Monday, 16 February 2015

Fact, Fiction and Somerset Maugham

Fact, Fiction and Somerset Maugham

It is a standard joke among critics, biographers and even readers that Somerset Maugham copied persons and plots from real life straight into his fiction. Just like that. Occasionally he turned them into caricatures, but that was all artistic license he allowed himself. Examples are numerous. Misconceptions have proven persistent.

To the present day, when Cakes and Ale (1930) is mentioned, there is the inevitable “satirizing” of Walpole and Hardy in the characters of Kear and Driffield, respectively.[1] To the present day, when The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is mentioned, Charles Strickland is deemed to be an English copy of Paul Gauguin.[2] And we all know, of course, that Philip Carey and Willie Ashenden, not to mention “Mr. Maugham” from The Razor’s Edge, are the author himself in light disguise, so let’s enjoy wild extrapolation in regard to his CV and character.[3]

Ted Morgan, Maugham’s first “scholarly” and unfortunately still influential biographer, went as far as to claim that “as he had done in Liza of Lambeth, Maugham transcribed verbatim what he saw and heard” in his exotic stories, and gave “The Letter” as an example “how faithful he could be to his material”[4]. Selina Hastings, Maugham’s most recent and only slightly less trashy biographer, grandly tells us that “far more than most writers he made use of actual people with little alteration, putting them on to the page very much as they were in life, with small attempt at disguise.”[5] This from the woman who claims that Stroeve from The Moon and Sixpence was “modelled” on Hugh Walpole![6] Even Wilmon Menard, one of the most sympathetic writers about Maugham, could write things like these:

Why Maugham has never been soundly trashed, maimed or had pot-shots taken at him by enraged white hosts and hostesses throughout the South Seas and Far East, in particular, where communities are small and gossip is rife, and where an original character is more readily identified, even though presented in a work of fiction, can only be explained by the possibility of Maugham living a charmed life. I know of at least a dozen of his stories wherein the prototypes had full legal grounds to drag him into court and sue him for slander and libel, defamation of character, and invasion of privacy.[7]

The rarefied academic circles are usually restrained in this respect. They prefer to attack Maugham on presumably weightier issues like lack of depth or clinical cynicism, not to mention conventional forms or commercial success.[8] Even so, such an august reference as The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1996) claims that “the stories they [Maugham and Haxton] heard appeared almost verbatim in Maugham's fiction and plays.” Another mighty academic work, A Handbook to Literature (6th edn., 1992), elevates gossip to “a staple of human culture” and basis of the roman à clef, which is “certainly the case with Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale”.[9] Even the late Anthony Curtis, whose 1974 study of Maugham’s complete works remains head and shoulders above the rest, could insist that “we had better agree that it was Walpole – as the model for Alroy Kear”.[10] Fortunately for his book, he didn’t elaborate on the matter.

Claims like these are indefensible. In the case of obscure folk like colonial officials in the Far East, we don’t know – we have no way of knowing – what Maugham and Haxton learnt first-hand. End of the story. In the case of famous, or at least well-known, folk whom Maugham is supposed to have described in his fiction, including friends and himself, searching for real-life “prototypes” can only lead to gross oversimplification of the characters.

Nor is there anything new in all this. The first British edition of The Painted Veil (1925) was withdrawn and certain names had to be changed because of a libel threat.[11] The Hardy-Walpole scandal erupted even before the first edition of Cakes and Ale, when poor Hugh received an advance copy, read all night long, and recorded in his diary this moving cri de cœur: “Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept.”[12] Maugham reportedly angered a number of people, especially in the Far East, by the merciless portraits he drew of them in his books. In a celebrated passage from his autobiography, tellingly titled The Memoirs of a Malayan Official (1965), Victor Purcell wrote:

I followed closely in the footsteps of Mr. Somerset Maugham, but although I never quite caught up with him, his passage was clearly marked by a trail of angry people. The indignation aroused by his play, The Letter, which was based on a local cause célèbre, was still being voiced in emotional terms when I came by. It was also charged against him that he abused hospitality by ferreting out the family skeletons of his hosts and putting them into his books. His representation of a certain level of European life in Malaya was photographic, but as a picture of the European community in general it was not fairer than one of Britain as a nation would be in exclusive terms of racing, the News of the World, and conversation in golf clubs. The Maugham chiaroscuro always seemed to me to consist of sharp contrasts exclusively, with no nuance or shading.[13]

This only shows that Mr Purcell had no idea about the art of fiction, much less about Maugham’s fiction in particular. True, he was just a “Malayan official” and there is no reason why he should have known anything about literature. He wrote a great deal of non-fiction himself, but, as far as I know, no fiction whatsoever. So it’s to be expected that he should be lamentably ignorant about it. Nevertheless, when he allows himself the expression of opinions in print, he automatically agrees to bear the burden of criticism.

Maugham was not writing colonial history. He was writing stories. He did not aim at realistic presentation of the life in the British colonies. He did aim at plausible plots and exciting characters. He didn’t care at all about “the European community in general.” He deliberately avoided the crowd and limited himself to the extraordinary individual: that’s precisely why the tropics fired his imagination as nothing before or since.[14] In one of his prefaces to The Complete Short Stories (1951), Maugham was at pains to explain that his stories are not about ordinary people. He sought the singular, the exceptional, and the strange.

Most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence. The vast majority of these people, government servants, planters, and traders, who spent their working lives in Malaya were ordinary people ordinarily satisfied with their station of life. They did the jobs they were paid to do more or less competently. They were as happy with their wives as are most married couples. They led humdrum lives and did very much the same things every day. Sometimes by way of a change they got a little shooting; but as a rule, after they had done their day's work, they played tennis if there were people to play with, went to the club at sundown if there was a club in the vicinity, drank in moderation, and played bridge. They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. They were good, decent, normal people.

I respect, and even admire, such people, but they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies. But, I repeat, they are the exception.[15]

This is where Mr Purcell got it wrong. If he had looked at Maugham’s stories from the right angle, he might have been surprised to note that they lack neither nuances nor shading. But I guess he was incapable of doing this.

If you wish to call Maugham’s passion for the exceptional a terrible self-limitation, you are at perfect liberty to do so. But I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think Maugham did. He argued that genius is the rarest thing because he is “supremely normal”: he sees the world in a way that all men (or at least most of them) find significant.[16] Since quite obviously most of us are not geniuses, it follows that we must be abnormal. So we are. Maugham agreed that “the normal is an ideal” which you find but “rarely”[17] and consciously made most of his characters bizarre, deprived, twisted, cranky, call it what you will. That’s what makes them true to life. That’s what makes Maugham still relevant. Had he been merely a realist who copied life, today he would have been hopelessly dated. He transformed life in order to achieve realistic presentation of truth – a very different thing than realism. No wonder Mr Purcell missed the point. Many readers still do.

Maugham was, of course, very well aware of the charges that were brought against him. He defended himself numerous times, often in similar and even identical words. Perhaps his most concise exposition of the problem is in the original preface to First Person Singular (1931):[18]

...I have at one time or another been charged with portraying certain persons so exactly that it was impossible not to know them. I have been accused of bad taste. This has disturbed me, not so much for my own sake (since I am used to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) as for the sake of criticism in general. We authors of course try to be gentlemen, but we often fail and we must console ourselves by reflecting that few writers of any consequence have been devoid of certain streak of vulgarity. Life is vulgar.
I have known authors who declared that none of their characters was ever even remotely suggested by anyone they had known and I have unhesitatingly accepted their assertion. But I have ceased to wonder why they never managed to create a character that was not wooden and lifeless. […] I think indeed that most novelists, and surely the best, have worked from life. But though they have had in mind a particular person this is not to say that they have copied him nor that the character they have devised is to be taken for a portrait. In the first place, they have seen him through their own temperament and if they are writers of originality this means that what they have seen is somewhat different from the fact. They have taken only what they wanted from him. They have used him as a convenient peg on which to hang their own fancies. To suit their purpose they have given him traits which the model did not possess. They have made him coherent and substantial. A real person, however eminent, is for the most part too insignificant for the purposes of fiction. The complete character, the result of elaboration rather than of invention, is art, and life in the raw, as we know, is only its material. It is unjust then for the critics to blame an author because he draws a character in whom they detect a likeness to someone they know and wholly unreasonable of them to expect him never to take one trait or another from living creatures. The odd thing is that when these charges are made, emphasis is laid only on the less laudable characteristics of the individual. If you say of a character in a book that he is kind to his mother, but beats his wife, everybody will cry: Ah, that's Brown, how beastly to say he beats his wife; and no one thinks for a moment of Jones and Robinson who are notoriously kind to their mothers. I draw from this the somewhat surprising conclusion that we know our friends by their defects and not by their merits.

Nothing is so unsafe as to put into a novel a person drawn line by line from life. His values are all wrong, and, strangely enough, he does not make the other characters of the book seem false, but himself. He never convinces.[19]

In the same preface Maugham admits the one and only case of portrait in his fiction. This is Mortimer Ellis, the ardent bigamist from “The Round Dozen”. Nothing in the wise writings of critics and biographers has convinced me that this opinion needs revision. Maugham is vastly amusing at the expense of those unfortunate creatures that are always on the look to identify themselves with unlikable characters; his advice to them is just as fresh and relevant as it was nearly 80 years ago – and just as seldom heeded, alas:

I do not suppose I am the only author who has been vilified by women who claimed that I had stayed with them and abused their hospitality by writing about them when not only had I not stayed with them, but neither knew nor had ever heard of them. The poor drabs were so vain and their lives so empty that they deliberately identified themselves with a creature of odious character in order in some small circle to give themselves a petty notoriety.[20]

But no one has the right to take a character in a book and say, this is meant for me. All he may say is, I provided the suggestion for this character. If he has any common sense he will be interested rather than vexed; and the author's inventiveness and intuition may suggest to him things about himself that it is useful for him to know.[21]

Maugham’s theoretical concepts overlap to a large degree with his working methods. In simple words, strange as this may seem to some people, Maugham practiced what he preached. “Rain” is the best example. As early as 1934, full 15 years before A Writer’s Notebook, he published his notes for this story. Let’s compare two of them with the final result:

The missionary. He was a tall thin man, with long limbs loosely jointed, hollow cheeks and high cheekbones; his fine, large dark eyes were deep in their sockets, and he had full sensual lips; he wore his hair rather long. He had a cadaverous look, and a look of suppressed fire. His hands were large, rather finely shaped, with long fingers, and his naturally pale skin was deeply burned by the Pacific sun.[22]

He was a silent, rather sullen man, and you felt that his affability was a duty that he imposed upon himself Christianly; he was by nature reserved and even morose. His appearance was singular. He was very tall and thin, with long limbs loosely jointed; hollow cheeks and curiously high cheek-bones; he had so cadaverous an air that it surprised you to notice how full and sensual were his lips. He wore his hair very long. His dark eyes, set deep in their sockets, were large and tragic; and his hands with their big, long fingers, were finely shaped; they gave him a look of great strength. But the most striking thing about him was the feeling he gave you of suppressed fire. It was impressive and vaguely troubling. He was not a man with whom any intimacy was possible.[23]

Miss Thompson. Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion, perhaps not more than twenty-seven: she wore a white dress and a large white hat, and long white boots from which her calves, in white cotton stockings, bulged. She had left Iwelei after the raid and was on her way to Apia, where she hoped to get a job in the bar of a hotel.[24]

She was twenty-seven perhaps, plump, and in a coarse fashion pretty. She wore a white dress and a large white hat. Her fat calves in white cotton stockings bulged over the tops of long white boots in glace kid.[25]

The same method was used for descriptions of places. Compare this note about Banda, dated “1922”, with the description of Kanda Meira (a fictitious place) in the novel The Narrow Corner (1932), written a decade later.

The streets of Banda are lined with bungalows, but the place is dead, and they are empty and silent. People walk about, the few you see, quietly, as though they were afraid to awaken the echo. No voice is raised. The children play without noise. Now and again you catch a sweet whiff of nutmeg. In the shops, all selling the same things, canned goods, sarongs, cottons, there is no movement; in some of them there is no attendant, as though no purchaser could possibly be expected. You see no one buy or sell.[26]

They clambered by rickety steps on to the pier and walked along it. There was no one there. They reached the quay and after hesitating for a moment took what looked like the main street. It was empty and silent. They wandered down the middle of the roadway, abreast, and looked about them. […] The bungalows on either side of the road had very high roofs, thatched and pointed, and the roofs, jutting out, were supported by pillars, Doric and Corinthian, so as to form broad verandas. They had an air of ancient opulence, but their whitewash was stained and worn, and the little gardens in front of them were rank with tangled weeds. They came to shops and they all seemed to sell the same sort of things, cottons, sarongs and canned foods. There was no animation. Some of shops had not even an attendant, as though no purchaser could possibly be expected. The few persons they passed, Malays or Chinese, walked quickly as though they were afraid to awaken the echo.[27]

Sometimes descriptions of nature, much like physical description of characters, were copied more or less word for word from the notebooks. Compare this note from 1916 with a passage from the story “Red” (1921):

The coconut trees came down to the water’s edge, not in rows, but spaced out with a certain ordered formality. They had something of the air of a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, who stood with a simpering grace in affected attitudes.[28]

The coconut trees came down to the water's edge, not in rows, but spaced out with an ordered formality. They were like a ballet of spinsters, elderly but flippant, standing in affected attitudes with the simpering graces of a bygone age.[29]

These crude examples are only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Everybody who reads the stories in question cannot fail to observe how far Maugham progressed, in terms of both plot and characterisation, in the process of writing. It is fascinating to enter his head and try to follow his creative process. One can speculate how many other people and incidents were transformed on the way to the final result. It should nevertheless be observed that even Maugham’s most literal borrowings from his notes are not copied verbatim. The descriptions of Kanda Meira and the Rev. Davidson already show substantial elaboration.

Maugham could apparently spin long and complex stories from the tiniest threads. “If you are a story-teller any curious person you meet has a way of suggesting a story,” he once said, “and incidents that to others will seem quite haphazard have a way of presenting themselves to you with the pattern your natural instinct has imposed on them.”[30] I don’t think even his greatest detractors would deny Maugham the title story-teller par excellence; indeed, they would harp on it as one of his greatest defects. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that he could have written such a fine story like “The Colonel’s Lady” from a very brief note made forty years earlier. Note also that there is not a hint about the character of Colonel Peregrin, one of Maugham’s finest creations in his short fiction.

They were talking about V.F. whom they’d all known. She published a volume of passionate love poems, obviously not addressed to her husband. It made them laugh to think that she’d carried on a long affair under his nose, and they’d have given anything to know what he felt when at last he read them.
This note gave me the idea for a story which I wrote forty years later. It is called ‘The Colonel’s Lady’.[31]

On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past Maugham to omit some additional notes in order to boost a little his creative achievement. He tells us he spoke but once with the missionary couple and not at all with Miss Thompson[32], but he forgets to mention that Gerald Haxton, his travelling companion and great mixer, probably spoke a good deal with them. Mildly disingenuous claims like these do not in the least diminish Maugham’s achievement. Not even Haxton could have collected for him the insight into his characters, nor the completeness and dramatic intensity of his plots. There is no reason to believe that anything from the plot of “Rain” really happened[33], still less that Sadie Thompson and the Reverend Davidson were anything like Maugham’s characters. I am sure they were much duller and less believable. This is, of course, an indefensible claim, but I don’t see how the accusations of reportage are any more defensible. Wilmon Menard was very wide of the mark when he remarked that for Sadie Thompson Maugham “didn’t have to borrow too heavily on his imagination.”[34]

It must be said that Maugham didn’t make it much easier for posterity. He tends, occasionally, to carry his gentle self-deprecation a trifle too far. For example:

But though I have had variety of invention, and this is not strange since it is the outcome of the variety of mankind, I have had small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories.[35]

The critics were only too eager to take such words at their face value. Maugham was probably miffed about that, but he had only himself to blame. He had realised this sad side of human nature when he was 24:

People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.[36]

Sometimes Maugham is strangely inconsistent and contradictory. The short story “Before the Party” is a case in point. He left us two notes as his inspiration, but they hardly agree with one another. In 1934, he wrote:

I was once asked to meet at dinner two persons, a husband and wife, of whom I was told only what the reader will shortly read. I think I never knew their names. I should certainly not recognize them if I met them in the street. Here are the notes I made at the time. “A stout, rather pompous man of fifty, with pince-nez, gray-haired, a florid complexion, blue eyes, a neat gray moustache. He talks with assurance. He is resident of an outlying district and is somewhat impressed with the importance of his position. He despises the men who have let themselves go under the influence of the climate and the surroundings. He has travelled extensively during his short leaves in the East and knows Java, the Philippines, the coast of China and the Malay Peninsula. He is very British, very patriotic; he takes a great deal of exercise. He has been a very heavy drinker and always took a bottle of whiskey to bed with him. His wife has entirely cured him and now he drinks nothing but water. She is a little insignificant woman, with sharp features, thin, with a sallow skin and a flat chest. She is very badly dressed. She has all the prejudices of an Englishwoman. All her family for generations have been in second-rate regiments. Except that you know that she has caused her husband to cease drinking entirely you would think her quite colourless and unimportant.” On these materials I invented the story which is called Before the Party. I do not believe that any candid person could think that these two people had cause for complaint because they had been made use of. It is true that I should never have thought of the story if I had not met them, but anyone who takes the trouble to read it will how insignificant was the incident (the taking of the bottle to bed) that suggested it and how differently the two chief characters have in the course of writing developed from the brief sketch that was their foundation.[37]

Some 15 years later, he published another note, dated “1922”, and wrote:

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

I never saw them again, and they never knew what they had let themselves in for when they came to dinner that night. They suggested to me a story which I called 'Before the Party'.[38]

You will notice immediately that the second note, which comes from A Writer’s Notebook (1949), does not even contain the drinking problem that’s supposed to have inspired the final story. The first note looks much more like the real foundation, even though it is not reprinted in the Notebook. Again, however, all this is rather superficial. As Maugham says, if you read the story, you can hardly fail to appreciate how far he went during the actual writing. “Before the Party” contains several characters more (who knows who provided the basis for them!) and the tropical tragedy is adroitly intertwined with exquisite social comedy on English soil.

Maugham’s candid admission that some of his stories were given ready-made to him didn’t exactly help the matter. In the Preface to East and West (1934), he wrote:

Three of the stories in this volume were told me and I had nothing to do but make them probable, coherent and dramatic. They are The Letter, Footprints in the Jungle and The Book-Bag. The rest were invented, as I have shown Rain was, by the accident of my happening upon persons here and there, who in themselves or from something I heard about them suggested a theme that seemed suitable for a short story.

But note the phrase “make them probable, coherent and dramatic”. This is quite a lot. Almost 30 years later, in his notorious memoirs, Maugham revealed the origins of “Footprints in the Jungle”. The incident has become an indispensable part of the Maugham lore. Few people know where it comes from:[39]

One evening I grew tired of waiting for Gerald, who was with a group of fellows drinking at the bar, and sat down to my dinner. I had nearly finished when he staggered in. “I know I’m drunk,” he said, “but I’ve got a damned good story for you.” He told it to me and I wrote it. I called it “Footprints in the Jungle”.[40]

Disappointingly or not, the cases of “Footprints in the Jungle” and “The Book-Bag” end here. They are almost non-existent in fact. Maugham’s own claims are all we have about their roots in real life. The case of “The Letter”[41] is different. It is by far the best-known example of Maugham’s dramatising historical events. Let’s look at it and see where this will get us. How much is fact and how much fiction?

Two of Maugham’s biographers[42] and even the mighty Wikipedia give fairly detailed accounts of the cause célèbre that shocked the Far East and 10 years later (!) served as a foundation of Maugham’s story. The facts are simple. On the evening of April 23, 1911, Ethel Proudlock, wife of a headmaster, shot dead on her veranda William Steward, a mine manager. The husband knew nothing: he was away at the time. The case duly went to court. She claimed he had tried to rape her and she had shot him in self-defence. The prosecution were not convinced. They did make a convincing case that she had had an affair with the victim and, jealous of his Chinese mistress, had shot him without any prompting from his side. Ethel was sentenced to death, spent some five months in jail, but was released after so many petitions were filed that the Sultan was forced to pardon her. She went back to England a broken woman and died in asylum.

At first glance, this would seem to contain the complete plot of “The Letter”. At second glance, it doesn’t even contain half of it. First of all, there is no letter in the real story. This is Maugham’s invention, and a brilliant one at that. It makes the story far more dramatic and it gives an excellent reason to make the husband and the Chinese mistress important elements in the plot, not to mention adding a whole new dimension to the lawyer and his assistant. Second, Maugham completely changed the destiny of the murderess. She is acquitted and treated with kindness, although she loses irrevocably the adoration of her slow-witted husband. Third and most important of all, it is the characters, not the plot, that matters. How could Maugham know them so well? How could he tell everything that passes through Mr Joyce’s head? How could he describe every shade on Leslie’s face? Even if Maugham did talk with Ethel’s lawyer – in March 1921, 10 years after the events, remember – he could not possibly have known all these things. I can only conclude that he used his creative imagination.

“The Letter” shares with the rest of Maugham’s fiction the curse of readability. Far too many people are apt to read the story as a simple thriller. It’s a great deal more than that. It is, again like the rest of Maugham, a disturbing study of the dark depths of human nature. Even in this special case, not to mention far less documented cases, the real foundations are negligible. They may, at best, give you some insight into Maugham’s creative process; but that’s something you can obtain from his notes as well. They cannot improve your appreciation of his art. The final result, not the raw material and certainly not the gossip that surrounds it, is the only thing that really matters.


NB. Years in square brackets refer to first editions in cases when later editions (immediately mentioned) were used instead.

Works by Maugham
AWN = A Writer’s Notebook [1949], Mandarin, 1991.
CSS = The Complete Short Stories [1951], Heinemann, 1952, 3 vols.
CT = The Casuarina Tree [1926], Heinemann, 1928.
EW = East and West [1934], Doubleday, 1953.
LB = Looking Back, three parts, Show, Jun–Aug 1962.
TL = The Trembling of a Leaf, George H. Doran, 1921. Project Gutenberg.
TNC = The Narrow Corner [1932], Vintage Classics, 2001.
TSU = The Summing Up [1938], Pan Books, 1976.

Works by Others
Calder = Robert Calder, William Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, Heinemann, 1972.
Curtis = The Pattern of Maugham, Hamish Hamilton, 1974.
Hastings = Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham [2009], John Murray, 2010.
Menard = Wilmon Menard, The TwoWorlds of Somerset Maugham, Sherbourne Press, 1965.
Morgan = Ted Morgan, Somerset Maugham [1980], Triad/Granada, 1981.
Purcell = Victor Purcell, The Memoirsof a Malayan Official, Cassell, 1965.
Stott = Raymond Toole Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Kaye and Ward, 1973.
Whitehead = John Whitehead, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987.

[1] See, for example, the magnificently superficial introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare to the new Vintage Classics edition of the novel (2010). For more gossip, see Morgan, pp. 364-373 (“character assassination raised to an art form”), and Hastings, pp. 355-366. Somewhat more mature treatment can be found in Calder, ch. 7.
For Maugham’s own position, which makes the rest superfluous, see his two prefaces to the novel: 1934 for Heinemann’s The Collected Edition, 1950 for the Modern Library edition. The preface to the first volume of The Selected Novels (Heinemann, 1953), though largely repetitious, also contains some unique touches:
Unfortunately, I had given Alroy Kear certain traits, certain discreditable foibles, which Walpole too notoriously had, so that few people in the literary world of London failed to see that he had been in part my model [my italics]. For in this connection we are more apt to recognise persons by their defects than by their merits. Poor Hugh was bitterly affronted.
[2] See just about any review you can find online. Many of them, it is true, are by people smart enough to recognise the obvious: Gauguin was merely a starting point. But what could you make of something like this?
[3] See Whitehead (ch. 5 & 6, and the first two appendices) for a fine example how wrong this approach can go in an otherwise serious critic.
[4] Morgan, p. 281.
[5] Hastings, p. 356. And of course “nowhere in his work is this practice of verisimilitude more striking, indeed more notorious, than in Cakes and Ale.” You don’t say!
[6] Hastings, pp. 245-246. A little later (p. 361) she goes as far as “his portrayal of Walpole as Dirk Stroeve”. Never mind that Walpole didn’t recognise himself. Selina also calls The Moon and Sixpence “a minor novel that has always found greater favour with the general reader than with the critics” (p. 246). I think this says enough about her critical faculties.
[7] Menard, p. 153. Oddly enough, Wilmon doesn’t mention any specific titles. Ironically enough, what he discovers about the real foundations of “Rain” and “The Pool” bears little resemblance to Maugham’s final product.
[8] See The Maugham Enigma, Citadel Press, 1959, ed. Klaus Jonas, especially the pieces by Marchand, Spencer, Ross and Cowley. Extensive selections from them can be found here.
[9] The Oxford Companion to English Literature, OUP, 1996, ed. Margaret Drabble. See A Handbook to Literature, 6th ed., Macmillan, 1992, eds. C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon.
[10] Curtis, p. 143.
[11] Stott, A33c, pp. 88-90.
[12] Hastings, p. 363.
[13] Purcell, p. 271.
[14] See TSU, ch. 53, where Maugham memorably describes the profound effect the South Seas had on him, and the Preface to Ah King (1933) for The Collected Edition (1936) where he defends the so-called “exotic story” as one that depends on “the environment in which the characters chosen find themselves and on the effect upon them of a manner of life which is not quite natural to them.” In short, the tropics gave Maugham the opportunity to observe human nature in the raw. He relished the experience.
[15] CSS, vol. 3, p. viii.
[16] TSU, ch. 22.
[17] Ibid., ch. 20.
[18] See also EW, pp. xvi-xix; TSU, ch. 57; CT, Postscript, pp. 309-311.
[19] FPS, p. vii-ix.
[20] TSU, ch. 57.
[21] Ibid.
[22] AWN, 1916, p. 93.
[23] TL, VII. Rain.
[24] AWN, 1916, p. 94.
[25] TL, VII. Rain.
[26] AWN, 1922, p. 200.
[27] TNC, ch. 15, pp. 83-84.
[28] AWN, 1916, p. 99.
[29] TL, IV. Red.
[30] Cosmopolitans, Heinemann, 1936, Preface, p. vii.
[31] AWN, 1901, p. 66.
[32] EW, p. vi. But he did use her real family name in the story! See Menard who even reproduces a passenger list of the steamer Sonoma as the ultimate visual proof: “By str. Sonoma for Sydney. Dec. 4 – Somerset Maugham, Mr. Haxton, W. H. Collins, Miss Thompson, Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Mulqueen.” The quality of reproduction leaves something to be desired, but the names are legible enough.
[33] Menard, pp. 104-108, claims otherwise. He quotes Maugham reminiscing at length about the real Sadie and the gossip that surrounded her on the voyage. If this account is to be believed, at least the quarantine in Pago Pago, Sadie’s outrageous behaviour (gramophone, booze, lovers), and even the Reverend’s stealthy working for her deportation did happen. This changes nothing, of course. “Rain” remains, not just a towering achievement, but as much fiction as any other short story.
Moreover, Menard’s account should be taken with a pinch of salt. For one thing, he quotes Maugham at length but it’s not clear whether he recorded this interview or reconstructed it from memory later. For another thing, this happened not earlier than the early 1950s, well over thirty years after the events. Maugham was far from being senile at the time – his senility did not in fact happen until about a decade later – but after such a long time he might have been tempted, as every bona fide story-teller must be, to elaborate on the dull historical facts in order to regale his company with a more striking story.
[34] Menard, p. 152.
[35] TSU, ch. 23.
[36] AWN, 1896, p. 15.
[37] EW, pp. 18-19.
[38] AWN, 1922, p. 190.
[39] Hastings (p. 281) sources it from Menard (p. 45, not 35 as she claims), according to whom Haxton said “I’m sorry, I know I’m drunk, but as an apology I’ve got a corking good story for you.” (Selina can’t get even the quote right: she adds one “I’m sorry” more and omits “as an apology”.) This is close enough to be accepted as genuine as Maugham’s own account. But why quoting a secondary source when you have a primary one?
[40] LB, III, p. 100.
[41] I am here concerned entirely with the short story, first published in International Magazine for April 1924, later reprinted in CT, EW, CSS (vol. 3) and Collected Short Stories, Penguin, 1963, vol. 4. The play is a fine piece of theatre of inestimable value for the student of Maugham as the only one among his short stories he dramatised himself, but some of the original depth was lost and the ending, implying that Crosbie will eventually forgive his wife, is unnecessarily sentimentalised. Changes like these must have caused Maugham’s dissatisfaction with the audience that finally led to his retirement from the stage (TSU, ch. 41). The 1940 movie with Bette Davis is outstanding on the whole, but it too suffers in the end by morality made in Hollywood (the criminal must be punished and so on).
[42] Morgan, ch. 9, pp. 281-282; Hastings, ch. 9, pp. 278-279.  It is interesting to observe  how unscholarly these accounts are. Neither gives any definite sources. Morgan mentions vaguely some “Singapore newspaper accounts that Maugham must have studied”, but nothing more. And where did Maugham study those ten-years-old newspapers? In the Singapore Public Library? In the Singapore National Archives? Morgan breezily accepts that “the plot came straight from the trial testimony”, but three lines later he adds that the letter was “the only element Maugham added”. Well, that’s a pretty substantial element. Selina’s account is more appreciative and less dogmatic but equally unsupported by evidence. (Only Morgan has the asylum bit.)
The biographers also differ as to how Maugham learnt about the case. Both cite lawyers he met, but according to Selina this was E.A.S. Wagner, the victim’s own lawyer, while Ted goes with one C. Dickinson and his wife. Again, neither gives any source whatsoever, although Morgan does quote an inscription of gratitude by Maugham:
Dear Mrs Dickinson, Here is the play which I owe so much to you. Yours always, W. Somerset Maugham.
This is not terribly helpful. It is curiously sourced as “Introductions to television broadcasts of Maugham short stories, Texas MSS.” Heaven knows what Morgan saw and how he interpreted it. He is no stranger to tangled references. Earlier in the same chapter, he gives Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour as the source of a passage from Purcell’s memoirs! And vice versa: details of Maugham’s travels that could have come only from Maugham himself are attributed to Purcell. The jovial resident on p. 279 who exclaims “Good God, man, you have no idea how glad I am to see you. Don’t think I’m doing anything for you in putting you up.” actually comes from the short story “The End of the Flight” (Collected Short Stories, Penguin, 1963, vol. 4).
The only other account that links Maugham’s story with the real events seems to be "How Murder on the Veranda Inspired Somerset Maugham", an article in the Observer Magazine (22 Feb 1976: 12-16, Bassett’s bibliography, 93) by one Norman Sherry. Morgan quotes it just once, and then in relation to “The Vessel of Wrath”!

Friday, 13 February 2015

Eine Faust-Symphonie: A Brief Illustrated Discography

By Way of Preface

Eine Faust-Symphonie has been recognised as Franz Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece and, as such, has had the misfortune to be recorded by many eminent conductors. First of all, there is no such thing as a composer with a single masterpiece. Masterpieces do not happen by accident. Either Liszt composed many, or his Faust is not. I am obviously in the former camp.

Most conductors don’t seem to have any idea what to do with this music. They play it through routinely or they blindly inflict on it their personal idiosyncrasies. The results range from passable to pathetic. Bernstein’s both recordings, let’s admit it, have been extravagantly overrated by Lenny’s aficionados; his early take with the NYP is superior to his later rambling without rhyme or reason with the BSO; but not much. Masur, the poor wretch, is unfit by temperament to conduct Liszt. Barenboim is dullness personified. Sinopoli is wacky for the sake of wackiness. Rattle is sleepwalking. Chailly is not even walking: he is soundly asleep and snoring. Most Hungarians don’t fare much better; Fischer is interesting but hardly compelling, and recorded in poor for its time sound; Dorati has little to do with his fiery self a few decades earlier.

It is not all that bad. Unless one is addicted to digital sound and totally averse to vintage stereo, the Old School is worth checking out. Beecham and Horenstein are both tremendous, rather on the fast side by modern standards, but bringing the music to life with flair and sensitivity seldom heard in this work. Horenstein also boasts a wonderfully clear and natural sound, while Beecham suffers from the rough and constrained sonics typical for EMI in the late 1950s. (Horenstein’s late live recording is totally different but equally arresting.) Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra take the gold in the category “modern (i.e. digital) recording”. Indeed, this is one of the all-time greats. Stupendous performance in superb sound! Solti is not as exciting as I expect him to be, but he is still way above the misguided bunch from the previous paragraph, and he is splendidly recorded by Decca of course. Another fine choice on the same label is the aristocratic and refined approach of Ernest Ansermet. Last but not least, Inbal on Brilliant is worth serious exploration. Slow but sweeping, in nebulous yet clean sound, he is a strong contender in a not exactly overcrowded field.

Honourable mentions must be made of Ferencsik and Conlon. These are, in many ways, wonderful performances. Both are suffused with that specific type of Romantic grandeur that is essential for Liszt but, alas, all too rarely encountered. Unfortunately, both are heavily compromised by the sound: the clarity that should be there by default in digital recordings is missing. Conlon’s case is especially painful to listen to. Ferencsik fares better. Nevertheless, these are recommended over the duds in the second paragraph. A fine performance of the Faust Symphony in inferior sound is hugely preferable to a vapid performance in perfect sound.

Only two recordings, so far as I know, have been released on DVD. Neither is worth bothering with. One is Bernstein’s 1976 live account with the BSO, parts of which, as revealed by the Tonmeister, may have gone into the studio recording made with the same forces at the same time. Lenny is charming dancing on the rostrum, as always, but the sound is considerably worse than the CD (where it is no great shakes in the first place) and the picture quality is execrable. The other is Thilemann’s insipid rendition with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Dreadful live performance with Jurowski – clumsy, sloppy, tacky – used to be available on YT but has been removed (thankfully).

The list below includes only CD releases; no LPs, no DVDs. The recordings are listed in chronological order. Only the year and the name of the conductor are given as heading. For recording details, see the photos. For more detailed reviews, click the names.

NB. One of the first and in many ways still the finest recording. Fast and furious, but also elegant, insightful and throbbing with passion. Excellent early stereo. Choir almost perfect, tenor not so much.

NB. Another fast-paced, barn-storming performance, less incandescent and more refined than Horenstein’s, but equally compelling. The sound is a rough early stereo in the best traditions of EMI from the late 1950s. Not the greatest choir and tenor, either. Beecham’s Orpheus is hysterical and quite dispesanble. Psalm XIII is sung in English, but it’s a grand performance. As the rest amply proves, Constantin Silvestri is justly forgotten.

NB. Certainly better, brisker and tauter, than the Boston remake (1976). Very clean if not very spacious sound. Superb choir and tenor.

Ernest Ansermet
NB. Restrained and refined performance, surprisingly convincing. Excellent, fairly early stereo sound. Great bonus tracks: both Episodes from Lenau’s Faust, including the seldom-heard quiet ending of Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and Hunnenschlacht.

NB. Very different, slower and weightier, than his early account (1957), yet totally compelling. Fuzzy choir and screechy tenor, but Horenstein’s orchestral fire is well worth the price of admission. Fine sound.

NB. Possibly the most overrated recording of all. Whatever passionate Lenny fans might tell you, this is a tepid and sluggish performance. Nice choir and tenor cannot redeem it. Indifferent sound.

János Ferencsik
NB. Blistering performance, but far better than many more famous names. Not the cleanest sound, but quite listenable. Reissued as the first disc in Brilliant’s box-set (30 CD).

Late 1970s
Kurt Masur
NB. A travesty, like nearly every other Liszt performance by the timid, sloppy, zany and always chasing a plane Kurt Masur. On the positive side, Herr Masur holds the current world record for the fastest Faust on record. Nobody else has been mad enough, or stupid enough, to play this symphony in less than 62 minutes (the timing for the last movement below is wrong; it should be around 20.50). 

Antal Dorati
NB. Outstandingly disappointing performance considering the eminence of the names involved. Poor sound, too.


NB. Superb concept indifferently performed in subpar digital sound. Jimmy Conlon is one of the great Lisztians among conductors, but he had the misfortune to be saddled with the somewhat sloppy playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the dreadful sound of Erato in the 1980s. Neverthless, his Dante, Christus and Legendes are worth checking out.

NB. The finest Faust in modern sound. Stupendous performance in glorious early digital sound. Even slower than Bernstein’s Boston account, but Muti maintains the tension with masterly hand. Excellent choir and fabulous tenor. 

NB. Perhaps not Soltis finest hour (a bit humdrum and uninvolved), but still one of the best Fausts in modern sound. The tone poems are savage and spectacular. Prometheus is pretty much the best on record. Dante with López-Cobos is a mediocre performance in excellent sound.  

NB. Gorgeous sound wasted on monotonous and soporific performance. Fine singing by choir and tenor, but Chailly is so un-Lisztian that he is hardly listenable. He tries to copy Ansermet, and fails completely.

NB. Grand and sweeping performance recorded in lush and hazy, yet transparent, sound. Inbal leads a very slow performance, slower even than Muti, but his sense of pace and climax building is almost unique in this work. Superb choir. Some problems with the tenor, but no matter. Weak Dante in poor sound with Haenchen. But A La Chapelle Sixtine is an exceptional rarity: this is possibly the only recording of the orchestral version!

NB. Fine performance which I used to like less than I do now. No first choice, and not the best sound either, but Fischer conducts a powerful account with some insightful touches. Includes also the original instrumental ending in addition to the much better known choral version.

NB. Tedious performance in stiff sound. Rattle is indeed sleepwalking, if he is on the rostrum at all. Tenor sounds like fish out of water. The Berlin Philharmonic was still Karajan’s marvellous instrument, but even they couldn’t play the Faust Symphony conductorless.

NB. Just about dreadful. Wilful for the sake of wilfulness. Rushed and crude. A most unexpected thing to come from the man who recorded the finest Dante Symphony with the same orchestra, for the same label and around the same time.

NB. Much better performance than I used to think. Lack of balance between choir and orchestra in the end and Domingo’s singing-cum-screaming are the only problems. Barenboim achieves precision and poetry which Rattle could not even dream about four years earlier with the same orchestraIncludes a minor alteration in the end of “Gretchen” (see the last photo). Fine sound, rich and deep.

Gianandrea Noseda
NB. I have never heard this one, but based on three other volumes from Noseda’s series I am not anxious to. This recording is the only one known to me which includes only the original instrumental ending.