Sunday, 15 September 2013

Review: The Summing Up (1938) by Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

The Summing Up

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2001.
8vo. 305 pp.

First published by Heinemann, 1938.


The great German pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) once said that great music is the one which is better than any performance. If I may paraphrase that, and go a bit further, I would say that great book is one that not only is better than any review – of course! – but one that also defies reviewing altogether. The Summing Up by William Somerset Maugham is precisely that kind of book. If I now believe in the power of books to profoundly change one's personality, this is largely due to that particular book and to Somerset Maugham's own personality. For the latter matches the former to perfection.

I have often heard The Summing Up described as Maugham's greatest book and I am ready to agree with such an assessment, though I should like to add that the book makes a great deal more rewarding read in the context of Maugham's other works. But I surmise one may well find it compelling even if one knows nothing of the author or had read none of his works. One may also, of course, find it revolting. Certainly, however, this is the book that even the greatest Maugham detractors have to take seriously. Yet, a good deal of nonsense has been written about the The Summing Up. Perhaps demolishing few myths is a good way to start this attempt to review what completely defies review. So be warned: heavy quoting is to be expected.

The most widespread misconception about The Summing Up is that it is an autobiography. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strangely enough, Maugham himself oneself called the book thus – but in a private letter of his. Since it is far more important what Maugham wrote for publication, here is the first line of the book:

This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections.

To be sure, there are certain amounts of both, especially in the first half of the book, but none of them is of any major importance. Maugham gives some information about his childhood, years of struggle, medical studies, sojourns in Capri, Heidelberg and Spain, success as dramatist or travels, and they are wittily written as only he could, but they also are no more than a mere skeleton for the main narrative. Still, for all of Maugham’s vagueness of dates, it is infinitely more compelling to hear the facts of his life from his own mouth than retold, rehashed and perverted by biographers. All the same, Maugham had quite another and much more important fish to fry when he sat down to write The Summing Up:

I write this book to disembarrass my soul of certain notions that have hovered about in it too long for my comfort. I do not seek to persuade anybody. I am devoid of pedagogic instinct and when I know a thing never feel in myself the desire to impart it to others. I do not much care if people agree with me. Of course I think I am right, otherwise I should not think as I do, and they are wrong, but it does not offend me that they should be wrong. Nor does it greatly disturb me to discover that my judgement is at variance with that of the majority. I have a certain confidence in my instinct.

When G. B. Stern once lamented that never had she read an autobiography with so little ''auto'' in it, one hopes – for her own sake – that she was joking; for otherwise I can't help thinking she never really read the book seriously. Well, she is hardly alone there. A number of people obviously never went further than various blurbs on dust jackets or back covers. In the very first paragraph, with his usual eloquence, Maugham explains that he is not interested in recording facts that he had already made a better use of in his writings – even if he could remember them, not to mention that they would seem too tame to guarantee an absorbing read. An indispensable part of the greatness of The Summing Up is indeed the fact that it is not an autobiography at all. It is virtually entirely concerned with much more important matters than the mundane details of everyday life, boring meetings with celebrities, dull dinner parties, etc. What this book gives to the serious reader is the complete personality of Somerset Maugham. You may take it or leave it.

Another often repeated accusation against The Summing Up is that it tells nothing about Maugham's private life. True. Why this is perceived as a drawback is still beyond me, unless it comes from vacuous, dirty-minded, petty and vulgar creatures certainly not worth my time. It is also a very good example, as is the autobiography case, of one curious tendency. It is funny how often people form preconceptions about a book and then expect to find in it precisely what the author declared is not there:

This book must be egoistic. It is about certain subjects that are important to me and it is about myself because I can only treat of these subjects as they have affected me. But it is not about my doings. I have no desire to lay bare my heart, and I put limits to the intimacy that I wish the reader to enter upon with me. There are matters on which I am content to maintain my privacy.

These private matters must surely have been the sexual ones, for pretty much everything else about his character is on these pages. For my part, I have rarely admired Somerset Maugham more than when he penned the above lines. Whatever his reasons were, I am quite willing to believe that his sexual orientation and his sexual life were of insignificant importance for his life, the long hand of the trial against Oscar Wilde and all that stuff about homosexuality as a criminal offence at the time notwithstanding. Indeed, the fact – reported diligently by a number of obscene ''biographers'' – that Maugham freely indulged in sexual escapades would surely have made that element of even smaller importance to him. For sex is most important and obsessive when it is missing.

Another not so faintly ridiculous statement about The Summing Up, most notably supported by Richard Cordell, is that it contains nothing new because Maugham had already said all these things in his earlier works. There is a grain of truth in this, Maugham himself admitted as much, but it is a very small grain indeed. It is also another fine example how people often search for the calf under the bull, how they expect for a book to be what its author especially didn't want it to be. What Maugham did want, and did achieve, with The Summing Up was to summarise his views about certain matters that happened to interest him very much: human nature, writing, theatre, philosophy, God, immortality, love, truth, beauty, goodness and, of course, himself. Since he had indeed previously said a lot about all these subjects – in the prefaces to The Collected Edition (1934-37) or The Collected Plays (1931-34), or in Don Fernando (1935), or pretty much everywhere else – it was natural that there would be repetitions. But that doesn't make Mr Cordell's statement less ridiculous. For the book does contain tons of invaluable insights into Maugham's inner world you are not likely to find anywhere else in his works, let alone in a single volume and in so fine a style.

Maugham's writing style is perhaps the first thing that strikes me when I read The Summing Up. Quite simply, it is perfect, or at least as close to perfection as any. I have yet to read so complex a matter written with such lucidity, simplicity, grace and power. During his writing career – more than six decades – Maugham was obsessed with searching for the perfect style. I venture to claim that in The Summing Up he achieved the closest approximation to it.

The main reason must surely have been the huge amount of trouble he took with that book. Never before or after did Maugham find writing so hard: he wrote and re-wrote page after page, cut some passages, added others, changed words, sentences, paragraphs. In his magisterial study A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham (Kaye & Ward, 1973), Raymond Toole Stott claims that of all manuscripts of Maugham's works he has ever seen – and he saw almost all of them – The Summing Up was by far the most heavily corrected one. He even ventures the bold suggestion that it is doubtful that half of what Maugham initially wrote really reached the printing press. Obviously the book was of paramount importance to Maugham, even though he was famous for his obsession with constant corrections in search of the perfect expression; almost all of his short stories appeared first in magazines but I think it safe to assume that none of them was quite the same when it was later published in book form.

It is perhaps worth noting that The Summing Up consists of 77 short chapters but it might very well be described as one extremely long essay which is virtually continuous. Form was another life-long obsession for Maugham. It is a tribute to him that here he achieved continuity and unity of execution worthy of a Wagnerian music drama; small wonder that Wagner was Maugham's favourite composer. Unfortunately, the numerous quotes out of the context give no idea how intricately and imaginatively Maugham constructed the book. Even the few minor repetitions make perfect sense. Indeed, as usual with his prose, Maugham leaves the impression that the text simply could not have been written otherwise.

There is also another reason for this perfection of style in The Summing Up. Though external and surely of minor importance in comparison with the first one, it needs to be mentioned too. This is Edward Marsh, one of the few persons for whom Maugham always had an unqualified respect. The Summing Up was the first of Maugham's books, but certainly not the last one, that benefited from Eddie Marsh correcting the proofs. Some of these were indeed published in what is regarded as definitive biography, Christopher Hassall's Edward Marsh, patron of the arts (Longmans, 1959), and one may see how Eddie clarified and improved few expressions, although most of his corrections are very minor indeed. The aforementioned great respect of Maugham is no myth. At least twice did he write appreciations of Eddie Marsh, one of them was published in Publishers' Weekly under the very suitable title Proof-Reading as an Avocation. Once late in his life Maugham even stated flatly that if he had learned to write better English in the last twenty years, this was largely due to his proof-reader. He considered it a great compliment when Eddie Marsh told him about The Vagrant Mood, in the early 1950s, that there is virtually nothing in it he would like to change.

But as I often repeat myself: fine style is a powerful weapon, but should you have no ammunition, you're done. I may safely say that in no other book of his has Maugham ever been so armed to the teeth. What makes The Summing Up a truly great book is the combination of style and content. But keep in mind that, for all its lucidity and readability, this is no easy read. It requires a good deal of application and dedication, thought and reflection. It wants hard brain work. Only thus could it give you something truly valuable. If you are not deeply interested in literature and human nature, you had better not read that book at all.

Perhaps the single thing I am most impressed with in The Summing Up is Maugham's candour. Yet again, this is something typical for him, but I have to say that never before or since did Maugham write about these matters of eternal speculation, the writer’s craft and, above all, about himself quite so candidly. If there is another writer capable in print of such merciless yet dispassionate analysis of himself and his shortcomings, I have yet to read one. There is modesty and humility here, perfectly genuine to my mind, but no fatuous self-debasement or inane ramblings. There is nothing of the hypocrisy Jane Austen so charmingly called ''affectation of candour''. As far as I am concerned, Maugham's openness is always convincing in its sincerity. Needless to say, even in his most blunt, brutal, scathing or scatological remarks Maugham never ventures into the realm of vulgarity and obscenity.

Since I am obviously not able to do justice to the subject, I have to resort to quotation again. But this is all but impossible; one has to quote the whole book; everything is so perfectly constructed that, should one sentence be left out, the whole structure would fall. It is almost sacrilegious. But if I must quote only one passage to illustrate what I mean by unprecedented directness and frankness, it must be this one:

My sympathies are limited. I can only be myself, and partly by nature, partly by circumstances of my life, it is a partial self. I am not a social person. I cannot get drunk and feel a great love for my fellow-men. Convivial amusement has always somewhat bored me. When people sitting in an ale-house or drifting down the river in a boat start singing I am silent. I have never even sung a hymn. I do not much like being touched and I have always to make a slight effort over myself not to draw away when someone links his arm in mine. I can never forget myself. The hysteria of the world repels me and I never feel more aloof than when I am in the midst of a throng surrendered to a violent feeling of mirth or sorrow. Though I have been in love a good many times I have never experienced the bliss of requited love. I know that this is the best thing that life can offer and it is a thing that almost all men, though perhaps only for a short time, have enjoyed. I have most loved people who cared little or nothing for me and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed. It has been a predicament that I have not quite known how to deal with. In order not to hurt their feelings I have often acted a passion that I did not feel. I have tried, with gentleness when possible, and if not, with irritation, to escape from the trammels with which their love bound me. I have been jealous of my independence. I am incapable of complete surrender. And so, never having felt some of the fundamental emotions of normal men, it is impossible that my work should have the intimacy, the broad human touch and the animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.

What emerges crystal clear from this passage – and from numerous others adroitly interwoven in the narrative – is as complete a picture of Maugham’s character as there ever was one. Certainly, it is greatly superior to anything his trashy biographers may offer you. It is a most complicated and rather gloomy affair, but infinitely compelling nonetheless. Or, perhaps, it is so for me because I can identify with him to an almost frightening degree.

Maugham was a loner. His shyness – like that of Walter Fane – was ''a disease'', and so was his almost pathological self-consciousness. But behind the façade of coolness and detachment, or cynicism and sarcasm if you like, Maugham must surely have been an extremely sensitive and high-strung man. He certainly was a man who knew his mind very well. Few illusions though he may have had about the others, he had none at all about himself. I wonder how many people really have the guts to look so deeply in themselves and confess, not in print but just to themselves, what they see there. For the best part of his life Maugham was the supreme maverick, creating his own rules and going his own way, enjoying hedonistic lifestyle to the fullest possible degree, caring little or nothing for society rules or literary criticism. He was determined to experience every pleasure there is – and he did. He never liked people much but neither was he a misanthrope. He observed from distance, he never really mixed with the others; he constantly tried to understand that incongruous mixture of passions and obsessions called human animal; he never judged or condemned; he was content to understand. He never attached an exaggerated importance to what many others treat with reverence, yet he was all but reverent when confronted with pure human goodness. He never really believed in God but was awed by the vastness of the universe. He may have excelled in writing novels, short stories or essays, but that’s something many people have done. His greatest achievement was not in the art of literature, but in the art of life – ''the most subtle, the most neglected and the most significant of all the arts'' as he called it in A Writer's Notebook. He made a conscious pattern how to spend his time in this world and he lived to see it as complete as possible. He made a work of art out of his life. And here he is all but alone.

Strangely, I am reminded of another figure of indisputable greatness, though achieved in a very different art, who has caused just as much controversy: Herbert von Karajan. He too was an artist who practised the art of living all his life, he too knew his craft as few others, he too was a workaholic, he too set his own standards and left stupendous legacy. And the words of Gundula Janowitz about him may well have been said about Somerset Maugham: one of the loneliest men I have ever known. 

Whether one is fascinated or repelled by such personality is of course a matter of personal taste. Personally, I am spellbound and inspired. Perhaps the most compelling thing about The Summing Up is that Maugham’s unique personality and unmistakable voice permeate every word more than in any other of his books. He is always and completely himself. Take him or leave him. If you choose the former alternative, and if you have seen some of his movie introductions, while reading you can almost hear Maugham's voice, with that notorious stammer of his which in his late years was next to nonexistent and had been transformed into well-measured pauses with a good deal of dramatic effect.

It is significant how often Maugham weaves together personal revelations into reflections about the writer's craft. This is hardly surprising: writing was Maugham's life. Naturally, the greatest part of The Summing Up is dedicated to writing and writers. Judging by the above quote, Maugham might well have meant seriously what he said about his literary position at another place, namely that he is the first among the second rate. The critics were only too eager to accept this at face value and with their passion for futile comparisons always proclaimed Maugham, for all his craftsmanship, greatly inferior to, say, Joyce, Proust or Henry James. I don't know about these three gentlemen, I have not read anything by them yet, but I am most inclined to regard an author as an end in himself. For all that an author can give you – as Maugham once said – is himself, his complete personality at most. Now, if a writer has a great personality – which is of course prerequisite for literary greatness – he is surely beyond any comparisons. Just like Bela Bartok, who once said that if a composer is to be judged, he must be judged, not by his thematic material, but by what use he makes of it, I think a writer is best appreciated by what use he makes of his natural gifts. And here Somerset Maugham stands in the very first line of the first rate. Because he made a brilliant best of a really bad job. As for the critics, nobody has ever summarised the subject more brilliantly in one sentence:

Criticism to my mind is a personal matter, but there is nothing against that if the critic has a great personality.

Judge for yourself how often you encounter such personalities among the literary critics.

Maugham’s discourse on the profession of letters in general and how he made the best of his own natural gifts in particular is thorough, brilliant, compelling and unbelievably readable. No prose is more quote friendly than Maugham's but, amusingly, when one is faced with such a cornucopia of insightful touches, perceptive observations and profound reflections as in The Summing Up, one has to exercise a truly superhuman control over oneself to resist constant quoting. I have never read a book more densely packed with wisdom. Yet, who could put the matter more succinctly than Maugham himself:

I have more character than brains and more brains than specific gifts.

With this stunning candour of his, Maugham describes in detail his early years of struggle, how he learnt his craft at the expense of the public by trial and error, how he assiduously studied and tried to emulate the masters and a good many other things besides. Only with Of Human Bondage did he finally manage to find his own style – when he was almost forty and already the most famous dramatist of his day. Maugham's Holy Trinity of writing became lucidity, simplicity and euphony. Fortunately, he discovered early enough that he had never had a gift for the rich and florid prose popular at the time. As he brilliantly puts it himself:

I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them. I knew that I had no lyrical quality. I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphor; the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me. Poetic flights and the great imaginative sweep were beyond my powers. I could admire them in others as I could admire their far-fetched tropes and the unusual but suggestive language in which they clothed their thoughts but my own invention never presented me with such embellishments; and I was tired of trying to do what did not come easily to me. On the other hand, I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. I could put down in clear terms what I saw. I had a logical sense, and if no great feeling for the richness and strangeness of words, at all events a lively appreciation of their sound. I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought with pains I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed. On taking thought it seemed to me that I must aim at lucidity, simplicity and euphony. I have put these three qualities in the order of the importance I assigned to them.

Maugham's recognition of his own, and severe, limitations was the beginning of his mature period which lasted for well over forty years and enriched the world literature as few others did. He never stopped trying to write better and better with every new book, and he excelled in these three elusive areas – lucidity, simplicity and euphony – as I believe no one else before or after him. I suppose this combination has led John Brophy, sneeringly or not, to describe Maugham as more a speaker than a writer. True. Reading Maugham always is – as I keep repeating myself – like a conversation with an old friend by the fireside with something sufficiently alcoholic in hand. He makes no bones that, if richness is not something everybody is endowed with, simplicity by no means comes by nature; nor does lucidity, for that matter. These require rigid discipline and tireless industry to achieve; euphony, however, is a more shadowy business and I suppose this must have been one of Maugham's specific gifts.

If anybody has any doubts about Maugham’s simply staggering development as a writer, his oeuvre is there to prove it. Just compare the wooden and dull Liza of Lambeth (1897) with the enchanting and urbane Cakes and Ale (1930). You may rightly accuse me of a certain degree of disingenuousness here; the contrast is indeed much too bright. Compare then Maugham’s best achievements from his early years – The Hero (1901), if you ask me, or Mrs Craddock (1902), if you ask the critics – with some of the best novels from his mature years; Cakes and Ale would do nicely here too, but so would The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Painted Veil (1925), The Narrow Corner (1932) or The Razor’s Edge (1944), to name but a few. When Maugham wrote/talked at length about this indefatigable trying to improve his writing style, he didn’t just talk through his hat. He really did do that.

Maugham's dissection of the profession of letters in general is no less comprehensive, perspicacious and illuminating. Though he never had a gift for richness, he could appreciate it – within certain limits – in others. But he never had any patience with writers who require an effort from the reader to understand their meaning and he is not a little amusing when writes about the two most common causes of obscurity in writers: negligence and wilfulness; in simpler words, laziness and conceit, respectively. The greatest danger for the professional author is something Maugham himself had quite enough of and withstood remarkably well: success. Some may like to discern a certain indulgence on Maugham's part here, but they would be hard pressed to find more convincing arguments. Because success, argues Maugham, may well deprive a writer from the force of character that had brought him there, not to mention that, as a rule, it puts him in a new world where temptations abound, the most dangerous one being to write about it: since he is essentially an outsider, he is never convincing.

But success is of great importance all the same; it brings artistic freedom and confidence. Somerset Maugham certainly knew, yet again, what he was writing about; for more than forty years he wrote whatever, whenever and however he liked; almost always it was immediately published on both sides of the Atlantic and sold in considerable, though never stupendous, numbers. He is also witty, fascinating and enlightening about the disadvantages that a professional writer must cope with. He must first learn to create the mood and to control his inspiration. Should he just sit and wait for it to come, he’ll end producing little or nothing. The writer must have wide and varied culture, but he must resist pedantry at all costs. The whole world is his raw material but, oddly enough, he can deal only with a very small part of it that corresponds to his own idiosyncrasies: amidst plenty of food he may starve to dead, as Maugham memorably described it. Moreover, writing is a whole time job; a writer ''writes'' in his mind when he reads, goes to a party or travels. It is a dead difficult thing to be a professional writer. But there is an ample compensation:

For the disadvantages and dangers of the author's calling are offset by an advantage so great as to make all its difficulties, disappointments, and maybe hardships, unimportant. It gives him spiritual freedom. To him life is a tragedy and by his gift of creation he enjoys the catharsis, the purging of pity and terror, which Aristotle tells us is the object of art. For his sins and his follies, the unhappiness that befalls him, his unrequited love, his physical defects, illness, privation, his hopes abandoned, his griefs, humiliations, everything is transformed by his power into material and by writing it he can overcome it. Everything is grist to his mill, from the glimpse of a face in the street to a war that convulses the civilised world, from the scent of a rose to the death of a friend. Nothing befalls him that he cannot transmute into a stanza, a song or a story, and having done this be rid of it. The artist is the only free man.

This notion may sound a trifle simplistic and, admittedly, it didn't always work with Maugham himself: despite his poignant depiction of Philip's mother death in Of Human Bondage, he probably could never overcome the death of his own mother. But Maugham's astonishing productivity would not have been possible, if this notion of his had not been largely, if not entirely, true.

When all is said and done, the best summary of this part of The Summing Up dedicated to writers and writing I can think of are the unforgettable words of John Whitehead who more than twenty years ago wrote:

The Summing Up, as literary autobiography - that is, one concerned with the profession of letters rather than with the minutiae of the author's life - is unsurpassed in this century and should be required reading for anyone, whether writer or reader, with a serious interest in modern literature.

It comes as no surprise to note that, next to Maugham’s personality and voice, what most permeates the pages of The Summing Up are his views of human nature. This is especially true of the sections dedicated to the writer’s calling because Maugham hardly ever wrote anything which was not, directly or indirectly, concerned with the human beings around him. His cynicism is all but legendary today; his views of human nature have often been deprecatingly described as cold, cynical, clinical, detached; some have gone even further with adjectives like heartless or inhuman. It never occurs to such people to give Maugham credit for coherence, vividness and verisimilitude, let alone for common sense, compassion and sensibility. In fact, the singular detachment of Maugham’s prose with regard to human nature is nothing more than highly commendable lack of sentimentality and affectation. His narrations, and most certainly his first person narrators, always have a keen eye for folly, pretence or vanity, but they rarely miss goodness, charm or sincerity.

Very few critics, if any, have ever understood properly Maugham’s views of human nature or his deceptively simple writing style; they have always been much keener on emphasising his shortcomings; and surfing on the surface is much easier than diving in black and menacing waters anyway. The Summing Up is a most telling proof that Maugham was by far his best critic. No one ever knew his defects better than he did and no one ever spoke of them more openly, but without quite unnecessary self-humiliation. When Maugham wrote in 1934, in the preface for the inclusion of Liza of Lambeth in The Collected Edition, that he knew the defects of his works better than any critic, he might well have added that the same was true for his merits:

I have been called cynical. I have been accused of making men out worse than they are. I do not think I have done that. All I have done is to bring into prominence certain traits that many writers shut their eyes to. I think what has chiefly struck me in human beings is their lack of consistency. I have never seen people all of a piece. It has amazed me that the most incongruous traits should exist in the same person and for all that yield a plausible harmony. I have often asked myself how characteristics, seemingly irreconcilable, can exist in the same person. […] The contrast that I have found in people has interested me, but I do not think I have unduly emphasised it. The censure that has from time to time been passed on me is due perhaps to the fact that I have not expressly condemned what was bad in the characters of my invention and praised what was good. It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me, and even when they do I have learnt at last generally to excuse them. It is meet not to expect too much of others. You should be grateful when they treat you well, but unperturbed when they treat you ill. [...] It is want of imagination that prevents people from seeing things from any point of view but their own, and it is unreasonable to be angry with them because they lack this faculty.

I think I could be justly blamed if I saw only people's faults and were blind to their virtues. I am not conscious that this is the case. There is nothing more beautiful than goodness and it has pleased me very often to show how much of it there is in persons who by common standards would be relentlessly condemned. I have shown it because I have seen it. It has seemed to me sometimes to shine more brightly in them because it was surrounded by the darkness of sin. I take the goodness of the good for granted and I am amused when I discover their defects or their vices; I am touched when I see the goodness of the wicked and I am willing enough to shrug a tolerant shoulder at their wickedness. I am not my brother's keeper. I cannot bring myself to judge my fellows; I am content to observe them. My observation has led me to believe that, all in all, there is not so much difference between the good and the bad as the moralists would have us believe.

Another main subject in The Summing Up, masterfully inserted between more serious ones, is of course the theatre. Few people remember today but Maugham's first great success was as a dramatist and for well over two decades he pursued parallel careers as dramatist and writer of novels, short stories and travel books. He had a good deal of success and knew the theatre intimately. In the ''theatrical'' parts of The Summing Up he is as shrewd, witty and readable as always, missing nothing and sparing nobody. His detailed investigations of the actor’s calling and the personality of the artist in general are penetrating and provocative; and so is his analysis of the audience which is ''shrewd rather than intelligent''. He has no doubt that drama critics are as a rule the worst judges of plays; such a critic can never afford to lose himself in a play as the rest of the audience, but since a play is a collaboration between author, cast, director and audience, thus the critic sees a different play and he may hardly hope to do it justice from his own, detached, standpoint. Maugham also has lots of absorbing things to say about the changes in the theatre during the span of his career there – full 35 years, from 1898 when he wrote his first play, until 1933 when the last one was first produced – as well as about the role of the director and what he should or should not do. Maugham’s anxiety on his own first nights and his controversial theory that plays are ephemeral stuff that should deal with entertainment rather than with ideas are here too. The fecundity of stimulating and often surprisingly modern reflections is all but inexhaustible.

In The Summing Up Maugham also deftly uses the opportunity to speak quite a bit about another of his favourite themes: the work of art (for fiction is an art, though a minor one), its communication, appreciation and meaning. According to Maugham, the artist – a writer or a painter, for example – must create entirely to disembarrass his soul of tormenting burdens and thus feel in the end of the creation spiritual freedom unknown to the ordinary people. Those who create, not from an innermost and irresistible urge, but for didactic purposes, are simply propagandists and therefore no artists. Their aim is communication but for the real artist this can be but a by-product; and so is beauty, for that matter. It is of course essential for the layman. For it is his business to decide – entirely for himself – whether an art is great or not:

He forms his decision from the aesthetic value of the communication that is offered to him. If it yields escape from the reality of the world he will welcome it, but is very likely at best to describe it only as minor art; if it enriches his soul and enlarges his personality he will rightly describe it as great. But this, I insist, has nothing to do with the artist; it is human that he should be pleased if he has given others pleasure or greater strength; but he should not take it amiss if they find nothing to their purpose in the results of his production. He has already had his reward in the satisfaction of his creative instinct.

Some people who know little of Maugham but the usual clichés may well be surprised by the conclusion he reaches about the value of art and culture: if any, it lies in the effect on character which should lead to right action, or in other words: it should lead to goodness. Maugham may well have been a perfect snob when it comes to titles – how else could he create Elliott Templeton or Mr Warburton? – but there was no trace of intellectual snobbery in him. That’s saying a great deal. And so is the following passage:

The value of art, like the value of the Mystic Way, lies in its effects. If it can only give pleasure, however spiritual that pleasure may be, it is of no great consequence or at least of no more consequence than a dozen oysters and a pint of Montrachet. If it is a solace, that is well enough; the world is full of inevitable evils and it is good that man should have some hermitage to which from time to time he may withdraw himself; but not to escape them, rather to gather fresh strength to face them. For art, if it is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action.

Maugham is merciless to the so called connoisseurs of taste, or persons of aesthetic sensibility if you prefer. He has no patience with them, sometimes his remarks are positively caustic. He is dead right though. Who has not seen the immense vanity, the appalling condescension, the nauseating conceit and the total lack of tolerance of such people:

I am speaking now of those to whom the contemplation and appreciation of art is the main business of life. I have found little to admire in them. They are vain and self-complacent. Inept for the practical affairs of life, they disdain those who with humility perform the modest offices to which their destiny has constrained them. Because they have read a great many books or seen a great many pictures they think themselves superior to other men. They use art to escape the realities of life and in their imbecile contempt for common things deny value to the essential activities of humanity. They are no better really than drug-fiends; worse rather, for the drug-fiend at all events does not set himself on a pedestal from which to look down on his fellow-men.

The last main subject in The Summing Up is the complicated matter of philosophy, something Maugham avidly read and reflected upon virtually all his life. Without beating about the bush he frankly confesses that his thoughts may well be contradictory or superficial, but since their origins are extremely complex this is likely to be so. Many a writer about Maugham has been all too ready, again, to accept Maugham's mild disparagement of himself as a gospel. Frederic Raphael has called these philosophical reflections ''unremarkable'' and Robert Calder has remarked with a good deal of condescension that few people would argue that The Summing Up contains profound ideas. I am one of these few. I would argue anytime with anybody that this book does contain tons of profound ideas, or least a great deal of wisdom which lends profoundness to ideas which in themselves may be rather ordinary. Nor must it be neglected that this last part is as wonderfully readable from the very beginning to the very end as anything and Maugham's lucidity never falters. He deals first with religion and God, then with his own holy trinity of values, Truth, Beauty and Goodness, making for a short time a quartet with the inclusion of love, and finishes his book with hailing goodness as the only value in which we may see ''not a reason for life nor an explanation of it, but an extenuation.'' Somewhat surprising conclusion for a confirmed cynic, I should think. Until the end of his life did Maugham’s attitude to life remain essentially sceptical and pessimistic, but much less so than most people think.

Well, what about God, evil and immortality? No philosopher, wise man, saint or mystic could ever convince Maugham that some superior divine power, that grants everlasting flames for the sinners and eternal paradise for the saints, really does exist. When he discusses evil, however, for one and only time in The Summing Up, Maugham is not entirely convincing. He lists several philosophic ideas about the existence of evil, like the one that it is necessary to recognise the good, but attempts no elaboration except his somewhat hackneyed phrase that he had seen a child dying of meningitis. His admiration, though qualified, for the doctrine of transmigration of souls is hard for me to understand. Why on earth should I now suffer for sins in a past life I have no recollection whatsoever of? Or hope for great happiness in a future life in which I will remember nothing of the previous one? All that stuff seems to me strangely inane. Indeed, Maugham came in the end to the conclusion that the doctrine is unbelievable, and rightly so. But when he reflects on the relation between God and evil, he is stirring, provocative, amusing and profound. In the end, Maugham of course does not deny the existence of God; he just remains an agnostic who cannot penetrate the mystery:

I seemed inevitably drawn to the conception of a creator, and what could create this vast, this stupendous universe but a being all-powerful? But the evil on the world then forces on us the conclusion that this being cannot be all-powerful and all-good. A God who is all-powerful may be justly blamed for the evil of the world and it seems absurd to consider him with admiration or accord him worship. But mind and heart revolt against the conception of a God who is not all-good. We are forced then to accept the supposition of a God who is not all-powerful: such a God contains within himself no explanation of his own existence or of that of the universe he creates.
Every artist wishes to be believed in, but he is not angry with those who will not accept the communication he offers. God is not so reasonable. He craves so urgently to be believed in that you might think he needed your belief in order to reassure himself of his own existence. He promises rewards to those who believe in him and threatens with horrible punishment those who do not. For my part I cannot believe in a God who is angry with me because I do not believe in him. I cannot believe in a God who is less tolerant than I. I cannot believe in a God who has neither humour nor common sense.
But though men have ascribed to God imperfections that they would deplore in themselves that does not prove that God does not exist. It proves only that the religions that men have accepted are but blind alleys cut into an impenetrable jungle and none of them leads to the heart of the great mystery.
But I have been busy with words too long not to be suspicious of them, and when I look at those I have just written, I cannot but see that their meaning is tenuous. […] The only God that is of use is a being who is personal, supreme and good, and whose existence is as certain as that two and two make four. I cannot penetrate the mystery. I remain an agnostic, and the practical outcome of agnosticism is that you act as though God did not exist.

Having done with God, Maugham declared without making any bones that immortality is just as unbelievable. He makes perfect fools of the philosophers who have expounded the ridiculous notion about ''limited survival'', that is a limited number of people capable of ''spiritual fulfilment'' who will be granted access to the Other world in order to reach that state of perfection. This is one of the most delightful passages in the whole book:

But when one comes to enquire into the qualities which in this case will admit the chosen few into the blessings of this limited survival one makes the disconcerting discovery that they are those that few but philosophers possess. One cannot but wonder, however, in what manner the philosophers will pass their time when their virtue has received its due reward, for the questions that occupied them during their sojourn on earth will presumably have received their adequate replies. One can only suppose that they will take piano lessons from Beethoven or learn to paint in water colour under the guidance of Michelangelo. Unless these two great men have much changed they will find them irascible masters.

Such reflections about God, immortality and afterlife cannot but bring forth discussion on the meaning of life and the secret of living. How should one conduct oneself in this life and in this world if there are no such things as God and eternal damnation/bliss? Maugham explains again, rather charmingly, his conception of pattern in life and he gives another revealing insight into his inner self:

I have sought to make a pattern of my life. This, I suppose, might be described as self-realisation tempered by a lively sense of irony; making the best of a bad job.

It is one of the faults of my nature that I have suffered more from the pains, than I have enjoyed the pleasures, of my life.

But when Maugham accepts the possibility that socially imposed, instinctive patterns of life may be just as complete as self-imposed ones, and even that the ''blind slaves'' may have the greater wisdom, he positively rises to a level of compassion that amounts to all but pure personal greatness:

Most people live haphazard lives subject to the varying winds of fortune. Many are forced by the situation in which they were born and the necessity of earning a living to keep to a straight and narrow road in which there is no possibility of turning to the right or to the left. Upon these the pattern is imposed. Life itself has forced it on them. There is no reason why such a pattern should not be as complete as that which anyone has tried self-consciously to make.

Most people think little. They accept their presence in the world; blind slaves of the striving which is their mainspring they are driven this way and that to satisfy their natural impulses, and when it dwindles they go out like the light of a candle. Their lives are purely instinctive. It may be that theirs is the greater wisdom.

How about Truth, Beauty and Goodness? And love, too. Can any of these values be regarded strong enough to justify the existence of Man on Earth?

Truth certainly comes out with pretty poor chances to be one of the ultimate values. Maugham is not the man to mince words:
Man has always sacrificed truth to his vanity, comfort and advantage. He lives not by truth but by make-believe, and his idealism, it has sometimes seemed to me, is merely his effort to attach the prestige of truth to the fictions he has invented to satisfy his self-conceit.
So much for Truth.

Beauty certainly stands in a better position, but everybody who has read Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale, first published eight years before The Summing Up, knows perfectly well that beauty has no chance, either. By that time, Maugham had already renounced art for art’s sake and all that nonsense he eagerly believed in his youth that the beauty an artist creates now and then is the only justification for the suffering of the masses there is. One of the most hilarious passages in the book is indeed Maugham’s description of his circle of passionate, art-loving friends on Capri while he was still a medical student:

I listened with transport to conversations, up at Anacapri at the colonel's house, or at Morgano's, the wine shop just off the Piazza, when they talked of art and beauty, literature and Roman history. I saw two men fly at one another's throats because they disagreed over the poetic merit for Heredia's sonnets. I thought it all grand. Art, art for art's sake, was the only thing that mattered in the world; and the artist alone gave this ridiculous world significance. Politics, commerce, the learned professors - what did they amount to from the standpoint of the Absolute? They might disagree, these friends of mine (dead, dead every jack one of them), about the value of a sonnet or the excellence of a Greek bas-relief (Greek, my eye! I tell you it's a Roman copy and if I tell you a thing it is so); but they were all agreed about this, that they burned with a hard, gem-like flame. I was too shy to tell them that I had written a novel and was half-way through another and it was a great mortification to me, burning as I was too with a hard, gem-like flame, to be treated as a philistine who cared for nothing but dissecting dead bodies and would seize an unguarded moment to give his best friend an enema.

Some three or four decades later Maugham’s attitude to beauty had changed out of all recognition. Beauty was now a ''full stop'', an exquisite and powerful sensation, but short and impossible to preserve. Moreover, Maugham found to his dismay, the more beautiful a work of art is, the least scope it gives to his imagination, thus making the satisfaction of his aesthetic sense even more ephemeral. Beauty is linked with perfection and perfection is apt to be dull. Most strangely, perhaps, Maugham discovered that beauty was not at all ''a joy forever'', as Keats passionately claimed, but quite the opposite: every generation has a different perception for beauty, usually quite different than the preceding one, not to mention that some works of art may with time not only gain but even acquire beauty. Nothing so fickle could Maugham regard as an ultimate value.

I am pretty sure Maugham’s view of love would outrage a good many romantic souls. They will cry out, rightly, that Maugham makes no difference between love and lust. But is there any difference between them? If love should really be regarded as ''the exultation, the sense of power, the feeling of heightened vitality'' as it usually is, I cannot see how we can escape the fact that it is firmly rooted in the sexual instinct. Otherwise, we are left with affection.

However much people may resent the fact and however angrily deny it, there can surely be no doubt that love depends on certain secretions of the sexual glands. In the immense majority these do not continue indefinitely to be excited by the same object and with advancing years they atrophy. People are very hypocritical in this matter and will not face the truth. They so deceive themselves that they can accept it with complacency when their love dwindles into what they describe as a solid and enduring affection. As if affection had anything to do with love!

Note the exclamation mark. It is something Maugham rarely used and it does speak volumes. He always regarded affection as something completely different than love, something ''created by habit, community of interests, convenience and desire of companionship'', ''a comfort rather than an exhilaration'', but he always had a lot of respect for it. Surely, it was not for nothing that he made his first person narrator in the short story ''The Book-Bag'' say the following words:

Though I said that affection was the greatest enemy of love, I would never deny that it's a very good substitute. I'm not sure that a marriage founded on it isn't the happiest.

By the way, with regard to Maugham’s views of love, he was even more brutal, but perfectly in character, when he gave Simon from Christmas Holiday, first published on the next year after The Summing Up, a most impressive tirade about love:

An awful lot of hokum is talked about love, you know. An importance is ascribed to it that is entirely at variance with fact. People talk as though it were self-evidently the greatest of human values. Nothing is less self-evident. Until Plato dressed his sentimental sensuality in a captivating literary form the ancient world laid no more stress on it than was sensible; the healthy realism of the Muslim has never looked upon it as anything but a physical need; it was Christianity, buttressing its emotional claims with neo-Platonism, that made it into the end an aim, the reason, the justification of life. But Christianity was the religion of slaves. It offered the weary and the heavy-laden heaven to compensate them in the future for their misery in this world and the opiate of love to enable them to bear it in the present. And like every drug it enervated and destroyed those who became subject to it. For two thousand years it's suffocated us. It's weakened our wills and lessened our courage. In this modern world we live in we know that almost everything is more important than love, we know that only the soft and the stupid allow it to affect their actions, and yet we pay it a foolish lip-service. In books, on the stage, in the pulpit, on the platform the same old sentimental rubbish is talked that was used to hoodwink the slaves of Alexandria.

Of course this was not Maugham but a character of his invention, yet the passage is worth considering nonetheless. All the more so since we can be pretty sure it reflects Maugham’s views of love and Christianity quite accurately.

People are indeed lucky if their love is in time transformed into a long-lasting affection. The passage in which Maugham describes how love dies, obviously without giving birth to affection, is immensely poignant and I wonder if there are so many people worldwide who cannot identify at least partly with these words:

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person. Mostly, different ourselves, we make a desperate, pathetic effort to love in a different person the person once loved. It is only because the power of love when it seizes us seems so mighty that we persuade ourselves that it will last for ever. When it subsides, we are ashamed, and, duped, blame ourselves for our weakness, whereas we should accept our change of heart as a natural effect of our humanity.

All in all, Maugham is convinced that love, or at least sexual love, is far from suitable to be a serious candidate for a value giving meaning to life. No matter how powerful and wonderful it may be, the transitory nature of love, which nobody but a perfect fool would deny, is also its tombstone. But Maugham’s view of love is not that simple. There is a second kind of love, one that is not entirely devoid of the sexual element, but neither is it fully dependent on it; one that is much more lasting than the sexual love and, unlike beauty, can be perfect without being dull. Maugham calls this phenomenon loving-kindness, and this is the end of the story:
Loving-kindness is the better part of goodness. It lends grace to the sterner qualities of which this consists and makes it a little less difficult to practise those minor virtues of self-control and self-restraint, patience, discipline and tolerance, which are the passive and not very exhilarating elements of goodness. Goodness is the only value that seems in this world of appearances to have any claim to be an end in itself. Virtue is its own reward. I am ashamed to have reached so commonplace a conclusion. With my instinct for effect I should have liked to end my book with some startling and paradoxical announcement or with a cynicism that my readers would have recognised with a chuckle as characteristic. It seems I have little more to say than can be read in any copybook or heard from any pulpit. I have gone a long way round to discover what everyone knew already.
Looking back on what I have written and quoted, I am terribly conscious that it does no justice whatsoever to book like The Summing Up. It is painfully inadequate. It conveys really nothing of the authoritative yet gentle voice, the elaborate yet absorbing narrative, and the complicated yet compelling personality of Somerset Maugham. I might just as well have left out my own reflections and made a ''review'' entirely of quotes – thrice longer. There is so much more between these pages: it is just impossible to give any good idea of the real scope of that book and the amount of wisdom it contains. But, then again, great books should be read and re-read, not reviewed or written about. Whether one agrees or not is of little consequence. One thinks. One is changed. Perhaps for the better.


  1. Very thoughtful review, Alexander. I see you mentioned snobbishness already, sorry for my trite comment.

    It could be because of my own idiosyncrasies, I still don't understand why one would conclude from reading this that Maugham is a nasty or unlikeable person, like our friend Bond (James Bond) says.

    I agree that any nitpicking about it being autobiography or not autobiography doesn't make any sense at all. Certainly conversations, events, actions do tell a lot about a person, but then, there is something else which, I believe, is more of the core of his/her being. It could be the voice you mention, or the consciousness, or even the soul, if you like. It is where our personality dwells; it doesn't have a face or physique, but it is what we are. Now, I am out of my depth here, so I'll shut up.

    What I want to say is that instead of revealing who Maugham has slept with, for example, in The Summing Up he truly bares his soul. There is nothing more sincere than that and the immense courage that it takes.

    By the way, you also show a lot of yourself in your review, beware!

    1. I understand why many people, or at least some people, would dislike Maugham. Leaving aside superficial motives like his success, wealth or sexual orientation, people who are, not just sentimental (we all are, now and then), but prone to mawkish sentimentality all the time, people who cannot bear to be alone and constantly need others to reassure them of their significance, people who are outside mental institutions when they should be inside them, such people are to be expected to dislike an independent spirit like Maugham who tells them some hard truths they would prefer not to know.

      I like the phrase "spiritual autobiography". I think it describes the nature of the book as well as anything. Every biography should be spiritual, if you ask me, but unfortunately the term "biography" has come to be associated with facts and figures, not with personality or character. It is also unfortunate that the word "spiritual", much like "soul", has acquired misleading connotations.

      Too bad that my writing should be so revealing about myself. I'll have to take my chances on that. I detest impersonal writing. And even if I didn't, I couldn't do it anyway.