When somebody tells me about a book or a movie they enjoyed that offered pure escapism – no deep hidden themes, no grandiose symbolism or social instruction – I’m reminded of one of my favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham. He always followed a simple rule. The job of the writer, he believed, is to tell a good story, and not to enlighten, educate, or reshape the world.
He spun excellent yarns for sixty-five years. When his first book, Liza of Lambreth, was published in 1897, his contemporaries were H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy. When he penned his last one, Purely for Pleasure, in 1962, his competition included John Updike and J.D. Salinger. I can’t think of another writer whose work spanned such a full sweep of time.
He stayed too long as a playwright. His witty Edwardian social dramas, heralded in the first years of the twentieth century as the finest in London and New York, paled in comparison to the angrier, meatier plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and many others.
But his stories and his novels have held up nicely. Most of his work is still in print, some titles having surpassed their centennials. The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale were as enjoyable and as moving on my second reading as they were on my first, back when I was in college and was impressed with practically any book handed to me.
Maugham’s life was both pleasant and tortured, not an uncommon mixture for artistic people. Though trained as a physician he made his entire living by his pen – literally so; he never used a typewriter and made his exit before the advent of personal computers – and he lived well. But his personal life was pretty much a disaster. At the end of it he had outlived most of his family and friends, and alienated the ones who were left.
And there was what came to be known as “The Maugham Problem,” which involved the discrepancy between the fact that he was not considered by most eminent critics and scholars to be in the top echelon of English writers, and the verifiable reality that he was the most popular author since Dickens. His works were translated into most languages, many of them were made and remade into successful movies – the most recent version of The Painted Vail came out just a few years ago and Bill Murry did a fine star turn in a remake of The Razor’s Edge before that – and he had quietly become, at the time of his death, the highest paid writer of fiction in history. An honor recently laid claim to by J. K. Rowling.
Maugham accepted his limitations, and saw himself in the “very first row of the second-raters”. According to his best biographer, Ted Morgan: “all his life he would suffer from the sense that he was cut off from genius, and that he stood on a hillock in the lowlands and would never go higher.”
But maybe the final victory was his after all. He managed to outlive all those critics and scholars (his daily regimen of one martini before lunch and one before dinner might have preserved him) and, through pure persistence and prolific production, he become the grand old man of English letters. He must have been disappointed to be passed over annually for the Nobel Prize in Literature – especially when it was given, for political reasons, to lesser talents – but he just as surely had to have felt vindicated when he sat, ancient and world-famous (the Life magazine photo of him at Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier was larger, even, than the one of the newlyweds) in his grand villa on the Mediterranean and gazed at the long row of his published works on the shelf.
The “Maugham Problem” begs an important question: just who should an author write for? The many levels of everyday folk who go about their daily lives and look to books and stories for entertainment? Or the meticulous scholars who dissect every nuance and phrasing and judge writing by criteria that the general reading public knows little about and cares even less for?
Maugham should have had his Nobel Prize. Furthermore, he should have been buried in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abby, in the company of Chaucer, Dickens, and T. S. Elliot.
But, on second thought, maybe where he ended up in 1965 is even better. He asked to have his ashes interred on the grounds of the King’s School at Canterbury, where he had spent several unhappy years as a stuttering schoolboy. There, in the shade of the cathedral that was the destination of Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims is what Maugham’s biographer calls “a fitting burial place for a teller of tales”.
Originally a Sunday newspaper column, reprinted in Sundays with Ron Rozelle (TCU Press)