Beethoven, Washington, and others that has stuck with us to this day, imprinted along with beautiful full- and half-page images illustrating the subject and his or her times.

Raphael’s treatment is more text heavy, but still features 110 photos and images—some quirky, some seemingly wryly chosen, some quite illuminating, and all so nicely visible and crisp and clear; refreshing to see in these days of uncoated stock with niggardly little pictures crammed into corners of pages too small to see or jammed willy-nilly into coated sections, obscure and divorced from their context.

There was a leisureliness, an elegance to these photo-based bio books entirely missing from today’s typical biographical tomes. I don’t think I’d realized how much that bothered me until I wrote all that.

Anyway, to the book. It took me a while to work through it, but that was less Raphael’s problem than mine: nonfiction seems particularly dense and difficult these days. But here was lively prose and wicked observation and wise insights. It’s a monograph, not an exhaustive biography—and, interestingly, Raphael sheds light on the notion of a definitive biography for Maugham, pointing out that Maugham destroyed and distorted so much that such will be an impossibility. Which reminds me of Orson Welles, and Simon Callow’s similar explication of the inability of accurately capturing that man’s life.

Biography is a tremendously difficult undertaking I have always felt. I have read a handful of extraordinary ones: Richard Ellmann on Oscar Wilde, Scott Meredith on George S. Kaufman, David Starkey on Elizabeth I, a few others. Callow’s is a noble effort, but there’s too much Callow sometimes. And some evocative ones I’ve read in recent times: Stephen Youngkin on Peter Lorre and Sue Prideaux on Edvard Munch. And the ones that I read over and over in childhood: Cornelia Meigs on Louisa May Alcott, Cornelia Otis Skinner on Sarah Bernhardt, and the Scholastic biography of Annie Sullivan. So I like biographies. The ones that work for me are those that give me the person and the personality, the flavor and the essence. The mere facts of a person’s life, I increasingly believe, have so little to do with the reality of the person.

Raphael gets that, I think. Because it’s a short book, he doesn’t linger long on childhood or so-called formative events. Rather, he traces the life and analyzes and pokes and prods and conjectures along the way. And that’s fine by me. He makes some interesting points about Maugham, gives a straightforward account of his life, and discusses, in a refreshingly frank and daring manner (I couldn’t see the Curtis Greatness authors taking a similar tone!) anything that strikes him as interesting, relevant, or irrelevant. It is a decidedly idiosyncratic monograph, and that makes for its appeal. Raphael is very smart, and his literary critiques valuable. One interesting observation, for example, is that Maugham is not an “English” writer, but in fact thinks in French, which was his first language. That’s a fascinating concept, because it jars so: Maugham seems quintessentially English. But that also sheds light on the distant tone, the arm’s-length narrator who watches but doesn’t judge. Maugham is an outsider. Too, it strikes me that he really is sorry Maugham is not considered, or indeed is not, a first-rate literary talent. But he likes his work anyway, and explains how and why.

But to me this passage is worth everything; it comes a few pages before the book’s—and Maugham’s—end. He begins by noting of Maugham “Yet he was still capable of kindness and of generosity. A young and unpublished writer visited him in the autumn of 1954”; he then goes on to quote that young writer:

…I can see him now, coming through the doors from the hall where hung the great grey Picasso, a small man, surprisingly brisk, in dark flannels, tweed sports jacket and, I believe, a Paisley scarf at his throat. ‘Here’s Mr. Maugham,” Alan Searle said, and he was holding out his hand. I was reminded—no doubt because I knew of his medical past—of an eminent physician who has come to see how we are today. He cannot give you much time but while you are there, you can be sure of his undivided attention. “Now we’ll see about getting you some tea”…I took my tea with lemon, for some uneasy reason, and was flattered to discover that Maugham did the same…

After tea, just as he was telling me that I should get a job, he started to light a cigarette. The match jumped from his fingers and fell into the crevice between the cushions of the sofa on which we were sitting. He was suddenly an old man, flapping at the buried ember, in a little panic of elderly nervousness. I felt a great pity and affection for him. Later he asked me how old I was. When I told him, he said, “You’ve got plenty of time, plenty of time.”

Raphael then continues: “It is to be hoped that the length of this excerpt will be excused. The young writer was the author of the present book.”

And that touched me greatly. And offered insight into both authors through time and across the generations and then through the decades since the original incident in the fifties before my birth to its recounting in the seventies to a half century later when I read it. And it says something about youth and old age, and it says something about nobility and kindness and compassion. And I liked that. And I liked Maugham for sparking that and Raphael for being sparked.

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