I only want the OM

Christopher Tayler

  • Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers
    Vintage, 411 pp, £12.00, April 2005, ISBN 1 4000 3052 8

In Cakes and Ale (1930), William Somerset Maugham has Willie Ashenden – his narrator and stand-in – explain that, in reputation-building terms, ‘longevity is genius.’ He comes out with this idea while discussing the case of his friend Edward Driffield, a Hardy-like figure who becomes the Grand Old Man of English Letters after seeing off late Victorian accusations of impropriety. Ashenden, who finds most of Driffield’s novels rather boring and melodramatic, has decided that elderly authors who have ‘ceased for twenty years to write anything of interest’ are respected in part because younger writers stop seeing them as rivals, but chiefly because ‘intelligent people after the age of 30 read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them.’ Longevity is also important because it gives the aspiring Grand Old Man enough time to be appropriately prolific. ‘It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence . . . His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.’

‘Of all Somerset Maugham’s novels,’ as the blurb on my 1960s Penguin paperback winningly puts it, ‘Cakes and Ale is the gayest.’ But even allowing for Ashenden’s high spirits, his advice isn’t far removed from his creator’s master plan. Born in 1874, Maugham lived to be almost 92 and published 20 novels, eight short story collections, five travel books, nine books of essays and three memoirs. In addition, he wrote 29 plays and translated three more from Italian and French. Ashenden says that ‘posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known’; and here too Maugham must have felt he was on the right track. He was the most highly paid writer of his day. During the 1950s he appeared on cinema screens, cigarette in hand, introducing adaptations of his work. In 1952, aged 78, he wrote to the headmaster of his old school confessing his ‘secret wishes’, one of which was to be given the Order of Merit. ‘I don’t want anything else – I would refuse anything like a knighthood. But they gave Hardy the OM and I think I am the greatest living writer of English, and they ought to give it to me.’

The headmaster – who extracted some sizeable donations from his correspondent – was not likely to demur, but Maugham was under no illusions about the ridicule such a claim would have drawn from paid-up members of the despised ‘intelligentsia’. Being unillusioned was his speciality, and in public he took a nicely self-deprecating line. ‘There are but two important critics in my own country who have troubled to take me seriously,’ he writes in The Summing Up (1938), ‘and when clever young men write essays about contemporary fiction they never think of considering me. I do not resent it. I look upon it as very natural.’ In the face of attacks from the likes of Edmund Wilson (who called him ‘a half-trashy novelist who writes badly, but is patronised by half-serious readers who do not care much about writing’), Maugham could, and did, point to his supersized audience, implying that you’d have to be very serious indeed to take much of an interest in the writers his critics preferred. He also suspected that people resented his lifestyle: the Cap Ferrat villa, the Picassos and Renoirs, the two-masted yacht complete with ‘sexually obliging crew’, and so on. He was probably right.

Maugham knew his own limitations and listed some of them: ‘No lyrical quality . . . small vocabulary . . . little gift of metaphor . . . Poetic flights and the great imaginative sweep were beyond my powers.’ Nevertheless, he became increasingly bitter about the way even regular visitors to the Villa Mauresque tended not to come up with the goods when it came to things like festschrift contributions. A diligent professional who announced that ‘I am a writer as I might have been a doctor or a lawyer,’ he was particularly annoyed by indolent celebrities – E.M. Forster was one offender – who didn’t go out of their way to stun by weight. As someone who preferred to end his short stories ‘with a full-stop rather than with a straggle of dots’, he also grew impatient with writers who ‘give you the materials for a dish and expect you to do the cooking yourself’. Towards the end of his life, his attacks on Henry James, Katherine Mansfield – a ‘neurotic, sick woman’ – and even Chekhov, whom he’d once admired, were frequent and hysterical. For good measure, he began to make disobliging remarks about mass-educated white-collar workers. ‘They have no manners,’ he wrote in fuddled praise of Lucky Jim (1954). ‘They are scum.’

All told, Maugham’s plans for a serenely grand old age did not work well. From a reputation-consolidating point of view, he’d have done better to die a bit earlier. Especially since the publication of Ted Morgan’s biography in 1980, his earlier life has been overshadowed by his ‘Lear on the Riviera’ period: the memoir detailing what a bitch his wife had been, the effort to disinherit his daughter, the routine but widely publicised infirmities. And, long before then, it had become clear that many of the people who’d read him in their youth were more likely to speak of his ‘slickness’ than to invest him with nostalgic glamour. Books such as Catalina (1948) and Great Novelists and Their Novels (1954) made a wobbly pedestal, and Maugham Studies never stood much chance. He might reasonably have hoped to become a touchstone in anti-Modernist polemics, but if so, he would have been disappointed. There was some half-hearted praise from Movement types, but when John Carey, for example, needed an honourable popular writer to batter the highbrows with in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), he turned to Arnold Bennett.

Morgan’s biography had a memorable centrepiece: a description of the senile Maugham crapping on somebody’s rug and scooping up ‘a handful of faeces like a guilty child’. In his new biography, Jeffrey Meyers quotes one of the two alleged witnesses denying all knowledge of ‘this nonsensical story’. Although he thinks that Maugham’s career boils down to a ‘struggle between sexual repression and artistic expression’, Meyers – a fantastically prolific biographer who’s written forty or fifty books himself – is out to treat his subject with more tact. Yes, Beverley Nichols called Maugham ‘the most sexually voracious man I’ve ever known’, and, yes, there are one or two anecdotes about his adventures in this line. On the whole, though, Meyers wants to emphasise his industry, generosity and hardihood: ‘Somerset Maugham was a jock!’ And his enemies’ motives are darkly scrutinised. Slapping down myths with one hand and sketching expansive generalisations with the other, Meyers hustles through the life in essayistic blocks, pausing here and there to identify the real-life models for fictional characters.

Maugham was born in Paris, where his father was a legal adviser to the British Embassy, and spoke mostly French for the first ten years of his life. His much-loved mother died when he was eight, followed two years later by his father. Maugham, aged ten, was sent back to England, where his older brothers were already being educated. (One of them, Frederic, became lord chancellor in 1938.) He lived with an uncle and aunt in Whitstable – lightly disguised as ‘Blackstable’ in his novels – and developed a stammer, perhaps as a result of being teased about his Frenchified ways. ‘I have never forgotten the roar of laughter,’ he wrote years later, ‘when in my preparatory school I read out the phrase “unstable as water” as though unstable rhymed with Dunstable.’ After a semi-miserable public schooling in Canterbury (‘Tercanbury’), he persuaded his uncle to send him to Heidelberg. He saw Ibsen drinking beer in a café, looking ‘angry, vexed and disagreeable’, and read Ruskin, Pater, Schopenhauer, Goethe. After Germany, Cambridge looked worryingly like school, so in 1892 he became a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital.

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