Sunday, 1 September 2013

Review: Don Fernando (1935, rev. 1950) by Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

Don Fernando

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2000.
12mo. vii+178 pp. Author's Note, 1950 [v-vii].

First published by Heinemann, 1935.
Revised version with new Author's Note first published, 1950.


Somerset Maugham loved Spain. It’s that simple and that complex. I don’t think any other single country and its people, not even his two homelands, France and England, ever held a greater fascination for him. No fewer than two of his non-fiction books, The Land of the Blessed Virgin (1905), his first exercise in travel writing, and the volume which is supposed to be reviewed here, and which defies categorization, are entirely dedicated to Spain. The essay “Zurbaran” from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952) must also be mentioned in this company.

The Spanish impact on Maugham’s fiction has not been so strong, but nor is it negligible. Catalina (1948), his last novel and last work of fiction, is set in Spain during the Golden Age. Short stories with Spanish settings and characters span the whole of Maugham’s career. “The Punctiliousness of Don Sebastian” was his first published story, in 1898, and a year later, together with “Faith”, a kind of atheist manifesto in fiction set against the background of Spanish Catholic fanaticism, was included in his first collection, Orientations (1899); in his last one, Creatures of Circumstance, published 48 years later, there are three “Spanish stories”[1] (at least one of which, “The Mother”, was originally published in 1909[2]). It’s interesting to note that in the nearly five decades between, while he published more than 100 stories, Maugham apparently wrote only two more which may be said to have strong Spanish flavour; and these were “The Poet” and “The Happy Man”, both among his light anecdotes better known as Cosmopolitans (1936). With the only other exception of “The Romantic Young Lady”, all of the rest are harrowing tales, full of everything vile that Spain has ever been associated with: from religious hysteria and perverted forms of love to horrid bullfights and pathological ideas of honour.

It’s only too natural, then, especially given my own prejudices against Spain and the Spanish, that I should often ask myself “What on earth did Maugham find so fascinating about these people and their Golden Age?” Well, I believe the most romantic answer is also the most accurate one. The Golden Age fixation was most probably an afterthought, but Spain certainly was the country where Maugham tasted real freedom for the first time in his life, and at a very impressionable age. In The Summing Up, he has given an unforgettable and often-quoted description of his first Spanish sojourn, including the all-important circumstances that led to it.

Presently I was qualified. I had already published a novel and it had had an unexpected success. I thought my fortune was made, and, abandoning medicine to become a writer, I went to Spain. I was then twenty-three. […] I settled down in Seville. I grew a moustache, smoked Filipino cigars, learnt the guitar, bought a broad-brimmed hat with a flat crown, in which I swaggered down the Sierpes, and hankered for a flowing cape, lined with green and red velvet. But on account of the expense I did not buy it. I rode about the countryside on a horse lent me by a friend. Life was too pleasant to allow me to give an undivided attention to literature. […] I fell in love with Seville and the life one led there and incidentally with a young thing with green eyes and a gay smile (but I got over that) and I could not resist its lure. I returned year after year. I wondered through the white and silent streets and strolled along the Guadalquivir, I dawdled about the Cathedral, I went to bull-fights and made light love to pretty little creatures whose demands on me were no more than my exiguous means could satisfy. It was heavenly to live in Seville in the flower of one’s youth.[3]

This was not the first time when Maugham was intoxicated by the carefree life of a foreign country. While still a medical student, he visited Capri, “the most enchanting spot”[4] he had ever seen; some four decades later, he set one of his finest stories, “The Lotus Eater”[5], on this gaunt rock covered with smiling vineyards and lemon groves. Still earlier, when he was not even a medical student yet, Willie spent more than a year in Heidelberg[6], a period of crucial importance for his intellectual development as he listened to the lectures of Kuno Fischer and was introduced to Schopenhauer, not to mention a great deal of other literature. But there was one critical difference between these visits to Germany or Italy and Maugham’s first travel to Spain. He arrived at Seville as a published author, financially independent and full of confidence thanks to the success of his debut novel. He was dependent neither on his father’s money nor on his uncle’s approval. He was a free man. He was a success. He was twenty-three. He had an insatiable lust for living life to the full, greater than ever before (or since?), and the first opportunity to enjoy it on his own steam. It was just as well that he didn’t have a crystal ball and so didn’t know that a full decade would have to pass until his pen finally bought him a real freedom.

There are, of course, other attractions that Spain held for Maugham. He had more than a passing interest in the painting, the literature and the mystics of the Golden Age. It was El Greco, above all, that captured his fancy, but he was far from indifferent to Zurbaran, Velazquez or Murillo. He read Don Quixote from cover to cover five times, thrice in Spanish and twice in English[7], and it is probably true to say that he knew more about the drama of the Spanish Renaissance than anybody else save professors who specialise in it. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that Maugham’s love for Spain and the Spaniards, the same thing really, stems from those six months or so in the end of 1897 and the beginning of 1898 when he roamed through Andalusia on horseback, feeling heavenly free of all earthly ties and obligations. He seems to confirm this in Don Fernando; the emphasis is mine:

I was but twenty-three when I went to Seville. I had spent five years in a London hospital and for the first time in my life was my own master. I have been back to Spain a dozen times since then; it has never ceased to possess for me the glamour of those few first months of heavenly freedom. I had no ties and no responsibilities. I had no care in the world but to write well; I did not know then what severe labour and what harassing bondage this entailed.[8]

In 1905 Maugham could still write a travel book largely dedicated to sightseeing, brimming with detailed descriptions of monuments and countryside. Thirty years later this was no longer possible. He was not indifferent to the spacious and hilly planes of Spain, nor to the countless gothic cathedrals that adorn her cities. But it was the people, the most curious specimens of the Spanish character, that he was truly captivated by (and it must be said, for the record, that he was quite fond of them in his early book). He calls them “those brutal, courageous, passionate, idealistic, earthly, humorous, cruel and humane men who subjected a continent and discovered a world”, people whose character combines a “mocking, realistic” side that “so strangely exists cheek by jowl with the idealistic and mystical.”[9] A strange duality indeed! Full twenty years later, Maugham made another remarkably concise portrait of the Spaniards during their Golden Age, finishing with a statement that may be controversial, but it does supply yet another reason for his lifelong obsession with them:

They were proud, punctilious and elaborately courteous, passionate, brutal and ruthless, fiercely religious, but fond of a joke, especially a bawdy or a cruel one; and when their passions were not roused, gracious, charitable and kindly. I do not believe the Spaniards have greatly changed. Essentially they are the same people as they were then.[10]

If the last sentence is true, is there a better reason for studying history? And how could a writer, who was absorbed in the complexity of human nature all his life, resist the temptation to explore such incandescent and improbable creature as the Spaniard? Little by little, I am starting to comprehend Maugham’s boundless admiration, mingled with humour of course, for the Spanish people and the Siglo de Oro they still cherish. Don Fernando has helped a lot in this respect. That is why, notwithstanding its defects, it is an indispensable read for the student of Maugham.

The book is a curious mixture of reflections on many subjects and memories from many travels, quotations from historical sources and descriptions of modern Spain as Maugham saw it between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1930s. It is separated into eleven more or less self-sufficient sections, so I guess it is best described as a collection of essays. But the different parts vary greatly in quantity as well as in quality. At this point it is useful, if superficial, to offer a short summary of them.

The first part introduces you to the man who gave the book its title. Don Fernando was a tavern owner and a shady dealer of curiosities from Seville whom Maugham met during his first visit to Spain – or invented later for the purposes of this book. Parts two, three, nine and ten are dedicated to St Ignatius of Loyola, El Greco, St Teresa and Fray Luis de Leon, none of them in need of introduction. Part four is something like justification for the writing of this book, apparently as a kind of improvement over The Land of the Blessed Virgin which Maugham regarded with a solid dose of contempt[11]. Part five is an entirely contemporary look at the Spanish cuisine. Parts six and seven look at the literature (mostly consisting of picaresque novels) and the drama of the Golden Age (mostly consisting of Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca). Part eight is an account of the everyday life and morals of Renaissance Spain that just can’t fail to make you exclaim “O tempora o mores”: you choose to include the exclamation marks or not. Part eleven serves as a conclusion, including a rather fanciful – but I daresay not so improbable – explanation why Maugham never wrote the “Spanish” novel he contemplated at the time.

Since Spain is most famous for its bullfights, let’s start by grabbing the bull for – the horns.

The most famous part of this book, by far, is the speculation that El Greco might have been homosexual. It is more intriguing and potentially more personal than the only other explicit reference to this “abnormality” in Maugham’s works (about Melville in Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954). Let’s have a look at it. The whole passage but with minor omissions is the following:

Not long ago I came across the suggestion, made in a ribald spirit, that El Greco was homosexual. I have thought it worth considering. So far as an artist’s work is concerned there is as a rule little interest in knowing about his sexual life, upon which an exaggerated stress is generally laid. There is a notion that men who have in any way greatly distinguished themselves should in this respect be different than their fellows, and when the student discovers that they have had love affairs he is apt to think the fact strangely significant. For all the to-do that has been made over the amours of Shelley and Byron I cannot but doubt whether they were very different from those of other young men of their class. Many a smart young broker in the City of London would have looked upon them with supercilious amusement as extremely meagre. But when it comes to an abnormality the case is different. I have suggested that talent consists in an individual way of seeing the world combined with a natural aptitude for creation and that genius is talent with a greater capacity and a universal sympathy. Now it cannot be denied that the homosexual has a narrower outlook. In certain respects the natural responses of the species are denied to him. Some at least of the broad and typical human emotions he can never experience. However subtly he sees life he cannot see it whole. If it were not for the perplexing Sonnets I should say that the homosexual can never reach the supreme heights of genius. I cannot now help asking myself whether what I see in El Greco’s work of tortured fantasy and sinister strangeness is not due to such a sexual abnormality as this. I hasten to add that this can be nothing but surmise, as is all else I have said of him. Besides his pictures, the letter of Julio Clovio, certain legal documents, his death certificate and the list of his effects there is no material for any direct knowledge of him. Whatever does not proceed from this, however confidently it is stated, can be no more than plausible.

When you survey possibilities it must be admitted that there is in this one a good deal that saves it from being wildly improbable. […] I should say that a distinctive trait of the homosexual is a lack of deep seriousness over certain things that normal men take seriously. This ranges from an inane flippancy to a sardonic humour. He has a wilfulness that attaches importance to things that most men find trivial and on the other hand regards cynically the subjects which the common opinion of mankind has held essential to its spiritual welfare. He has a lively sense of beauty, but is apt to see beauty especially in decoration. He loves luxury and attaches peculiar value to elegance. He is emotional, but fantastic. He is vain, loquacious, witty and theatrical. With his keen insight and quick sensibility he can pierce the depths, but in his inane frivolity he fetches up from them not a priceless jewel but a tinsel ornament. He has small power of invention, but a wonderful gift for delightful embroidery. He has vitality, brilliance, but seldom strength. He stands on the bank, aloof and ironical, and watches the river of life flow on. He is persuaded that opinion is no more than prejudice. In short he has many of the characteristics that surprise us in El Greco. It may be that in this abnormality lies the explanation why his pictures fail of that ultimate greatness which is release. They thrill; they do not give you peace. They excite; but they do not satisfy.[12]

Arresting speculation. But it will not stand careful scrutiny. Most of Maugham’s arguments I find perplexing rather than convincing.

To begin with, I think he is quite carried away with sweeping generalisations. Surely, not all homosexuals, not even all artists with homosexual orientation, are “vain, loquacious, witty and theatrical”, are they? Neither do I see how we can link homosexuality, even in those bygone times when it was a source of social alienation or even considered a criminal offence, with “lack of deep seriousness”, with that “wilfulness” which breeds cynical attitude to common human values, with love for luxury and elegance, or with “small power of invention”, “wonderful gift for delightful embroidery”, “lively sense of beauty” and “inane frivolity”. All these things, it seems to me, may depend on so much other, and more important, factors (e.g. hereditary and environmental, which indeed determine everything, including the sexuality itself).

The argument that some of the “natural responses of the species are denied” to the homosexual is obviously true. But is it so important? I don’t think it is. Family and fatherhood, at least in their conventional incarnations, may be beyond his reach, but neither of them prevents him from making a success out of his life. Indeed, the opposite may be argued: the absence of family ties may be beneficial for the self-realisation in other fields. This is especially true in the arts where, as a rule, the greatest geniuses have seldom been exemplary family men. Besides, the homosexual is not to be despised as an observer of heterosexual relationships. Being an outsider not intimately concerned with the matter, he can observe more dispassionately than either party in any “normal” couple. Guess which writer did this compulsively and with rare insight during the 50-odd years of his career.

And what of this cryptic reference to “perplexing sonnets”?[13] Whose are these? Shakespeare’s? Michelangelo’s? Are they the only proof that the homosexual could reach the “the supreme heights of genius”? Ironically enough, Maugham himself is the perfect example that invalidates his own point. Genius, to my mind, is making the best of such gifts as you are endowed with. This Maugham certainly did in at least two arts: the art of writing and the art of life. It doesn’t disturb me that the majority of readers, not to mention virtually all professors of literature and professional literary critics, would disagree with my putting Maugham in the first row of the first rank, let alone calling him a genius. But to me this seems as plain as the opposite does to the highbrows. If you insist on defining genius as Maugham does in this essay, as “talent with a greater capacity and a universal sympathy” (talent being an “individual way of seeing the world combined with a natural aptitude for creation”[14]), he fits the criteria even better.

The whole discussion of El Greco’s homosexuality sounds like Maugham’s lamenting his own failure to reach the Olympian heights of creation. This is possibly his only bout of self-flagellation in print. It is notoriously well-known that he expressed something like agreement with the critics who labelled him “second-rate”; he once said he painted easel pictures, not frescoes (as if an easel picture couldn’t be a masterpiece), and it’s fairly sure that he considered his works closer to “tinsel ornaments” than to “priceless jewels”. Did he think that his homosexuality really was a terrible limitation, the major one that marred his writing? He may have. In some of the most candid passages of The Summing Up, Maugham considered his innate aloofness – “I have been jealous of my independence. I am incapable of complete surrender.” – and his “small power of imagination” to be the chief reasons why his work could never achieve “the intimacy, the broad human touch and the animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.”[15] Maybe he really meant his homosexuality. Maybe he didn’t.

I hardly need to add that I think he didn’t. To my mind, it was Maugham’s ironic detachment – and he well knew it – that could have limited his self-realisation. Of course it didn’t. Like all great artists, Maugham managed to transform his greatest limitations into some of his greatest strengths. Whether he knew that I am not sure, but I surmise he was dimly aware of it. Don Fernando was first published just a few years before The Summing Up, and there are some noticeable repetitions between both works, sometimes in similar words. The later book being spiritually more personal but carnally less explicit, it is possible that Maugham may have used El Greco’s putative homosexuality to set his personal record straight. If he did, as seems probable to me, it was a mistake that mars an otherwise delightful essay. By 1950, when the revised version was first published, it was too late to omit the passage. Imagine the pandemonium if he had!

Whether homosexuality is regarded as “abnormality” is a matter of personal opinion. Personally, I don’t think it is more abnormal than watching most TV programs, especially the ones fond of reality shows and commercials, or spending countless hours online in forums and chats. Homosexuality is just another form of human communication. It is different and less popular than the more conventional heterosexual alternative, but neither strikes me as a valid argument against its existence. If it is capable of creating and sustaining a harmonious and productive relationship – and we all know it is – then I think it definitely has its place in society. It is strange that Maugham should have used a word like “abnormality”. Thrice!

It should be mentioned that Maugham at least never stoops so low as to search for El Greco’s homosexuality in the male nudes on his canvases. No less a master than Michelangelo Buonarroti has been victim of such stupendous superficiality. So has Maugham, for that matter, as perceptive critics and even more perceptive biographers have gone out of their way to show how the huge impact of Maugham’s homosexuality on his works is confirmed by descriptions of male beauty in his novels and short stories. Enough about that.

Leaving aside the entirely unimportant matter of homosexuality and his unconvincing treatment of it, Maugham’s discourse on El Greco is fascinating. Only towards the end of the essay, having tried nearly everything else, does he resort to the “abnormality” as a putative explanation of the “tortured fantasy and sinister strangeness” that are on display in so many of El Greco’s paintings. Maugham is careful to point out that everything he says about “The Greek” can be no more than surmise, as very few original documents have survived, but he has a well-argued case about everything from El Greco’s biography and character to the colours and the composition in his pictures. Several points of personal interest may be noted.

Maugham’s character sketch is compelling. He would have no truck with idealistic fantasies about El Greco as the epitome of fervent Catholicism, the most potent weapon of the Counter-reformation, an austere spirit indifferent to anything material. Not even close, if you ask Maugham. Analysis of the two self-portraits he presumably drew in two of his most famous pictures, The Burial of Count Orgaz and The Martyrdom of St Maurice, yields rather surprising, but not unconvincing, results:

You would have said from the look of him that this was a composed, intelligently curious man, but one capable neither of great passion nor of deep emotion. In neither of these pictures is there in the expression any of the seriousness which one would have thought the occasion demanded. This person seems to preserve a strangely ironic detachment; it would never occur to you that he was a mystic; you might have taken him for a sardonic humorist.[16]

Further investigation of the little we know, or think we know, about El Greco shows that he probably was addicted to luxury, grandiloquent in his speech, and magnificently arrogant. More controversially, Maugham suggests that in his numerous portraits of Spanish noblemen, so distinguished and decorous yet so devoid of personality and character, El Greco had a lot of subtle fun at the expense of his sitters:

It looks as though El Greco regarded his sitters with a singular detachment. Is it possible that this mystic took no interest in the human soul? Though infinitely well-born these people look terribly stupid. They were. The history of Spain during the Golden Age is a history of the abysmal ineptitude of which the human race is capable. A Greek, subtle and quick-witted, a man of culture, it may well be that he was impatient of these fine gentlemen’s stupidity.[17]

I suppose “the abysmal ineptitude of which the human race is capable” is as good a reason as any for Maugham’s lifelong fascination with Spain. It certainly doesn’t sound worse than any of the reasons I mentioned above. Always the indefatigable student of human nature, especially its extremes, it is only too natural that Maugham should be attracted by such supreme incarnation of human folly that apparently marked the Golden Age of Spain. I imagine it would give ample scope to his keen sense of the ridiculous.

Maugham was intensely interested in the mystics from the Golden Age and, as evident from this book, knew a great deal about them. He memorably defines mysticism as “that state that renders you conscious of depths of truth unknown to the intellect, revealing like “glimpses of forgotten dreams” a greater significance in life and union with some larger reality”[18], and he is convinced that El Greco was a mystic, though not a religious one. For Maugham was of the opinion that this illusory communion with what for want of a better word is called “God” can be achieved through various ways, for example “from a glass of cold beer, from the sight of a well-remembered scene, from opium, from love, by prayer and fasting and mortification of the flesh, and if you are an artist in the excitement of the creation.“[19] The mystics of Spain were somewhat unhealthily preoccupied with the penultimate alternative. Or so they say.

To question the sincerity of El Greco’s faith is a formidable challenge. Virtually all of his pictures are religious, and he lived in times (at the turn of the 17th century) and places (Italy and Spain) in which this meant a great deal. Yet again, however, Maugham provides many arguments not to be dismissed without careful consideration.

You don’t have to agree with Maugham’s fanciful, to say the least, equalling of homosexuality and frivolity in order to appreciate the latter in El Greco’s paintings. In a nutshell, Willie suggests that the Cretan used the human body mostly as a decorative element; hence his famous elongated figures with small heads. Above all, Maugham is outraged by El Greco’s constant depiction of extremely beautiful but utterly inappropriate to the situation hand gestures. Two of the most telling examples are The Martyrdom of St Maurice, than which “never did El Greco more obviously paint gestures for their beauty rather than for their significance”, and Christ Carrying the Cross in which it is “disconcerting […] to see the elegance with which the Saviour clasps it”. Look at both pictures and see for yourself, but I think both points are well worth some thoughts. The same is true for the sardonic humour: typical of the homosexual or not, it is strongly suggested by some of El Greco’s monstrous distortions.

I cannot but ask myself why El Greco, who could draw so beautifully when he wanted to, should, apart from his deliberate distortions, at times have drawn so carelessly. Why does he put a Virgin’s eye half way down her face or make it pop out of her head as though, poor thing, she had exophthalmic goitre? Why does he sometimes give his saints the look of ducks dying of fright in a thunderstorm? The Virgin in the Crucifixion in the Prado is grotesque; that face would not be out of keeping in a satiric painting by Goya.[20]

Similar reflections lead Maugham to declare El Greco “the greatest of baroque painters” and launch a long digression on this curious style that is supposed to have carried the art of decoration to its greatest heights. I guess most art historians would sharply disagree that “El Greco was aiming at this and nothing else”, and it may be that Maugham was unduly influenced by his far-fetched homosexual speculations, but his hypothesis actually explains both El Greco’s development towards more abstract compositions later in his life and his indubitable influence over Modernism. Never satisfied with mere walking on well-trodden grounds, Maugham goes further and suggests a rather startling parallel between the 16th and the 20th century. I think it is stimulating:

It is not strange that the moderns should set such great store by El Greco. If he were alive to-day I imagine he would paint pictures as abstract as the later work of Bracque, Picasso and Fernand Léger. And it may be that the interest in formal design of the present day is due to the same causes as produced baroque art in the sixteenth century. Now too we are spiritually at sixes and sevens. Afraid of the sublime, we take refuge in the multiplication table.[21]

Maugham is a skilful polemicist. Even his most speculative notions are, first, recognised as such, and second, supported by some evidence, however subjective. He may be opinionated and provocative, but he is never dogmatic: he never asserts anything only because he feels like it. He suggests, for instance, that El Greco might possibly have left Italy because of some brawl, but he hastens to add that this was hardly uncommon at times when swords were drawn on the smallest and most trivial of provocations; murder, trial and banishment followed shortly. He is convinced that, contrary to the popular opinion then, El Greco acquired his unique colour palette (about which Maugham deliriously rave, a rare thing about him indeed) before he ever set foot in Spain. I so far fail to see the parallels with Tintoretto, who’s also supposed to have influenced the notorious “elongated figures”, but that may be due to my ignorance of Venetian painting from the second half of the 16th century.

A comparison between El Greco and Velazquez, the finest Spanish master from the next century, is the obvious thing to do. After all, these are the two most famous Spanish painters in pre-Goya times. It doesn’t sound very promising, but Maugham pulls it off very effectively. Using only their pictures and inviting us to wander through the halls of the Prado, he creates a dramatic juxtaposition that’s almost operatic in its emotive power.

So Velazquez was a man of “an equable, sunny temperament” and “the greatest of court-painters”. Yes, it is true that he is “somewhat superficial, but he is superficial on the grand scale”, and he had a “genial heartlessness” when he painted his dwarfs and fools blissfully unaware of the wretched “misery of their lot”. Nobody, of course, can deny his “miraculous skill in painting”, but the more one looks the more one asks oneself whether all this glorious talent is really worth it. “It reminds you of a writer who says things with exquisite sobriety, but says nothing of any great consequence.” Velazquez created beauty, and beauty was a full stop for Maugham. You stand, you gaze, you admire – and then you start a new sentence.

On the other hand, El Greco was a man of “uncertain humour perplexed by fantastic longings”, a man tormented by pain who strived to express something, some bizarre anxiety, that is “hovering just below consciousness that it exasperated him to be unable to recall.” He may well have been an extravagant Levantine who laughed up his sleeve at the Spaniards and their bombastic estimation of themselves. It is difficult to believe that he regarded the holy Catholic faith with anything more than sardonic amusement, constantly making fun of it that was too subtle for the obtuse Spanish aristocracy, however strongly they may have suspected it subconsciously – as Philip II no doubt did. But there can be no doubt, either, that El Greco was a mystic. If mysticism may, rather broadly, be defined as the quest to understand ourselves and our place in the universe, the Cretan fits to perfection, together with his vast and anything but ordinary art. This is not a full stop. You stand, you shiver, you are disturbed – and it stays with you long after you have left the Prado.

In spite of the homosexual hitch, the essay on El Greco is among the finest and most stimulating pieces in the book. Not much else in on that level. Indeed, the best single-word description of the whole volume would be “uneven”. Several caveats may be kept in mind.

The “chapter” on Spanish food is painfully dull. This is strange. Maugham always was a connoisseur of food and one would expect him to write a lively account of the Spanish cuisine. For some reason it didn’t come off. Most of the piece consists of greatly obsolete advice where in Spain you can eat well and where you can’t. Last but not least, it must be stressed that a connoisseur of food is an enormously different creature than the glutton. The former eats slowly and sparingly, savouring the food, while the latter eats a good deal too much, rather quickly and paying no attention to the cooking. Maugham was not afraid of drawing controversial conclusions with much wider implications than your olfactory receptors may sense. One of the most provocative among his early notes is the wise, to my mind, statement that the “spirituality of man is most apparent when he is eating a hearty dinner.”[22] Nothing like that will you find in part five of Don Fernando. Indeed, you are well-advised to follow Maugham’s own general precept about reading and skip it.

Several other chapters contain material that I cannot but regard as superfluous and awkwardly inserted. This is a grave error of construction that I didn’t expect from the mature Maugham (he was 61 when the book was first published). The concluding pages, for instance, are marred by an excessive detail about the epic pilgrimage of an Armenian bishop who in the end of the 15th century travelled from his homeland to Spain. The only thing that justifies his inclusion, as readily admitted by Maugham, is one fine speech by a Spanish naval captain which is quoted by the itinerant devotee in his book. It’s a marvellous example of that fiercely intrepid national character, but it could have been retained without the irrelevant details of the bishop’s journey. In the beginning of part six, which is supposed to deal with the Spanish language and literature, there is a sordid story about a man who went to a brothel, picked up a girl with lovely green eyes, went with her in the appropriate room, and that’s what happened next:

When the girl stripped the young man was taken aback to see that she was still a child.
‘You look very young to be in a place like this,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’
‘What made you come here?’
Hambre,’ she answered. ‘Hunger.’[23]

Poignant story, to say the least, which has its place in the book. But this is the wrong place. Within the context it aims, apparently, to inform us that some Spanish girls did have green eyes, so the old writers didn’t invent them, nor did they mean something else. Hardly the most important insight into the Spanish literature! It’s much more fascinating to speculate whether the story was based on Maugham’s own experience; the fact that it’s told in the third person is of course no hindrance for that. It does sound familiar – it’s not an easy story to forget, is it? – but I’m not sure whether I read it before in this very book or somewhere else in Maugham’s oeuvre related in the first person singular.

Many passages are, if not unnecessary, at all events unnecessarily expanded. The narrative in part two of St Ignatius’ early life is tedious: descriptive and dry, entirely devoid of the subtle wit so characteristic of Maugham. The next part suffers from too extensive quotations from Spiritual Exercises, the saint’s literary tour de force, and from some notes of one modern editor who was inordinately fond of gory descriptions of the eternal punishment that sinners are bound to experience in Hell. The pages dedicated to the picaresque novel and the drama also contain too many quotes and too detailed plot descriptions. In later years, this will be the case with some of Maugham’s other essays, too.

But there is something to be said in defence of Maugham’s somewhat unrestrained propensity for plot retelling. One must understand that it was essential, for very few readers, I imagine, had any idea of, let alone read, novels like Lazarillo de Tormes and Vida de Marcos de Obregon or plays like La Estrella de Sevilla or La Devocion de la Cruz. And in those ancient times there was no World Wide Web where you can google everything and then entertain the slightly outrageous notion that you know everything about it. Besides, these pages are nothing like the acute boredom that marks the apprentice years of St Ignatius. They make for a lively and illuminating read. A novelist and a dramatist himself, Maugham was well-equipped to appreciate how revealing of their age novels and plays may be, but also what limitations and pitfalls the curious historian should be aware of. Occasionally, he does include general reflections that are, to my mind, very much thought-provoking, and indeed worth quoting:

It would be absurd to suppose that one could acquire from the picaresque novels more than a partial knowledge of the behaviour, the ways of thought and the sensibility of the Spanish in the Golden Age. They present but one side from the picture. For another you must go to the drama, which at no time and in no country has flourished so luxuriantly as in Spain during the hundred years that ended with Calderon’s death [1681]. Now, drama is a popular art and in order to succeed a play must reflect the temper of the age. A play is a close collaboration between the author, the actors and the audience, and the audience cannot play their part unless they can share and share alike in the author’s conception. The sentiments that he sets before them must be those with which they are in sympathy. He must feel as they feel and his morality must be the same as theirs. Sometimes he expresses sentiments and a morality that his audience have felt, but from timidity or obtuseness have refused to put into words; and then he is admiringly described as a dramatist of ideas. The revolt of Nora came as a shock to the world of her day, but the notion would have seemed preposterous (and so the play would have failed) unless there had been an obscure, but deep-seated feeling among the spectators that woman had a right to her own personality. Thus by reading the drama of a period you can get a very good impression of what men and women thought on the great issues that influenced their lives.

But if the drama presents an adequate picture of the way men think and feel, contrariwise it influences their thoughts and feelings. It gives voice to the inclinations that they have repressed and by the vividness of its appeal enables them to carry into action the promptings of their hearts. The contagiousness of the emotions it arouses, the man-to-man address, give it a power incomparably greater than that of fiction. Far more wives left their husbands because Nora slammed the door in Torvald Helmer’s face than ever men shot themselves because Werther suffered from the melancholia of the age. Though it must be admitted that suicide is a drastic and often painful affair. The dramatist not only represents the persons of his period, but by giving to their instinctive tendencies living shapes forms them after the pattern he has devised. So Mr. Coward not only portrayed the querulous frivolity of the decade that followed the Great War, but created a generation of querulously frivolous people. It is owing to this power that the playwright wields, that the church has always, and it may be with wisdom, looked upon drama askance.[24]

Aficionados of Maugham’s short stories will certainly recall “The Point of Honour”[25], as cruel and chilling as its title is hackneyed, and would like know if such perverse ideas of honour really existed in Spain of the 16th century. The answer appears to be positive. It’s difficult to believe. Could a man kill his wife in cold blood – or in hot blood, if you like – just because she has given rise to ribald gossip which, he knows perfectly well, is not true? This is not honour. This is vanity; not to mention cruelty and a most lamentable lack of elementary common sense. Although Maugham’s first person narrator is outraged, in his non-fiction he is curiously non-committal. The story refers to Calderon’s play El Medico de su Honra and this is briefly discussed here, together with several other works by the same author. Apparently the “point of honour“ conundrum was something like Calderon’s idée fixe.

It is not hard to see why Maugham was rather taken with Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca, by common consent the two greatest playwrights of the Golden Age. Both were professional writers par excellence and both were extremely productive. To this day it is a matter of debate how many plays each of them wrote, but the quantity is measured at least with triple figures; Maugham read but a dozen of Calderon’s and two dozens of Lope’s, but who can boast a better achievement today? He is particularly attracted, as you would expect from a novelist, by the singular personalities of these eminent men of letters. Though he bluntly states their defects – Lope had a “commonplace mind”, Calderon had “no vestige of humour” – Maugham writes with warm sympathy and charming irony that are seldom encountered in his reflections on the saints and the mystics. I hardly need to add that he uses all this material very adroitly to illuminate the major subject of his book. Quotations will show best Maugham’s range and subtlety:

[Several examples of personal and historical insight combined:]
Though certain critics carped (as critics will) because they thought that Lope did not pay sufficient respect to the precepts of antiquity, the public acclaimed him with united voice. He was a popular dramatist. In that fortunate age this was not a term of reproach and Lope was thought highly of not only by the vulgar, but by the great, the good and the intelligent. Though from time to time (as authors will) he spoke bitterly of the public, it was their suffrage he sought. ‘If anyone should cavil at my plays,’ he said, ‘and think that I wrote them for fame, undeceive him and tell him that I wrote them for money.’ He wrote to please. He was one of the few professional writers of his day and he had the professional writer’s merits: he wasted no time on exposing his subject; incident followed incident, if not always with probability, generally with dramatic effect; his language was easy and natural; his dialogue pointed and quick.


Calderon had of course notable merits. He had the mystical feeling, common to many Spaniards of his age, that the world of sense we live in is but a part of the spiritual world and to this owes its significance. It gives certain of his plays a nobility that dramatists have seldom achieved. […] There is in such of his plays as I have read (for I have read but a dozen out of the couple of hundred he wrote) a sense of the mystery of things that can hardly fail to move. You seem to hear in the distance, faintly audible, while this or the other is happening, the sinister drum of unseen powers.
[Calderon’s] religious sense was profound, and indeed, after having a natural son or two, he was ordained. (The Spanish writers were prolific not only with their pens; they produced enough bastards to man a regiment and fill the nunneries of a fair-sized town.) He was passionately faithful to the Church and only naturally expected the Church to do the right thing by him. When he was not given certain preferment that he expected he wrote to the Cardinal-Archbishop and said he would write no more plays till the injustice was remedied. It was. Happy days for the dramatist! Now, a playwright’s decision to write no more would be accepted with equanimity.

[On the so-called Gracioso, the comic servant that was obligatory even in the most tragic plays:]
…with his realistic attitude and caustic sarcasm he represented the opposition of common sense to the idealism and the high-flown bombast of the other personages. They might sacrifice themselves for love or duty, they might risk their lives for honour’s sake, the Gracioso was there to point out that a wench, a square meal and a whole skin were better than all your heroics. He was so popular a figure because he corresponded with something deep and permanent in the Spanish temper. They have always recognised that there were two sides of them, and that is why (somewhat late in the day, it is true), they have accepted Cervantes’ immortal novel as a true epitome of their character. They are at the same time the Knight of the Dolorous Countenance and Sancho Panza. Perhaps they were never more conscious of this than during the Golden Age. They had conquered vast empires in America and all Europe acknowledged their power; but they were hungry, they were hungry all the time. Some force impelled them to foolhardy adventures of universal conquest, and to the even more perilous adventures of the spirit, and they hazarded them because they could not help themselves; but all the time, at the back of their minds, was the uneasy feeling that all this was moonshine, and a full belly and a bed to sleep on were the only realities.[26]

Note the all-important reference to Cervantes and, according to Maugham, the only work Spain has ever produced that does have a secure place in the world literature; the only work, indeed, which will leave you spiritually richer after the last page. The novel is discussed briefly, but meaningfully, in the end of part six, but many casual references like the above you can find, not just in this book, but in Maugham’s oeuvre as a whole. But this is the only place, I think, where the author allows himself something he seldom did. It’s quite charming to catch Maugham raving:

The Knight is the most human, the most lovable character that the wit of man has devised. One cherishes him with a tenderness that, alas, one can seldom feel in this difficult world for creatures of flesh and blood. Don Quixote and his Squire are immortal.[27]

Makes you eager to (re-)read the novel, doesn’t it? The funny thing is that Maugham also stimulates me to read Calderon and Lope de Vega. This happens rather often in many of his books, and it is not the least of Maugham’s merits that he can make even the most obscure writers – and some of the most boring, too – look like divine masters that you really ought to read for the sake of your spiritual well-being.

The reference to hunger above is not metaphorical. “Chapter” eight, also one of the highlights of the book, is dedicated to the everyday life: from travel, accommodation and courtesy to morals, virginity and sex. It is just one of the many paradoxes of the Golden Age that while rivers of precious metals were flowing from the West Indies, even the aristocracy, the chosen ones, were starving. Nor is it a coincidence that the “chapter” contains a contemporary description of Madrid, quoted at length (for once, justified), that convinces you that this must have been by far the filthiest and vilest city in Europe. Here Maugham draws mostly from a great variety of non-fiction sources (diaries, letters, travelogues, etc.) which he researched in order to get information that might be useful for a novel set in Spain from the late 16th century. In the event, the novel remained unwritten, but never one to waste valuable material, Maugham included a good deal of his research in Don Fernando; he didn’t know, back in the mid-1930s, that more than a decade later he would write a “Spanish novel” after all, and that much of his old notes would come very handy indeed.

The same pages also make an extensive use of various works of fiction: a nice reminder that history is a complex phenomenon that requires careful study of both sources. Central place is occupied by the notorious play El Burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, the work that introduced Don Juan to the world. Typically for him, Maugham dismisses lofty interpretations such as “an allegory of life” or “a symbol of man’s restless seeking for the ideal”. Instead, he presents the proverbial rake as the supreme practical joker, and indeed provides further examples that the Spanish were quite fond of this peculiar type of amusement, “this lamentable form of humour”, the practical joke. The discussion strongly brings to mind W. H. Auden’s essay “The Joker in the Pack”[28] where Shakespeare’s Iago is interpreted in a very similar light. I cannot resist quoting Maugham’s perceptive description of Don Juan and his naughty adventures, together with one stunning feminine exception from another literary masterpiece. It’s one of the finest examples in the whole book of profound insight coupled with hilarious diversion:
But Tirso called his play El Burlador de Sevilla, The Joker of Seville. His Don Juan is not a great lover, he is a great fornicator. But his pleasure lies not only in the gratification of his lust, but in the joke of it; half the fun consists in the deceit he has practised. He gets women by stratagem, by promises he has no intention of fulfilling, by making much of his condition, and when he has had his way with them is tickled to death because he has fooled them. It is a jest of same nature as pulling away a chair when somebody is just going to sit on it.


And indeed the behaviour of the women in El Burlador de Sevilla is so imprudent, their folly so inane, that it almost serves to disculpate the ruffian. […] It may be that the maidenhead of these women, duchess or peasant, is their most priceless possession; they are all in a confounded hurry to be rid of it. Not thus behaved the heroine of the novel La Picara Justina. She knew very well the worth of her virtue and with wiles and her quick wit foiled the attempts of the men, students, barbers, pious hermits and sanctimonious sacristans, who sought to debauch her; she plundered them all and gave nothing in return, so that when at last she married she was able to say with pride that her virginity would honourably prove itself by enamelling with ruby floods the silvery white of the nuptial sheets. Messy, but convincing![29]

I am not sure this Don Juan has much to do with Mozart’s or Byron’s, but that is quite beside the point. Tirso de Molina’s play must have been something of an exception, or so it seems because it has survived (well, sort of) while tons of similarly incoherent and improbable potboilers have long since been forgotten. Many plays were concerned with the rather more serious, and more complicated, relationship between love, marriage, sex and honour. Maugham discusses a fair amount of these and then, lest he be accused of relying on fiction too much, turns to some hard facts from the private lives of the famous. Did Cervantes really have two sisters who “both supplemented their meagre earnings as semptresses [sic] by the pleasant and more lucrative exercise of prostitution”?[30] If so, small wonder that foreign travellers were shocked by the moral laxity of the Spanish. Maugham does not say this bluntly, but I have the feeling that he is of the opinion, again, that the contemporary Spanish drama reflects the spirit of the Golden Age very accurately. However that may be, his musings on the subject are among the most amusing in the whole book:

I have already mentioned the fact that love was an affection that seized upon its victims at first sight. In men and women equally (at least in plays and novels) a glance, a comely shape seen in passing, could excite a paroxysm of passion. So ardent was it that even early in the morning, and the dawn was the signal for them to rise, its power engrossed them. I think I am not wrong in saying that in our day, on the other hand, the passion misnamed tender has a very small hold on the lover till the first cocktail has brought its solace and its violence can be held within the bounds of common sense till after business hours. In Spain they loved twenty-four hours a day. They were a race who spoke naturally in an exaggerated fashion, and when we would say, ‘What a bore,’ they would cry, ‘Is there in the whole world a more unhappy man than I?’ […] The Spanish lover snatched down the moon from heaven to lay at his lady’s feet; the sun was dragged in by his flaming hair; he ransacked classical mythology to prove the extravagance of his desire and the animal and vegetable kingdoms only just sufficed to provide him with metaphors. It was a love the aim of which was marriage, especially when the lady’s birth and fortune were of a satisfactory nature, but whether this was due to the censorship of the Inquisition or the Spaniard’s innate desire for domesticity I do not know.

But the love that inflamed these hot-blooded people, notwithstanding their romantic professions, was very honestly, without pretences on one side or the other, rooted in sexual desire. Marriage was but the necessary prelude to the nuptial couch. But men being what they were and women healthily eager to share their pleasure, the marriage ceremony was often anticipated and then it was difficult to induce the gallant to fulfil his promises. On the Spanish stage there is a long procession of high-born ladies mourning their lost honour and through three acts pursuing the faithless lover with entreaties or threats of vengeance. The stage rings with their appeals for justice. They do not attempt to conceal their shame, but lament it vociferously in every kind of metrical form. It must be admitted that when the unwilling swain is obliged, willy-nilly, to redeem his pledge he does so with a good grace and the spectator is left with the consoling assurance that the couple will live happily ever after.

Considering their obstinate persuasion that in their virginity they possess a pearl of great price, the female characters of the Spanish drama are astonishingly careless about it. The dangers that attend its loss are constantly before their eyes. Not only may the ravisher leave them in the lurch, but their fathers or brothers may think that only their death can cleanse the blot on their escutcheon. In El Alcalde de Zalamea, when Isabel has been abducted by soldiers and ravished by their captain, her brother, though a peasant’s son, is only prevented from plunging his dagger in her heart by the opportune appearance of their father. She, poor thing, looks upon death as no more than her due. When she finds her father tied to a tree she will not unloose him, convinced that he will kill her before she has said her say, till in melodious numbers she has given him a circumstantial account of the outrage that has been inflicted on her. Her father however decides that it will do if she enters a convent. As the bride of Jesus Christ, he remarks with brutal common sense, she chooses a husband who is not fussy over quality. But notwithstanding these hazards the feckless creatures continue to exhibit an extreme want of prudence. There are more negligent of that article of virtue, their maidenhead, than ever an actress of our day of a heavily insured string of pearls.[31]

This is vintage Maugham. Sadly, the parts dedicated to St Ignatius and St Teresa are not. I hasten to add that this is not altogether Maugham’s fault. His style is certainly drier and less entertaining, but if I find these pages dull, it is my personal prejudices that are largely responsible for that. I cannot bring myself to take seriously stuff like salvation of the soul, communion with God, mortification of the flesh, visions, prayers, sins, Heaven and Hell. All this sounds inane and preposterous to me. I find it difficult to imagine that there was a time when such delusions were taken with extreme seriousness, when such dogmatic, intolerant and sadistic people like those “saints” were venerated. I find it impossible to accept that this may still be the case among predominantly Catholic populations. I hope it is not.

Maugham, of course, didn’t take seriously the extreme separation of the body from the spirit proposed by the saints. He knew better; his own experiences as well as the writings of Spinoza and Russell have shown him that the difference between mind and matter is a complete illusion[32]. He was chiefly interested, not in their religious ideas, but in the characters of St Ignatius and St Teresa, how they are expressed in their writings, and how they set out to achieve their goals, however questionable their methods. He is dully impressed by Ignatius’ mighty powers of manipulation or Teresa’s boundless energy, but he fails to convince me that Spiritual Exercises is worth reading at all, much less that Teresa’s life of herself is “one of the great autobiographies of the world”. Though somewhat dull and not exactly inspirational, Maugham’s attitude is sensible and clear-sighted. It is best summarised in two short quotes which also provide us with succinct insights why he was so fascinated with Ignatius and Teresa.

I have been seduced into writing this short piece by the interest which, as a novelist, I have not been able to help feeling in her curious personality. She was not, I think, a woman of remarkable intelligence but she had charm, determination and courage. These are the traits that effect great things in the world. They do not always effect wise ones.[33]

But I cannot persuade myself that meditation forced upon the mind is likely to give rise to fresh and inspiring notions. I should have thought rather that by such a practice the spirit was enslaved and cowed, while the happy flow of fancy was forever stemmed. It may be that this is what Saint Ignatius aimed at. If so the Spiritual Exercises are the most wonderful method that has ever been devised to gain control over that vagabond, unstable and wilful thing, the soul of man.[34]

Maybe it requires a singularly powerful mind to treat seriously a religious nonsense like mysticism and even derive a certain profit from it. I do not have it. To my mind, St Ignatius and St Teresa, not to mention their countless followers, were seriously misguided individuals. Never could those mystics and saints comprehend that denying the sensual side of our nature is not the right way to self-realisation. On the contrary, it’s a terrible self-limitation that leaves one spiritually mutilated. That’s what makes them look ridiculous. Flesh must not be shunned. It must be controlled. Making the best of both worlds – the carnal and the spiritual – is the really hard feat to achieve. It may be that there lies the secret of living.

Finally, a word about Fray Luis de Leon must be said, not because he occupies just about half of the chapter that is supposed to belong to St Teresa, but because Maugham himself was firmly under his spell. No fewer than two times[35] has he quoted the friar’s marvellously superficial statement that “the beauty of life is nothing but this, that each should act in conformity with his nature and his business.” Why he admired it so much is beyond me. It’s one of those aphorisms that, to use Maugham’s words, “say too much to mean a great deal”[36]. Many clichés are more profound than they seem, but this one is not. Obviously, it is true. What makes it intolerably stupid is that it is just not possible for any man to act even for a short time without his nature and his business confront with that of other people. What do we do then? That Fray Luis doesn’t tell us, or if he does, Maugham doesn’t mention it.

It’s rare to find Maugham writing about somebody with such nearly unqualified admiration, and even affection, as he does about Fray Luis. He once admitted, in one of the many amazingly frank but so often overlooked passages in his works, that he had “no power of veneration” and was more inclined “to be amused by people than to respect them”[37]. This is a genuine sense of humour, a most rare thing indeed. It is this precious quality, in the best sense of the phrase, that has always led Maugham to have ambiguous attitude towards his fellow creatures – especially if they happen to be his colleagues. The degree of warmth is of course different, but the essential ambivalence is always there. Even Maugham’s most brutal criticism (James, Conrad) does not refuse to recognise some merits, just like even his most positive remarks (Kipling, Jane Austen) are not unmingled with reservations.

But the case of Fray Luis is different, perhaps because he wasn’t exactly a colleague. The friar was primarily an academic and a poet, while Maugham was neither. Whatever the reason, it is touching to read about his visiting the hall in the University of Salamanca where Luis gave his famous lectures or the “enchantingly peaceful” island where he retired to write his “harmonious prose”. It is in these descriptions that Maugham’s writing has a lyrical quality which is indeed rare in his oeuvre, possibly unique as far as another writer is concerned.

Why should that be? Why should Fray Luis occupy such a special place in Maugham’s heart? Well, there are a number of reasons and they are all stated with clarity and precision. For one thing, Maugham was quite smitten with the “liquid, elegantly balanced periods” of his prose, and though he barely mentions Leon’s voluminous poetry, he probably read a good deal of it in spite of his diffidence about reading poetry in a foreign language. The friar was a quintessential Renaissance man: it’s easier to say what he wasn’t. In addition to a writer and a teacher, he was a mathematician, an astrologer, a jurist, even a self-thought painter. As a personality, he was an extraordinary bundle of contradictions and a failed mystic who never attained the inner piece he sought. Such perplexing specimens of human nature Maugham had a strong predilection for; and I suppose, just as he often found the greatest art less stimulating than more imperfect works, a failed mystic probably gave a greater scope to his imagination than a successful one. It may be that Maugham was a failed mystic himself.

To me there seems something extraordinarily modern about Luis de Leon. He was not all of a piece as so often appear the famous figures of the past. I do not suppose men then were any different that what they are now, but it looks as though to their contemporaries they seemed more homogenous. Otherwise they could hardly have so often described them in terms of ‘humours’. But Fray Luis was a contradictory creature in whom dwelt uneasily incongruous qualities and warring instincts. […] He was vain and humble, impetuous and patient, sombre, peevish, bitter, loyal and chivalrous. He loathed fools and hypocrites. He was very tender to little children. He loved nature and truth. He was fearless. No matter what enmities he aroused he was always prepared to denounce tyranny; he would incur any danger to combat injustice. He was an ascetic, of great abstemiousness, and he seldom allowed himself the luxury of going to bed, so that the servitor who entered his cell in the morning found it as he had left it the night before. But he loved the fair things of life, the lovely, lulling sound of the Tormes flowing by La Flecha, the heavenly music of blind Salinas and the colour and cadence of the Spanish language. He was quarrelsome, rude, violent, and he yearned above all else for peace. The cry for rest, rest from the turmoil of his thought, rest from the torment of the world, recurs in all his works. It gives his graceful lyrics a poignancy that pierces the artificiality of their Horatian manner. He sought for happiness and tranquillity of spirit, but his temperament made it impossible for him to achieve them. They count him among the mystics. He never experienced the supernatural blessings which solace those who pursue the mystic way. He never acquired that aloofness from the things of the world that characterises them. He had an anxious longing for a rapture his uneasy nature prevented him from ever enjoying. He was a mystic only in so far as he was a poet. He looked at those snowcapped mountains and yearned to explore their mysteries, but he was held back by the busy affairs of the city.[38]

By way of a stark contrast, Maugham finishes the penultimate chapter with a short account, mostly a florid quotation from St Teresa’s autobiography, of St Peter of Alcantara. This is one of the successful mystics, one of those fellows who elevated the mortification of the flesh to new, unheard-of-before heights. And Maugham’s tone changes immediately. There is a genuine admiration – “No wonder they were able to conquer half the world, these Spaniards, when they could so terribly conquer themselves.” – but there is nothing of the sympathy that shines on every line in the pages dedicated to Fray Luis de Leon. The poetic friar never acquired the prestigious “Saint” before his name, but his life is for my part – and apparently Maugham’s, too – infinitely more compelling and worth studying. Indeed, St Peter’s masochistic swimming through the “vale of tears”, a constant quest for inflicting more and more misery on himself, is a far cry from the restless but noble existence of Fray Luis, a man who restrained but never fully denied the pleasures of the senses.

The book itself concludes with a long paragraph that is probably Maugham’s finest tribute to the Spaniard of the Golden Age: the real treasure that this country has produced. He roundly dismisses the Spanish art of the period as a mixture of imitation and mediocrity, but hails the Spanish character as the mightiest since the ancient Romans. The very last sentence contains something like a twist in the end, an anti-climax perhaps, but I leave it to you to judge its meaning. With this mighty paragraph, I can finish, too.

And if I am not mistaken here is the secret of the greatness that was Spain. In Spain it is men that are the poems, the pictures and the buildings. Men are its philosophies. They lived, these Spaniards of the Golden Age; they felt and did; they did not think. Life was what they sought and found, life in its turmoil, its fervour and its variety. Passion was the seed that brought them forth and passion was the flower they bore. But passion alone cannot give rise to a great art. In the arts the Spaniard invented nothing. They did little in any of those they practised, but give a local colour to a virtuosity they borrowed from abroad. Their literature, as I have ventured to remark, was not of the highest rank; they were taught to paint by foreign masters, but, inapt pupils, gave birth to one painter only of the very first class; they owed their architecture to the Moors, the French and the Italians, and the works themselves produced were best when they departed least from their patterns. Their pre-eminence was great, but it lay in another direction: it was a pre-eminence of character. In this I think they have been surpassed by none and equalled only by the ancient Romans. It looks as though all the energy, all the originality, of this vigorous race had been disposed to one end and one end only, the creation of man. It is not in art that they excelled, they excelled in what is greater than art – in man. But it is thought that has the last word.[39]


[1] Stories like “A Man from Glasgow” (Creatures of Circumstance, Heinemann, Doubleday, 1947; early version “Told in the Inn of Algeciras”, The Woman at Home, February 1905) are deliberately omitted from this list for the simple reason that Spain is used in them as no more than a vague background.

[2] In his study Maugham: A Reappraisal (Barnes & Noble, 1987, pp. 61-62), John Whitehead went as far as suggesting that all three “Spanish” stories from Creatures of Circumstance – “The Point of Honour”, “The Romantic Young Lady” and “The Mother” – were in essence written before the World War I and only revised for their inclusion in the collection some 40 years later (see also note 25). So far, however, only an early and slightly different version of “The Mother” has been found. It first appeared in Storyteller for April 1909 and it was reprinted in book form nearly 50 years later, The Cassell Miscellany, Cassell, 1958, ed. Fred Urquhart. Interestingly, Mr Whitehead speculated about, but did not confirm, early origins of “A Man from Glasgow” as well, and alternative version under different title has indeed been found since (see note 1). For the record, “The Spanish Priest” may also be mentioned. This little story with Iberian setting, first published in the Illustrated London News, 6 January, 1906, was apparently discovered by Mr Whitehead himself (it’s not mentioned by Stott in the definitive 1973 edition of his bibliography, nor in any of the early ones as far as I know) and appeared in book form in the volume of uncollected writings he edited, A Traveller in Romance, Clarkson N. Potter, 1984.

[3] The Summing Up (1938), chapter 29, pp. 98-99 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[4] Ibid., chapter 28, pp. 95-98.

[5] Nash's Magazine, October 1935. The Mixture as Before, Heinemann, 1940. The Complete Short Stories, Heinemann, 1951, vol. 3.

[6] See The Summing Up (1938), chapters 18, 24, 51 and 65. At one place in chapter 51 the author casually mentions “the delight of those easy, monotonous and exciting days in Heidelberg, when I first entered upon the intellectual life” (Vintage Classics, 2001, p. 187). But with painstaking craftsman like Maugham there is no such thing as casual references, phrases, or even words. Everything is significant, everything is there for a purpose. Such “casual” references speak volumes.

[7] Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), published in the US as The Art of Fiction (1955). The introductory essay “The Art of Fiction”, p. 5 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[8] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 4, pp. 34-35 in Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[9] Ibid., chapter 6, p. 56.

[10] The Travel Books, Heinemann, 1955, preface, p. xiii. 

[11] See Don Fernando (1950), chapter 4, p. 34 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001), and The Summing Up (1938), chapter 9, p. 24-25 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[12] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 9, pp. 141-142 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[13] It should be noted that different editions print the word differently. Old hardbacks, for example Mr. Maugham Himself (Doubleday, 1954, ed. John Beecroft, p. 532) where the chapter is reprinted under the title “El Greco: An Essay”, have just “sonnets”. But modern paperbacks, for example the Vintage Classics edition from 2000, employ the very different “Sonnets” (p. 141). The latter style suggests that it is Shakespeare’s sonnets, particularly those that address the fair youth of course, that are referred to, but whether this formatting goes back to Maugham’s lifetime or was a later invention of naughty publishers, it is hard to say.

[14] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 9, p. 141 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[15] The Summing Up (1938), chapters 22 and 23. Note especially the last paragraphs of both chapters.

[16] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 9, p. 132 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[17] Ibid., p. 133.

[18] Ibid., pp. 150-151.

[19] Ibid., p. 152.

[20] Ibid., p. 136.

[21] Ibid., p. 149.

[22] A Writer’s Notebook (1949). The first note in the “1897” section, p. 29 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).     

[23] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 6, p. 53 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[24] Ibid., chapter 7, pp. 72-73 in Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[25] Creatures of Circumstance (1947). First published in Good Housekeeping, March 1947. Mr Whitehead has alluded to (Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes & Noble, 1987, pp. 61-62) and even mentioned (A Traveller in Romance, Clarkson N. Potter, 1984, ed. John Whitehead, p. viii) an early version of this story, presumably from 1904, but nothing more is known of its existence. See also note 2.

[26] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 7, p. 74-87 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[27] Ibid., chapter 6, p. 70.

[28] W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, Random House, 1962, pp. 246-272.

[29] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 8, pp. 110-112 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[30] Ibid., p. 112.

[31] Ibid., p.106-108

[32] The Summing Up (1938), chapter 67, pp. 256-257 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[33] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 10, p. 158 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[34] Ibid., chapter 3, p. 34.

[35] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 9, p. 123 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001), and The Summing Up (1938), last chapter, last sentence.

[36] The Summing Up (1938), chapter 12, p. 35 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001). The phrase is used about the dictum “the style is the man”.

[37] The Vagrant Mood (1952), “Some Novelists I Have Known”, pp. 162-163 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[38] Don Fernando (1950), chapter 10, pp. 163-164 in the Vintage Classics edition (2001).

[39] Ibid., chapter 11, p. 178.

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