Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Quotes: A Writer's Notebook (1949) by W. Somerset Maugham


Considering how foolishly people act and how pleasantly they prattle, perhaps it would be better for the world if they talked more and did less.

Reading does not make a man wise; it only makes him learned.

He professes a great admiration for the beautiful; he will rave over a Botticelli, snow-covered Alps, the sun setting over the sea, all the things which are regularly and commonly admired; but will not see the simple beauties that all around him. He is not a humbug; he admires what he admires sincerely and with real enthusiasm; but he can see beauty only if it is pointed out to him. He can discover nothing for himself. He intends to write, but for that he has neither energy, imagination, nor will. He is mechanically industrious, but intellectually lazy. For the last two years he has been studying Leopardi with the purpose of translating some of his works, yet has not set pen to paper. Because he has lived so much alone, he has acquired a great conceit of himself. He is scornful of the philistine. He is supercilious. Whenever anyone starts a conversation he will utter a few platitudes with an air of profound wisdom as if he had settled the question and there was nothing more to be said. He is extremely sensitive and is hurt if you do not accept his own opinion of himself. He has a craving for admiration. He is weak, vain and profoundly selfish; but amiable when it costs him nothing to be so and, if you take care to butter him up, sympathetic. He has good taste and a genuine feeling for literature. He has never had an original idea in his life, but he is a sensitive and keen-sighted observer of the obvious.

[Cf. the above with the description of Hayward from Of Human Bondage: “He was a man who saw nothing for himself but only through a literary atmosphere, and he was dangerous because he had deceived himself into sincerity. He honestly mistook his sensuality for romantic emotion, his vacillation for the artistic temperament, and his idleness for philosophic calm. His mind, vulgar at its effort at refinement, saw everything a little larger than life size, with the outlines blurred, in a golden mist of sentimentality. He lied and never knew that he lied, and when it was pointed out to him said that lies are beautiful. He was an idealist.” See also the description of Brown in chapter XXIV of The Summing Up and the following inscription by Maugham:]

Most people are such fools that it really is no great compliment to say that a man is above the average.

How ugly most people are! It’s a pity they don’t try to make up for it by being agreeable.


When I was at St. Thomas’s Hospital, I lived in furnished rooms at 11 Vincent Square, Westminster. My landlady was a character. I have drawn a slight portrait of her in a novel called Cakes and Ale, but I did no more than suggest her many excellences. She was kind and she was a good cook. She had common sense and a Cockney humour. She got a lot of fun out of her lodgers.

In love one should exercise economy of intercourse. None of us can love for ever. Love will be stronger and will last longer if there are impediments of its gratification. If a lover is prevented from enjoying his love by absence, difficulty of access, or by the caprice or coldness of his beloved, he can find a little consolation in the thought that when his wishes are fulfilled his delight will be intense. But love being what it is, should there be no hindrances, he will pay no attention to the considerations of prudence; and his punishment will be satiety. The love that lasts longest is the love that is never returned.

It is doubtless true that we owe many of our virtues to Christianity, but it is equally true that we owe to it some of our vices. The love of self is the mainspring of every man's action, it is the essence of his character; and it is fair to suppose that it is necessary for his preservation. But Christianity has made a vice of it. It has decided that man should have neither love, nor care, nor thought for himself, but only for his soul, and by demanding of him that he should behave otherwise than as his nature prompts, has forced him into hypocrisy. It has aroused a sense of guilt in him when he follows his natural instincts, and a feeling of resentment when others, even though not at his expense, follow theirs. If selfishness were not regarded as a vice no one would be more inconvenienced by it than he is by the Law of Gravity; no one would expect his fellow-men to act otherwise than according to their own interests; and it would seem reasonable to him that they should behave as selfishly as in point of fact they do.

The belief in God is not a matter of common sense, or logic, or argument, but of feeling. It is as impossible to prove the existence of God as to disprove it. I do not believe in God. I see no need of such an idea. It is incredible to me that there should be an after-life. I find the notion of future punishment outrageous and of future reward extravagant. I am convinced that when I die, I shall cease entirely to live; I shall return to the earth I came from. Yet I can imagine that at some future date I may believe in God; but it will be as now, when I don't believe in Him, not a matter of reasoning or of observation, but only of feeling.

The Professor of Gynaecology. He began his course of lectures as follows: Gentlemen, woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month, parturates once a year and copulates whenever she has the opportunity.
I thought it a prettily-balanced sentence.


People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.

Anyone can tell the truth, but only very few of us can make epigrams.
In the nineties, however, we all tried to.

At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too much, and talk well but not too wisely.

The intellect is such a pliable and various weapon that man, provided with it, is practically bereft of all others; but it is a weapon of no great efficacy against instinct.

The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.

If women exhibit less emotion at pain it does not prove that they bear it better, but rather that they feel it less.

Men have an extraordinarily erroneous opinion of their position in nature; and the error is ineradicable.

If the good were only a little less heavy-footed!

The philosopher is like mountaineer who has with difficulty climbed a mountain for the sake of the sunrise, and arriving at the top finds only fog; whereupon he wanders down again. He must be an honest man if he doesn’t tell you that the spectacle was stupendous.

The power of great joy is balanced by an equal power of great sorrow. Enviable is the man who feels little, so that he is unaffected either by the extremes of bliss or of grief. In the greatest happiness there is still an after-taste of bitterness, while misery is unalloyed.

No man in his heart is quite so cynical as a well-bread woman.

An acquaintance with the rudiments of physiology will teach you more about the feminine character than all the philosophy and wise-saws in the world.

There is nothing like love to make a man alter his opinions. For new opinions are mostly new emotions. They are the result not of thought, but of passion.

Half of difficulties of man, half the uncertainties, lie in his desire to answer every question with Yes or No. Yes or No may neither of them be the answer; each side may have in it some Yes and some No.

There are times when I look over the various parts of my character with perplexity. I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that person which at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real me? All of them or none?

Life cannot fail to be amusing to me when there are so many errors and misconceptions in which I’m enmeshed and which I can tear away. To destroy the prejudices which from my youth have been instilled into me is in itself an occupation and an entertainment.

I wonder when Christianity will have sufficiently decayed for the fact to be driven out of men’s heads that pleasure is not hurtful nor pain beneficial.

It occurs to few people that a man who sits out in the rain for a noble object is just as likely to get rheumatism as the drunkard who lies out because he is too drunk to get home – even more so.

It is quite as difficult to fit one's practice to one's precepts as to fit one's precepts to one's practice. Most people act in one way and preach in another. When the fact is brought to their notice, they assert that it is their weakness, and that their desire is to act up to their principles. That is pretence. People act according to their inclinations and adopt principles; because these are generally at variance with their inclinations they are ill-at-ease and unstable. But when they force themselves to act up to their principles and suppress their inclinations, there is no hope for them – but in heaven.

Altruism without pleasure, immediate or remote, is absurd. When one expects unselfishness from another and does not get it, one can only shrug one’s shoulder and pass on. Certainly one has no right to be angry.

From the standpoint of pure reason, there are no good grounds to support the claim that one should sacrifice one’s happiness to that of others.

It is a great pleasure to confer favours upon another; and it is a pleasure which is increased by the praise of the world; but the giver seldom considers whether his favours will be welcome. Nor is he satisfied with the pleasure he has obtained: he demands gratitude into the bargain.

Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother.

We hear much of the nobility of labour; but there is nothing noble in work itself. [...] The fact is simply that men in their self-conceit look upon their particular activity as the noblest object of man.

Work is lauded because it takes men out of themselves. Stupid persons are bored when they have nothing to do. Work with the majority is their only refuge from ennui; but it is comic to call it noble for that reason. It requires many talents and much cultivation to be idle, or a peculiarly constituted mind.

I would not disapprove the bloody wars of civilised nations against uncivilised; but it is as well to note that the only justification for them is that might is right. It is an unequal encounter, a contest without nobility or chivalry between good weapons and bad. To say that a vanquished barbaric people gain in happiness when the civilisation of their conquerors is forced upon them is hypocrisy. Is there any reason to suppose that they are less happy in their primitive state than when, compelled to accept a culture they do not want and reforms they see no need for, they are ruled by an alien law?

It is seldom realised that youth and age must have their different codes. Laws are made by staid and old men who seek unreasonably to restrain the exuberance of youth. But youth has a right to its fling. The old can talk till they’re blue in the face about the spiritual satisfaction to be found in art and literature, but when you’re young there’s a lot more fun to be got out of having a girl than by listening to a sonata.

There are few minds in a century that can look upon a new idea without terror. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are very few new ideas about.

Tolerance is only another name for indifference.

Prostitution will have to be legally as well as tacitly recognised. The chastity of women before marriage will come to be considered of less moment.
I was wrong about prostitution, but right about chastity.
[As a matter of fact, he was right about prostitution, too.]

Capri. I wonder about alone, forever asking myself the same questions: What is the meaning of life? Has it any object or end? Is there such a thing as morality? How ought one to conduct oneself in life? What guide is there? Is there one road better than another? And a hundred more of the same sort. The other afternoon I was scrambling among the rocks and boulders up the hill behind the villa. Above me was the blue sky and all around the sea. Hazy in the distance was Vesuvius. I remember the brown earth, the ragged olive trees, and here and there a pine. And I stopped suddenly, in confusion, my head buzzing with all the thoughts that seethed in it. I could make nothing out of it all; it seemed to me one big tangle. In desperation, I cried out: I can’t understand it. I don’t know, I don’t know.

I suppose it is to the Jews that we owe our idea of the sanctity of home life. They found in their home safety and peace from the turmoil and persecution of the world without. It was their only refuge and so they loved it, but they loved it because of their weakness. The Greeks seem to have had no home life. No one has accused them of domesticity. Full of energy, eager, abounding as perhaps no other people has been with the joy of living, they looked upon the world as a battle place; and the din of warfare, the shouts of triumph, even the groans of the vanquished were music in their ears. They flung themselves into the business of life as a fearless swimmer breasts the waves.

There would be very little altruism in the world if it were not a source of pleasure. In some way or other everyone expects a return for his unselfishness. There is no such thing as absolute altruism. […] The only self-sacrifice which is primordial is that which has to do with the production and rearing of the young. But here the strongest of animal instincts is concerned, and extreme discomfort, real pain even, ensues if its exercise is thwarted. Parents are foolish when they accuse their children of ingratitude; they should remember that what they have done for them was for their own pleasure.

A woman may be as wicked as she likes, but if she isn't pretty it won't do her much good.


The spirituality of man is most apparent when he is eating a hearty dinner.


When a woman of forty tells a man that she’s old enough to be his mother, his only safety is in immediate flight. She’ll either marry him or drag him through the divorce court.

One should always cultivate one’s prejudices.

There are people who say: quite well, thank you, when you say, how d’you do, to them. How vain they must be to think you can possibly care!

One of the most difficult things for a man to do is to realise that he does not stand at the centre of things, but at the circumference.

If it were possible decently to dissolve marriage during the first year not one in fifty couples would remain united.

Sometimes one feels rage and despair that one should know so little the people one loves. One is heart-broken at the impossibility of understanding them, of getting right down into their heart of hearts. Sometimes, accidentally or under the influence of some emotion, one gets a glimpse of those inner selves of theirs, and one despairs on seeing how ignorant one is from that inner self and how far away from one it is.


Jeremy Taylor. Of no one, perhaps, can it be said with greater truth that the style is the very man himself. When you read Holy Dying, with its leisurely gait, its classical spirit, its fluent, facile poetry, you can imagine what sort of man was Jeremy Taylor; and from a study of his life and circumstances you could hazard a guess that he would write exactly as he does. He was a Caroline prelate. His life was easy, moderately opulent and gently complacent. And such was his style. It reminds one, not, like Milton’s, of a tumultuous torrent breaking its way through obstacles almost insurmountable, but of a rippling brook meandering happily through a fertile meadow carpeted with the sweet-smelling flowers of spring. Jeremy Taylor is no juggler with words, but well content to use them in their ordinary sense. […] Often, it is true, the endless phrases, clause after clause joined together with little regard to the meaning, with none at all to the construction of the sentence, depend merely upon looseness of punctuation, and by a rearrangement of this can be made into compact and well composed periods. Jeremy Taylor, when he likes, can put together his words as neatly as anyone, and then writes a sentence of perfect music. ‘He that desires to die well and happily above all things must be careful that he do not live a soft, a delicate, and voluptuous life; but a life severe, holy and under the discipline of the Cross, under the conduct of prudence and observation, a life of warfare and sober counsels, labour and watchfulness.’
But the great charm of Holy Dying lies in the general atmosphere of the book, scented and formal, calm and urbane like an old-world garden; and still more in the beautiful poetry of stray phrases. One cannot turn a page without finding some felicitous expression, some new order of simple words which seems to give them a new value; and often enough some picturesque passage, overladen, like that earlier rococo in which decoration was exuberant, but notwithstanding kept within the bounds of perfect taste.

Matthew Arnold’s style. It is an admirable instrument for the presentation of thought. It is clear, simple and precise. It runs like a smooth, limpid river – with almost too tranquil a stream. If style resembles the clothes of a well-dressed man, which attract no attention, but when by chance examined are found seemly, then Arnold’s style is perfect. It is never obtrusive, never by a vivid phrase or a picturesque epithet distracts attention from the matter; but when one scrutinises it, one discovers how carefully balanced are the sentences, how harmonious, graceful and elegant is the rhythm. One perceives the felicity with which the words are put together and is a little astonished that so great an effect can be obtained by the use of words which are quite homely and in common use. Arnold gives distinction to everything he touches. […] It is a method rather than an art. No one more than I can realise what immense labour it must have needed to acquire that mellifluous cold brilliance. It is a platitude that simplicity is the latest acquired of all qualities, and one can see sometimes in passages of Matthew Arnold traces of the constant effort, of the constrained he must have put upon himself, before the fashion of writing he had adopted became a habit. […] Whatever he writes about, his style is the same. And it is to this, perhaps, as much as to his classicism, that is due the frequent reproach of impersonality. But to me Arnold’s style is just as personal as that of Pater or Carlyle. Indeed it seems to express very clearly his character, slightly feminine, pettish, a little magisterial, cold, but redeemed by a wonderful grace, agility of thought and unfailing elegance.

I'm glad I don't believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness, I think that no belief can be more ignoble.

What mean and cruel things men can do for the love of God.

Morality is the weapon which society in the struggle for existence uses in its dealings with the individual. Society rewards those actions and praises those qualities which are necessary for its survival. The office of morality is to persuade the individual that what is of benefit to society is of benefit to him.

It is obvious that the hedonic element is very present to the mind of the religious man, and influences his actions as profoundly as it influences that of the hedonist pure and simple – only he puts a future happiness as the reward of his deed rather than an immediate one. In fact, hedonism is nowhere more conspicuous than in those who choose a certain course because they will enjoy eternal bliss; and if their idea of this future happy state be examined, it will generally be found so grossly material that many a professed hedonist would be ashamed to acknowledge it.

But by a curious refinement of emotion some deeply religious persons persuade themselves that they act with no hope of reward, but merely for the love of God. Yet here too, if the feeling is analysed, a hedonic element will be discovered; the reward is in the intimate self-satisfaction of virtuous action, in the pleasant consciousness of having done right; and this for emotional natures can be more satisfying than any grosser, more obvious benefits.

Sometimes I ask myself at night what I have done that day, what new thought or idea I have had, what particular emotion I have felt, what there has been to mark it off from its fellows; and too often it appears to me insignificant and useless.

Cesare Borgia may well be taken as an example of almost perfect self-realisation. The only morality, as far as the individual is concerned, is to give his instincts, mental and bodily, free play. In this lies the aesthetic beauty of a career, and in this respect the lives of Cesare Borgia and of Francis of Assisi are parallel. Each fulfilled his character and nothing more can be demanded of any man. The world, judging only of the effect of action upon itself, has called one infamous and the other saintly. How would the world judge such man as Torquemada, the most pious creature of his age, who perfected an instrument of persecution which has cost more deaths and misery than many a long and bloody war?

No egoism is so insufferable as that of the Christian with regard to his soul.

Common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made up of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers.

That we do not often consciously make pleasure our aim is no argument against the idea that the attainment of pleasure is the object to which all actions tend.

If forty million people say a foolish thing does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

It is salutary to realise the fundamental isolation of the individual mind. We have no certain knowledge of any consciousness but our own. We can only know the world through our own personality. Because the behaviour of others is similar to our own, we surmise that they are like us; it is a shock to discover that they are not. As I grow older I am more and more amazed to discover how great are the differences between one man and another. I am not far from believing that everyone is unique.

If the use of religion is to make men moral, and so long as it does this the dogma is unimportant, it seems to follow that men can’t do better than to accept the religion of the country they happen to have been born in. Why then should missionaries go to India or China to convert people who have already a religion that performs very adequately the chief function of religion? Probably few Hindus in India, few Buddhists in China are as moral as Hinduism and Buddhism would have them be, but that is no reason why they should not be left alone: we all know that few Christians act up to the principles of Christianity.

Or is it that the missionaries think that God will condemn to endless torment all who do not share their particular beliefs? No wonder they think you're cursing and swearing when you say, Good God!

They were talking about V.F. whom they’d all known. She published a volume of passionate love poems, obviously not addressed to her husband. It made them laugh to think that she’d carried on a long affair under his nose, and they’d have given anything to know what he felt when at last he read them.
This note gave me the idea for a story which I wrote forty years later. It is called ‘The Colonel’s Lady’.

There are men whose sense of humour is so ill developed that they still bear a grudge against Copernicus because he dethroned them from the central position in the universe. They feel it a personal affront that they can no longer consider themselves the pivot upon which turns the whole of created things.


Men, commonplace and ordinary, do not seem to me fit for the tremendous fact of eternal life. With their passions, their little virtues and their little vices, they are well enough suited to the workaday world; but the conception of immortality is much too vast for beings cast in so small a mould. I have more than once seen men die, peacefully or tragically, and never have I seen in their last moments anything to suggest that their spirit was everlasting. They die as a dog dies.

I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life than a humorous resignation.

Each youth is like a child born in the night who sees the sun rise and thinks that yesterday never existed.

Perhaps all the benefits of religion are counterbalanced by its fundamental idea that life is miserable and vain. To treat life as a pilgrimage to a future and better existence is to disown its present value.

No woman is worth more than a fiver unless you’re in love with her. Then she’s worth all she costs you.


She had something of the florid colouring of Helena Fourment, the second wife of Rubens, that blond radiancy, with eyes blue as sea at midsummer and hair like corn under the August sun, but a greater delicacy withal. And she hadn't Helena’s unhappy leaning to obesity.

She was a woman of ripe and abundant charms, rosy of cheek and fair of hair, with eyes blue as summer sea, with rounded lines and full breasts. She leaned somewhat to the overblown. She belonged to that type of woman that Rubens has set down for ever in the ravishing person of Helena Fourment.

[Robert Calder has suggested that the above two notes may be descriptions of Sue Jones, the small-part actress with whom Maugham had a long affair at the time and later immortalized as Rosie in Cakes and Ale. See W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, Heinemann, 1972.]


Success. I don’t think it has had any effect on me. For one thing I always expected it, and when it came I accepted it as so natural that I didn’t see anything to make a fuss about. Its only net value to me is that it has freed me from financial uncertainties that were never quite absent from my thoughts. I hated poverty. I hated having to scrape and save so as to make both ends meet. I don’t think I’m so conceited as I was ten years ago.


Kilauea. The volcano is on Hawaii, the largest island of the group. You land at Hilo and drive up, first through fields of rise and sugar-cane and then, climbing all the time, through a forest of great tree-ferns. They are weird and strange like the imaginations of some draughtsman of the horrible. All manner of climbing plants wind around the trees in an impenetrable tangle. Gradually the vegetation stops and you come to the lava field, grey, dead, silent; here no plants grow and no birds sing; you see the smoke rising, here and there thickly, in other places ascending thin and straight like the smoke from a cottage chimney. You get out and walk. The lava crunches under your feet. Now and then you step over narrow fissures from which the sulphurous smoke rises, making you cough. You come to the jagged edge of the crater. Nothing has prepared you for the sight. It is stupendous and alarming. You look down upon a vast sea of lava. It is black and heavy. It is in perpetual movement. The lava is only a thin crust and it is broken at irregular intervals by gashes of red fire, and here and there again are geysers of flame rising into the air, thirty, or forty, or fifty feet. They spurt up, white hot, like artificial fountains. The two most impressive things are the roar: it is like the roar of surf on a gloomy day, as unceasing, or like the roar of a cataract, as formidable; and secondly the movement: the lava moves on, on, all the time, with a stealthy movement in which you may almost see the purpose of a living thing. There is something strangely determined about its quiet progress, it has a malign tenacity; and yet it transcends anything living, it has the inevitableness of fate and the ruthlessness of time. The lava is like some huge formless creature born of primeval slime crawling slowly in pursuit of some loathsome prey. The lava moves forward steadily towards a fiery gap and then seems to fall into a bottomless cavern of flame. You see vast holes of fire, great caves of flame. A man standing near said: ‘Gosh, it’s like hell,’ but a priest beside him turned and said: ‘No, it is like the face of God.’

The Pacific. On some days it offers all your fancy pictured. The sea is calm and under the blue sky brilliantly blue. On the horizon are fleecy clouds, and at sunset they take strange shapes so that it is almost impossible not to believe you see a range of mountains. The nights then are lovely, the stars very bright, and later, when the moon rises, it is dazzling in its brilliancy. But more often than you would have expected the sea is rough, capped with white crests, and sometimes it is as grey as the Atlantic. There is a heavy swell. The most wonderful thing about the Pacific is its solitariness. You pass day after day without seeing a ship. Now and then a few seagulls suggest that land is not far distant, one of those islands lost in a wilderness of waters; but not a tramp, not a sailing vessel, not a fishing-boat. It is an empty desert, and presently the emptiness fills you with a vague foreboding. There is something frightening about the vast, silent emptiness.

 [Cf. “The Pacific” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921):
The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell, and sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests, and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant. The sun shines fiercely from an unclouded sky. The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown. The billows, magnificently rolling, stretch widely on all sides of you, and you forget your vanished youth, with its memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless, intolerable desire for life. On such a sea as this Ulysses sailed when he sought the Happy Isles. But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. They are the mountains of the country of your dreams. You sail through an unimaginable silence upon a magic sea. Now and then a few gulls suggest that land is not far off, a forgotten island hidden in a wilderness of waters; but the gulls, the melancholy gulls, are the only sign you have of it. You see never a tramp, with its friendly smoke, no stately bark or trim schooner, not a fishing boat even: it is an empty desert; and presently the emptiness fills you with a vague foreboding.]

The engineer told me about Ah Fons. He started life in Hawaii as a coolie, became a cook, bought land, imported Chinese labour, and in the end became rich. He married a Portuguese half-caste and had a large family. They were brought up as Americans and he felt himself a stranger among them. He had a deep contempt for Western civilisation. He thought of the wife of his youth in China and of the life of the seaport in which he lived then. One day he called his family together and told them he was going to leave them. He disappeared into mystery.
There is the making of a story here, but I never wrote it because I discovered that Jack London had already done so.

The missionary. He was a tall thin man, with long limbs loosely jointed, hollow cheeks and high cheekbones; his fine, large dark eyes were deep in their sockets, and he had full sensual lips; he wore his hair rather long. He had a cadaverous look, and a look of suppressed fire. His hands were large, rather finely shaped, with long fingers, and his naturally pale skin was deeply burned by the Pacific sun.

Mrs W., his wife, was a little woman with her hair very elaborately done, with prominent blue eyes behind gold-rimmed pince-nez; her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness. She had the quick movements of a bird. The most noticeable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating the nerves like the clamour of a pneumatic drill. She was dressed in black, and wore round her neck a thin gold chain from which hung a small cross. She was a New Englander.

Mrs W. told me that her husband was a medical missionary, and as his district (Gilberts) consisted of widely separated islands, he frequently had to go long distances by canoe. The sea was often rough and his journeys were not without danger. During his absence she remained in their headquarters and managed the mission. She spoke of the depravity of the natives in a voice nothing could hush, but with a vehement, unctuous horror; she described their marriage customs as obscene beyond description. She said that when they first went to the Gilberts it was impossible to find a single ‘good’ girl in any of the villages. She was very bitter about the dancing.

Miss Thompson. Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion, perhaps not more than twenty-seven: she wore a white dress and a large white hat, and long white boots from which her calves, in white cotton stockings, bulged. She had left Iwelei after the raid and was on her way to Apia, where she hoped to get a job in the bar of a hotel. She was brought to the house by the quartermaster, a little, very wrinkled man, indescribably dirty.

The lodging house. It is a two-storey frame house, with verandas on both floors, and it is about five minutes’ walk from the dock, on the Broad Road, and faces the sea Below is a store in which are sold canned goods, pork and beans, beef, hamburger steak, canned asparagus, peaches and apricots; and cotton goods, lava-lavas, hats, rain-coats, and such like. The owner is a half-caste with a native wife surrounded by little brown children. The rooms are almost bare of furniture, a poor iron bed with a ragged mosquito-curtain, a rickety chair and a washstand. The rain rattles down on the corrugated iron roof. No meals are provided.

On these three notes I constructed a story called ‘Rain’.
[Surely Maugham meant “these five notes”.]

Red. He has been a sailor in the U.S. Navy and coming down to Pago had bought his discharge. He was by trade a butcher, but during the three years he had been at Pago had done little work. He was as near a beachcomber as I saw. He was a man of twenty-six, perhaps, of middle size, slender, with good features but a sullen look, a small read moustache and three days’ growth of beard, and a fine head of curling red hair. He was dressed in a sleeveless singlet and a pair of dirty drill trousers. The proprietor of the eating house being ill, Red was running it in return for his keep. He talked of going back to the States and to get work, but you felt he could never summon up resolution to leave the island. He asked vaguely if any work was to be got at Apia. […] Red was a man of few words. It was difficult to get him to speak. He refused the offer of cigarettes or cigars in a surly way. When at last he became more communicative it was to talk of women, of the place, to lament that it ruined one and made one fit for nothing, and to show one a collection of dirty postcards.

[Cf. the short story “Red” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921). The eponymous character bears little resemblance to the note. The “dirty postcards” motif was used in the story “German Harry”, first published in Cosmopolitan, January 1924, pp. 56-57, later reprinted in Cosmopolitans (1936).]

The owner of the hotel. He is a dentist by profession and comes from Newcastle. He is a little man, not fat, but not lean either, with black hair, thin on the top and turning grey, and a small untidy moustache, a very red face, partly due to sunshine, partly due to alcohol, and small red nose. He wears white ducks and a black tie. He is an excitable little man, more often than not tipsy, and he loves to tell you the scandal of the island. He is fifty, but talks grandly of going to the front next February, and you are pretty sure that in February he will talk of going in March. He spends his time chatting with the guests and behind his own bar, where he can always be persuaded to take a drink with a customer. He has owned hotels in Sydney and is invariably ready to buy or sell anything from a hotel to a horse, from a motor-car to a camp bedstead. He is bellicose in his conversation and fond of telling you how he hit this person or the other on the nose. He never fails to come out of his contests victorious. He is a figurehead in the hotel, which is run by his wife, a tall gaunt woman of five and forty, with an imposing presence and a determined air, a large-featured woman with a firm mouth. He is terrified of her, and rumours run about the hotel of domestic quarrels in which she has used her fist and her foot as well as her tongue to keep him in subjection. She has been known after a night of drunkenness to keep him for a day in his own little bit of veranda, and of these occasions, afraid to leave his prison, he talks rather pathetically to the people on the street below.

   [Cf. the description of Chaplin from the short story “The Pool”, The Trembling of a Leaf (1921):
Chaplin entertained me. He was by profession a mining engineer and perhaps it was characteristic of him that he had settled in a place where his professional attainments were of no possible value. It was, however, generally reported that he was an extremely clever mining engineer. He was a small man, neither fat nor thin, with black hair, scanty on the crown, turning grey, and a small, untidy moustache; his face, partly from the sun and partly from liquor, was very red. He was but a figurehead, for the hotel, though so grandly named but a frame building of two storeys, was managed by his wife, a tall, gaunt Australian of five-and-forty, with an imposing presence and a determined air. The little man, excitable and often tipsy, was terrified of her, and the stranger soon heard of domestic quarrels in which she used her fist and her foot in order to keep him in subjection. She had been known after a night of drunkenness to confine him for twenty-four hours to his own room, and then he could be seen, afraid to leave his prison, talking somewhat pathetically from his veranda to people in the street below.]

The coconut trees came down to the water’s edge, not in rows, but spaced out with a certain ordered formality. They had something of the air of a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, who stood with a simpering grace in affected attitudes.

[Cf. the short story “Redfrom The Trembling of a Leaf (1921): "The coconut trees came down to the water's edge, not in rows, but spaced out with an ordered formality. They were like a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, standing in affected attitudes with the simpering graces of a bygone age."]

Gardner is a German American who has changed his name from Kärtner, a far, bald-headed, big man, always in very clean white ducks; he has a round, clean-shaven face and he looks at you benignly through gold-rimmed spectacles. The faux bon homme. He is here to open a business for a San Francisco firm of jobbers in the goods sold on the island, calicos, machinery, everything that is saleable, which they exchange for copra. He drinks heavily, and though fifty is always willing to stay up all night with the ‘boys’, but he never gets drunk. He is jolly and affable, but very shrewd; nothing interferes with his business, and his good fellowship is part of his stock in trade. He plays cards with the young men and gradually takes all their money from them.

[Cf. the character of Miller in the short story “The Pool” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).]

Swan. A tiny little old man, wrinkled, battered and bowed, who looks like a white monkey. He has pale blue eyes peering shrewdly from between red-rimmed lids. He is knotted and gnarled like a very old tree. He is a Swede and came out to the islands forty years ago as many of a sailing vessel. Since then he has been skipper of a schooner engaged in the slave trade, a ‘black-birder’, a blacksmith, a trader, a planter. Men have sought to kill him, and he has a hernia in the chest which is the result of a wound got in a scrap with Solomon Islanders. At one time he was fairly rich, but he was ruined by the great hurricane which destroyed the stores he owned, and now he possesses nothing but the eighteen acres of coco plantation on the proceeds of which he lives. He has had four native wives and more children than he count. He is to be seen every day in the Central bar, dressed in shabby blue linen clothes, drinking rum and water.

   [Cf. the character of Brevald in the short story “The Pool” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).
Her father was a Norwegian called Brevald who was often to be seen in the bar of the Hotel Metropole drinking rum and water. He was a little old man, knotted and gnarled like an ancient tree, who had come out to the islands forty years before as mate of a sailing vessel. He had been a blacksmith, a trader, a planter, and at one time fairly well-to-do; but, ruined by the great hurricane of the nineties, he had now nothing to live on but a small plantation of coconut trees. He had had four native wives and, as he told you with a cracked chuckle, more children than he could count. But some had died and some had gone out into the world, so that now the only one left at home was Ethel.]

The administrator. He is in Apia because his wife is awaiting her confinement. She is a big untidy woman, in flowing draperies, who suggests Notting Hill Gate or West Kensington. She has languid movements and a drawling voice. She is not handsome, nor even pretty, but she has a pleasant, ingenuous face. He is a tall man, and his small thin face is tanned by years of exposure to the tropical sun. A small moustache barely conceals the weakness of his mouth. He has a foolish laugh, and when he laughs he displays long yellow teeth. He began life as a medical student and prides himself on his medical knowledge. He likes silly jokes, practical chiefly, and is fond of chaffing people. He has the utmost contempt for the whites of Apia. One can guess that he runs his island competently, but with an exaggerated insistence on insignificant details. He measures everything by the standards of the public schoolboy. He regards the natives as wilful children, unreasonable and only just human, who must be treated without any nonsense, but not unkindly. He boasts that he keeps his island like a new pin. There is something old-maidish about him. He looks forward to the time when he can retire and live in the dull London street which you feel he regards as his only real home. He is incredibly conceited.

[Cf. Walker in “Mackintosh” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).] 

The skipper. He is a little plump man, without angles, with a round face like the full moon, red and clean-shaven, a little fat button of a nose, very white teeth, fair hair close-cropped, with short fat legs and fat arms. His hands are plump too, dimpled on the knuckles. His eyes are round and blue and he wears gold-rimmed spectacles. He is not without charm. He never speaks without an oath, but a good-natured one. He is a jolly soul. He is American, of thirty perhaps, and he has spent all his life on the Pacific. He has been first officer and then captain in passenger ships plying along the coast of California, but he lost his ship and with it his certificate and has now come down to the command of this dirty little tramp. It has not interfered with his good humour. He takes life easily, he is fond of his whisky and fond of the Samoan girls, and he tells vivid, funny stories of his success with them.

[Cf. Captain Butler in “Honolulu” from The Trembling of a Leaf (1921).]


My native gifts are not remarkable, but I have a certain force of character which has enabled me in a measure to supplement my deficiencies. I have common-sense. Most people cannot see anything, but I can see what is in the front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating. For many years I have been described as a cynic; I told the truth. I wish no one to take me for other than I am, and on the other hand I see no need to accept others' pretences.

The patriotism of the Russians is a singular thing; there is a great deal of conceit in it; they feel themselves different from other people and flatter themselves on their difference; they speak with self-satisfaction of the ignorance of their peasants; they vaunt their mysteriousness and complexity; they repeat that with one face they look to the west and with the other to the east; they are proud of their faults – like a boorish man who tells you he is as God made him – and will admit with complacency that they are besotted and ignorant, incoherent in purpose and vacillating in action; but in that complex feeling which is the patriotism one knows in other countries, they seem deficient. I have tried to analyse what this particular emotion in myself consists of. To me the very shape of England on the map is significant, and it brings to my mind pell-mell a hundred impressions, the white cliffs of Dover and the tawny sea, the pleasant winding roads of Kent and the Sussex downs, St. Paul’s and the Pool of London; scraps of poetry, the noble ode of Collins and Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gipsy and Keats’ Nightingale, stray lines of Shakespeare’s and the pages out of English history, Drake with his ships, and Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth; Tom Jones and Dr Johnson; and all my friends and the posters at Victoria Station; then some vague feeling of majesty and power and continuity; and then, heaven knows why, the thought of a barque in full sail going down the Channel – Whither, O splendid ship, thy white sails crowding – while the setting sun hangs redly on the edge of the horizon. These feelings and a hundred others make up an emotion which makes sacrifice easy, it is an emotion compact of pride and longing and love, but it is humble rather than conceited, and it does not preclude a sense of humour. Perhaps Russia is too large for sentiments so intimate, its past too barren of chivalry and high romance, its character too indefinite, its literature too poor, for the imagination to embrace the country, its history and culture, in a single emotion.

I read Anna Karenina when I was a boy in a blue-bound translation published by Walter Scott, long before I began to write myself, but my recollection of it was vague, and when I read it again many years afterwards, interested then from a professional standpoint in the art of fiction, it seemed to me powerful and strange, but a little hard and dry. Then I read Fathers and Sons, in French; I was too ignorant of Russian things to appreciate its value; the strange names, the originality of the characters, opened a window on romance, but it was a novel like another, related to the French fiction of its day, and for me at all events, it had no great significance. Later still, when I found myself definitely interested in Russia, I read other books by Turgenev; but they left me cold. Their idealism was too sentimental for my taste, and unable in a translation to see the beauty of manner and style which Russians value, I found them ineffectual. It was not till I came to Dostoievsky (I read Crime and Punishment in a German version) that I received a bewildering and arresting emotion. Here was something that really had significance for me, and I read greedily one after the other the great novels of Russia’s greatest writer. Finally I read Chekov and Gorki. Gorki left me indifferent. […] In Chekov on the other hand I discovered a spirit vastly to my liking. Here was a writer of real character, not a wild force like Dostoievsky, who amazes, inspires, terrifies and perplexes; but one with whom you could get on terms of intimacy. I felt that from him as from no other could be learned the secret of Russia. His range was great and his knowledge of life direct. He has been compared with Guy de Maupassant, but one would presume only by persons who have read neither. Guy de Maupassant is a clever story-teller, effective at his best – by which, of course, every writer has the right to be judged – but without much real relation to life. His better known stories interest you while you read them, but they are artificial so that they do not bear thinking of. […] Guy de Maupassant had the soul of a well-fed bagman; his tears and his laughter smack of the commercial room in a provincial hotel. He is the son of Monsieur Homais. But with Chekov you do not seem to be reading stories at all. There is no obvious cleverness in them and you might think that anyone could write them, but for the fact that nobody does.
In the above I was grossly unfair to Maupassant. ‘La Maison Tellier’ is enough to prove it.

What must surprise anyone who enters upon study of Russian literature is its extraordinary poverty. The most enthusiastic critics claim no more than an historical interest for the works written before the nineteenth century, and Russian literature begins with Pushkin; then you have Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoievsky; then Chekov; and that is all. Students mention a number of names, but they do not attach any importance to them, and the stranger has only to read works here and there of other writers to realise that he will lose little by ignoring them. I have tried to imagine what English literature would be if it began with Byron and Shelley (it would scarcely be unfair to put Tom Moore in Shelley’s place) and Walter Scott; proceeded with Charles Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot; and finished with George Meredith. The first effect would be to give a far greater importance to these writers.

The student of a country other than his own can hope to know comparatively few of its inhabitants, nor with the difference of language and culture will he even after many years become intimate with them. Even with the English and American, between whom the differences of language are very small, there can be no real understanding. Probably people are best able to know one another when their early years and their education have been similar. It is the impressions of a man’s first twenty years which form him. Between the English and the Russians the abyss is wide and deep. The difficulty of the language must always keep them apart. Even if you know it well you will not know it well enough for people to forget that you are an alien, and they will never be quite the same with you as when they are with one another. It is by reading that the foreigner will gain most insight into a strange people, and the writers of the second class will be of more service to him than those of the first. Great writers create; writer of smaller gifts copy. Chekov will tell you more about the Russians than Dostoievsky. By comparing then the people you have known with the people you have read of an impression may be formed which if not coincident with the truth is at all events self-contained, reasonable and coherent.

I have nothing but horror for the literary cultivation of suffering which has been so fashionable of late. I have no sympathy with Dostoievsky’s attitude towards it. I have seen a good deal of suffering in my time and endured a good deal myself. When I was a medical student I had occasion in the wards of St. Thomas’s Hospital to see the effects of suffering on patients of all sorts. During the war I had the same experience, I have also seen the effects of mental suffering. I have looked into my own heart. I have never found that suffering improves the character. Its influence to refine and ennoble is a myth. The first effect of suffering is to make people narrow. They grow self-centred. Their bodies, their immediate surroundings, acquire an importance which is unreasonable. They become peevish and querulous. They attach consequence to trifles. I have suffered from poverty and the anguish of unrequited love, disappointment, disillusion, lack of opportunity and recognition, want of freedom; and I know that they made me envious and uncharitable, irritable, selfish, unjust; prosperity, success, happiness, have made me a better man. […] It is true that sometimes [suffering] teaches patience, and patience edifies. But patience is not a virtue. It is a means to an end and no more. Patience is essential to those who would do great things, but the patience exercised in doing small ones calls for no more respect than is due to small things. Waterloo Bridge is nothing in itself: it is merely a means of communication between two banks of the Thames, and it is London stretching on either side that gives it importance. You do not admire a man who uses infinite patience to collect postage stamps; the exercise of this quality does not save it from being a trivial pursuit.

It is said that suffering results in resignation, and resignation is looked upon as a solution to the perplexities of life. But resignation is a surrender to the hostile whims of chance. Resignation accepts the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and calls them good. It kisses the rod that chastens it. It is the virtue of the vanquished. A braver spirit will have no dealings with resignation: it will struggle unceasingly against circumstances, and though conscious that the struggle is unequal, fight on. Defeat may be inevitable, but it is doubly defeat if it is accepted. To some, Prometheus, chained to his rock and strong in his unconquerable courage, is a more inspiring example than that other, hanging on a shameful cross, who besought His Father to forgive His enemies because they knew not what they did. Resignation is too close to apathy for the spirited mind. It submits sometimes to what neither need nor should be borne. It is the final attempt of slaves to make their lack of mettle a reason for self-complacency.

I can’t think of a single Russian novel in which one of the characters goes to a picture gallery.

I read a work on Dostoyevsky by X. It might have been written at the menopause by the virgin daughter of a clergyman. There is no reason why one should not keep one's head about Dostoyevsky. It is not necessary to read a novel with the ecstatic unction of a nun in contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament. To gush is not only tiresome to others, but unprofitable to oneself. And I think one pays a better compliment to the object of one's admiration when one considers him with sense than when one surrenders oneself to him like a drunkard to his glass of gin.

Dostoievsky reminds me of El Greco, and if El Greco seems the greater artist it is perhaps only because the time at which he lived and the environment were more favourable to the full flowering of the peculiar genius which was common to both. Both had the same faculty for making the unseen visible; both had the same violence of emotion, the same passion. Both give the effect of having walked in unknown ways of the spirit in countries where men do not breathe the air of common day. Both are tortured by the desire to express some tremendous secret, which they divine with some sense other than our five senses and which they struggle in vain to convey by use of them. Both are in anguish as they try to remember a dream which it imports tremendously for them to remember yet which lingers always just at the rim of consciousness so that they cannot reach it. With Dostoievsky too the persons who people his vast canvases are more than life-size, and they express themselves with strange and beautiful gestures which seem pregnant of a meaning which constantly escapes you. Both are masters of that great art, the art of significant gesture. Leonardo da Vinci, who knew somewhat of the matter, vowed it was portrait-painter’s greatest gift.

An instructive parallel might be drawn between Turgenev and Anthony Trollope; in every point but style the comparison would be in favour of the English writer. He had more knowledge of the world, a greater variety, more humour, his range was wider and his characters were more diverse. Turgenev never wrote a scene that remains in the memory as that in which Bishop Proudie kneels at the bedside of his dead wife and prays God that he may not be thankful for her death.

This shows very poor judgment. It is true that Turgenev has neither the tortured passion of Dostoievsky nor the scope and the broad humanity of Tolstoi; but he has other qualities, charm and grace and tenderness. He has elegance and distinction – admirable qualities both – reasonableness, and a lovely feeling for the countryside. Even in a translation you can tell how beautifully he wrote. He is never excessive, never false, never boring. He is neither a preacher nor a prophet; he is content to be a novelist pure and simple. It may well be that a future generation will come to the conclusion that he was the greatest of the three.


She plunged into a sea of platitudes, and with the powerful breast stroke of a channel swimmer made her confident way towards the white cliffs of the obvious.


Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad. But take X. for instance. She is not only a liar, she is a mytho-maniac who will invent malicious stories that have no foundation in fact and will tell them so convincingly, with such circumstantial detail, that you are almost persuaded she believes them herself. She is grasping and will hesitate at no dishonesty to get what she wants. She is a snob and will impudently force her acquaintance on persons who she knows wish to avoid it. She is a climber, but with the paltriness of her mind is satisfied with the second rate; the secretaries of great men are her prey, not the great men themselves. She is vindictive, jealous and envious. She is a quarrelsome bully. She is vain, vulgar and ostentatious. There is real badness in her.

She is clever. She has charm. She has exquisite taste. She is generous and will spend her own money, to the last penny, as freely as she will spend other people’s. She is hospitable and takes pleasure in the pleasure she gives her guests. Her emotion is easily aroused by a tale of love and she will go out of her way to relieve the distress of persons who mean nothing to her. In sickness she will show herself an admirable and devoted nurse. She is a gay and pleasant talker. She will listen to your troubles with genuine commiseration and with unfeigned kindliness will do everything she can to relieve them or to help you bear them. She will interest herself in all that concerns you, rejoice with you in your success and take part in the mortification of your failure. There is real goodness in her.

She is hateful and lovable, covetous and open-handed, cruel and kind, malicious and generous of spirit, egotistic and unselfish. How on earth is a novelist so to combine those incompatible traits as to make the plausible harmony that renders a character credible?

[Was Maugham reminiscing about his wife?]

The D.s asked me to dinner to meet some friends of theirs, husband and wife, who were spending few days in Singapore. The man was Resident somewhere in British North Borneo. Mrs D. told me that he had been a fearful drunkard and took a bottle of whiskey to bed with him every night which he finished before morning. He became so tiresome that the Governor sent him home on leave and told him that if he didn't sober up by the time he came back he would have to dismiss him. The man was a bachelor, and the Governor advised him to find a nice girl in England and marry, and she would keep him straight. At the end of his leave he came back married and a reformed character. He never touched a drop of alcohol.

They came to dinner. He was a big, fat man, with a very naked face, rather bald, prosy and pompous; she was smallish, dark, neither young nor pretty, but alert and evidently competent. She was very lady-like. She was the sort of woman whom you meet by the dozen in at Tunbridge Wells, Cheltenham or Bath - born spinsters who seem never to have been young and who will never, you think, grow old. They have been married five years and seem very happy. I suppose she had married him just to be married.

I never saw them again, and they never knew what they had let themselves in for when they came to dinner that night. They suggested to me a story which I called 'Before the Party'.

The streets of Banda are lined with bungalows, but the place is dead, and they are empty and silent. People walk about, the few you see, quietly, as though they were afraid to awaken the echo. No voice is raised. The children play without noise. Now and again you catch a sweet whiff of nutmeg. In the shops, all selling the same things, canned goods, sarongs, cottons, there is no movement; in some of them there is no attendant, as though no purchaser could possibly be expected. You see no one buy or sell.

[Cf. the description of Kanda Meira in The Narrow Corner (1932).]


Mandalay by moonlight. The white gateways are flooded with silver and the erections above them are shot with silhouetted glimpses of the sky. The effect is ravishing. The moat in Mandalay is one of the minor beauties of the world. It has not the sublimity of Kilauea nor the spectacular picturesque of the Lake of Como, it has not the swooning loveliness of the coastline of a South Pacific island, nor the austere grandeur of parts of the Peloponnesus, but it has a beauty which you can take hold of and enjoy and make your own. It is a beauty which does not carry you off your feet, but which can give you constant delight. Those other beauties need the frame of mind to be enjoyed and appreciated, but this is a beauty suited to all seasons and all moods. It is like Herrick’s poems, which you can take up with pleasure when you are out of humour for the Inferno or Paradise Lost.


L. K. He is known as Powder-puff Percy. He has been a Balliol, and is much better educated and more widely read than the planters and the Government officials with whom he must spend his life. He started as a cadet and has now become a schoolmaster. He is a very good bridge-player and an excellent dancer. They complain of him that he is conceited, and he has aroused a furious antagonism in the community. He wears his clothes with a certain dash and he is a good and amusing talker in the Oxford manner. He is slangy in a smart way and at the same time cultured. He has a vocabulary of his own. He is good-looking with something of an intellectual face, and he might be a young don or a professional dancer at a night club.

[Cf. the short story “The Door of Opportunity” from Ah King (1933).]


It is essential for a writer unceasingly to study men, and it is a fault in me that I find it often a very tedious business. It requires a great deal of patience. There are of course men of marked idiosyncrasy who offer themselves to your observation with all the precision of a finished picture, they are 'characters', striking and picturesque figures; and they often take pleasure in displaying their peculiarity, as though they amused themselves and they wanted you to share their amusement. But they are few. They stand out of the common run and have at once the advantage and disadvantage of the exceptional. What they have in vividness they are apt to lack in verisimilitude. To study the average man is an affair of quite another sort. He is strangely amorphous. There is someone there, with a character of his own, standing on his own feet, with a hundred peculiarities; but the picture is hazy and confused. Since he does not know himself, how can he tell you anything about himself? However talkative, he is inarticulate. Whatever treasures he has to offer you he conceals with all the more effectiveness that he does not know they are treasures. If you want to make a man out of these crowded shadows, as a sculptor makes a statue from a block of stone, you want time, patience, Chinese ingenuity and a dozen qualities besides. You must be ready to listen for hours to the retailing of second-hand information in order at last to catch the hint or the casual remark that betrays. Really to know men you must be interested in them for their own sake rather than for yours, so that you care for what they say just because they say it.


In perfection there is always the malaise of the degeneration that will succeed it.

The artist has by his nature the detachment and freedom which the mystic seeks in the repression of desire.

The artist, like the mystic who seeks to attain God, is detached in spirit from the world.

Once a lady who had a son of a literary bent asked me what training I should advise if he was to become a writer; and I, judging by the inquirer that she would pay little attention to my answer, replied: ‘Give him a hundred and fifty a year for five years and tell him to go to the devil.’ I have thought of it since and it seems to me it was better advice than I imagined. On such an income a young man will not starve, but it is small enough for him to enjoy little comfort; and comfort is the writer’s bitterest foe. On such an income he can travel all over the world under conditions which will enable him to see life in aspects more varied and multicoloured than a man in more affluent circumstances is ever likely to happen upon. On such an income he will be often penniless and so constrained to many pleasant shifts to earn his board and lodging. He will have to try his hand at a variety of callings. Though very good writers have led narrow lives they have written well in spite of their circumstances rather than on account of them; many old maids who spent much of the year at Bath have written novels, but there is only one Jane Austen. A writer does well to place himself in such  conditions that he may experience as many as possible of the vicissitudes which occur to men. He need do nothing very much, but he should do everything a little. I would have him be in turns a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor; I would have him love and lose, go hungry and get drunk, play poker with roughnecks in San Francisco, bet with racing touts in Newmarket, philander with duchesses in Paris and argue with philosophers in Bonn, ride with bull-fighters in Seville and swim with kanakas in the South Seas. No man is not worth the writer’s knowing: every occurrence is grist to his mill. Oh, to have the gift, to be twenty-three, to have five years before one, and a hundred and fifty a year.

Middle age. I think I have been more than most men conscious of my age. My youth slipped past me unnoticed and I was always burdened with the sense that I was growing old. Because for my years I had seen much of the world and travelled a good deal, because I was somewhat widely read and my mind was occupied with matters beyond my years, I seemed always older than my contemporaries. But it was not till the outbreak of the war in 1914 that I had an inkling that I was no longer a young man.

It is not a very pleasant thing to recognise that for the young you are no longer an equal. You belong to a different generation. For them your race is run. They can look up to you; they can admire you; but you are apart from them, and in the long run they will always find the companionship of persons of their own age more grateful than yours.

But middle age has its compensations. Youth is bound hand and foot with the shackles of public opinion. Middle age enjoys freedom. I remember that when I left school I said to myself: ‘Henceforward I can get up when I like and go to bed when I like.’ That of course was an exaggeration, and I soon found out that the trammeled life of the civilised man only permits of a modified independence. Wherever you have an aim you must sacrifice something of freedom to achieve it. But by the time you have reached middle age you have discovered how much freedom it is worth while to sacrifice in order to achieve any aim that you have in view. When I was a boy I was tortured by shyness, and middle age has to a great extent brought me a relief from this. I was never of great physical strength and long walks used to tire me, but I went through them because I was ashamed to confess my weakness. I have now no such feeling and I save myself much discomfort. I always hated cold water, but for many years I took cold baths and bathed in cold seas because I wanted to be like everybody else. I use to dive from heights that made me nervous. I was mortified because I played games worse than other people. When I did not know a thing I was ashamed to confess my ignorance. It was not till quite in life that I discovered how easy it is to say: ‘I don’t know.’ I find with middle age that no one expects me to walk five and twenty miles, or to play a scratch game of golf, or to dive from a height of thirty feet. This is all to the good and makes life pleasant: but I should no longer care if they did. That is what makes youth unhappy, the vehement desire to be like other people, and that is what makes middle age tolerable, the reconciliation with oneself.

By imagination man compensates himself for his failure to get a complete satisfaction from life. Eternal necessity forces him to renounce the gratification of many of his most radical instincts, but renunciation comes hardly to man; and balked of his desire for honour, power, love, he cheats himself by the exercise of fantasy. He turns away from reality to an artificial paradise in which he can satisfy his desires without let or hindrance. Then in his vanity he ascribes to this mental process a singular value. The exercise of imagination seems to him the sublimest activity of man. And yet to imagine is to fail; for it is the acknowledgement of defeat in the encounter with reality.

The Novelist’s Material. The danger always lies in wait for the novelist that with increasing knowledge of the world which offers him his subject matter, with a more comprehensive grasp of the ideas which enable him to give it coherence, and with a more exact command of the technique of his art, he may outgrow his interest in the varieties of experience which on the whole make up his material. When advancing years, wisdom or satiety prevent him from giving an excessive consideration to affairs which concern the generality of men, he is lost. A novelist must preserve a child-like belief in the importance of things which common-sense considers of no great consequence. He must never entirely grow up. He must interest himself to the end in matters which are no longer of his age. It needs a peculiar turn of mind in a man of fifty to treat with great seriousness the passion of Edwin and Angelina. The novelist is dead in the man who has become aware of the triviality of human affairs. You can often discern in writers the dismay with which they have recognised this situation in themselves, and you can see how they have dealt with it: sometimes by looking for significance in different subject matter, sometimes by deserting life for fantasy, and sometimes, when they have been too deeply engaged with their past to disentangle themselves from the snares of reality, by turning upon their old material with a savage irony. So George Eliot and H. G. Wells deserted the seduced maiden and the amorous clerk for sociology; so Thomas Hardy turned from Jude the Obscure to The Dynasts; and Flaubert from the love affairs of a provincial sentimentalist to the cruelty of Bouvard et Pecuchet.

The Work of Art. When I watch the audience at a concert or the crowd in the picture gallery I ask myself sometimes what exactly is their reaction towards the work of art. It is plain that often they feel deeply, but I do not see that their feeling has any effect, and if it has no effect its value is slender. Art to them is only a recreation or a refuge. It rests them from the work which they consider the justification of their existence or consoles them in their disappointment with reality. It is the glass of beer which the labourer drinks when he pauses in his toil or the peg of gin which the harlot takes to snatch a moment's oblivion from the pain of life. Art for art's sake means no more than gin for gin's sake. The dilettante who cherishes the sterile emotions which he receives from the contemplation of works of art has little reason to rate himself higher than the toper. His is the attitude of the pessimist. Life is a struggle or a weariness and in art he seeks repose or forgetfulness. The pessimist refuses reality, but the artist accepts it. The emotion caused by a work of art has value only if it has an effect on character and so results in action. Whoever is so affected is himself an artist. The artist's response to the work of art is direct and reasonable, for in him the emotion is translated into ideas which are pertinent to his own purposes, and to him ideas are but another form of action. But I do not mean that it is only painters, poets and musicians who can respond profitably to the work of art; the value of art would be much diminished; among artists I include the practitioners of the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life.

My first book, published in 1897, was something of a success. Edmund Gosse admired it and praised it. After that I published other books and became a popular dramatist. I wrote Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence. I used to meet Gosse once or twice a year and continued to do so for twenty years, but I never met him without his saying to me in his unctuous way: ‘Oh, my dear Maugham, I liked your Liza of Lambeth so much. How wise you are never to have written anything else.’

People will sometimes forgive you the good you have done them, but seldom the harm they have done you.


[At St. Laurent de Maroni. Cf. the short stories “A Man with a Conscience” and “An Official Position” from The Mixture as Before (1940).]

When a man is sentenced to death the sentence has to be confirmed by the minister in Paris. No execution takes place on Sunday. If two or more are to be guillotined at the same time the least guilty is executed first so that he should not suffer the added horror of seeing his mates die. The convict does not know that he will be executed till the warder comes in with the words: Have courage, etc. When there are executions the other convicts are depressed and nervous, and they go about their work sullen and silent.

When the head has fallen the executioner takes it up by the ears and shows it to the bystanders, saying: Au nom du people francais justice est faite. At the side of the guillotine is a large wicker basket covered with some black material and into this the body is put. The knife falls with lightning speed and the blood spurts over the executioner. He is given a set of new clothes after each execution.

Most of the convicts live in dormitories of fifty or sixty beds, but there are a certain number of cells either above the dormitories on the first floor or in a separate courtyard, and these are given to well-behaved prisoners who ask for them. Sometimes, however, they dislike being alone and ask to be put back in the dormitories. In each of these cells there is a hammock and a small table on which the convict keeps his bits and pieces, a shaving-mop, a razor, a hairbrush and a photograph or two. On the walls they tack illustrations from the picture papers.

The convicts. They are dressed in striped pink and white pyjamas and wear a round straw hat and shoes with wooden soles and leather-tops, but no socks. Their hair is cut short and cut very badly. Their food consists of grey bread, two good-sized loaves a day, soup made of bones and meat, potatoes and cabbage-tops, beef, a ration of cheese if they are well-behaved, and a ration of wine. They make their cigarettes out of little blue packets of coarse tobacco. They sit about on the verandas or stoeps of the house, chatting and smoking, or wander, some alone, some in charge of a warder, and work desultorily. They are emaciated notwithstanding their abundant food, they suffer from fever and hook-worm, and they have staring eyes. They don’t look quite sane. Rum is the great luxury and they all have knives.

No warder dares go into a dormitory at night, after lock-up, or he wouldn’t come out alive.

The executioner, a convict, has two mongrel dogs trained to guard him, and they prowl about the compound at night. He has his own little house near the director’s. The other convicts don’t speak to him and his food is fetched from the prison kitchen by his assistant. He spends his leisure strolling in the public garden and fishing, and he sells his fish to the director’s wife.

The guillotine is in a small room within the prison but it is reached by a separate door from the outside. To make sure that it will work well a banana stem is used for practice because it is of the same thickness as a man’s neck. From the time a man is strapped up to the time his head is off, it takes only thirty seconds. The executioner gets a hundred francs for each execution.

The previous executioner disappeared and they thought he had run away. He was found three weeks later hanging to a tree with knife thrusts in his body, and he was only found because a flock of vultures, urubus they are called, were seen clustering round a tree. He had known the convicts were out to kill him and had asked to be sent to Cayenne or back to France. They had caught him and after stabbing him to death had carried him into the jungle.

The sea is shark-infested, and they say with a laugh that the sharks are the best jailers.

I spent to-day inquiring into the motives of the murders which had caused the convicts to be sentenced to what is virtually life-long imprisonment, and I was surprised to discover that though on the surface it looked as though they had killed from love, jealousy, hatred, in revenge for some wrong or merely in a fit of passion, when I asked a little further it was borne in upon me that not far below the surface the motive was pecuniary. In one way or another money was at the bottom of every murder I inquired into but one. The exception was a young lad, a shepherd, who had raped a little girl and when she cried out, afraid people would hear, he had strangled her. He is only eighteen now.


Give us this day our daily bread, the devout pray. One would have thought it was an insult to a benign and omnipotent being to beg for the bare necessities of life. When we treat our neighbour with common civility it is no favour we grant him; it is his right.

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses. It is to touch this chord that some authors have done everything they could to give you the impression that they are telling the plain truth.

There are books that are at once excellent and boring. Those that at once leap to the mind are Thoreau’s Walden, Emerson’s Essays, George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Landor’s Dialogues. Is it a chance that they belong very much to the same period?

The writer should have a distinguished and varied culture, but he probably errs when he puts its elements into his work. It is a sign of naïveté to put into a novel your views on evolution, the sonatas of Beethoven, or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Shyness: a mixture of diffidence and conceit.

He had had so little love when he was small that later it embarrassed him to be loved. It made him feel shy and awkward when someone told him that his nose was good and his eyes mysterious. He did not know what to say when someone paid him a compliment, and manifestation of affection made him feel a fool.
[Is this autobiographical?]


Wellington is supposed to have said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton. It may be that the historians of the future will say that India was lost in the public schools of England.


[Among the miners of Lens:]
A man hasn’t the knowledge to become a skilled miner till he is thirty, and by forty-five he has lost the best of his strength, so that he has to do lighter work, for which he gets less money. At fifty-five he gets his pension, three thousand francs for himself and the same for his wife, but seldom lives to enjoy it for more than a year or two. He speaks of dying between fifty-five and sixty quite calmly, as something that is in the natural order of things.


I got into conversation the other day with a French officer, and of course we talked of the collapse of France. ‘Et dire que nous avons été battus par des imbeciles,’ he said. His remark dismayed me. The French seem incapable of understanding that if they have been so shamefully defeated, it is not in spite of the Germans being stupid, but because on the contrary they are clever. Because the French were well-educated, good and witty talkers, they were silly enough to think that they alone were intelligent. Their self-conceit, which led them to despise everything that wasn’t French, made them the most insular people in Europe. When they were in a mess they really believed that a bon mot could get them out of it. But when something goes wrong with your car it isn’t a sound knowledge of the classics or a neat quip that’ll make it right; you want a mechanic for that, and in such a juncture his intelligence is the only one that counts, yours is stupidity. Was it so witless of the Germans to make themselves familiar with the methods of modern warfare and to provide themselves with modern armaments? Wasn’t there cleverness in their organization of the war machine so that it should function with efficiency? Didn’t they show acumen when they informed themselves accurately on conditions in France so that they were able to take advantage of its disunity, unpreparedness and emotional instability? No, it isn’t the Germans who were imbeciles in this war, it’s the French; but what hope can one cherish for the restoration of France when the French, overcome by such a catastrophe, still entertain so inept a vanity? The Allies can talk till they’re blue in the face of the necessity of restoring France to her place as one of the great powers; they will never succeed till the French learn to look the truth in the face and see themselves as they are. And the first thing they must learn is not humility, that can do them no good, but common sense.


One fusses about style. One tries to write better. One takes pains to be simple, clear and succinct. One aims at rhythm and balance. One reads a sentence aloud to see that it sounds well. One sweats one’s guts out. The fact remains that the four greatest novelists the world has ever known, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoi and Dostoievsky, wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write. All the same it’s better to write well than ill.

Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you up the wrong way.

Why is it that when you hear a young man talking arrant nonsense with assurance, being dogmatic and intolerant, you are angry and point out to him his foolishness and ignorance? Do you forget that at his age you were just as silly, dogmatic, arrogant and conceited? And when I say you of course I mean I.

Fundamentally man is not a rational animal. It is this that makes fiction so difficult to write; for the reader, or the spectator of a play, demands, at all events to-day, that he should behave as if he were. We feel dissatisfied when the persons of a story do not act from motives that we accept as sufficient. We expect their behaviour to be rational, and if it isn’t we say: ‘But people don’t act like that.’ Our demand for probability grows more and more stringent. We baulk at coincidence and accident. We expect the characters that are presented to us invariably to behave like themselves.

The behaviour of the persons in Othello, of Othello himself principally, but to a less extent of almost everyone in the play, is wildly irrational. The critics have turned themselves inside out to show that it isn’t. In vain. They would have done better to accept it as a grand example of the fundamental irrationality of man.

I don’t know why it is that the religious never ascribe common-sense to God.

When I was young I pretended to know everything. It often got me into trouble and made me look a fool. I think one of the most useful discoveries I ever made was how easy it is to say: ‘I don’t know.’ I never noticed that it made anyone think the worse of me. The only inconvenience is that there are people who have nothing better to do than to tell you at tedious length all about something of which you have confessed your ignorance. But there are quite a number of things that I don’t want to know about.

Unless a novelist makes you believe in him he is done, and yet if he is entirely believable he may very well be dull. That (complete verisimilitude) is at least one reason why people turn to detective fiction. It has suspense, it excites their curiosity, it gives them a thrill; and in return for so much they make no great demand that it should be probable. They want to know who done it, and they are willing to accept the most unlikely and inadequate motives for who done it having done it.

There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep to be able to tell you what mutton tastes like. It is enough if he eats a cutlet. But he should do this.

Some American delusions.
(i) That there is no class-consciousness in the country.
(ii) That American coffee is good.
(iii) That Americans are business-like.
(iv) That Americans are highly-sexed and that red-heads are more highly-sexed than others.

I wonder that the people who are concerned for the survival of democracy are not anxious at the inordinate power it gives to oratory. A man may be possessed of a disinterested desire to serve his country, he may have wisdom and prudence, courage and a knowledge of affairs, he will never achieve a political position in which he can exercise his powers unless he has also the gift of the gab. [...] ...but is it not frightening that the indispensable qualification a politician needs to conduct the complicated business of a modern nation is a voice that sounds well over the air or the knack of inventing striking phrases? It is only a happy accident if he combines these gifts with common-sense, integrity and foresight. The appeal of oratory is not to reason, but to emotion; one would have thought that when measures that may decide fate of a nation are under consideration it was pure madness to allow opinion to be swayed by emotion rather than guided by reason. Democracy seldom had a ruder shock than when a phrase - you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold - nearly put an ignorant and conceited fool in the White House.

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me he was going over a story he had just finished to put more subtlety into it; I didn’t think it my business to suggest that you couldn’t be subtle by taking thought. Subtlety is a quality of the mind, if you have it you show it because you can't help it. It's like originality: no one can be original by trying. The original artist is only being himself; he puts things in what seems to him a perfectly normal and obvious way: because it's fresh and new to you you say he's original. He doesn't know what you mean. How stupid are those second-rate painters, for instance, who can’t but paint on their canvas in a dull and commonplace way and think to impress the world with their originality by placing meaningless and incongruous objects against an academic background.

I made up my mind long ago that life was too short to do anything for myself that I could pay others to do for me. I would now except shaving. I am amazed when I see busy men, who tell you their time is valuable, expose themselves on six days a week to the long, tedious and elaborate operation that American barbers have made of it.

I daresay it is very pleasant to be a member of a devoted and united family, but I have a notion that it is no help to the grown man when he goes out into the world. The mutual admiration which is common in such a family gives him an erroneous idea of his own capacity, and so makes it more difficult for him to cope with the rough-and-tumble of life. But if it is no more than disadvantageous to an ordinary man, to an artist it is fatal. The artist is a lone wolf. His way is solitary. It is to his own good that the pack should drive him out into the wilderness. The extravagant praise of doting relations for work that at best only shows promise can only injure him, for being persuaded that he has done well, he will not seek to do better. Self-complacency is the death of the artist.

It is a tough job those philosophers have who want to rank Beauty as one of the absolute values. When you call something beautiful all you mean is that it excites a specific state of feeling in you, but what that something is depends on all manner of circumstances. What sort of an absolute is it that is affected by personal idiosyncrasy, training, fashion, habit, sex and novelty? One would have thought that when once an object was recognised as beautiful it would contain enough of intrinsic worth to retain its beauty for us indefinitely. We know it doesn’t. Familiarity breeds not contempt perhaps, but indifference; and indifference is the death of the aesthetic emotion.

The theorists of art who decide that the absolute of beauty is what is generally held to be beautiful by a sensitive, educated and cultured taste are arrogant. Hazlitt was certainly a man of cultured, educated and sensitive taste; yet he put Coreggio on a level of Titian. When they give examples as in their opinion have produced works whose beauty may be considered absolute they are apt to mention Shakespeare, Beethoven (or Bach if they are highbrows) and Cezanne. They are perhaps safe in the first two (or three) but how can they be certain that Cezanne will produce the same effect on succeeding generations as he does on ours? It may well be that our grandchildren will look upon him with the same cool indifference as we now look upon the painters, at one time so greatly admired, of the Barbizon School. I have seen in my own lifetime too many reversals of aesthetic judgment to place confidence in contemporary opinion. A thing of beauty is not, as Keats said, a joy for ever; it is a thing that excites in us a peculiar emotion at a particular moment, and if it does that it gives us all that beauty can give. It is absurd to despise people who don’t share our aesthetic opinions. We all do.

[Cf. these two notes with Maugham’s reflections on aesthetics in chapter 11 of Cakes and Ale (1930), 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).]

Humility is a virtue that is enjoined upon us. So far as the artist is concerned, with good reason; indeed, when he compares what he has done with what he wanted to do, when he compares his disappointing efforts with the great masterpieces of the world, he finds it the easiest of virtues to practice. Unless he is humble he cannot hope to improve. Self-satisfaction is fatal to him. The strange thing is that we are embarrassed by humility in others. We are ill at ease when they humble themselves before us. I don't know why this should be unless it is that there is something servile in it which offends our sense of human dignity. When I was engaging two coloured maids to look after me the overseer of the plantation who produced them, as a final recommendation, said: 'They're good niggers, they're humble.' Sometimes when one of them hides her face with her fingers to speak to me or with a little nervous giggle asks if she can have something I've thrown away, I'm inclined to cry: 'For heaven's sake don't be so humble.'

Or is it that humility in others forces upon us the consciousness of our own unworthiness?

But why should man be humble when he comes face to face with God? Because God is better and wiser and more powerful than man? A poor reason. No better than that my maid should humble herself before me because I'm white, have more money and am better educated than she is. I should have thought it was God who would have cause to be humble when he reflects upon what an indifferent job he has made in the creation of a human being.

I don’t know why critics expect writers always to do as well as they should have done. The writer seldom does what he wants to; he does the best he can. Shakespearian scholars would save themselves many a headache if when they come across something in the plays which is obviously unsatisfactory, instead of insisting against all reason that it is nothing of the kind, they admitted that here and there Shakespeare tripped. There is no reason that I can see to suppose that he was not well aware that the motivation in certain of the plays is so weak as to destroy the illusion. Why should the critics say that he didn’t care? I should have said that there was evidence that he did. Why should he have put into Othello’s mouth those lines beginning That handkerchief did an Egyptian to my mother give… unless it was because he was aware that the episode of the handkerchief was too thin to pass muster? I think it would save a lot of trouble to conclude that he tried to think of something better, and just couldn’t.

Gushing, she said to me: 'What does it feel like to be famous?'
I suppose I've been asked the question twenty times and I never could think how to answer, but to-day, too late, it suddenly occurred to me.
'It's like having a string of pearls given you. It's nice, but after a while, if you think of it at all, it's only to wonder if they're real or cultured.'
And now that I have my reply ready I don't expect anyone will ever put the question to me again.

Plumbing. When you consider how indifferent Americans are to the quality and cooking of the food they put into their insides, it cannot but strike you as peculiar that they should take such pride in the mechanical appliances they use for its excretion.

How sad that life should be both tragic and trivial: a melodrama in which the noblest sentiments of men serve merely to stir the cheap emotions of a vulgar audience.

They ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to him and I don't know what else; it seems to me so strange that they never credit him with common-sense or allow him tolerance. If he knew as much about human nature as I do he'd know how weak men are and how little control they have over their passions, he'd know how full of fear they are and how pitiful, he'd know how much goodness there is even in the worst and how much wickedness in the best. If he's capable of feeling he must be capable of remorse, and when he considers what a hash he's made in the creation of human kind can he feel anything but that? The wonder is that he does not make use of his omnipotence to annihilate himself. Perhaps that's just what he has done.

Anyone can take me in once; I don’t mind that, I would rather be deceived than deceive, and it makes me laugh to have been made a fool of. But I take care not to let the same person take me in twice.

Why is it so wounding to have an ill turn done you by a friend? Naivety or vanity?

A good rule for writers: do not explain over-much.

I have just been reading again Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World. It may be that, as he says, philosophy doesn’t offer, or attempt to offer, a solution of the problems of human destiny; it may be that it mustn’t hope to find an answer to the practical problems of life; for philosophers have other fish to fry. But who then will tell us whether there is any sense in living and whether human existence is anything but a tragic – no, tragic is too noble a word – whether human existence is anything but a grotesque mischance?

No one can live long in America without noticing how prevalent is the vice of envy. It has unfortunate consequences, for it leads people to depreciate things that are in themselves good. How strange that it should be a sign of affectation, and even degeneracy, to be well-mannered and well-dressed, to speak English with correctness and live with a certain elegance! A man who has been to a good boarding-school and to Harvard or Yale must walk very warily if he wants to avoid the antagonism of those who have not enjoyed these advantages. It is pitiful often to see a man of culture assume a heartiness of manner and use a style of language that are foreign to him in the vain hope that he will not be thought a stuffed shirt. None of this would matter very much if the envious wanted to raise themselves to the level of those they envy, but they don’t; they want to drag them down to their own. Their ideal of the ‘regular fellow’ is a man with a hairy chest who eats pie in his shirtsleeves and belches.

Somewhere in Trivia Pearsall Smith remarks, not without complacency, that best sellers cast an envious eye on writers of greater literary distinction. He is in error. They regard them with cool indifference. The author of whom he is thinking belongs to a different class; he is only a best seller in a small way, but he has pretensions to be a man of letters and it is a mortification to him that critical opinion will not give him what he considers his due. Such was Hugh Walpole, and I have little doubt that he would have given all his popularity to gain the esteem of the intelligentsia. He knocked humbly at their doors and besought them to let him in, and it was a bitterness to him that they only laughed. The real best seller is harassed by no such desires. I knew the late Charles Garvice. He was read by every servant-girl, every shop-girl in England and by a great many people besides. Once at the Garrick I heard him asked how many copies of his books had been sold. At first he would not tell. ‘Oh, it’s not worth talking about,’ he said, but at last, pressed, with a little gesture of impatience, he said: ‘Seven millions.’ He was a modest, unassuming, well-mannered man. I am convinced that when he sat down at his desk to turn out another of his innumerable books, he wrote as one inspired, with all his heart and soul.

For this is the point: no one can write a best seller by trying to. He must write with complete sincerity; the clichés that make you laugh, the hackneyed characters, the well-worn situations, the commonplace story that excites your derision, seem neither hackneyed, well-worn, nor commonplace to him. On the contrary he thinks them fresh and true. He is as intently absorbed in the creatures of his invention as Flaubert ever was in Madame Bovary. Years ago Edward Knoblock and I decided to collaborate on a picture. It was a hair-raising melodrama, and we piled thrilling incident upon thrilling incident, and as one thing after another occurred to us we laughed till our sides ached. It took us a fortnight and we had a grand time. It was a competent piece of work, well constructed and exciting; but we could never get anyone to produce it. The persons to whom we submitted it one and all said the same thing: ‘It looks as though you had written it with your tongue in your cheek.’ And that of course is exactly what we had done. The conclusion is obvious: you cannot write anything that will convince unless you are yourself convinced. The best seller sells because he writes with his heart’s blood. He is so framed that he honestly shares the aspirations, the prejudices, the sentiments, the outlook of the great mass of the public. He gives them what they want because that is what he wants himself. They are quick to discern the least trace of insincerity and will have nothing to do with it.

One of the misfortunes of human beings is that they continue to have sexual desires long after they are sexually desirable. I suppose it is not improper that they should gratify them, but I think they would do better not to talk about it.


By way of postscript. Yesterday I was seventy years old. As one enters upon each succeeding decade it is natural, though perhaps irrational, to look upon it as a significant event. When I was thirty my brother said to me: ‘Now you are a boy no longer, you are a man and you must be a man.’ When I was forty I said to myself: ‘That is the end of youth.’ On my fiftieth birthday I said: ‘It’s no good fooling myself, this is middle age and I may just as well accept it.’ At sixty I said: ‘Now it’s time to put my affairs in order, for this is the threshold of old age and I must settle my accounts.’ I decided to withdraw from the theatre and I wrote The Summing Up, in which I tried to review for my own comfort what I had learnt of life and literature, what I had done and what satisfaction it had brought me.

Two or three years ago I was walking with Liza and she spoke, I don’t know why, of the horror with which the thought of old age filled her.
‘Don’t forget,’ I told her, ‘that when you’re old you won’t have the desire to do various things that make life pleasant to you now. Old age has its compensations.’
‘What?’ she asked.
‘Well, you need hardly ever do anything you don’t want to. You can enjoy music, art and literature, differently than when you were young but in that different way as keenly. You can get a good deal of fun out of observing the course of events in which you are no longer intimately concerned. If your pleasures are not so vivid your pains also have lost their sting.’

I could see that all this seemed cold comfort, and even as I spoke I realised that it afforded a somewhat grey prospect. When later I came to think it over, it occurred to me that the greatest compensation of old age is its freedom of spirit. I suppose that is accompanied by a certain indifference to many of the things that men in their prime think important. Another compensation is that it liberates you from envy, hatred and malice. I do not believe that I envy anyone. I have made the most I could of such gifts as nature provided me with; I do not envy the greater gifts of others; I have had a great deal of success; I do not envy the success of others. I am quite willing to vacate the little niche I have occupied so long and let another step into it. I no longer mind what people think of me. They can take me or leave me. I am mildly pleased when they appear to like me and undisturbed if I know they don’t. I have long known that there is something in me that antagonises certain persons; I think it very natural, no one can like everyone; and their ill will interests rather than discomposes me. I am only curious what it is in me that is antipathetic to them. Nor do I mind what they think of me as a writer. On the whole I have done what I set out to do, and the rest does not concern me. I have never much cared about the notoriety which surrounds the successful writer and which many of us are simple enough to mistake for fame, and  I have often wished that I had written under a pseudonym so that I might have passed through the world unnoticed.

[Ten years later the above was transferred more or less verbatim to the preface of The Partial View, 1954.]

My best book is generally supposed to be Of Human Bondage. Its sales prove that it is still widely read, and it was published thirty years ago. That is a long life for a novel. But posterity is little inclined to occupy itself with works of great length, and I take it that with the passing of the present generation, which very much to my own surprise has found it significant, it will be forgotten along with many other better books. I think that one or two of my comedies may retain for some time a kind of pale life, for they are written in the tradition of English comedy and on that account may find a place in the long line that began with the Restoration dramatists and in the plays of Noel Coward continues to please. It may be that they will secure me a line or two in the histories of the English theatre. I think a few of my best stories will find their way into anthologies for a good many years to come if only because some of them deal with circumstances and places to which the passage of time and growth of civilisation will give a romantic glamour. This is slender baggage, two or three plays and a dozen short stories, with which to set out on a journey to the future, but it is better than nothing. And if I am mistaken and I am forgotten a month after my death I shall know nothing about it.

Ten years ago I made my final bow on the stage (metaphorically speaking, for after my first plays I refused to expose myself to the indignity of this proceeding); the Press and my friends thought I did not mean it and in a year or so would emerge from my retirement; but I never have, nor have I had any inclination to do so. Some years ago I decided to write four more novels and then have done with fiction also. One I have written, (I do not count a war novel that I wrote as part of the war work I was asked to do in America and which I found a weariness to do), but I think it unlikely now that I shall write the other three. One was to be a miracle story set in sixteenth-century Spain; the second, a story of Machiavelli’s stay with Cesare Borgia in the Romagna, which gave him the best of his material for The Prince, and I proposed to interweave with their conversations the material on which he founded his play Mandragola. Knowing how often the author makes up his fiction from incidents of his own experience, trifling perhaps and made interesting or dramatic only by his power of creation, I thought it would be amusing to reverse the process and from the play guess at the events that may have occasioned it. I meant to end up with a novel about a working-class family in the slums of Bermondsey. I thought it would form a pleasing termination to my career to finish with the same sort of story of the shiftless poor of London as I had begun with fifty years before.  But I am content now to keep these three novels as an amusement for my idle reveries. That is how the author gets most delight out of his books; when once he has written them they are his no longer and he can no more entertain himself with the conversations and actions of the persons of his fancy. Nor do I think I am likely at the age of seventy or over to write anything of any great value. Incentive fails, energy fails, invention fails.

My reveries tend often to be concerned with my long past youth. I have done various things I regret, but I make an effort not to let them fret me; I say to myself that it was not I who did them, but the different I that I was then. I injured some, but since I could not repair the injuries I had done I have tried to make amends by benefiting others. At times I reflect somewhat ruefully on the opportunities for sexual congress that I missed when I was of an age to enjoy them; but I know that I couldn’t help missing them, for I was always squeamish, and when it came to the point a physical repulsion often prevented me from entering upon an adventure that beforehand had fired my imagination with desire. I have been more chaste than I wished to be. Most people talk too much and old age is loquacious. Though I have always been more disposed to listen than to talk, it has seemed to me of late that I was falling into the defect of garrulity, and I no sooner noticed it than I took care to correct it. For the old man is on sufferance and he must walk warily. He should try not to make a nuisance of himself. He is indiscreet to force his company on the young, for he puts them under a constraint, they cannot be quite themselves with him, and he must be obtuse if he does not detect that his departure will be a relief to them. If he has made some stir in the world they will on occasion seek his society, but he is foolish should he fail to see that it is not for its own sake, but that they may go and prattle about it afterwards with friends of their own age.
The old man is well advised to frequent the society of his contemporaries, and he is lucky if he can get any amusement out of that. It is certainly depressing to be bidden to a party where there is no one but has one foot in the grave. Fools don’t become less foolish when they grow old, and an old fool is infinitely more tiresome than a young one. I don’t know which are more intolerable, the old people who have refused to surrender to the assault of time and behave with nauseous frivolity, or those fast-rooted in times gone by who have no patience with a world that has refused to stand still with them.
I have never liked large gatherings of my fellow creatures, and I regard it as not the least of the compensations of old age that I can make it an excuse either to refuse to go to parties or slink away quietly when they have ceased to entertain me. Now that solitude is more and more forced upon me I am more and more content with it. Last year I spent some weeks by myself in a little house on the banks of the Combahee river, seeing no one, and I was neither lonely nor bored. It was indeed with reluctance that I returned to New York when the heat and the anopheles obliged me to abandon my retreat.

It is evident that one cannot expect to get much satisfaction out of old age unless one has fairly good health; nor unless one has an adequate income. It need not be a large one, for one’s wants are few. Vice is expensive and in old age it is easy to be virtuous. But to be poor and old is bad; to be dependent on others for the necessities of life is worse: I am grateful for the favour of the public which enables me not only to live in comfort, but to gratify my whims and to provide for those who have claims upon me. Old men are inclined to be avaricious. They are prone to use their money to retain power over those dependent on them. I do not find in myself any impulse to succumb to these infirmities.
I have never cared to read books on subjects that were in no way my concern, I still cannot bring myself to read books for entertainment or instruction about people or places that mean nothing to me. I do not want to know the history of Siam or the manners and customs of the Esquimaux, I do not want to read a life of Manzoni, and my curiosity about stout Cortez is satisfied with the fact that he stood upon a peak in Darien. I can still read with pleasure the poets that I read in my youth and with interest the poets of to-day. I am glad to have lived long enough to read the later poems of Yeats and Eliot. I can read everything that pertains to Dr Johnson and almost everything that pertains to Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. Old age robs one of the thrill one had when first one read the great masterpiece of the world; that one can never recapture. It is sad, indeed, to reread something that at one time had made one feel like Keats’s Watcher of the Skies and be forced to the conclusion that after all it’s not so much. But there is one subject with which I can still occupy myself with my old excitement, and that is philosophy, not the philosophy that is disputatious and aridly technical – ‘Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man’ – but the philosophy that treats the problems that confront us all. Plato, Aristotle (who they say is dry, but in whom if you have a sense of humour you can find quite a lot to amuse you), Plotinus and Spinoza, with sundry moderns, among whom Bradley and Whitehead, never cease to entertain me and incite me to reflection. After all, they and the Greek tragedians deal with the only things that are important to man. They exalt and tranquillise. To read them is to sail with a gentle breeze in an inland sea studded with a thousand islands.

Ten years ago I set down haltingly in The Summing Up such impressions and thoughts as experience, reading and my meditation had occasioned in me concerning God, immortality and the meaning and worth of life, and I do not know that on these matters I have since then found cause to change my mind. If I had to write it over again I should try to deal a little less superficially with the pressing subject of values and perhaps find something less haphazard to say about intuition, a subject upon which certain philosophers have reared an imposing edifice of surmise, but which seems to me to offer as insecure a foundation for any structure more substantial than a Castle in Spain as a ping-pong ball wavering on a jet of water in a shooting-gallery.

Now that I am ten years nearer to death I look forward to it with no more apprehension than I did then. There are indeed days when I feel that I have done everything too often, known too many people, read too many books, seen too many pictures, statues, churches and fine houses, and listened to too much music. I do not know whether God exists or not. None of the arguments that have been adduced to prove his existence carries conviction, and belief must rest, as Epicurus put it long ago, on immediate apprehension. That immediate apprehension I have never had. Nor has anyone satisfactorily explained the compatibility of evil with an all-powerful and all-good God. For a while I was attracted to the Hindu conception of that mysterious neuter which is existence, knowledge and bliss, without beginning, without end, and I should be more inclined to believe in that than in any other God that human wishes have devised. But I think it no more than an impressive fantasy. It is impossible logically to deduce the multiplicity of the world from the ultimate cause. When I consider the vastness of the universe, with its innumerable stars and its spaces measured by thousands upon thousands of light years, I am overwhelmed with awe, but my imagination cannot conceive a creator of it. I am willing enough to accept the existence of the universe as an enigma the wit of man cannot hope to solve. So far as the existence of life is concerned I am not disinclined to credit the notion that there is a psychophysical stuff in which is the germ of complex business of evolution. But what the object of it all is, if any, what the meaning of it all is, if any, is as dark to me as it ever was. All I know is that nothing philosophers, theologians and mystics have said about it persuades me. But if God exists and he concerns himself with the affairs of humanity, then surely he must have sufficient common-sense to take a lenient view, as lenient a view as a reasonable man takes, of the weakness of human beings.

I have been asked on occasion whether I would like to live my life over again. On the whole it has been a pretty good life, perhaps better than most people’s, but I should see no point in repeating it. It would be as idle as to read again a detective story that you have read before. But supposing there were such a thing as reincarnation, belief in which is explicitly held by three quarters of the human race, and one could choose whether or no one would enter upon a new life on earth, I have in the past sometimes thought that I should be willing to try the experiment on the chance that I might enjoy experiences which circumstances and my own idiosyncrasies, spiritual and corporeal, have prevented me from enjoying, and learn the many things that I have not had the time or the occasion to learn. But now I should refuse. I have had enough. I neither believe in immortality nor desire it. I should like to die quickly and painlessly, and I am content to be assured that with my last breath my soul, with all its aspirations and its weaknesses, will dissolve into nothingness.

[Ten years later the above two paragraphs were transferred more or less verbatim to the preface of The Partial View, 1954.]


It is five years since I wrote the above piece. I have not altered it, though I have since written three of the four novels of which I spoke; the fourth I shall leave unwritten.

[With typical carelessness for mundane details, Maugham slightly confuses the numbers. Earlier he spoke of one novel already written and three that would probably remain unwritten; of the latter he did write two in the intervening years. One possible explanation for the discrepancy may be that in the beginning of 1944, when the previous piece was written (it is easily dated by his birthday, January 25th), The Razor’s Edge was not yet published, though it must have been completely written. The two novels certainly written between 1944 and 1949 were the one about Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia, Then and Now (1946), and the miracle story set in sixteenth-century Spain, Catalina (1948). The slum novel set in Bermondsey remained unwritten.]

Men of science seem to be agreed that at some remote period this earth of ours will cease to support even the most elementary forms of life; but long before this state is reached the human race will have become extinct, as have so many species of living creatures which could not adapt themselves to a changing environment. The conclusion can hardly escape one that then all this business of evolution will have been singularly futile and, indeed, that the process that led to the creation of man was a stupendous absurdity on the part of nature, stupendous in the sense that the volcano at Kilauea in eruption or Mississippi in flood is stupendous, but an absurdity all the same. For no sensible person can deny that throughout the history of the world the sum of unhappiness has been far, far greater than the sum of happiness. Only in brief periods has man lived save in continual fear and danger of violent death, and it is not only in the savage state, as Hobbes asserted, that his life has been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Throughout the ages many have found in the belief in a life to come an adequate compensation for the troubles of their brief sojourn in a world of sorrow. They are the lucky ones. Faith, to those who have it, solves difficulties which reason finds insoluble. Some have ascribed to art value which is its own justification and persuaded themselves that the wretched lot of the common run of men was not too high a price to pay for the radiant productions of painter and poet.

I look askance at such an attitude. It seems to me that the philosophers were right who claimed that the value of art lies in its effects and from this drew the corollary that its value lies not in beauty, but in right action. For an effect is idle unless it is effective. If art is no more than a pleasure, no matter how spiritual, it is of no great consequence: it is like the sculptures on the capitals of columns that support a mighty arch; they delight the eye by their grace and variety, but serve no functional purpose. Art, unless it leads to right action, is no more than the opium of an intelligentsia.

[For further discussion on the subject, see Maugham’s essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” from the collection The Vagrant Mood, 1952.]

But these are grave subjects for which, even if I had the capacity to deal with them, this is not the place. For I am like a passenger waiting for his ship at a war-time port. I do not know on which day it will sail, but I am ready to embark at a moment’s notice. I leave the sights of the city unvisited. I do not want to see the fine new speedway along which I shall never drive, nor the grand new theatre, with all its modern appliances, in which I shall never sit. I read the papers and flip the pages of a magazine, but when someone offers to lend me a book I refuse because I may not have time to finish it, and in any case with this journey before me I am not of a mind to interest myself in it. I strike up acquaintances at the bar or the card-table, but I do not try to make friends with people from whom I shall soon be parted. I am on the wing.

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