Edited by Somerset Maugham

Wyatt Mason

  • Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes by J. Robert Lennon
    Granta, 213 pp, £10.00, March 2005, ISBN 1 86207 740 1

In 1945, Somerset Maugham contributed a list to Redbook magazine of what were, in his opinion, ‘the ten best novels in the world’. Maugham’s choices were neither surprising nor controversial (War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick) but in a note that accompanied his list, he suggested that ‘the wise reader’ will ‘get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping’. Skip, then, to the moment when the American publishing house John C. Winston Company, taking Maugham at his word, hired him to demonstrate this art. Under the series title ‘Great Novelists and Their Novels’, the books Maugham had chosen were issued in new editions ‘edited by W. Somerset Maugham’ in 1948. In an essay inaugurating the series, Maugham explained that ‘the novel is essentially an imperfect form . . . to be read with enjoyment. If it does not give that it is worthless.’ Noting that ‘readers in the past seem to have been more patient than the readers of today,’ that ‘they had more time to read novels of a length that seems to us now inordinate,’ Maugham explained that ‘it is to induce readers to read them that this series has been designed’:

The attempt has been made to omit from these ten novels everything but what tells the story the author has to tell, exposes his relevant ideas and displays with adequacy the characters he has created. Some students of literature, some professors and critics, will exclaim that it is a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece, and that it should be read as the author wrote it. But do they actually do this? I suggest that they skip what is not worth reading, and it may be that they have cultivated the art of skipping to their profit; but most people haven’t: it is surely better that they should have their skipping done for them by someone of taste and discrimination.

Here’s a paragraph Maugham struck from the first chapter of Madame Bovary:

It would be impossible now for any of us to remember anything about him. He was a levelheaded boy who played during playtime, was diligent in his studies, attentive in class, slept well in the dormitory, ate well in the refectory. His local guardian wholesaled hardware on rue Ganterie, taking him out once a month, on Sundays after he closed up shop, sending him to walk around the port to look at the boats, then bringing him back to school by seven, for dinner. Every Thursday evening, he wrote a long letter to his mother in red ink, using three sealing waxes; then he went over his history notebooks, or read from an old volume of Anacharsis that was always lying around. When he went for walks, he chatted with the maid who, like himself, was from the country.

Maugham has skipped Charles’s undistinguished boyhood at boarding school; his dutiful epistolary regime; his rapport with the maid (the only woman that a boy who missed his mother got to be near). He systematically blurs our view of Charles, removing the images that might linger in a reader’s mind (the red ink, the sedulously applied sealing wax), and trims away anything that doesn’t directly and explicitly advance the plot. The ‘relevant ideas’ that underlie this paragraph are, for Maugham, already displayed ‘with adequacy’ elsewhere. The seeds of the blundering doctor into which the very average Charles will sprout, the roots of the loneliness that will make him susceptible to the charms of any woman no matter her nature: both pervade the chapter’s soil. And yet Maugham’s versions – however discriminating and logically justifiable his exclusions – didn’t attract readers: his svelte hit parade (‘uniform in size and design’) never caught on, and soon went out of print. The reason was clear. Maugham had left us the stories of these novels but had robbed us of one of the chief pleasures that fiction provides: access to the unreasonable excess produced by another mind.

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