The troubled popularity of Somerset Maugham

He mastered every genre he took up - novels, short stories, plays - but he never felt anyone loved him

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Back in the days when it was still possible for a serious, professional author to earn a decent living by his pen, Somerset Maugham made a fortune from his writing. He was able to buy himself a luxurious villa in the south of France, where he entertained lavishly and amassed an impressive art collection.

He was proficient in a remarkable array of genres, including short stories, novels, plays, spy fiction, essays, and autobiography. Many of his books were bestsellers when they first appeared and continue to be widely read. But when it came to the critics, he didn't get much respect.

Some of that may have been envy. It's also true that when his career flourished so profitably, critical taste was increasingly dominated by the high priests of Modernism, whose austere conception of literary art valued the abstruse and the experimental rather than the kind of clear, plainly written, straightforward storytelling at which Maugham excelled.

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Since then, there's been a bit of a counterreaction to the Modernist ethos. Today's best-selling writers are fond of pointing to Dickens to prove that popularity need not preclude artistic merit.

Some, indeed, go further, claiming that popularity is a sign of greatness, an argument as specious as the Modernist notion that to be experimental is tantamount to creating important art. To understand Maugham's achievement, it is necessary to recognize there was more to him than mere popularity. His latest biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, rightly emphasizes the magnitude of Maugham's contribution to 20th-century literature. The indefatigable Meyers - who's written biographies of Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Frost, Poe, Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, and Edmund Wilson, among others - is no slouch when it comes to investigating his subjects' personal lives, and he has some fresh things to say about Maugham's early romances, his troubled marriage, and his work as a spy. And, of course, he also reiterates some of the same gossipy anecdotes about goings-on at the Villa Mauresque that have cropped up in earlier books about Maugham.

But Meyers also devotes a great deal of attention to the works themselves, discussing many of them in considerable detail, pointing out the writers whose work influenced Maugham, and tracing the extent of Maugham's influence on other writers.

Citing the declaration by critic and thriller writer Julian Symons that "the modern spy story began with Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden' (1928)," Meyers notes the influence of that somberly realistic novel of espionage on writers as unalike as Graham Greene, John le Carré, and Ian Fleming.

Four of Maugham's novels - "Of Human Bondage," "Cakes and Ale," "The Moon and Sixpence," and "The Razor's Edge" - are classics of their kinds. And how different they are from each other! Maugham was also a masterly short story writer, and, as Meyers reminds us, a fine playwright whose hard-edged social comedies went on to influence Noel Coward.

George Orwell said that Maugham, whom he "admired immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills," was the modern writer who had most influenced him. Meyers also notes his influence on V.S. Naipaul (who as a young man aspired to Maugham's worldly sophistication) and Anthony Burgess (who even based one of the main characters in his novel "Earthly Powers" on him).

And yet the writer Elizabeth Bowen put her finger on what many have found a limitation in Maugham's work: "Mr. Maugham anatomises emotion without emotion; he handles without pity a world where he finds no pity. His disabused clearness and hardness do, it is true, diminish any subject a little. If great art has to have an inherent kindness, his is not great art. But what a writer he is!"

The coolness Bowen criticized seems to have been a natural outgrowth of Maugham's chilly, detached personality. There's no doubt he was an off-putting character: aloof, imperious, difficult to fathom. But Meyers gives us a real sense of the painful shyness and insecurity beneath Maugham's mandarin veneer. He believed that, except for his mother, who died when he was still a child, no one had really ever loved him. And, while Maugham may have seemed the essence of worldliness, even cynicism, Meyers calls attention to a genuine streak of altruism in his nature. During World War I, he volunteered as an ambulance driver. Later in that conflict and again in World War II, when he agreed to work for British intelligence, he did so gratis, taking on the assignment because he felt it was his patriotic duty.

There's no doubt that Maugham is a fascinating subject, and Meyers has unearthed new material that clarifies much about him. As a reading experience, however, this biography is rather choppy. The narrative doesn't flow: Some parts seem as if they were merely pasted next to one another. The footnotes are sporadic and too often unenlightening. But considered as a portrait of the man and of his work, Meyers's "Maugham" is a good likeness. Sympathetic, yet objective, Meyers avoids special pleading and makes a case for Maugham that is so sensible and fair-minded that almost any reasonable reader or critic should be able to accept it. Or at the very least, go back and read some of those excellent short stories and well-crafted novels.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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