I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, and it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you. When it comes to making you a present or doing you a favour most people are able to hold their impatience within reasonable bounds.
[Modern Library, 1950, Chapter I:]
I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. No one who for years had observed his indefatigable industry could deny that at all events he deserved to be a genius.
One of the difficulties that a man has to cope with as he goes through life is what to do about the persons with whom he has once been intimate and whose interest for him has in due course subsided. If both parties remain in a modest station the break comes about naturally, and no ill feeling subsists, but if one of them achieves eminence the position is awkward. He makes a multitude of new friends, but the old ones are inexorable; he has a thousand claims on his time, but they feel that they have the first right to it. Unless he is at their beck and call they sigh and with a shrug of the shoulders say:
''Ah, well, I suppose you're like everyone else. I must expect to be dropped now that you're a success.''
That of course is what he would like to do if he had the courage. For the most part he hasn't. He weakly accepts an invitation to supper on Sunday evening. The cold roast beef is frozen and comes from
and was over-cooked at
middle day; and the burgundy - ah, why will they call it burgundy? Have they
never been to Beaune and stayed at Hotel de la Poste? Of course it is grand to
talk of the good old days when you shared a crust of bread in the garret
together, but it is a little disconcerting when you reflect how near to a
garret is the room you are sitting in. You feel ill at ease when your friend
tells you that his books don't sell and that he can't place his short stories;
the managers won't even read his plays, and when he compares them with some of
the stuff that's put on (here he fixes you with an accusing eye) it really does
seem a bit hard. You are embarrassed and you look away. You exaggerate the
failures you have had in order that he may realise that life has its hardships
for you too. You refer to your work in the most disparaging way you can and are
a trifle taken aback to find that your host's opinion of it is the same as
yours. You speak of the fickleness of the public so that he may comfort himself
by thinking that your popularity cannot last. He is friendly but severe critic.
''I haven't read your last book,'' he says, ''but I read the one before. I've forgotten its name.''
You tell him.
''I was rather disappointed in it. I didn't think it was quite so good as some of the things you've done. Of course you know which my favourite is.''
And you, having suffered from other hands than his, answer at once with the name of the first book you ever wrote; you were twenty then, and it was crude and ingenuous, and on every page was written your inexperience.
''You'll never do anything so good as that,'' he says heartily, and you feel that your whole career has been a long decadence from that one happy hit. ''I always think you've never quite fulfilled the promise you showed then.''
The gas fire roasts your feet, but your hands are icy. You look at your wrist watch surreptitiously and wonder whether your old friend would think it offensive if you took your leave as early as ten. You have told your car to wait round the corner so that it should not stand outside the door and by its magnificence affront his poverty, but at the door he says:
''You'll find a bus at the bottom of the street. I'll just walk down with you.''
Panic seizes you and you confess that you have a car. He finds it very odd that the chauffeur should wait round the corner. You answer that this is one of his idiosyncrasies. When you reach it your friend looks at it with tolerant superiority. You nervously ask him to dinner with you one day. You promise to write to him and you drive away wondering whether when he comes he will think you are swanking if you ask him to Claridge's or mean if you suggest
Roy Kear suffered from none of these tribulations. It sounds a little brutal to say that when he had got all he could out of people he dropped them; but it would take so long to put the matter more delicately, and would need so subtle an adjustment of hints, half-tones, and allusions, playful or tender, that such being at bottom the fact, I think it is well to leave it at that. Most of us when we do a caddish thing harbour resentment against the person we have done it to, but
heart, always in the right place, never permitted him such pettiness. He could use
a man very shabbily without afterward bearing him the slightest ill-will. Roy
"Poor old Smith," he would say. "He is a dear; I'm so fond of him. Pity he's growing so bitter. I wish one could do something for him. No, I haven't seen him for years. It's no good trying to keep up old friendships. It's painful for both sides. The fact is, one grows out of people, and the only thing is to face it."
But if he ran across Smith at some gathering like the private view of the
no one could be more cordial. He wrung his hand and told him how delighted he
was to see him. His face beamed. He shed good fellowship as the kindly Royal Academy
sun its rays. Smith rejoiced in the glow of this wonderful vitality and it was damned decent of
he'd give his eye-teeth to have written a book half as good as Smith's last one.
On the other hand, if Roy
thought Smith had not seen him, he looked the other way; but Smith had seen him, and Smith resented being
cut. Smith was very acid. He said that in the old days Roy had been glad enough to share a steak
with him in a shabby restaurant and spend a month's holiday in a fisherman's cottage
at St. Ives. Smith said that Roy
was a time server. He said he was a snob. He said he was a humbug. Roy
Smith was wrong here. The most shining characteristic of Alroy Kear was his sincerity. No one can be a humbug for five-and-twenty years. Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. It needs also a cynical humour; although
laughed so much, I never thought he had a very quick sense of humour, and I am
quite sure that he was incapable of cynicism. Roy
Many authors from their preoccupation with words have the bad habit of choosing those they use in conversation too carefully. They form their sentences with unconscious care and say neither more nor less than they mean. It makes intercourse with them somewhat formidable to persons in the upper ranks of society whose vocabulary is limited by their simple spiritual needs, and their company consequently is sought only with hesitation. No constraint of this sort was ever felt with
. He could talk with a
dancing guardee in terms that were perfectly comprehensible to him and with a
racing countess in the language of her stable boys. They said of him with
enthusiasm and relief that he was not a bit like an author. No compliment
pleased him better. The wise always use a number of ready-made (at the moment I
write “nobody’s business is the most common”), popular adjectives (like
“divine” and “shy-making”), verbs that you only know the meaning of if you live
in the right set (like “dunch”), which give ease and homely sparkle to small
talk and avoid the necessity of thought. The Americans, who are the most
efficient people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height that
of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases
that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a
moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to
consider the more important matters of big business and fornication. Roy
"Doesn't it make you slightly uneasy to think that you disagree with everyone whose opinion matters?"
"Not particularly. I've been writing for thirty-five years now, and you can't think how many geniuses I've seen acclaimed, enjoy their hour or two of glory, and vanish into obscurity. I wonder what's happened to them. Are they dead, are they shut up in madhouses, are they hidden away in offices? I wonder if they furtively lend their books to the doctor and the maiden lady in some obscure village. I wonder if they are still great men in some Italian pension."
"Oh, yes, they're the flash in the pans. I've known them."
"You've even lectured about them."
"One has to. One wants to give them a leg up if one can and one knows they won't amount to anything. Hang it all, one can afford to be generous. But after all, Driffield wasn't anything like that. The collected edition of his works is in thirty-seven volumes and the last set that came up at Sotheby's sold for seventy-eight pounds. That speaks for itself. His sales have increased steadily every year and last year was the best he ever had. You can take my word for that. Mrs. Driffield showed me his accounts last time I was down there. Driffield has come to stay all right."
"Who can tell?"
"Well, you think you can," replied Roy acidly.
I was not put out. I knew I was irritating him and it gave me a pleasant sensation.
"I think the instinctive judgments I formed when I was a boy were right. They told me Carlyle was a great writer and I was ashamed that I found the French Revolution and Sartor Resartus unreadable. Can anyone read them now? I thought the opinions of others must be better than mine and I persuaded myself that I thought George Meredith magnificent. In my heart I found him affected, verbose, and insincere. A good many people think so too now. Because they told me that to admire Walter Pater was to prove myself a cultured young man, I admired Walter Pater, but heavens how Marius bored me!"
"Oh, well, I don't suppose anyone reads Pater now, and of course Meredith has gone all to pot and Carlyle was a pretentious windbag."
"You don't know how secure of immortality they all looked thirty years ago."
"And have you never made mistakes?"
"One or two. I didn't think half as much of Newman as I do now, and I thought a great deal more of the tinkling quatrains of Fitzgerald. I could not read Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; now I think it his masterpiece."
"And what did you think much of then that you think much of still?"
"Well, Tristram Shandy and Amelia and Vanity Fair. Madame Bovary, La Chartreuse de Farme, and Anna Karenina. And Wordsworth and Keats and Verlaine."
"If you don't mind my saying so, I don't think that's particularly original."
"I don't mind you're saying so at all. I don't think it is. But you asked me why I believed in my own judgment, and I was trying to explain to you that, whatever I said out of timidity and in deference to the cultured opinion of the day, I didn't really admire certain authors who were then thought admirable and the event seems to show that I was right. And what I honestly and instinctively liked then has stood the test of time with me and with critical opinion in general."
''Don't you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?
''Oh, I couldn't. Amy Driffield would never speak to me again. She only asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman.
''It's very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.''
''I don't see why. And besides, you know what the critics are. If you tell the truth they only say you're cynical and it does an author no good to get a reputation for cynicism. Of course I don't deny that if I were thoroughly unscrupulous I could make a sensation. It would be rather amusing to show the man with his passion for beauty and his careless treatment of his obligations, his fine style and his personal hatred for soap and water, his idealism and his tippling in disreputable pubs; but honestly, would it pay? They'd only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.
And it is well known that Beauty does not look with a good grace on the timid advances of Humour. Roy Kear, when he was talking to me of Driffield, claimed that, whatever his faults, they were redeemed by the beauty that suffused his pages. Now I come to look back on our conversation, I think it was this remark that had most exasperated me.
I do not know if others are like myself, but I am conscious that I cannot contemplate beauty long. For me no poet made a falser statement than Keats when he wrote the first line of Endymion. When the thing of beauty has given me the magic of its sensation my mind quickly wanders; I listen with incredulity to the persons who tell me that they can look with rapture for hours at a view or a picture. Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian's Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go and look at it. What else he has to say is history, or biography, or what not. But people add other qualities to beauty – sublimity, human interest, tenderness, love – because beauty does not long content them. Beauty is perfect, and perfection (such is human nature) holds our attention but for a little while. The mathematician who after seeing Phèdre asked: "Quest-ce que ga prouve?" was not such a fool as he has been generally made out. No one has ever been able to explain why the Doric
is more beautiful than a glass
of cold beer except by bringing in considerations that have nothing to do with
beauty. Beauty is a blind alley. It is a mountain peak which once reached leads
nowhere. That is why in the end we find more to entrance us in El Greco than in
Titian, in the incomplete achievement of Shakespeare than in the consummate success
of temple of Paestum . Too
much has been written about beauty. That is why I have written a little more.
Beauty is that which satisfies the aesthetic instinct. But who wants to be satisfied?
It is only to the dullard that enough is as good as a feast. Let us face it:
beauty is a bit of a bore. Racine
But of course what the critics wrote about Edward Driffield was eye-wash. His outstanding merit was not the realism that gave vigour to this work, nor the beauty that informed it, nor his graphic portraits of seafaring men, nor his poetic descriptions of salty marshes, of storm and calm and of nestling hamlets; it was his longevity. Reverence for old age is one of the most admirable traits of the human race and I think it may safely be stated that in no other country than ours is this trait more marked. The awe and love with which other nations regard old age is often platonic; but ours is practical. Who but the English would fill
Covent Garden to listen to an aged prima donna without a
voice? Who but the English would pay to see a dancer so decrepit that he can hardly
put one foot before the other and say to one another admiringly in the
intervals: "By George, sir, d'you know he's a long way past sixty?"
But compared with politicians and writers these are but striplings, and I often
think that a jeune premier must be of
a singularly amiable disposition if it does not make him bitter to consider
that at the age of seventy he must end his career when the public man and the author
are only at their prime. A man who is a politician at forty is a statesman at
three score and ten. It is at this age, when he would be too old to be a clerk
or a gardener or a police-court magistrate, that he is ripe to govern a
country. This is not so strange when you reflect that from the earliest times
the old have rubbed ft in to the young that they are wiser than they, and
before the young had discovered what nonsense this was they were old too, and
it profited them to carry on the imposture; and besides, no one can have moved
in the society of politicians without discovering that (if one may judge by
results) it requires little mental ability to rule a nation. But why writers
should be more esteemed the older they grow has long perplexed me. At one time
I thought that the praise accorded to them when they had ceased for twenty
years to write anything of interest was largely due to the fact that the
younger men, having no longer to fear their competition, felt it safe to extol
their merit; and it is well known that to praise someone whose rivalry you do
not dread is often a very good way of putting a spoke in the wheel of someone
whose rivalry you do. But this is to take a low view of human nature and I
would not for the world lay myself open to a charge of cheap cynicism. After
mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that real reason for the
universal applause that comforts the declining years of the author who exceeds
the common span of men is that intelligent people after the age of thirty 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. Of course he must go on; he must keep in the public
eye. 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. This needs time. His production must be such that if he
cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.
The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one who has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking that no writer can hold the public for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.
...when I was lunching with the Driffields a few years ago I overheard him saying that Henry James had turned his back on one of the great events of the world's history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses. [...] He said: 'Poor Henry, he's spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they're having tea just too far away for him to hear what the countess is saying.'
I have noticed that when I am most serious people are apt to laugh at me, and indeed when after a lapse of time I have read passages that I wrote from the fullness of my heart I have been tempted to laugh at myself. It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant on an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind.
 In the First edition (Heinemann, 1930), The Collected Edition (Heinemann, 1934), as well as in modern editions (e.g. Vintage Classics, 2001) based on the First edition, the name is Thomas Carlyle! The First American edition (Doubleday, 1930) and those modern editions based on it (e.g. Vintage International, 1993) have Charles Dickens instead.
 Cf. chapter 9 of Don Fernando (1935, rev. 1950), chapter 76 of The Summing Up (1938), and especially the essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952)
 Cf. Maugham’s reflections on James in the Introduction to Tellers of Tales (1939), “Some Novelists I Have Known” from The Vagrant Mood (1958), and “The Short Story” from Points of View (1958).