Somerset Maugham

Although for a time he became the highest paid writer in the world, William Somerset Maugham is seldom, if ever, taught in literature classes. Why is he so underappreciated, especially by literary critics?

I think this is for several reasons. One is that during his lifetime he broke many of the social rules with his Bohemian lifestyle, his closeted sexuality, his divorce, his absentee child rearing.

Another reason, important at the time, is that he would often portray characters in his fiction that were clearly modeled on people he knew – to their consternation. This sometimes resulted in lawsuits, which he shrugged off.

But perhaps the most important reason is that he was financially very successful while at the same time maintaining the highest literary standards in his fiction. Critics have commented that his writing style is too simple. But that deceptive simplicity, like the music of Mozart, is also his strength.

Open a Maugham book to any page and we are instantly drawn into the characters and the story and soon find we’ve read 20 or 30 pages.

He once said that the purpose of the novel is simply to entertain. But for him, to ‘simply entertain’ meant to engage our minds and imaginations, to fascinate us with characters beautifully drawn from life, to let us sense prosaic and exotic settings, hear perfect dialogue, and be shown brilliant insights into the human heart. Maugham does all that with his famously ‘simple’ prose.

W (William) Somerset Maugham was born in Paris of British parents in 1874 and lived there until he was 10 years old. He attended a boarding school Britain, then studied German in Heidelberg for 2 years. He remained fluent in French and German his entire life.

At age 18 he entered medical school in London, graduating in 1897, but he elected to become a writer rather than a doctor. He published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, the year he graduated. The subsequent ten years saw him struggling to perfect his writing skills. He wrote a book every year for ten years, none of them particularly good. But they made him enough money to live a bohemian lifestyle for months at a time in Spain, in France, and the Mediterranean islands of Italy, with occasional sojourns back to London.

Despite his lifelong stutter he was a witty conversationalist and in 1903 he turned this skill to dialogue for the stage. His light, comic plays in the Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde vein became enormously successful, made his name known, made him acceptable to London society, and made him wealthy. At one point he had four plays running simultaneously in London.

By the age of 33 he was one of the most successful playwrights in the world. But he still longed to be accepted as a novelist.

In 1915 he published his most famous novel, Of Human Bondage. The book is brilliantly conceived, highly biographical, and today considered a classic, but sales were initially slow due to the advent of WWI.

Maugham was also adventurous. Being too old for combat in WWI, he managed (by persuading Winston Churchill himself) to get assigned to the Red Cross in France where his medical training served him well. But he took a rather casual attitude to military service, taking time out from trench warfare in France to have an affair in London with a married woman, which resulted in a daughter, Liza, born out of wedlock in 1915. He then traveled by ship through the South Seas for several months in 1916 where he wrote some of his best known short stories. Then he returned to Europe, to Geneva, where he worked for British Intelligence as a spy (his fluent French and German helped.) In 1917 He was given a large sum of money by the British government and told to go to Leningrad and influence the Russian revolution in Britain’s favor. He went to Leningrad, but arrived too late to stop the communist takeover, however he did take time out for a short love affair with a Russian princess.

After WWI ended, he began publishing stories based on his south seas and Asian travels, among them a story called “Rain” which became his most famous story. Many of his stories were made into stage plays, and later into movies. His story “The Letter” has been made into a movie more than once. The 1940 version starring Bette Davis is still marvelously good film noir.

His adventures as British spy in World War I resulted in his Ashenden stories, published in 1928. The next generation’s spy-genre writers were to call the Ashenden stories their greatest influence. Hitchcock’s 1936 movie called ‘Secret Agent’ is based on Maugham’s Ashenden stories.

Through the 1930’s and 1940’s his wealth and fame steadily increased. He published new books, his older books ran through multiple editions, and numerous movies were made of his stories. But Maugham never won the Nobel prize for literature, and was (and still is) seldom taught in literature classes though he outsold all of his contemporaries including Conrad, Hardy, Hemingway, etc.

As with all writers, some of his books are better than others. The Moon and Sixpence is only fairly good, his novella Up at the Villa is bad, Cakes and Ale is an excellent novel as is Christmas Holiday. Almost all of his short stories are wonderful.

The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944, is his best novel

His wealth bought him a very comfortable lifestyle, a villa in the south of France, and a large art collection. When he died in 1965 at age 92 his estate was worth over $5 million (much more than that in today’s money.)

But more importantly his stories are still excellent reading today. They entertain.

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