W. Somerset Maugham; In books what he wished to be in life; Maugham: A Biography, by Ted Morgan. New York: Simon and Schuster. $17.95

"We do not write as we want," said W. Somerset Maugham, "but as we can. A great writer," he felt, "reaches his maturity when he discovers his limitations." The two remarks are particularly revealing with regard to his life.

Maugham was a writer and a person as much formed by the prohibitions surrounding him as by the opportunities. He was perpetually at odds with what he thought he should be and with what he was. It was an uncomfortable relationship, one of broad expectations and narrow margins, and it did not produce a life of much felicity though it did foster a career of popular successes. The borders of his life constrained, drove, and finally depleted him.

Born in France in 1874, he lost his parents at an early age and was raised in England by an aunt and uncle. He was to be a gentleman according to the fashion of the day and was reared to be so, but much of what that role demanded was confining and foreign to his nature. He was socially inept as a youth; he did not attend a proper university; his homosexual preference was unacceptable. In spite of marrying and having a daughter, he was not a traditional father and husband, traditions which formed the cornerstone of his class and milieu. Unable to represent this society in the strictest sense, the sense then practiced, he was also unwilling to rebel against that community. He wished not to be outside; he was unhappy inside and was left without an alternative.

However, tenacity was also a part of his talent, and he struggled to find ways to resemble the person he wished to be. He was successful and wealthy, and money, he said, "was like a sixth sense without which you could not make the most of the other five." His money enabled him at least to look the part he sought. It enabled him to buy the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, to have buttons of Italian silver for his butler's jackets, to order 20,000 tulip bulbs for his garden. It allowed him to live away from his wife and thus to extend the duration of his tenuous marriage and made it possible for him to entertain in style. His parties were attended by luminaries from many walks of life and of several degrees of brightness, but they were not pleasant for him. He stammered; he expected an exact standard of behavior of his guests; he was not at ease with strangers. He was not happy with what he appeared to be, wished to be, or was. "Maugham greeted his guests," Ted Morgan writes, deftly summing up much that was true of his subject, "coming forward with arms outstretched in welcome, then dropping them to his sides to avoid contact."

Travel, however, was a singular blessing because it freed him from many of the constraints of his native land. He was especially intrigued by the Far East , by English citizens who had had to construct their own England abroad, by "those not rubbed down by civilization." He was pleased by movement for its own sake, and he devoured the distant lives of others for stories and for relief. En route, he could be the gentleman he was not at home. Travel was an exemplary activity for a man of means. Both business and pleasure, it relieved him of strict English codes and permitted him to demonstrate (and increase) his growing fortune. It served him doubly but temporarily.

For he was permanently at odds with the social world regardless of the fact that he became successful by depicting it in plays, stories, and novels (of which 40 million copies were sold in his lifetime). But only as a writer, it appears, could he be easily witty and enjoyable in company. Only in his writing did his voice -- dry, tolerant, observant, amused -- lose its stutter. Lacking most of the personal qualities he admired himself, it took his literary persona to capture such grace. But in spite of his life's missing so much, "Maugham" slowly draws one near him, slowly makes one see that it is especially the losses and the abrasions which makes him so human, so worthy of our understanding.

Squabbles, disappointments, and anger; dinners, timetables, and unkindnesses: all his struggles carefully accrue in this biography and finally are affecting and even moving. In books Maugham was what he wished to be in life. It is unfortunate, but cheering as well, that unhappy lives can -- at least some of the time -- make a basis for good books. This paradox has rarely been more true than in the instance of W. Somerset Maugham.

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