Friday, 13 March 2015

Reflections on Infinity: "The Other Tiger" by Arthur C. Clarke

What is Infinity? What does it really mean to say that the universe is infinite? The vast majority of people think that "infinite" is simply synonymous with "very, very big". This is not even close. I will not attempt to explain this mind-boggling concept. Arthur Clarke already did this brilliantly in his short story "The Other Tiger", a marvellous example how a short piece of fiction may have tremendous, literally unimaginable implications; and for once, the outlandish ending is perfectly appropriate. Here it is, straight out of Tales from Planet Earth (1989), complete with a prefatory note and a postscript. Note, in the latter, Arthur's mischievous mention of God and his elegant refutation of the popular misconception "we are here because everything is so finely adjusted" (we are, of course, but from this it does not follow that Somebody wanted it that way).

PS If you care to read Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" (1882), see here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

W. Somerset Maugham - Reflections on a Certain Book

W. Somerset Maugham

Reflections on a Certain Book[1]


Punctually at five minutes to five Lampe, his servant, waked professor Kant and by five, in his slippers, dressing-gown and night-cap, over which he wore his three-cornered hat, he seated himself in his study ready for breakfast. This consisted of a cup of weak tea and a pipe of tobacco. The next two hours he spent thinking over the lecture he was to deliver that morning. Then he dressed. The lecture room was on the ground floor of his house. He lectured from seven till nine and so popular were his lectures that if you wanted a good seat you had to be there by six-thirty. Kant, seated behind a little desk, spoke in a conversational tone, in a low voice, and very rarely indulged in gesture, but he enlivened his discourse with humour and abundant illustrations. His aim was to teach his students to think for themselves and he did not like it when they busied themselves with their quills to write down his every word.

‘Gentlemen, do not scratch so,’ he said once. ‘I am no oracle.’

It was his custom to fix his eyes on a student who sat close to him and judge by the look of his face whether or no he understood what he said. But a very small thing distracted him. On one occasion he lost the thread of his discourse because a button was wanting on the coat of one of the students, and on another when a sleepy youth persistently yawned he broke off to say:

‘If one cannot avoid yawning, good manners require that the hand should be placed before the mouth.’

At nine o’clock Kant returned to his room, once more put on his dressing-gown, his night-cap, his three-cornered hat and his slippers and studied till exactly a quarter to one. Then he called down to his cook, told her the hour, dressed and went back to his study to await the guests he expected to dinner. They were never less than two nor more than five. He could not bear to eat alone and it is related that once when it happened that he had no one to bear him company he told his servant to go out into the street and bring in anyone he could find. He expected his cook to be ready and his guests to arrive punctually. He was in the habit of inviting them on the day he wished them to come so that they might not, to dine with him, be tempted to break a previous arrangement; and though a certain Professor Kraus for some time dined with him every day but Sunday he never failed to send him an invitation every morning.

As soon as the guests were assembled Kant told his servant to bring the dinner and himself went to fetch the silver spoons which he kept locked up with his money in a bureau in the parlour. The party seated themselves in the dining-room and with the words: ‘Now, gentlemen,’ Kant set to. The meal was substantial. It was the only one he ate in the day, and consisted of soup, dried pulse with fish, a roast, cheese to end with and fruit when in season. Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white so that he could drink whichever he liked.

Kant was fond of talking, but preferred to talk alone, and if interrupted or contradicted was apt to show displeasure; his conversation, however, was so agreeable that none minded if he monopolised it. In one of his books he wrote: ‘If a young, inexperienced man enters a company (especially when ladies are present) surpassing in brilliance his expectations, he is easily embarrassed when he is to begin to speak. Now, it would be awkward to begin with an item of news reported in the paper, for one does not see what led him to speak of that. But as he has just come from the street, the bad weather is the best introduction to conversation.’ Though at his own table ladies were never present, Kant made it a rule to start the conversation with this convenient topic; then he turned to the news of the day, home news and foreign, and from this went on to discourse of travellers’ tales, and peculiarities of foreign peoples, general literature and food. Finally he told humorous stories, of which he had a rich supply and which he told uncommonly well, so, he said, ‘that the repast may end with laughter, which is calculated to promote digestion.’ He liked to linger over dinner and the guests did not rise from table till late. He would not sit down after they had left in case he fell asleep and this he would not permit himself to do since he was of opinion that sleep should be enjoyed sparingly, for thus time was saved and so life lengthened. He set out on his afternoon walk.

He was a little man, barely five feet tall, with a narrow chest and one shoulder higher than the other, and he was thin almost to emaciation. He had a crooked nose, but a fine brow and his colour was fresh. His eyes, though small, were blue, lively and penetrating. He was natty in his dress. He wore a small blond wig, a black tie, and a shirt with ruffles round the throat and wrists; a coat, breeches and waistcoat of fine cloth, grey silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles. He carried his three-cornered hat under his arm and in his hand a gold-headed cane. He walked every day, rain or fine, for exactly one hour, but if the weather was threatening his servant walked behind him with a big umbrella. The only occasion on which he is known to have omitted his walk is when he received Rousseau’s Emile, and then, unable to tear himself away from it, he remained indoors for three days. He walked very slowly because he thought it was bad for him to sweat, and alone because he had formed the habit of breathing through the nostrils, since thus he thought to avoid catching cold and, had he had a companion with whom courtesy would oblige him to speak, he would have been constrained to breathe through his mouth. He invariably took the same walk, along the Linden Allee, and this, according to Heine, he strolled up and down eight times. He issued from his house at precisely the same hour, so that the people of the town could set their clocks by it. When he came home he returned to his study and read and wrote letters till the light failed. Then, as was his habit, fixing his eyes on the tower of a neighbouring church, he pondered over the problems that just then occupied him. A story is attached to this: it appears that one evening he noticed that he could no longer see the tower, for some poplars had grown so tall that they hid it. It completely upset him, but fortunately the owners of the poplars consented to cut off their tops so that he could continue to reflect in comfort. At a quarter to ten he suspended his arduous labour and by ten was safely tucked up in bed.

But one day somewhere between the middle and the end of July, in the year 1789, when Kant stepped out of his house to take his afternoon walk, instead of turning towards the Linden Allee he took another direction. The inhabitants of Königsberg were astounded and they said to one another that something must have happened in the world of shattering consequence. They were right. He had just received the news that on the fourteenth of July that Paris mob had stormed the Bastille and released the prisoners. It was the beginning of the French Revolution.

Kant was born in very humble circumstances. His father, a harness maker, was a man of high character, and his mother a deeply religious woman. Of them he said: ‘They gave me a training which in a moral point of view could not have been better, and for which, at every remembrance of them, I am moved with the most grateful emotions.’ He might have gone further and said that the rigid pietism of his mother had no small influence on the system of philosophy he eventually developed. He went to school when he was eight and at sixteen entered the University of Königsberg. By then his mother was dead. His father was too poor to provide him with more than board and lodging, and he got through the six years he spent at the university with some financial help from his uncle, a shoemaker, by taking pupils and, unexpectedly enough, by making a certain amount of money through his skill at billiards and at the card game of ombre. When his father died, Kant being then twenty-two, the home, such as it was, broke up. Of the eleven children Frau Kant had borne her husband, five remained alive: the immediate subject of this narrative, a much younger brother and three girls. The girls went into domestic service and two of them eventually married in their own class of life. The boy was taken care of by his uncle, the shoemaker, and Kant, having failed in his application for an assistant’s place at a local school, got a succession of jobs as tutor in the families of the provincial gentry. It was by mixing in a society more polite than that in which he was born and brought up that he acquired the good manners and the social grace for which he was afterwards distinguished. He spent nine years thus occupied, and then, having taken his degree, started his career as a lecturer at Königsberg. He lived in lodgings and took his meals at eating-houses which he selected on the chance of meeting agreeable company. But he was pernickety. In one of the lodging-houses he was disturbed in his meditations by the crowing of a cock, and though he tried to buy it the owner would not sell and so he had to move elsewhere. He left one eating-house because a fellow guest talked boringly and another because he found himself expected to hold forth on learned subjects, which was the very thing he did not want to do. It was not till after many years that he was well enough off to have a house of his own and a servant to look after him. The house was sparsely furnished and the only picture in it was a portrait of Rousseau which had been given him by a friend. The walls had been whitewashed, but in time had grown so black from smoke and soot that you could write your name on them; when, however, a visitor once proceeded to do something like this, Kant mildly rebuked him.

‘Friend, why will you disturb the ancient rust?’ he asked. ‘Is not such a hanging, which arose of its own accord, better than one which is purchased?’

Though he lived to be eighty, he never went more than sixty miles away from the town in which he was born. He suffered from frequent indispositions and was seldom free from pain, but he was able by the exertion of his will to turn his attention away from his feelings just as though they did not concern him. ‘He was accustomed to say that one should know how to adapt oneself to one’s body.’ He was of a cheerful disposition, amiable to all, and considerate; but he was punctilious. He expected the same deference to be paid to him as he paid to others. So when his celebrity made people eager to meet him and a common acquaintance tried to arrange that they should do so by inviting him to his own house he would not consent to go till, however distinguished they were, they had paid him a visit of courtesy.


I have given this brief account of what sort of man Kant was, and what sort of life he led, in the hope of sufficiently whetting the readers’ interest in this great philosopher to induce him to have patience with me while I submit to him the reflections that have occurred to me during the reading of a book of his with the somewhat forbidding title of the Critique of the Power of Judgment. It deals with two subjects, aesthetics and teleology, but I hasten to add that it is only with the first of these, aesthetics, that I propose to concern myself; and that only with diffidence, for I am well aware that it may be thought presumptuous in a writer of fiction to concern himself with such a matter. I do not pretend to be a philosopher, but merely a man who has throughout his life been profoundly interested in art. All I venture to claim is that I know from experience something of the process of creation and as a writer of fiction can look upon the question of beauty, which is of course the subject matter of aesthetics, with impartiality. Fiction is an art, but an imperfect one. The great novels of the world may deal with all the passions to which man is subject, discover the depths of his variable and disconsolate soul, analyse human relations, describe the civilisation or create immortal characters; it is only by a misuse of the word that beauty can be ascribed to them. We writers of fiction must leave beauty to the poets.

But before I begin to speak of Kant’s aesthetic ideas I must tell the reader one very odd thing: he appears to have been entirely devoid of aesthetic sensibility. One of his biographers writes as follows: ‘He never seemed to pay much attention to paintings and engravings, even of a superior kind. In galleries and rooms containing much admired and highly praised collections, I never noticed that he specially directed his attention to the pictures, or in any way gave evidence of his appreciation of the artist’s skill.’ He was not what was called in the eighteenth century a man of feeling. Twice he thought seriously of marrying, but he took so long to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the step he had in mind that in the interval one of the young women he had his eye on married somebody else and the other left Königsberg before he reached a decision. I think this argues that he was not in love, for when you are, even if you are a philosopher, you have no difficulty in finding very good reasons for doing what your inclinations prompt. His two married sisters lived in Königsberg. Kant never spoke to them for twenty-five years. The reason he gave for this was that he had nothing to say to them. This seems sensible enough, and though we may deplore his lack of heart, when we remember how often our pusillanimity has led us to rack our brains in the effort to make a conversation with persons with whom we have nothing in common but a tie of blood, we cannot but admire his strength of mind. He had intimate acquaintances rather than friends. When they were ill, he did not care to go to see them, but sent every day to enquire after them, and when they died he put them out of his mind with the words: ‘Let the dead rest with the dead.’ He was neither impulsive nor demonstrative, but he was kindly, within his scanty means generous, and obliging. His intelligence was great, his power of reasoning impressive, but his emotional nature was meagre.

It is all the more remarkable then that, writing on a subject which depends on feeling, he should have said so much that was wise and even profound. He saw, of course, that beauty does not reside in the object. It is the name we give to the specific feeling of pleasure which the object gives us. He saw also that art can give beauty to things which are in nature ugly or displeasing, but he made the reservation, which certain modern painters might well bear in mind, that some things may be so ugly in their representation as to excite disgust. And in suggesting that when experience proves too commonplace the artist by means of his imagination may work up the material he borrows from nature into something that surpasses nature, Kant may almost be supposed to have foreseen the non-representational art of modern day.

Now, the ideas of a philosopher are largely conditioned by his personal characteristics, and, as one might have expected, Kant’s approach to the problems of aesthetics is rigidly intellectual. His aim is to prove that the delight we take in beauty is one of mere reflection. It is interesting to see how he sets about doing this. He starts by making a distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful. The pleasure which the beautiful occasions is independent of all interest. The agreeable is what the senses find pleasing in sensation. The agreeable arouses inclination, and inclination is bound up with desire, and so with interest. A trivial illustration may make Kant’s point clear: when I look at the Doric temples at Paestum the pleasure they afford me is quite obviously independent of all interest and so I may safely call them beautiful; but when I look at a ripe peach the pleasure it causes me is not disinterested, for it excites in me a desire to eat it and therefore I am bound to call it no more than agreeable. The senses of man differ and what causes me pleasure may leave you indifferent. Each of us may judge the agreeable according to his own taste and there is no disputing that. The satisfaction it gives is mere enjoyment, and so, states Kant, has no worth. That is a hard saying, which, I think, can only be explained by his conviction that the faculties of the mind alone have real value. But now, since beauty has no connection with sensation (which is bound up with interest) colour, charm and emotion, which are mere matters of sensation and so only cause enjoyment, have nothing to do with it. This of course is rather startling, but why Kant makes a statement at first sight so outrageous is plain. Since the senses of men differ, if the beautiful depends on the senses your judgement and mine are as good as that of anybody else, and aesthetics will not exist. If a judgement of taste, or what, I think, we would now more conveniently call appreciation of the beautiful, is to have any validity it must depend not on anything so capricious as feeling, but on a mental process. When you come to consider an object with a view to deciding its aesthetic value, you must discard everything, its colour, such charm as it has, the emotions it excites in you, and attend only to its form; and if then you become aware of a harmony between your imagination and your understanding (both faculties of the mind) you will receive a sensation of pleasure and be justified in calling the object beautiful.

But then, having performed this singular operation, you may demand that everyone else should agree with you. The judgment that a thing is beautiful, though a subjective judgment since it is based not on a concept, but on the feeling of pleasure it arouses, has universal validity, and you have the right to claim that everyone ought to find beautiful what you find beautiful. In fact it is in a way the duty of others to fall in with your judgment. Kant justifies this contention thus: ‘For where anyone is conscious that his delight in an object is with him independent of interest, it is inevitable that he should look on the object as one containing a ground of delight for all men. For, since the delight is not based on any inclination of the subject (or on any other deliberate interest), but the subject feels himself completely free in respect of the liking which he accords to the object, he can find as the reason for his delight no personal conditions to which his own subjective self might alone be party. Hence he must regard it as resting on what he may also presuppose in every other person; and therefore he must believe that he has reason for demanding a similar delight from everyone.’

Yet it looks as though Kant had an inkling that this was rather thin. It may even have occurred to him that the imagination and the understanding were in no better case than the senses, for it is obvious that these two faculties of the mind are not the same in all men. There must have been many people in Königsberg who had more imagination than our philosopher, but none who had so solid an understanding. Kant is forced to presuppose that we can only exact from others agreement with our estimate of what is beautiful by a sense common to all men. But he admits almost in the same breath that people are often mistaken in judging that an object is beautiful it does not seem to get us much further. And in another place he remarks that an interest in the beautiful is not common: one would have thought that if there were a sense common to all men, all men should be interested in the beautiful. Indeed in the section of his treatise called Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment he states that the only means of saving the claim of the judgment of taste, that is the appreciation of beauty, to universal validity is by supposing a concept of the supersensible lying at the basis of the object and of the judging subject; if I understand aright he means by this that the object of beauty and the person who considers it are both appearances of reality, and reality is one. They are, as it were, a coat and a pair of trousers made out of a bolt of the same fabric. I find this unconvincing. The assumption that in the appreciation of beauty there is a sense common to all men looks to me like nothing more than a futile attempt to prove something that all experience refutes. If the pleasure that is afforded by a beautiful object is subjective, and that of course Kant insists upon, it must depend on the idiosyncrasies of the observer, idiosyncrasies of the mind as well as idiosyncrasies of the senses; and though we, inheritors of Hebraic, Greek and Roman civilisation, have many traits in common we are none of us alike as two peas. Though we may agree more or less on the beauty of certain familiar things, and then perhaps only because they are familiar, it is only natural that our judgments of the beautiful should be as diverse as those of the agreeable admittedly are.

Kant then claimed that when you have decided that an object is beautiful by the process I have just described, you can not only impute the pleasure (a feeling) you experience to everyone else, but also suppose that your pleasure (a feeling, I repeat) is universally communicable. This seems very strange. I should have thought the peculiarity of feeling is that it is not communicable. If I am looking at Giorgione's Virgin Enthroned at Castel Franco, I can, if I have any gift of expression, tell you what I feel about it, but I cannot make you feel my feeling. I can tell you I am in love; I can even describe the feelings that my love excites in me; but I cannot communicate my love, a feeling, to you. If I could you would be in love with the object of my affections, and that might be highly embarrassing to me. Our feelings are surely conditioned by our dispositions. So much is this so that I do not think it an exaggeration to say that no two persons see exactly the same picture or read exactly the same poem. I can only suppose that Kant came by this notion of the universal communicability of feeling owing to his conviction that feeling was negligible except in so far as by means of the imagination and the understanding it gave rise to ideas; and since the ideas by the nature of our cognitive faculties are universally communicable, the feeling that occasioned them must be so too. He was not, as I ventured at the beginning of this essay to point out, a man who felt with intensity. That may, perhaps, be the reason why he insisted that the appreciation of beauty is merely contemplative.

But contemplation is a passive state. It does not suggest the thrill, the excitement, the breathlessness, the agitation with which the sight of a beautiful picture, the reading of a beautiful poem, must affect a person of aesthetic sensibility. It may well describe his reaction to the agreeable, but surely not to the beautiful. It is difficult for me to believe that any such person can read certain passages of Shakespeare or Milton, listen to certain pieces by Mozart or Beethoven, see certain pictures by El Greco or Chardin with so tepid a feeling that it can be justly called contemplation.


Kant’s doctrine of the communicability of feeling leads not unnaturally to a consideration of the question of communication. It is obvious that the artist, be he poet, painter or composer, makes a communication, but from this the writers on aesthetics infer that this is his intention. There I think they are mistaken. They have not sufficiently examined the process of creation. I don't believe the artist who sets to work to create a work of art has any such purpose as they ascribe to him. If he has he is a didactic or a propagandist, and as such not an artist. I know what happens to a writer of fiction. An idea comes to him, he knows not whence, and so he gives it the rather grand name of inspiration. It is as slight a thing as the tiny foreign body that finds its way into the oyster’s shell and so creates the disturbance that will result in the creation of a pearl. For some reason the idea excites him, his imagination goes to work, out of his unconscious arise thoughts and feelings, characters crowd upon him and events suggest themselves that will express them, for character is expressed by action, not by description, till at length he is possessed of a shapeless mass of material. This sometimes, but not always, falls into a pattern that enables him to see a path, as it were, which he can follow through the jungle of this confused medley of feelings and ideas till he is so obsessed by the muddle of it that to liberate his soul from a burden that has grown intolerable he is constrained to put it all down on paper. Having done this he regains his freedom. What communication the reader gets from it is not his affair.

So it is, I surmise, with the landscape painter, the young Monet for instance or Pissarro; he cannot tell you why some scene, the bend of a river, say, or a road under the snow, bordered by leafless trees, gives him a peculiar thrill so that the creative instinct is stirred in him and he has the feeling that here is something that he can deal with, and because nature has made him a painter he is able to transmute his emotion into an arrangement of colour and form that does not satisfy his sensibility, for I think it doubtful whether the artist, whatever art he practises, ever achieves the full result he saw in his mind’s eye, yet allays the urge of creation which is at once his delight and his torment. But I do not believe it has ever entered his head that he was making a communication to the persons who afterwards see his picture.

So it is, I submit, with the poet and the composer of music, and if I have spoken of painting rather than of poetry or music it is, frankly, because it is not so difficult to deal with. A picture can be seen at once. Not that I mean a glance will give you all that it has to give. That you can get, if you get it at all, only by giving it your continued and renewed attention. Poetry deals with words and words have overwhelming associations, associations different in different countries and in different cultures. Words affect by their meaning as well as by their sound, and so are addressed to the mind as well as to the sensibility. The only meaning of a picture is the aesthetic delight it gives you. In any case I would not venture to speak of music; the peculiar gift which enables someone to invent it is to me the most mysterious of the processes which produce a work of art. One is taken aback at first to find that Kant placed music (along with cooking) among the inferior arts because, though perhaps the highest among the arts which are valued for their agreeableness, it merely plays with sensation. It was natural that he should do this since he estimated the worth of the arts by the culture they supply to the mind. He has, however, a good word to say of poetry because it gives the imagination an impetus to bring more thought into play than allows of being brought into the embrace of a concept, or therefore being definitely formulated in language; but ‘among the formative arts,’ he writes ‘I would give the palm to painting because it can penetrate much further into the region of ideas.’


And now, since this does not pretend to be a philosophical dissertation, but merely a discourse on a subject that happens to interest me, I propose to permit myself a digression. The intellectual attitude towards aesthetic appreciation is that of pretty well all the writers on aesthetics. This is perhaps inevitable, for they are compelled to reason about what has little or nothing to do with reason, but almost only with feeling. It was certainly the attitude of Roger Fry. He was a charming man, a lucid writer and an indifferent painter. He rightly earned a high reputation as a critic of art, but, as all but few of us are, he was swayed by certain prejudices of his time. He claimed that a work of art should be conceived in response to a free aesthetic impulse and so condemned the patron unless he allowed the artist to go his own way regardless of the patron’s wishes. He had little patience with portraiture because, according to him, people have their portraits painted for social prestige or for purposes of publicity. He regarded the painters who accept such commissions as useless, probably mischievous, parasites upon society. He divided works of art into two distinct classes – ‘one in which for some reason the artist can express his genuine aesthetic impulse, the other in which the artist uses his technical skill to gratify a public incapable of responding to aesthetic appeal.’ This seems very high-handed. Because the Pharaohs had colossal statues made of themselves presumably with the same intention as Mussolini and Hitler had when they plastered walls with portraits of themselves, namely to impress themselves on the imagination of their subjects, there are Bellini's Doge, Titian’s Man with a Glove, Velasquez' Pope Innocent, to prove that a portrait can be a work of art and a thing of beauty. We can only suppose that they satisfied their patrons. It is unlikely that had Philip IV been displeased with the portraits Velasquez painted of him, he would have sat to him so often.

The flaw in Roger Fry’s argument lies in the presumption that the motives which have led the artist to create a work of art are any business of the critic’s or of the layman’s. He may, if he is a novelist, start writing a novel to ridicule another novelist, as Fielding started to write Joseph Andrews to mock at Richardson, and then, the creative instinct moving him, go on writing for his own enjoyment. Dickens, as we know, was asked to write a book on a subject which did not appeal to him to serve as letterpress for the illustrations of a popular draughtsman and he accepted the commission only because he needed the fourteen pounds a month he was offered for the work. Since he had immense vitality, an exuberant sense of the comic, the power of creating characters as alive as they were fantastic, he produced in ThePickwick Papers the greatest work of humour in the English language. It may well be that it was the irksome conditions that he felt bound to accept which gave rise to the flash of genius by means of which, without rhyme or reason, out of the blue, came Sam Weller and Sam Weller’s father. It is news to me that the artist who knows his business is hampered by the limitations that are imposed upon him. When the donor of an altarpiece wanted portraits of himself and his wife kneeling at the foot of the Cross with Christ crucified, perhaps for publicity or for social prestige, but perhaps also because his piety was sincere, in either case the painter had no difficulty in complying with his patron’s wish. I cannot believe that it ever entered his head that he looked upon this as an infringement of his aesthetic freedom: on the contrary I am more inclined to believe that the difficulty he was asked to cope with excited and inspired him. Every art has its limitations and the better the artist the more comfortably does he exercise his creative instincts within them.

A generation or two ago a claim was made that painting was an esoteric business that only painters could adequately appreciate since they alone knew its technique. This claim, probably first made in France, where during the last hundred years most aesthetic ideas have arisen, was launched in England, I believe, by Whistler. He asserted that the layman was by his nature a Philistine, and his duty was to accept what the artist oracularly told him. His only function was to buy the painter’s picture in order to provide him with bread and butter, but his appreciation was as impertinent as his censure. That was a farrago of nonsense. There is nothing mystical about technique; it is merely the name given to the processes by means of which the artist achieves the effects he aims at. Every art has its technique. It has nothing to do with the layman. He is only concerned with the result. When you look at a picture, if you are of a curious turn of mind it may interest you to examine the way in which the painter has achieved integration through relations of colour, line, light and space; but that is not the aesthetic communication which it has to give you. You do not look at a picture only with your eyes, you look at it with your experience of life, your instinctive likes and dislikes, your habits and feelings, your associations, in fact with the whole of your personality. And the richer your personality the richer is the communication the picture has to give you. The notion, foolish to my mind, that painting is a mystery accessible only to the initiated, is flattering to the painters. It has led them to be scornful of the writers on art who see in pictures what from their professional standpoint is of no interest. I think they are wrong. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is not a picture that everyone can care for now, but we know the communication it had to make to Walter Pater; it was not a purely aesthetic communication, but it is surely not the least of this particular picture’s merits that it had it to make to a man of peculiar sensibility.

There is a painting by Degas in the Louvre which is popularly known as L'Absinthe, but in fact represents an engraver well-known in his day and an actress called Ellen André. There is no reason to suppose that they were more disreputable than other persons of their calling. They are seated side by side at a marble-topped table in a shabby bistro. The surroundings are sordid and vulgar. A glass of absinthe stands before the actress. Their dress is slovenly and you can almost smell the stench of their unwashed bodies and grubby clothes. They are slumped down on the banquette in an alcoholic stupor. Their faces are heavy and sullen. There is an air of apathetic hopelessness in their listless attitude and you would say that they were dully resigned to sink deeper and deeper in shameless degradation. It is not a pretty picture, nor a pleasing one, and yet it is surely one of the great pictures of the world. It offers the authentic thrill of beauty. Of course I can see how admirable the composition is, how pleasing the colour and how solid the drawing, but to me there is much more in it than that. As I stand before it, my sensibilities quickened, at the back of my mind, somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious, I become aware of Verlaine’s poems, and of Rimbaud’s, of Manette Salomon, of the quais along the Seine with their second-hand bookstalls, of the Boulevard St. Michel and the cafés and bistros in old mean streets. I daresay that from the standpoint of aesthetic appreciation, which should be occupied only with aesthetic values, this is reprehensible. Why should I care? My delight in the picture is enormously increased. Is it possible that a picture which gives one so much can have been painted, as the distinguished critic, Camille Mauclair, says it was, because Degas was fascinated by the paradoxical perspective of the marble-topped tables in the foreground?

But now I must break off to make a confession to the reader. I have glibly used the word Beauty as though I knew just what it meant. I’m not at all sure that I do. It obviously means something, but exactly what? When we say that something is beautiful can we really say why we say it? Do we mean anything more than that it happens to give us a peculiar feeling? I have noticed that the word has bothered the writers on aesthetics not a little; some indeed have sought to avoid it altogether. Some have claimed that it resides in harmony, symmetry and formal relations. Others have identified it with truth and goodness; others again have held that it is merely that which is pleasant. Kant has given several definitions of it, but they all tend to substantiate his claim that the pleasure which beauty affords us is a pleasure of reflection. For all I have been able to discover to the contrary he seems to have believed that beauty was immutable, a belief, I think, generally shared by the writers on aesthetics. Keats expressed the same idea in the first line of Endymion: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ By this he may have meant one of two things: one, that so long as an object retains its beauty it is a pleasure; but that is what I believe philosophers call an analytical proposition, and tells us nothing that we didn’t know before, since the characteristic of beauty is that it affords pleasure. Keats was too intelligent to make a statement so trite and I can only think he meant that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever because it retains its beauty for ever. And there he was wrong. For beauty is as transitory as all other things in this world. Sometimes it has a long life, as Greek sculpture has had owing to the prestige of Greek culture and owing to its representations of the human form which have provided us with an ideal of human beauty; but even Greek sculpture, owing to the acquaintance we have now made with Chinese and Negro art, has with the artists themselves lost much of its appeal. It is no longer a source of inspiration. Its beauty is dying. An indication of this may be seen in the movies. Directors no longer choose their heroes as they did twenty years ago for their classical beauty, but for their expression and such evidence as their outward seeming offers of character and personality. They would not do this unless they had discovered that classical beauty had lost its allure. Sometimes the life of beauty is short. We can all remember pictures and poems which gave us the authentic thrill of beauty in our youth, but from which beauty has now seeped out as water seeps out of a porous jar. Beauty depends on the climate of sensibility and this changes with the passing years. A different generation has different needs and demands a different satisfaction. We grow tired of something we know too well and ask for something new. The eighteenth century saw nothing in the paintings of the Italian primitives but the fumblings of immature, unskilful artists. Were those pictures beautiful then? No. It is we who have given them their beauty and it is likely enough that the qualities we find in them are not the qualities which appealed to the lovers of art, long since dead, who saw them when they were first painted. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Second Discourse, recommended Ludovico Caracci as a model for style in painting, in which he thought he approached the nearest to perfection. ‘His unaffected breadth of light and shadow,’ he said, ‘the simplicity of colouring, which, holding its proper rank, does not draw aside the least part of the attention from the subject, and the solemn effect of that twilight which seems diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with grave and dignified subjects, better than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian.’ Hazlitt was a great critic and enough of a painter to paint a tolerable portrait of Charles Lamb. Of Correggio he wrote that he ‘possessed a greater variety of excellence in the different departments of his art than any other painter.’ ‘Who can think of him,’ he asks rhetorically, ‘without a swimming of the head?’[2] We can. Hazlitt considered Guercino’s Endymion one of the finest pictures in Florence.[3] I doubt whether anyone today would give it more than a passing glance. Now, it is no good saying that these eminent persons didn’t know what they were talking about; they expressed the cultivated aesthetic opinions of their time. Beauty in fact is only that which produces the specific pleasure which leads us to describe an object as beautiful during a certain period of the world’s history, and it does so because it responds to certain needs of the period. It would be foolish to suppose that our opinions are any more definitive than those of our fathers, and we may be pretty sure that our descendants will look upon them with the same perplexity as we look upon Sir Joshua’s high praise of Pellegrino Tibaldi and Hazlitt’s passionate admiration for Guido Reni.


I have suggested that there is between the creation of beauty and the appreciation of it a disjunction which no bridge can span, and from what I have said the reader will have gathered that I think the appreciation is enhanced by, if not actually dependent upon, the culture of the individual. That is what the connoisseurs of art and the lovers of beauty claim, and they claim also that the gift of aesthetic appreciation is a rare one. If they are right it demolishes Tolstoi’s contention that real beauty is accessible to everyone. Perhaps the most interesting part of Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment is the long section he devotes to the sublime. I need only trouble the reader with his conclusions. He points out that the peasant who lives among mountains merely looks upon them as horrible and dangerous (as we know the ancient travellers did) and the sea-faring man looks upon the sea as a treacherous and uncertain element which it is his business to contend with. To receive from the snow-clad mountains and the stormtossed sea the specific pleasure which we call the sublime demands a susceptibility to ideas and a certain degree of culture. That has an air of truth. Is the farmer conscious of the beauty of the landscape in the sight of which he earns his daily bread? I should say not; and that is natural, for the appreciation of beauty, it is agreed, must not be affected by practical considerations, and he is concerned to plough a field or to dig a ditch. The appreciation of the beauty of nature is a recent acquisition of the human race. It was created by the painters and writers of the Romantic Era. It needs leisure and sophistication. In order to appreciate it, then, not only disinterestedness is needed, but culture and a susceptibility to ideas. Unwelcome as the idea may be, I don’t see how one can escape admitting that beauty is accessible but to the chosen few.

But to admit that excites in me a feeling of deep discomfort. More than twenty-five years ago I bought an abstract picture by Fernand Léger. It was an arrangement of squares, oblongs and spheres in black, white, grey and red, and for some reason he had called it Les Toits de Paris. I did not think it beautiful, but I found it ingenious and decorative. I had a cook then, a bad-tempered and quarrelsome woman, who would stand looking at this picture for quite long periods in a state of something that looked very like rapture. I asked her what she saw in it. ‘I don’t know,’ she answered, ‘mais ça me plait, ça me dit quelque chose.’ It seemed to me that she was receiving as genuine an aesthetic emotion as I flattered myself I received from El Greco's Crucifixion in the Louvre. I am led by this (a single instance, of course) to suggest that it is a very narrow point of view which claims that the specific pleasure of artistic appreciation can only be felt by the privileged few. It may well be that the pleasure is subtler, richer and more discriminating in someone whose personality is cultivated, whose experience is wide, but why should we suppose that someone else, less fortunately circumstanced, cannot feel a pleasure as intense and as fruitful? The object that in the latter gives rise to the pleasure may be what the aesthete considers no great shakes. Does that matter? It appears that the urn that inspired Keats to write his great ode was a mediocre piece of Greco-Roman sculpture, yet it gave him the aesthetic thrill which, being what he was, occasioned one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. Kant put the matter succinctly when he said that beauty does not reside in the object. It is the name we give to the specific pleasure which the object gives us. Pleasure is a feeling I can see no reason why there should not be as many people capable of enjoying the specific pleasure of beauty as there are who are capable of feeling grief or joy, love, tenderness and compassion. I am inclined to say that Tolstoi was right when he said that real beauty is accessible to everyone if you leave out the word real. There is no such thing as real beauty. Beauty is what gives you and me and everyone else that sense of exultation and liberation which I have already spoken of. But in discourse it is more convenient to use the word as if it were a material entity, like a chair or a table, existing in its own right, independent of the observer, and that I shall continue to do.


Now, after this long digression from my subject, which is Kant’s aesthetic ideas, I must attempt to cope with what I have found the most difficult part of his treatise, and that is his discussion of purposiveness and purpose in relation to beauty. And what makes it more difficult is that he seems sometimes to use the words as though they were synonymous. (The German words are Zweck and Zweckmässigkeit.) In this essay, designed to interest the general reader, I have been at pains to avoid the technical terms of philosophy, but now I must ask his indulgence while I give him Kant’s definition of purpose and purposiveness. It runs as follows: ‘Purpose is the object of a concept in so far as this concept is regarded as the cause of the object, that is to say as the real ground of its possibility. The causality of a concept in respect of its object is its purposiveness.’ Kant gives an illustration which makes the matter clear: a man builds a house in order to rent it. That is his purpose in building it. But the house would not have been built at all unless he had conceived that he would receive rent from it. This concept is the purposiveness of building the house. There is a certain humour, probably unconscious, in one example which our philosopher gives of purposiveness in nature: ‘The vermin that torment men in their clothes, their hair, or their bed may be according to a wise appointment of nature a motive of cleanliness which is in itself an important means for the preservation of health.’ But that these vermin have been created for this purpose cannot be a conviction, but at most a persuasion. It may be no more than a wholesome illusion. The purposiveness which we seem to find in nature may be occasioned only by the peculiar constitution of our cognitive faculties. It is a principle we make use of to provide ourselves with concepts in the vast multiplicity of nature, so that we may take our bearings in it and enable our understanding to feel itself at home in it.

Fortunately for myself I am concerned with this principle in so far as it is related to Kant’s aesthetic ideas. Beauty, he states, is the form of purposiveness in an object so far as it is perceived in it apart from the representation of a purpose. This purposiveness, however, is not real; we are forced by the subjective needs of our nature to ascribe it to the object which we call beautiful. Since I am more at ease with the concrete than with the abstract I have tried to think of an object of beauty which has purposiveness apart from purpose, and that is not so easy since the simplest definition of purposiveness is that it is characterised by purpose. I offer an illustration with diffidence. A rice bowl of the Yung Lo period, of the porcelain known as eggshell, is so wafer-thin, so fragile, so delicate in texture that its purpose is evidently not to contain rice. Such a purpose would be of practical interest and the appreciation of beauty is essentially disinterested. Furthermore, there is an admirably drawn design under the glaze which can only be seen when you hold the bowl, empty, up to the light. What other purposiveness can it have but to please the eye? But if by the purposiveness of an object of beauty Kant had merely meant that it affords pleasure he would surely have said so. I have an inkling that at the back of his great mind was a disinclination to admit that pleasure was the only effect to be obtained from the consideration of a great work of art.

Pleasure has always had a bad name. Philosophers and moralists have been unwilling to own that it is good and only to be eschewed when its consequences are harmful. Plato, as we know, condemned art unless it led to right action. Christianity with its contempt of the body and its obsession with sin viewed pleasure with apprehension and its pursuit unworthy of a human being with an immortal soul. I suppose that the disapproval with which pleasure is regarded arises from the fact that when people think of it, it is in connection with the pleasures of the body. That is not fair. There are spiritual pleasures as well as physical pleasures, and if we must allow that sexual intercourse, as St. Augustine (who knew something about it) declared, is the greatest of physical pleasures, we may admit that aesthetic appreciation is the greatest of spiritual pleasures.

Kant says that the artist produces a work of art with no other purpose than to make it beautiful. I do not believe that is so; I believe that the artist produces a work of art to exercise his creative faculty, and whether what he creates is beautiful is a fortuitous result in which he may well be uninterested. We know from Vasari that Titian was a fashionable and prolific portrait painter. His experience was wide and he knew his business, so that when he came to paint the Man with a Glove it is probable enough that he was concerned only to get a good likeness and satisfy his client. It was a happy accident that, owing to his own great gifts and the natural grace of his sitter, he achieved beauty. Milton has concisely told what his purpose was in writing Paradise Lost, it was a didactic purpose, and if in passage after passage he achieved beauty I cannot but think that this too was a happy accident. It may be that beauty, like happiness and originality, is more likely to be obtained when it is not deliberately attempted.

I have not thought it necessary in this discourse to touch upon Kant’s discussion of the sublime, though, as he insists, our judgments about the beautiful and the sublime are akin, since both are aesthetic judgments. The purposiveness we are obliged to ascribe to both (unfortunately Kant does not tell us why) is entirely subjective. ‘We call things sublime,’ he says ‘on the ground that they make us feel the sublimity of our own minds.’ Our imagination cannot cope with the feeling that arises in us when we contemplate the raging, storm-tossed sea and the massed immensities of the Himalayas, with their eternal snows. We are made to feel our insignificance, but at the same time we are exalted, since, awe-struck as we may be, we are conscious that we are not limited to the world of sense, but can raise ourselves above it. ‘Nature may deprive us of everything, but it has no power over our moral personality.’ So Pascal said: ‘L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus foible de le nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant, il ne faut pas que l’Univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser, une vapeur, une goutte d’eau suffit pour le tuer. Mais quand l’Univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il scait qu’il meurt et l’avantage que l’Univers a sur lui, L’Univers n’en scait rien.[4] If Kant had had the aesthetic sensibility which, as I remarked early in this essay, he seems singularly to have lacked, it might perhaps have occurred to him that the emotions we feel, and the ideas that spring from them, when we contemplate a supreme work of art, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or El Greco’s Crucifixion in the Louvre, are not so very different from those we have when we are confronted with the objects we describe as sublime. They are moral emotions and moral ideas.

Kant, as we know, was a moralist. ‘Reason,’ he says, ‘can never be persuaded that the existence of a man who merely lives for enjoyment has worth in itself.’ That we may all agree to. Then he says: ‘If the beautiful arts are not brought into more or less combination with moral ideas… they serve only as a distraction, of which we are the more in need the more we avail ourselves of them to disperse the discontent of the mind with itself, so that we render ourselves even more useless and more discontented.’ He goes even further when at the very end of his treatise he says that the true introduction to the appreciation of beauty is the development of the moral ideas and the culture of moral feeling. It is not for me who am no philosopher to suggest that by his difficult proposition that beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object so far as this is perceived without any presentation of purpose, Kant may have meant something other than what he said, but, I must confess, it seems to me that if the purposiveness which we are apparently forced to ascribe to the work of art lies only in the artist’s intention these scattered observations of his are somewhat pointless; for what has the artist’s intention to do with us? We, I repeat, are only concerned with what he has done.

Jeremy Bentham startled the world many years ago by stating in effect that if the amount of pleasure obtained from each be equal there is nothing to choose between poetry and push-pin. Since few people now know what push-pin is, I may explain that it is a child's game in which one player tries to push his pin across that of another player, and if he succeeds and then is able by pressing down on the two pins with the ball of his thumb to lift them off the table he wins possession of his opponent's pin. When I was a small boy at a preparatory school we used to play with steel nibs till the headmaster discovered that we had somehow turned it into a gambling game, whereupon he forbade us to play it, and when he caught still doing so, soundly beat us. The indignant retort to Bentham’s statement was that spiritual pleasures are obviously higher than physical pleasures. But who say so? Those who prefer spiritual pleasures. They are in a miserable minority, as they acknowledge when they declare that the gift of aesthetic appreciation is a very rare one. The vast majority of men are, as we know, both by necessity and choice preoccupied with material considerations. Their pleasures are material. They look askance at those who spent their lives in the pursuit of art. That is why they have attached a depreciatory sense to the word aesthete, which means merely one who has a special appreciation of beauty. How are we going to show that they are wrong? How are we going to show that there is something to choose between poetry and push-pin? I surmise that Bentham chose push-pin for its pleasant alliteration with poetry. Let us speak of lawn tennis. It is a popular game which many of us can play with pleasure. It needs skill and judgement, a good eye and a cool head. If I get the same amount of pleasure out of playing it as you get by looking at Titian’s Entombment of Christ in the Louvre, by listening to Beethoven’s Eroica or by reading Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, how are you going to prove that your pleasure is better and more refined than mine? Only, I should say, by manifesting that this gift you have of aesthetic appreciation has a moral effect on your character.

In one place Kant makes the significant remark that ‘connoisseurs in taste, not only often, but generally are given up to idle, capricious and mischievous passions’ and that ‘they could perhaps make less claims than the others to any superiority of attachment to moral principles.’ This was doubtless true then: it is true now. Human nature changes little. No one can have lived much in the society of those whom Kant calls connoisseurs of taste, and whom we may more conveniently call aesthetes, without noticing how seldom it is that you find in them the modesty, the tolerance, the loving-kindness and liberality, in short the goodness with which you might have expected their addiction to spiritual pleasures to inform them. If the delight in aesthetic appreciation is no more than opium of an intelligentsia it is no more than, as Kant says, a mischievous distraction. If it is more it should enable its possessor to acquire virtue. Kant finely says that beauty is the symbol of morality. Unless the love of beauty ennobles the character, and that is the only purposiveness of beauty that seems, as far as I can see, important enough to give it value, then I can’t tell how we can escape from Bentham's affirmation that if the amount of pleasure obtained from each be equal there is nothing to choose between poetry and push-pin.

[1] W. Somerset Maugham, The Vagrant Mood, Vintage Classics, 2001, pp. 131-159; “æ” is replaced with “ae”, otherwise the text is faithfully reproduced. The collection was first published by William Heinemann in 1952. The essay was first delivered as a lecture under the title “Beauty and the Professor” at the Columbia University, New York City, on 2 November 1950. It was rewritten for its publication in book form.
It is posted here complete as a riposte to the preposterous claims of Anthony Curtis (“It is not often that we watch Maugham tying himself up into knots and failing to extricate himself, but the latter part of this essay is one of those strange occasions.”) and Samuel Rogal (“Essentially, the piece is heavily biographical; Maugham appears more interested in Kant the eighteenth-century man than in his philosophy.”); see The Pattern of Maugham (1974) and A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia (1997), respectively. 
Cf. Maugham’s reflections on beauty and artistic communication in chapter 11 of Cake sand Ale (1930), chapter 9 of Don Fernando (1935, rev. 1950), and chapter 76 of The Summing Up (1938)
[2] These quotes – both of them slightly misquoted! – come from two different and rather obscure essays by Hazlitt.
The first quote – “Correggio, indeed, possessed a greater variety of excellences [my italics] in the different departments of his art, than any other painter” – is from Hazlitt’s article on the fine arts written for Encyclopedia Britannica, or rather for the 1824 supplement to its 4th, 5th and 6th editions; later it was incorporated in the 7th edition (1842). The piece was based on articles that had appeared in The Champion in 1814 under the title “Fine Arts. Whether they are promoted by academies and public institutions.” See The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, eds. by A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover, London: J. M. Dent & Co. / McClure Phillips & Co.: New York, 1903, vol. 9, pp. 383 & 470.
The second quote – “Who can think of Correggio [my italics] without a swimming of the head…” – comes from the essay “Originality”. This was first published in The Atlas, 3 January 1830, under the collective title “Specimens of a Dictionary of Definitions”. See The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ibid., pp. 427 & 484. The piece is reprinted in Essays on Fine Arts, London: Reeves and Turner, 1873, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (WH’s grandson), pp. 120-127, under the title “On Originality”.
Another Hazlittean rave about Correggio can be found in his essay “Whether Genius is Conscious of Its Powers” (The Plain Speaker, 1826, vol. 1, XII).
[3] This is accurately quoted from Hazlitt’s Notes on a Journey through France and Italy (1826), chapter XVII. See The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ibid., p. 224.
[4] “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (Pascal, Pensées, VI, 347.)

Monday, 2 March 2015

Quotes: The Pattern of Maugham (1974) by Anthony Curtis

Anthony Curtis

The Pattern of Maugham

Hamish Hamilton, 1974.

1. Oeuvre and Environs

The first point to make about Maugham is that he trusted literature. It was the one activity in which he had complete and lasting faith. He made a wholehearted surrender to it from boyhood to old age. Medicine in which he qualified but never in fact practised was a kind of insurance cover. As soon as he had published his first novel at the age of twenty-three he determined to live if he possibly could by and for literature. He had inherited some money from his father, enough to give him a modest livelihood, and he gambled this on his future as a writer.

After about ten years the gamble paid handsome rewards; from then on his income from his writing was never in doubt. He made a huge fortune and lived the life of a rich man. Maugham’s affluence, his love of money and his ability to make a great deal of it, has undoubtedly stood in the way of a just appreciation of his work in his native country and in other places where a puritan conscience encourages the view that a serious writer has no business making a lot of money out of his work until he is safely in his grave, or at least too old to enjoy it fully, and that he can only perform this singular feat of lucrativeness by forfeiting this seriousness. Edmund Wilson, to name the most influential of Maugham’s detractors, clearly felt that Maugham had no right to be seriously considered and took the opportunity of knocking him off the perch of eminence onto which he had landed safely at the end of his life in a damaging review of one of his least characteristic books.[1]


My own position is that Maugham’s seriousness is beyond doubt, as should be plain from my attempting to write this book and spending as much time with his work as this undertaking involves; but to determine where and how we place him among the writers of this century is, it seems to, a task of stimulating difficulty and fascination.

Even Maugham’s most severe detractors will usually grant that he was a great professional. By this one means in external terms that he kept regular writing hours and as soon as he had finished one work he began another. The only interruption to the routine of writing was when he went on his travels, as he did annually for many years, but these travels were all part of the writing programme. He went with both an open mind and a sense of purpose, and his wanderings rarely failed to provide him with the raw material for a book. New books by Maugham never needed to be heralded by his publishers as ‘long-awaited’ or ‘breaking a long silence’; they appeared with unvarying punctuality from his twenties to his eighties.


Maugham’s conservatism was seen at its staunchest in his lifelong faith in the sovereign power of narrative; all his books are constructed on the principle of a sequence of events that first of all arouses, and then prolongs and ultimately satisfies the reader’s curiosity. Maugham clung tenaciously to the linear logic of narrative at a time when his colleagues appeared to be abandoning its consecutiveness in favour of much greater psychological immediacy and were experimenting with ways of expressing inward irrational confusion in works that deliberately left curiosity unsatisfied whatever else they did. Maugham’s faith in the enduring power of traditional narrative did not let him down throughout this revolution. But if he had the faith in his own art that moved mountains he was not complacent about it. He was never content to rest assured; his conservatism, his sense of literary tradition and social tradition, was combined with tireless intellectual curiosity. He was continually extending his scope even though he sometimes re-worked a plot he had used before: he never wholly profited by the acquired élan.


Maugham’s whole career was a masterpiece of literary strategy, planned and executed with ruthless precision. He had an unerring way of finding subjects that although not tied to topical events were of the moment and of great popular interest. He sensed the zeitgeist and contributed to it from his own standpoint as a story-teller. His offensives were brilliantly timed and so were his withdrawals. Unlike his mentors in the theatre, Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero, he bowed out at a time when his public would probably have welcome more even though they misunderstood some of his last plays.

As he grew in stature as an author he adopted the habit favoured by Monty and other successful generals of chatting to the troops: the mature Maugham cultivated a friendly working relation with his readers that became the constant feature of his vast many-sided oeuvre. You can always tell one of his books in outward appearance by the spiky wigwam, the emblem against the evil eye found by his father in Morocco, that sits on the binding,[2] and in inward appearance by the presence in the narrative of Maugham’s professional self, a creature who is witty, courteous, gentlemanly, commonsensical, sceptical, agnostic, hedonistic, totally absorbed in the technique of his craft. Let us imagine that we are in the library of some great Maugham collector such as Jerome Zipkin or Betram Alanson,[3] one-time head of the San Francisco Stock Exchange’, who possess every one of Maugham’s books in its first edition and that they are ranged sided by side across the shelves. What an impressive sight it is! Such industry, such dedication, such singleness of purpose! Lucky indeed the fellow-writer who can gaze thereon without a creeping paralysis of guilt at the pitiful smallness of his own output!

Here is Liza of Lambeth in her original green cloth as she appeared in Fischer Unwin’s pseudonym library in 1897 and ranged beside her are those early offspring whom the Master later disowned The Making of a Saint (1898), Orientations (1899), The Hero (1901); […] Mrs. Craddock (1902) next: eventually she was awarded her place in the Collected Works. Then three more outcasts The Merry-Go-Round (1904), The Land of the Blessed Virgin earliest of his travel books and first fruit of his lifelong infatuation with Spain, and The Bishops Apron [sic] published by Chapman and Hall in 1906, and then again in Newnes Sixpenny Novel Series in 1908, looking for all the world like a genuine housemaid’s novelette with an artist’s impression of the aforesaid bishop among the illustrations. The Explorer (1907) and The Magician (1908), emphasize the young writers [sic] regularity and persistence, also how long it is taking us to reach familiar ground. At last with Of Human Bondage (1915) we have arrived and here beside the British Heinemann edition stands the American published by George H. Doran one day earlier in the same year, thus establishing a transatlantic link that was to endure for the next forty years. Next to them is the German edition of Bondage Dasselbe (Berlin 1930), the French edition Servitude Humaine (Paris 1937), the Swiss edition Der Menschen Horigkeit [sic] (Zürich 1939) and the Spanish edition Servidumbre Humana (Barcelona 1945) plotting a representative pattern of territorial expansion. Now the eye begins to skim rapidly over titles that are household words The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Painted Veil (1925), Cakes and Ale (1930), The Razor’s Edge (1944) up to Then and Now (1946) and Catalina (1948) with which the novels ended. In a separate section are the short stories that began with Orientations. […] It is not until 1921 that the next volume of stories appeared, it was The Trembling of a Leaf, after which came The Casuarina Tree (1926), Ashenden or the British Agent (1928), Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931), Ah King (1933), Cosmopolitans (1936), The Mixture as Before (1940), Creatures of Circumstance (1947). The ideal way to read Maugham’s stories is in this chronological sequence of book publication rather than in the reshuffled order of Altogether, or the three hardback Collected[4] volumes or the four paperback ones in which they were re-issued. Apart from the print being bigger there is geographical unity in the original volumes and such luxuries as the author’s prologues justifying his titles.

The plays were first collected in six volumes in a shiny brown cloth in 1931 onwards spanning the Master’s retirement from the theatre, volumes for which he wrote prefaces of scintillating brilliance. […] Then there are such rarities as The Explorer, The Tenth Man, Loaves and Fishes, Landed Gentry in small red boards with lists of the original casts, but afterwards repudiated.

In another section are works of travel and autobiography – the former On a Chinese Screen (1922), The Gentlemen in the Parlour [sic] (1930), Don Fernando (1935) have all been combined in one volume in the Collected edition[5] and ought surely to be better known than they are. Then there are those crucial books The Summing Up (1935 [sic: 1938]) and A Writer’s Notebook, and books of literary causerie, Books and You (1939 [sic: 1940]), Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948), The Vagrant Mood (1952), Points of View (1958). For someone who often referred to himself as ‘but a story-teller’ he would seem to have published a sizable amount of non-fiction.

A complete Maugham collection will include not only his own books but those by other people for which when he was eminent he wrote prefaces. They tell us much about his interests and his circle. Here is the American Bridge expert Charles H. Goren on The Art of Bidding and here are the memoirs of the Aga Khan. Here are theatrical memoirs by the matinée idols who contributed to his own success as a playwright, Gladys Cooper and Charles Hawtrey, in which Maugham confessed that there was no greater illusion than the naturalism of the theatre. Here is Doris Arthur Jones, daughter of the dramatist, in whose What a Life! Maugham recalled the first hostess to take him up, Mrs. George Stevens. Here are people whom later on he took up, people like Louis Marlow, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Edward Marsh, Peter Arno.[6]


It amused Maugham to pretend that he was more or less ignored by serious critics during his lifetime. In fact he received an inordinate amount of critical attention. If you were to put all the reviews and articles devoted to his work in English alone end to end they would stretch from Cap Ferrat to Los Angeles. A whole book has been published by the Northern Illinois Press, in a series with the resounding title of Annotated Secondary Bibliography Series on English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, on Maugham, compiled and edited by Charles Sanders, which lists critical references to Maugham from 1897 to 1968 and is still incomplete though it remains an invaluable work of reference to any student of Maugham, and one to which the present book is much indebted. So far there has been no Critical Heritage volume on Maugham from Routledge but what amounts among other useful things to an anthology of reviews of his plays may be found in the superbly researched Theatrical Companion to Maugham by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson (1955). These two works together with the fine scholarly bibliographies of Raymond Toole Stott – the latest and most complete revision arrived just as this book was going to press[7] – are the essential tools in any serious appraisal.

Books about Maugham range from the academic to the scurrilous and by now occupy several sizable shelves of their own. With his global audience and his portraits of English people all over the world Maugham was a natural subject for university study abroad. Paul Dottin’s W. Somerset Maugham et Ses Romans appeared as long ago as 1928. But North America has led the field in professional industry with Richard Cordell and Klaus Jonas outstanding for their devotion to the subject over many years; since Maugham’s death in 1965 they have been joined by M. K. Naik and by a Canadian scholar Robert Lorin Calder whose Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom (1972) pursued the theme of its title with great erudition and posited real-life originals for several of Maugham’s most famous characters.


This brings me to the last shelf of all labelled rather ominously Family and Friends. Here is Robin – the present Lord – Maugham’s Somerset and All the Maughams (1965) which contains in addition to the author’s recollections of his uncle a historical account of the rise and rise of the Maugham family from modest beginnings, and here is Lord Maugham’s later autobiography Escape from the Shadows (1972), one of these being his uncle Willie. Next to this we see A Case of Human Bondage  (1966) by Beverley Nichols with some rare glimpses in print of Syrie Maugham, and containing a violent personal attack on Nichol’s [sic] former mentor. Much more cheerfully there is Garson Kanin’s Remembering Mr. Maugham (1966). Mr. Kanin did a very valuable thing. He Boswellized Maugham. Whenever he met him he went away and wrote down exactly what Maugham had said. The result is one book where we do hear the real voice of Maugham speaking about everything from form in writing to royalty on the Riviera. Another American Wilmon Menard tried to perform the same task in his The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham (1965) but here it is not at all clear when he is quoting from Maugham’s published writing and when he is claiming to report Maugham’s conversation. Still, Mr. Menard is informative about Maugham in the South Pacific.

The only volume that appears to be missing from these bulging shelves is an official biography, the equivalent of Ray on Thackeray, Johnson on Dickens, Baines on Conrad. Whether there will ever be such a biography of Maugham I would not care to predict but it is quite clear that he did not wish that there should ever be one.

No one in the history of literature was ever so determined to cover his tracks. Maugham forbade any posthumous publication of his letters. The copyright of an author’s letters is vested in his estate: this prohibition can be (and is being) enforced.[8]


As an omnivorous reader of literary biographies himself Maugham must have realized what a superb full-scale Life he would have made; it would have spanned so much late nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, beginning with the last years of Queen Victoria, including the Boer War, the Edwardian age, the First World War, the early rumblings of the Russian Revolution, the uneasy peace, the British colonial administration in the Far East, and switching in the later chapters to the world of the French Riviera before and after the Second World War, to China, to Indo-China, to India, to New York, to South Carolina, to Hollywood, to Japan… […] But Maugham wished to be judged only in his own terms as a professional author not as a private individual. He wished for no more to be revealed about himself posthumously than he had revealed already in his lifetime. He had a great reluctance for the image of Maugham so carefully planted and cultivated by him over more than fifty years of writing to be altered or corrected or modified in any way however deftly it was done. One of the difficulties – and hence one of the fascinations – of writing about Maugham is to get past Maugham’s apparent self-detachment. Everything there is to say about Maugham has (so it seems) already been said by Maugham himself. He appears so open with the reader about the nature of the problem before us and his own equipment for dealing with it that further comment seems superfluous. If we wish to assess his place in literature or to point to the shortcomings of his style we find that he has been there already and come up with an answer as judicious as it is modest. He told us as much about his own life as would enable us to follow his career as an author, and to understand the events that had influenced that career. In The Summing Up he combined one part autobiography with about six parts general reflection rather like those marvellous martinis that Gerald Haxton used to mix for him. The pithy and illuminating prefaces he wrote in his later years for the Collected Edition of his works are rich in personal anecdote. What he showed us on these occasions was a mask by no means unrelated to his ‘real’ or private self but used to establish the character of a professional author who was as much a creation of Maugham’s as any of his other characters. This professional self was a creature of infinite good sense; he was a living example of the Golden Mean of Aristotle in action: we know from books that have been published by his intimates since his death that in fact the ‘real’ Maugham was by contrast a creature of fluctuating extremes and like the rest of us capable of behaving at times in a completely irrational and totally indefensible way.


In his study Maugham never became the malicious, gratuitously offensive man whom those he snubbed recall, nor was he the twisted self-conscious stuttering individual, warped by the consciousness that he was three-quarters queer and a quarter normal, as he confessed to his nephew. In his study he was the humane and courteous, the generous and fluent, the amusing and stimulating companion whom those few fortunate people who had his confidence recall. In his study he was a story-teller of genius, inheritor of the major literatures of the world and mediator of their riches to the common reader. Then and only then can you say of Maugham: Le style c’est l’homme même.

In reality the two selves cannot always be so conveniently separated. Maugham could be utterly charming to total strangers and sometimes we detect a rent of anger in the damask robe. In his writing he often showed us how someone who has lived hitherto by the light of reason fails to overcome a self-destroying passion: self-mastery and the roads by which it may be attained or lost is a theme that gives a kind of unity to everything Maugham ever wrote. In his own case it was not so much a road as a flight of stairs that led him to his rooftop writing-room at nine o’clock punctually every morning, the start of the sacred hours before lunch spent religiously at his desk mastering all main literary forms – novel, drama, short story, travelogue, essay; a lifetime of dedicated effort in which he managed to excel in all that he attempted. There has never been a more perfect ‘case’ than Maugham’s of success in the profession of literature.

The nature and the pattern of that success is my concern in this book. Because of the ubiquitous presence of the Maugham figure in the work I cannot wholly ignore biography. On the other hand it is not my intention to try to out-wit Maugham by writing his life in spite of him. He has dealt me my cards which are his published works; it is up to me to play them as best I can. In short what follows is an appraisal in the form of a critical portrait. Its main lines are chronological with a bit of dodging about in order to group together works of a similar kind whose composition was separated in time.


Maugham used sometimes to go to Cambridge to visit his friend George Rylands at King’s and as he listened to Mr. Rylands talking up a point about Shakespeare or Donne with his pupils he saw what he had missed. But Maugham believed that it was never too late to do what you wanted to do and he asked Mr. Rylands to give him a supervision. ‘It amused him,’ Mr. Rylands writes, ‘to sit at my feet for academic instruction – sometimes of course scoring off me in the event!... He loved to “draw” me because I taught English Literature and he was a great admirer of Shakespeare on whom he pretended I was an authority and scholar (which I am not) and got me to compose an anthology for his bedside book. We talked also of course about the theatre as I was a keen amateur actor and director. But much time was spent happily dissecting our friends and foes. He thought human beings very peculiar and contradictory and absurd and lovable and ghastly; the fascination was perpetual. And although he belonged to the fin de siècle pessimist group in a way – Housman, Hardy, James Thompson, Gissing – his cynicism was the relish or sharp sauce to his meat – to flesh and blood; not the dish itself; more romantic than cynical indeed with a temptation to the mystical. However you will have realized all this long long ago. His books tell the whole story for the man who can read. He was always very good and encouraging to me and I was deeply devoted to him – marvellously entertaining – he loved to make one laugh aloud – he loved to tease.’[10]

2. Orientations


The Hero (1901) is an early landmark in Maugham. It is his first sustained attack on contemporary middle-class values from within the framework of English society and it shows his remarkable ability among his countrymen to mount the attack in a spirit of truly Gallic concentration.

The family who bore the brunt of this attack were gentry, but they were not very grand. To penetrate more deeply into the English society to which they belonged Maugham had to see it from the vantage-point of the Great House as so many of his fellow English novelists had done. Like the courts of the medieval kings and the palaces of the Renaissance princes, the English country house was a world of autonomous rule in which a novelist such as Trollope could find an inexhaustible concentration of the social, political and moral life of his period. To the American expatriate Henry James, the House was the Garden of Eden in which beneath the silken rustle of the ladies’ gowns, the intensely private conversations and the nightly click of the billiard balls, the Fall of Man was re-enacted. Maugham was never enamoured of the House like James and he never discovered there the richness of a Trollope. He had from the first an artistic wanderlust that made him impatient with its insularity. By the time he began to write he saw it as already in decline. His most damning picture of it is in the play Our Betters where it has come under the opulent, energetic, adulterous sway of Lady Pearl Grayston and her American compatriots who have bought themselves into London and taken it over. The House upon which Maugham focused in his fiction at the turn of the century was a stately Kentish pile called Court Leys.


Maugham shows how easily Craddock can combine an essential inhumanity manifested in various ways in his behaviour towards Bertha, and a hard blinding egoism, with his assumption of the gentlemanly role in which he is so triumphantly successful. To the world at large he is the perfect husband and an admirable master of Court Leys: they take back all their reservations about him and elect him to the town council. His respectability is complete. Only Miss Ley penetrates his outward front; she is stricken with horror at his vulgar improvements (gold-paint and lopped elms) to the old house. Several critics have pointed to the shadow of Madame Bovary looming over this novel and to be sure it has the same painful progression, beginning with the steady corrosion of the marriage through the husband’s unawareness of the wife’s inner nature, and moving with Maugham to the wife narrowly escaping death as she gives birth to a still-born child, this last episode being most authentically depicted by the former obstetric clerk of St. Thomas’s. We may also wish to see Mrs. Craddock as a horrible realistic refutation, a decade in advance as it were, of the novels of D. H. Lawrence. Certainly Bertha obeyed the ‘wisdom of the blood’ when she married beneath her in defiance of society but where did it get her? It seems right that Craddock in a fit of arrogance should die in a riding accident at the end of the book while Bertha recovers, goes abroad, takes a lover and ends emotionally numbed and moribund with only her friendship with Miss Ley to support her.

At this stage in his career Maugham did not have the self-confidence to appear in his own books in person; when he needed a reasoner to enunciate the truths of which the antagonists seemed unaware he used Miss Ley. She became the axle of his next book The Merry-Go-Round (1904) in which he tried the experiment of linking together dramas involving separate sets of people. […] However, Maugham’s book does have an organic unity of a kind through his continued examination of the gentlemanly code as a guide to right action in the relations between men and women belonging to the ruling social class. He presents his examination dramatically, perhaps one should say melodramatically, through a number of stock situations, such as the respectable married woman who has to confess to her husband that she has a lover, the gentlewoman who falls in love with a young poet of the humblest origins and therefore socially unacceptable who is dying of TB. This situation also occurs the other way round, with the gentleman who has an affair with a barmaid who becomes pregnant by him; and then there is another unwanted pregnancy, that of a gamekeeper’s daughter who thereby threatens the security of her entire family because her father’s livelihood depends on the head of the estate whose gentlemanly sense of propriety she has mortally offended. With a deterministic pessimism Maugham shows how the code, which long ago had its origin in a great counsel of forgiving, exacts the maximum cruelty on those who become unwittingly caught up in its mechanical operation: each of the three main liaisons comes to grief in either betrayal, early death or suicide; two young women take their own lives, victims of masculine idealism; the only marriage that shows any sign of being happy is between an upper-class blackguard and a blowsy, level-headed, ungentlewomanly actress.


4. Limping Earnestly


A novel in which the hero is really a portrait of the author may be read in different ways at different times. The first readers read it for the story, later ones for the autobiography. Maugham succeeds in Of Human Bondage in integrating the two aspects to a point where they are almost inseparable. He avoids mere self-indulgent reminiscence by the rigour of his narrative method.


On one level this [the clubfoot] is clearly analogous to Maugham’s stammer, on another to that sense of apartness whose complex roots it was the purpose of the novel to uncover. Philip’s vulnerability is a much more inward trait than anything we have seen in a Maugham hero up to now. It does not make him very likeable, deeply as we may sympathize with him in the cold climate of the vicarage. Maugham was not prepared, any more than E. M. Forster was, to break all taboos. He did not depict his sexual ambivalence, but with this large exception he was ruthlessly honest, realizing that he would only exorcise the ghosts of the past by dragging the ugly contradictions of his own nature into the light of day.


Then fate intervenes; he catches scarlet fever; when he returns to school Rose has moved in with someone else and the fellow-feeling with Philip has evaporated. His vanity cannot accept this over-throw and in making a fuss he brings upon himself the inevitable wounding appellation of ‘cripple’. In the fury of enraged consciousness of self that this reversal brings about, his reaction is the desperate one of cutting short his school career and abandoning his attempt at a university scholarship. It is a frightening example of the wound mechanism at work; even then it would not have come to anything after his anger had cooled were it not that to uphold his decision becomes an irresistible challenge to his will. His uncle the Vicar, one of the most richly depicted comic characters in the whole of English fiction, a supreme study of an egoist, opposes his nephew’s wishes in a particularly devious way. This so incenses him that he works upon his aunt through whose intervention he manages to get both his uncle and the headmaster to accept his plan to go to Heidelberg. This first great triumph of will is poisoned by his knowledge that he has made a disastrous mistake; yet his pride will not suffer him to change his mind. In real life it was, as Maugham revealed in Looking Back, part one, a bully of a form-master who showed hideous insensitivity to his pupil’s stammer, that proved this psychological chain of cause and effect that robbed Maugham of his Cambridge education.


He meets on his return to Blackstable a Miss Wilkinson, a rector’s daughter who has been to Paris as a governess. She boasts of an acquaintance with Daudet and Maupassant, plays him airs from Massenet and lends him Murger. He becomes enamoured, not so much of Miss Wilkinson, whose lover he in fact becomes, as of the whole romantic idea of la vie de bohème, starving in a garret in Paris.

At this point I find it helpful to think of Maugham’s novel as a tale of two cities, the city of grim necessity, of wearisome toil and incarceration within one of the most class-conscious societies the world has ever known, which is London; and the city of art, of the aesthetic life, of self-fulfilment and freedom which is Paris. That at least was how Philip saw it at this time and naturally he longed to enter the latter while his uncle was determined that he should pursue some regular, secure occupation in the former. Thus before the Parisian section of the book begins Philip is packed off to London as an accountant’s articled clerk and we hear a little menacing tune, a hint of things to come, that tells of frustration, melanchonlia, genteel Gissingesque poverty and sense of social ambivalence: Philip is too much of a gent for his fellow clerks and not enough of one for his employer.


The Parisian scenes of Of Human Bondage are a corrective to those of Murger and du Maurier. Maugham shows us what bliss it was to be alive in that dawn when everything was new under the sun but he tells us too the price in term of blood, sweat and tears which has to be paid for the artistic life both by those who possess original talent, painters like Clutton, who owed a lot to Maugham’s friend the Irish artist Roderick O’Conor, and by those who do not, such as the pathetic trier Fanny Price with whose suicide by hanging this part of the novel melodramatically ends. In many of the great personal portmanteau novels of the nineteenth century the intensity slackens after the early childhood section, with its atrocities and consolations; the pressure here is kept up with wonderfully consistent energy.

What is just slightly puzzling is the time historically when it is all supposed to be happening. If as we may suppose Philip was eighteen or nineteen, that puts it at some time in the early 1890s, yet Maugham appears to be writing of a period in which Impressionism was the latest thing in painting and in which the frank sexuality of Manet’s Olympia was a revelation. Yet this splendid painting was completed in 1863, creating a rumpus when it was exhibited two years later. It had in fact been shown in the Salon in a retrospective exhibition of Manet’s work in 1899, the year of his death. Manet would have been by then as much and as little avant-garde as, say, Jackson Pollock is now. […] Maugham has somehow telescoped about twenty years of development from the Impressionists to the Fauves into a year or two with the aim of revealing to us the radical change of taste and outlook suffered by Philip when he crosses the Channel.


In spite of her boyish torso what a capriciously feminine creature Mildred is!


When Mildred seeks him out again, her baby has been born out of wedlock, V.D. has begun to poison her flesh, and if her spirit remains unbroken, her condition is desperate. […] Now the delicate balance of the relationship has changed. He has become the dominant, she the dependant, a new form of bondage for him.


With the appearance of Athelny, a mood of con brio begins to predominate in the last movement, as it were, of this ornately orchestrated novel.


In a final Elgarian fortissimo Maugham gives us the personal idyll of the hop-picking, the open fields and the contented workers who have momentarily escaped from the enclosed prison of the city.
We know this to be a fantasy and that at the historical moment when the novel ends the real Philip Carey, far from marrying an earth-mother and becoming a G.P. in a safe country practice, was embarking in unencumbered singleness of purpose upon one of the most hazardous things a man could do in this life, to live by literature alone. In the swelling pastoral chords we hear this theme, too, if we listen closely. Philip Carey’s adult pattern was to be a conventional one circumscribed by marriage and a job; Maugham’s was the eccentric one of the literary artist, the curious traveller and the connoisseur of humankind. In this ample novel both patterns are very fully sketched.

Had he only produced Of Human Bondage Maugham would be a much less important figure than he is, but it is nonetheless his most important book and one that will bear a great deal of re-reading; what it will not bear in my view is the kind of analysis that by intensive boring into its surface tries to make a ‘strike’ of the author’s philosophy. If it has a philosophy it is one of events rather than ideas. I have used the image of a symphony to describe its shifting and blending moods of joy and sorrow but the sister-art from which this novel draws its strength is in fact painting. It is itself a most illuminating retrospective one-man show; as we patiently wander through its rooms absorbing one rich full canvass after another we take in an unforgettable series of impressions of what life was like at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.


The reviewers were shaken by the immense scope and depth, the ambitiousness of the book, and they tried to cover their confusion in easy generalities, in attacks on the character of the hero, in complaints that it was not one novel but many, in scorn for the pattern-in-the-carpet approach to moral values, and in quick comparisons with other novelists such as Fielding, Arnold Bennett and Compton Mackenzie.[11]


6. Mainly Heroines


The greatest period of English drama, the Elizabethan and Jacobean, occurred before the arrival on our stage of the actress and hence, with obvious exceptions we can all think of, is weak in strong female roles. The realistic theatre attempted to make up for this deficiency and no one can complain that the plays of Henry Arthur Jones and Pinero lack good parts for women. They tend however to be rather similar women – characters like Mrs. Dane, Mrs. Tanqueray, Mrs. Ebbsmith lack individuality. They are femmes fatales. It is more in what they represent for their menfolk in the way of temptation than in what they are in themselves that their importance lies.

Maugham etched his heroines with a sharper and subtler needle than his predecessors. He was indeed God’s gift to the great actresses of his day and his success seems inseparable, as he freely admitted, from such stars of the period as Irene Vanbrugh, Gladys Cooper, Fay Compton, Margaret Bannerman and Flora Robson.

If Maugham had shocking views about women, particularly as we have seen about what a mistake it was for an artist, or anyone who wished to lead the creative life, to become involved with them, this misogynistic attitude was combined with the most remarkable empathy with the sex. Maugham understood women much better than any other playwright of this period whether it was women of the political and social aristocracy, the wives of the professional middle-class or the common prostitute. He understood them much better than Shaw, for example, who merely created new stereotypes of his own by giving women many of the qualities of leadership and resourcefulness traditionally ascribed to men. Shaw devoted a lot of wordage in his polemical plays to the plight of women and led the crusade for their liberation from the domestic prison but it was Maugham who dramatized the actual reality of their situation at the time when they achieved their political and social independence.

Maugham captured in all its most elusive forms that frightening new species – twentieth-century woman. He peopled his stage with dissatisfied women, heartless women, competitive women, masculine women, outrageous women, self-sacrificing women, Anglo-American women and one mercy-killing maternal woman.


Yet within The Circle there is an agreeable geniality tempered by the wisdom of maturity. In spite of all the awfulnesses, Maugham is saying, and all the degradations, if you do give up all for love, the world is well lost. Bicker as they must, Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous have an affection for each other that in the end is indissoluble and that makes her want Elizabeth to bolt even though she has put the case against doing so with such unanswerable force. The head has its reasons and in the final moments of the comedy they prove to be stronger than reason itself.[12]

The spectacle of a woman attempting simultaneously to satisfy the demands of a lover and a husband was standard fare in the French theatre ever since La Parisienne in 1885.[13] In England extra-marital affairs had to be hinted at rather than directly presented. Caroline in The Unattainable had a husband who was permanently absent and was therefore able to enjoy the devotion of the leading barrister she had ensnared in a happy state of indefinite balk, as far as ever marrying him went. A report of her husband’s death upsets this equilibrium and provides Maugham with his basic situation for a comedy. He shows us with a merry plausibility how as they look upon the wide ocean of choice that has suddenly opened before them neither Robert nor Caroline wishes to embark for the distant shore of marriage. His point is that these two people are perfectly happy, as happy as any two human beings who have been exclusive to each other for ten years can be expected to be, so long as they are not required to enter into the marriage contract. […] The situation is teased out beautifully in Maugham’s best nonchalant man-of-the-world manner and in the course of it the motivations behind the institution of marriage are thoroughly spelled out by Robert:

My dear, I have a large experience of the reasons for which two people marry. They marry from pique or from loneliness, or fear, for money, position or boredom; because they can’t get out of it, or because their friends think it’ll be a good thing, because no one has ever asked them before, or because they’re afraid of being left on the shelf; but the one reason which infallibly leads to disaster is when they marry because they want to.[14]


From Pearl Grayson’s [sic] drawing-room at the hub of smart social London [Our Betters] to the British Consular Agency Residence in Cairo of the Khedive was the leap that Maugham made in his next play. The authenticity with which both these milieux are created is evidence of his acute powers of observation at this time, but in Caesar’s Wife he had a more ambitious aim than merely to observe an aspect of the complicated chessboard of Middle East Politics. He wanted to show the nobility of character in both men and women that had been so conspicuously absent from his theatre up to now and to rebut the view that he only achieved his triumphs by putting thoroughly unpleasant people on the stage. If marriage was a prison, the sentence could be served with dignity.


As the female pressures pile up on Little, one is reminded of that other sorely extended administrator in foreign parts, Shakespeare’s Othello. But Little though perplexed in the extreme never loses his cool and he is rewarded by the respect and loyalty of his wife after his life has been preserved by none other than Ronny in a plot hatched by the emergent nationalist, Osman Pasha.

One critic found Little unattractively reptilian: but to me he remains a finely chiselled figurehead of a class whom Maugham understood so well; he is the embodiment of leadership, sinewy, shrewd, courageous, a believer in having it out at once and a very accurate summer-up of a situation, a natural Tory who behaves with openness and good breeding both to the fellers of the opposite camp and to the people in his charge. Hear him as he utters some words of wisdom to a visiting Labour M.P. who is about to make a journey up the Nile into Upper Egypt:

You may learn a good deal that will surprise you. You may learn that there are races in the world that seem born to rule and races that seem born to serve; that democracy is not a panacea for all the ills of mankind, but merely one system of government like another, which hasn't had a long enough trial to make it certain whether it is desirable or not; that freedom generally means the power of the strong to oppress the weak, and that the wise statesman gives men the illusion of it but not the substance – in short, a number of things which must be very disturbing to the equilibrium of a Radical Member of Parliament.[15]

This is a very rare instance of straight political utterance in the Maugham canon and it is one which unfortunately time has not rendered either obsolete or irrelevant, unlike some of those by his overtly political contemporaries, Shaw and Wells.


There was nothing either mystical or metaphysical about this scintillating work [The Breadwinner]. It is a straightforward comedy of ‘men’s lib.’ that still holds the stage today whenever it is revived. […] The comedy received better reviews in England than it did abroad even though objection was taken to the heartlessness of the mercenary young people in the first section and particularly to the daughter’s line about the market for prostitution being ruined by amateurs, which in later performances had to be cut. Maugham’s scathing treatment of these youngsters may be seen as his riposte to the bright young things of Noël Coward.

The actor, William Fox, who appeared as one of them in the original production of The Breadwinner tells me that when Maugham was approached to secure his agreement to the omission of a line or two he said, ‘You’ve b-bought it. You can d-do what you like with it.’ Unlike some playwrights Maugham was never stage-struck and unlike Anouilh, for instance, he never put the theatre itself into his plays. One of the very few utterances about the theatre on the stage does in fact come in this play when Battle’s daughter confesses to him that she wants to be an actress. He tells her to be natural and when she replies that that ought to be easy he goes on to say:

It isn’t. It’s the result of infinite pains. It’s the final triumph of artifice. And remember that society only looks upon you as a freak and the moment you’re out of fashion drops you like a hot potato. Society has killed more good actors than drink. It’s only your raw material. Let the footlights, at least spiritually, always hold you aloof.[16]

This remark is slightly out of context for Battle and we may be sure that it represents the considered view of the author. Certainly Maugham remained completely aloof from his public.


For Services Rendered is a perfect illustration of Maugham’s favourite doctrine that suffering does not ennoble but makes people bitter and ungenerous. On the surface all is serene in the little world of Leonard Ardsley, respected solicitor in rural Kent; the not so young people play their tennis and take their drinks while he sweats it out in his office. Then Maugham proceeds to rip that surface to shreds; he summoned the spirit of Strindberg to haunt the green pastures of English country house comedy.


Agate’s criticism that it did not seem proven that the war could be blamed for such a concentration of ill-fortune among one Kentish circle does not appear nearly so relevant now. The play was a much truer expression of its period than contemporaries were prepared to admit.

It had a disappointingly short run and Maugham said contemptuously afterwards that any dramatist could see how by sentimentalizing it in a series of sugary happy endings it could have been turned into a success. ‘But,’ he added, ‘it would not have been the play I wished to write.’[17]


The mistakes [sic] most critics made with Sheppey, which did not have a very long run, was to see it as the tragedy of a saint, when in fact it was the comedy of a philanthropist. True, Maugham followed Galsworthy’s pattern in showing how the ingrained habit of crime is too strong for the thief to be rehabilitated, and the tart to be happy away from the street, and that Sheppey is betrayed by most of those closest to him, but the defects are in him as much as in them. […] Only Charles Morgan of the overnight critics was on the right tack; writing in The Times he said:

Mr Maugham has not written a play about a saint; he has written a play about the world’s reluctance to part with its money, and has written it with fluency, judgment and wit – with everything, indeed, except that supreme devotion that might have exchanged success for a masterpiece.[18]

7. Bicycling Down Joy Lane


The other reward of the literary career in Maugham’s eyes is one that I have already mentioned, catharsis. Maugham tries to show it in action, as it were, in Cakes and Ale. Unlike other mortals a writer has the power to transmute the bitter dross of life’s miseries into the pure gold of literary art. Throughout the book there are references to a major novel of Driffield’s called The Cup of Life that occupies the same place in Driffield’s oeuvre that Jude the Obscure does in Hardy’s. It has a very harrowing scene in it, parallel to the Father Time episode, where a child dies in hospital, and we are to suppose that this incident had an original in life, based on the death of a son that Rosie had by Driffield. (Could Maugham have known anything, or guessed anything, about Hardy’s wild oats days in Dorset?) Rosie’s immediate reaction to the death was to go Romanos with an old friend, eat a jolly good meal and then make love. The whole thing is the locus classicus of Maugham’s view how an artist stores up the wounds of life and then regurgitates them. Driffield ‘used’ the episode for his book and Maugham makes several points that tell one a lot about his own practice as a novelist: first, that Driffield guessed at Rosie’s behaviour and got it right in essence but not in detail; second, that the episode was never discussed or even referred to by either party; third, that Driffield behaved afterwards with infinite kindness and tact; and fourth, that by objectifying the incident in a novel he was released from it for ever. Maugham emphasises what he was to reiterate often later that because he possesses this power of self-absolution the writer is the only free man. Cakes and Ale is one of the wisest, wittiest and wickedest books ever written about authorship.


Theatre is not a novel for the stage-struck. It reflects accurately Maugham’s disillusioned aloofness from the theatre, but the interesting thing about this aloofness is that it does not preclude a passionately held belief in the theatre as a process of absolution. It is this aspect of the novel, Julia’s creativity alongside her hypocrisy, that gives it a significance more lasting than a dozen similar stories about sex-mad actresses. Maugham analyses her skill at creating character in a passage where one feels he is closely identifying with her:

She was not aware that she deliberately observed people, but when she came to study a new part vague recollections surged up in her from she knew not where, and she found that she knew things about the character she was to represent that she had had no inkling of. It helped her to think of someone she knew or even someone she had seen in the street or at a party; she combined with this recollection her own personality, and thus built up a character founded on fact but enriched with her experience, her knowledge of technique and her amazing magnetism… It often seemed to her that she was two persons, the actress, the popular favourite, the best-dressed woman in London, and that was a shadow; and the woman she was playing at night, and that was the substance.[19]


Like Maugham Julia finds a compensation for the frustrations of a disorderly private life in the creative act – we now see what Charles Battle meant when he advised his daughter, who wanted to become an actress, to remain aloof behind the footlights – and like Maugham, too, Julia remains highly competitive in her aloofness, as we learn hilariously in the most famous passage in the novel when she steals the scene from an up-and-coming young actress in the post-Pinero play Nowadays by waving a red scarf about during all her most important lines. (This was supposed to be founded on an episode in the career of Marie Tempest, but the same story has been told of half a dozen famous actresses.) After all her sexual humiliations Julia ends the book a happy woman: she makes a great intellectual discovery as she dines alone on a juicy steak in the Berkeley grill after the performance; it is that when she brings to life a fictitious character on the stage she has created something more real than reality: ‘Thus Julia out of her own head framed anew the platonic theory of ideas’ and thus she points the way to one of Maugham’s future lines of speculation in both his fiction and his more personal writing.


8. Streaks of Yellow


In his plays, which be it remembered were being written and produced concurrently with these exotic tales throughout the 1920s, Maugham used comedy in its traditional role of uncovering the basic assumptions of a society and putting forward alternative ones in striking antitheses of character and attitude. In his short stories he performs the same feat, even at times working on the same antitheses. The degree to which drama and short story might be interchangeable may be seen in the comparative ease [with] which he himself was able to adapt ‘The Letter’ for the stage and others were able to make a vastly successful play out of ‘Rain’. Both these stories have the same structure of a man and a woman weakening under pressure until we peer into the inmost recesses of the soul, the outward mask stripped away. In both it is the relentless pressure of a person’s sexual energy that endangers the social mask. […] The short story has the inestimable advantage over the novel that the whole span of time in which this process occurs may be conveniently encompassed by the mind of the reader. In the much longer form of the novel you live through a great deal of time but you have difficulty at the end of it seeing the process as a single whole. Whereas at the end of ‘The Yellow Streak’ we have in our minds an absolutely complete picture of the pattern of Izzart’s degeneration, just as we do that of Cooper in ‘The Outstation’, Leslie Crosbie in ‘The Letter’, Mackenzie’s in the story which he gives his name[20], Gallagher in ‘P. & O.’, Lawson’s in ‘The Pool’. […] The fact that in so many of these stories degeneration begins through sexual contact with women of the native population, or through an attempt to defy the rigid paternalistic code of the white ruling administration, is not likely to endear Maugham to the modern liberal-minded reader.[21]


It is interesting that Maugham should share with Kipling and other popular writers of his generation this contempt for the intellectual in the world of action. Is it at heart a form of self-contempt? If he had gone into colonial service he would have been like Alban, possessing many of the same accomplishments. When he presents us with these simple character-equations, native blood = yellow streak, literary and artistic sensitivity = yellow streak, Maugham emerges as an absolutely typical member of his class and background, the archetypal old boy from The King’s School, Canterbury, as it was in the bad old days of Of Human Bondage. The reassurance that he gave to the prevailing climate of prejudice about categories of people may explain some of his popularity. It was beyond Maugham’s imaginative scope to show how a crippled literary intellectual may manifest more moral courage than a games-playing bully, as E. M. Forster tried to do in The Longest Journey.[22]


She [Kitty in the end of The Painted Veil] is thus brought back into direct, daily contact with the man who was the cause of her downfall and it is from this proximity that Kitty learns the bitterest lesson of all: that passion may survive disillusion and that the moral sense, even when it has been suddenly discovered, may be just as suddenly set aside when temptation comes again. As the crow flies it is only thirty miles from the city of Hong Kong to the cholera town, but the distance between the Kitty who learned there new freedom and the Kitty who yields slavishly once again to the Assistant Commissioner is incalculable.

By giving his story a title from Shelley, and an epigraph from Dante, Maugham was making a claim for it as a serious work as well as hinting the source of the plot; but its popular sensational form of torrid passion and tropical sun blinded many reviewers to its depths of insight. The Times Literary Supplement was splendidly Grundyish. ‘One may doubt,’ it pontificated, ‘whether it is strictly necessary to the indictment of lust that purely lustful episodes should be described so conscientiously.’ You can say that again, in the 1970s. […] But for all the jibes The Painted Veil continued to be read. In 1931 Lytton Strachey, the high priest of literary journalism, took it away to read while suffering from ‘flu and pronounced it ‘Class II, division I’; it is a useful coding when thinking of Maugham by comparison with, say, Dostoievsky and Tolstoy – but what about a more realistic comparison with a later novel of tropical sex, The Heart of the Matter? Here one would be inclined to put Greene into Class I, division II and count Maugham’s the less flawed work.

9. On the Judgment Seat

Do people behave noticeably better when they are at home, or at leisure in a society composed of their own kind, than when they set themselves up to govern native peoples in exotic lands? If we are to judge from the stories that Maugham published in the 1930s and 1940s in such volumes as First Person Singular (1931), The Mixture as Before (1940) and Creatures of Circumstance (1947), the short answer must be – ‘no.’ You cannot of course make a strict chronological distinction between the far and the near in the work of so fertile a writer. You will still in these books encounter an odd D.O. from Borneo in an agonizing marital entanglement during a spot of leave in London[23], and the miniscule tales of Cosmopolitans (1936) span both East and West. But from now on you will be sipping dry martinis rather than gin pahits. You will swan around London, Paris, the French Riviera, Seville, Rhodes, Florence, places where centuries of civilized living have left their mark.[24]

When Graham Greene came to review Cosmopolitans[25] he complained that the stories ‘had no echo of the general life’, being bounded by ‘the liner routes and the leisured quarters’. Since he wrote that review Mr. Greene has come to learn how much success isolates an author from the general life, but is it really true, either of that volume, or of Maugham’s accidental stories on the whole? As always he approached the general life through the private and professional life; in others [sic] words, he focused so sharply upon the particular that it came to have general application. A story such as Episode, in which a Brixton postman steals money from the mail he is delivering to keep a girl cut above him socially in the style to which her mean-minded mother thinks she ought to have become accustomed, chissels through the wall that shuts out the atrocities of suburban working-class life in the years between the war [sic] and shows us gradations of snobbery as exclusive and destructive as anything to be found higher up in the social scale. And Maugham moves up and down that scale in his stories with a nimble agility. At the top are characters like Lord Mountdrago, the insolent Tory politician, locked in a love-hate relation with his Labour opponent and at the bottom the young man for whom the innocent Sunday pastime of kite-flying became a way of discovering the distinction between being a son and being a husband.[26]

Both this story and Episode came to Maugham from his friend Alan Searle, who had had much experience in helping first offenders in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, and who suggested the character of Ned Preston round whom the tales are told. Would that Maugham had given us more of such stories for they show him at his most compassionate. Mr. Searle told me that when he read Episode he was amazed at the accuracy with which Maugham had depicted people he had never actually met. ‘I really began to believe in inspiration,’ said Mr. Searle.


But though Maugham continued to play by the old rules, the realistic rules of Maupassant, he realized that literature is like everything else subject to fashion. He knew only too well what happened to an artist when the public tired of him. Unlike some successful authors he never took his popularity for granted. He may have pretended in sardonic deference to a luke-warm review, that with each fresh volume of short stories it was just ‘the mixture as before’,[27] but in fact the mixture was always being changed to take in new places and experience. Maugham’s most scathing story about the tyranny of fashion and of public taste on those who aim to make their living by providing entertainment is the one entitled Gigolo and Gogolette [sic][28]. Although Maugham never consciously wrote anything with a hidden meaning, one may, perhaps, be permitted to interpret this story, beneath its brilliant surface realism depicting pre-war Riviera life, as a parable of the plight of the professional writer, who with each new book at the behest of his publisher and agent attempts the Dive of Death (through a burning hoop above a swimming-pool). The fickle public watches while eating, hoping secretly that he will come a cropper, but giving generous applause when he lands safely. One day he meets the Human Cannon-ball (a best-selling novelists of two decades ago, now totally forgotten, living meagerly off a beneficence provided by the Royal Literary Fund). He sees a horrible vision of the future. No wonder, he thinks, some of them sometimes lost their nerve.


Maugham’s most complex story and at the same time one of the most amusing, about the emotion taken from life that is transformed through artistic recreation, is The Voice of the Turtle[29]. There are three artists involved here: Maugham himself, a young novelist Peter Melrose, to whom he is at first hostile but to whom he then warms to the extent of inviting him to Cap Ferrat, and La Falterona, the diva. Melrose needs material about a prima donna for his next book and Maugham provides it by inviting a real one to dinner. But the character had already been sketched out and written up by Melrose before he met her. All that life does in this instance is to confirm the artist in the truth of his fiction. What he sees, Maugham implies satirically, is something very different from reality. And yet when La Falterona reads the book she recognizes herself in it. Right at the end of the story she sings privately to Maugham the liebstod [sic] from Tristan. Platonism takes over. Her singing bodies forth an ideal reality. Maugham, conscious of her monstrous everyday self, becomes nonetheless deeply touched. Did Maugham have an ear for music? It is the art that appears least in his work but it is difficult to see how someone who had no ear for music could have written either this story or the one called The Alien Corn. Wagner made a great impression on him as a young man and as a writer he turned to him several times when he wanted an analogy for a love so pure and so great that it sweeps aside everything in its path, as in The Sacred Flame.[30]


10. Don Guillermo and other Portraits of the Artist


Maugham was in his mid-sixties when he published The Summing Up. He was at the height of his powers and ready to stake his claim as a serious writer. Rightly or wrongly he was conscious of never having read a just assessment of himself from the critics. In a quiet, even-tempered, modest yet authoritative tone he offers a self-assessment. It is a masterpiece of a kind rare in English, a self-portrait that contains an investigation of literature as a craft whose principles may be formulated and argued about. I once wrote to Evelyn Waugh asking him if he would care to comment on an interview with a distinguished fellow novelist that we had printed in the Sunday newspaper by which I was employed at the time and I received the following reply: ‘I am sorry to say that it does not provoke comment and I am too old and too English to want to expatiate my views on fiction.’[31] Maugham suffered neither from such premature senility nor from such native reticence. He was continental enough to enjoy the causerie, and with more than forty years of published work behind him, he was ready to take the reader into his confidence, and to tell him about the trials and tribulations as well as the rewards and joys of the trade.


The Summing Up is a book to be read and re-read rather than read about. I have never met anyone who, once having read it, did not admire it, and I have heard many people say it is Maugham’s best book. It certainly makes the view that some still hold, that Maugham succeeded as a story-teller by means of a superficial cynicism instead of a mature attitude to life, seem hopelessly out of touch. Combined with the story-teller was the brilliantly original self-taught thinker and critic, a formidable example of that literary type we sometimes call in English a sage, who begins to show himself fully in Don Fernando for the first time, and now has a free rein to give us his mature reflections on all the main literary forms he has used and on the language he has striven so hard to make a delicate instrument at the service of his subtle play of mind.


11. At Work in the States


It is a common phenomena [sic] for the novelist who has excelled in the realistic depiction of contemporary life to seek a kind of creative sanctuary in a work of historical fiction at the end of his career: Gissing’s Veranilda and Waugh’s Helena, both favourite works of their authors and largely disregarded by their admirers, come to mind. These last novels of Maugham’s [Then and Now & Catalina] are best seen as part of his vagrant mood, his wanderings in history and literature and resuscitation of real people who had played some exceptional part in their periods, with whom he found the same understanding to the point of identification as he had with the Stricklands and the Larrys of his fiction. In life Maugham had always been fascinated by ruthlessness and singleness of purpose, by a combination of charm, authority, cruelty, shrewdness and gambler’s courage. He found a combination of all these qualities in the figures of Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia during the three months or so in 1502, the period of the Duke’s most sensational and bloodthirsty coup, when the future author of The Prince was in close contact with him in the town of Imola from which he was conducting his military and diplomatic operations.

This is the setting of Then and Now in which Maugham applies the novelist’s powers of invention to constructing an amorous intrigue for Machiavelli with a young wife at Imola, conducted in the interstices of political negotiation. The quick-change from matters of great political moment to the hazards of the bedchamber, from the world of Mandragola to that of The Prince, provides the alternating current for the book and takes some time to get switched on. Maugham has a complicated set of historical circumstances, involving the whole of the Romagna, the position of the King of France, the Pope and especially the city of Florence, to put before the reader in his first few chapters, and as Edmund Wilson pointed out in his devastating review The Apotheosis of Somerset Maugham, he makes rather heavy weather of it. However, even Wilson had to admit that once the narrative gets under way its hold is considerable.[32]


He calls Catalina a romance; and it is a less complicated operation than Then and Now but every inch as much the product of a mind so soaked in the period that it moves with ease among both political and domestic events. We saw in Don Fernando how Maugham relished the contrasts of Spanish life in its great age. He finds now what had hitherto eluded him, a single human being upon whom all the various pressures of the time, religious, military, literary, political and so on, can be seen to operate.


The reviews of the story were largely unsympathetic to what was and remains the charming product of a still lively imagination.

12. Pantheon


Two things happened to Maugham after the war: he became a legend and he became an essayist. To those under the spell of the legend the Villa became a point of pilgrimage in the revived Riviera, or if not quite that an object of veneration from afar, a symbol of the rewards of success in literature as a career.


By all accounts he was an amusing and engrossing talker: a pity no one ever tape-recorded him speaking off-the-cuff. If at times he was malicious he was also searingly honest. His stammer only served to enhance the irony and polished acerbity of his discourse. So much is clear from the written records kept by Mr. Kanin and others. I never heard him but I have a notion, to use a Maugham phrase, that his table-talk was remarkable above all for three things: his power of hooking you on an anecdote, his dispassionate dissection of the personalities of his friends, and his unending absorption in the process of artistic creation. Happily it is this side of Maugham, applying his fine, shrewd, commonsensical mind to people and to books, that we are able to enjoy in the main work he did after the war, the essays that were collected in such volumes as Ten Novelists and Their Novels (1945), The Writer’s Point of View (1951), The Vagrant Mood (1952), Points of View (1958) and in the single volume of A Writer’s Notebook (1949), which was all that he allowed to survive of the fifteen volumes of the original, and in the various lectures, prefaces and introductions.[33]


After its strong biographical opening the Kant essay [“Reflections on a Certain Book”] seems to me to be one of Maugham’s rare failures. It is not often that we watch Maugham tying himself up into knots and failing to extricate himself, but the latter part of this essay is one of those strange occasions.[34]


Maugham often said that an author has the right to be judged by his best work. It amused him when he was writing his own obituary, which in a sense he did several times, on what that best work was. He believed that he had written a few short stories and one or two plays that would live as long as the language, his ‘baggage for eternity’, he called it whimsically.[35] I suppose that at the end of a critical portrait in which I have tried to present to the reader Maugham’s work as a unity, and to show its relation to the different periods through which he lived, I should open his baggage, and like some critical douanier see what he has to declare, before he catches the celestial airport omnibus to that grande corniche from which no tourist returns. The list would not contain any shock inclusions or omissions. Among the novels I should put Of Human Bondage firmly and obviously at the head as his major achievement, a novel that is both highly individual and yet part of a continuing tradition, then would come The Moon and Sixpence in which he worked out so memorably that artist-gentleman dilemma which in his own life he never succeeded in resolving; then Cakes and Ale for its withering view of the literary reputation-makers at work, blended with its nostalgic evocation of Edwardian Whitstable like sweet and sour pork; and The Razor’s Edge for Elliot and for Larry and for Paris. The plays? I accept the majority opinion that The Circle is his most perfect comedy but there are at least half a dozen other pieces that I want to see as part of a national repertory: some are middle period like Our Betters and Caesar’s Wife and others are late like For Services Rendered and Sheppey. And if I were to make a list of all the stories I want to re-read, starting with The Book-Bag and The Round Dozen, I should be compiling another bibliography: in fact I should want to include volumes of short stories: The Trembling of a Leaf, Ah King, Ashenden, First Person Singular. And I most certainly would not want to let him get away without the essays: Don Fernando, the Notebook, The Summing Up… No, it’s no good. The essential Maugham is Maugham.


Maugham self-consciously avoided the higher ground but it is a region which no lover of literature wishes to inhabit all the time. The air is too thin on those heights, breathing is difficult, the cold is intense, the whole expedition not to be undertaken lightly. I have ascended the North Face of Henry James, and the Annapurna of Proust, and I have been greatly exhilarated by the conquest of these great mountains, planting here and there my puny flags of understanding. The views from the summit are among my most cherished memories. But I cannot live there permanently. I come back to the open, green, cultivated lowlands of Maugham. I wonder there happily until it is time to set out on the next hazardous ascent of Mount Tolstoy or Mount Dostoievsky. Maugham is where I live. He continually delights me by his insights into the literary life and he frequently astounds me by a skill so fine that it seems to me to be the most perfect expression of the art of narrative in our literature.

[1] The endnote reads: “Edmund Wilson’s review of Then and Now appeared as “Somerset Maugham and an Antidote” in The New Yorker of June 8, 1946 and was reprinted as “The Apotheosis of Somerset Maugham” in Classics and Commercials, 1950.” This is slightly inaccurate. The piece was not just reprinted; it was also revised. The famous description of Maugham as a "...half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing" occurs only in the revised version. Apparently it was a brilliant afterthought. The original version is reprinted in The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1987, eds. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead.
[2] Mr Curtis invites us to check chapter VII of The Summing Up for Maugham’s own account how the “spiky wigwam” became his symbol and rightly laments that the most recent Penguin edition of the book doesn’t have it on the cover; he probably means the 1971 edition, but one has to admit the missing symbol is the least cause of complain!
[3] At the time of writing the Alanson collection was in the University of Stanford, the Zipkin one in the University of Texas; for all I know, they still are.
[4] Mr Curtis’ advice to read the original collections is priceless. But he is not quite accurate that “the three hardback” volumes, no doubt the ones published by Heinemann in 1951, are “Collected”. Their title is “The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham”. The four paperbacks first published by Penguin in 1963 and later reprinted (and indeed still in print!) are “Collected”. Altogether, it might be mentioned, is the British edition of East and West (1934), a massive collection that collects Maugham’s first five of his mature collections and benefits from a long preface written especially for this edition.
[5] Not quite. The travel books were published separately in The Collected Edition between 1935 and 1937. They were collected in one volume only in 1955 as part of another edition that also included, uniformly bound, The Complete Short Stories (1951, 3 vols.), The Collected Plays (1952, 3 vols.), The Selected Novels (1953, 3 vols.), and The Partial View (1954, The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook in one volume).
[6] All this material has since been collected by John Whitehead in A Traveller in Romance, Clarkson N. Potter, 1984.
[7] R. T. Stott, A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham, Revised and Extended edition, Kaye and Ward, 1973.
[8] In the late 1970s and again some 30 years later, Maugham’s literary executors betrayed his trust by allowing Ted and Selina to use his letters in their biographies. Surprisingly or not, his correspondence reveals nothing we don’t know from his published writings.
[9] Here follow a completely unnecessary reference to Maugham’s senility during the “last five years” of his life (the figure is debatable) and a quote from the essay “After Reading Burke” about the author’s divided self as exemplified by Machiavelli and especially Burke, concluding that the famous dictum “the style is the man” should be applied to the personalities that emerge from the writing study, not from the observations, however shrewd, of friends and the like.
[10] “George Rylands in a letter to the author, March 21, 1972.”
[11] A little later Mr Curtis quotes from the review by Gerald Gould in the New Statesman in September and remarks: “These are the words of a man who has not recovered yet from the uncommon candour of the novel…”
[12] This interpretation is too simplistic. The play is darker and more complex. As Lady Kitty observes: “My dear Clive, I don't mind telling you that if I had my time over again I should be unfaithful to you, but I should not leave you.”
[13] By Henry Becque.
[14]Caroline, Act II. The play was originally called, and published under the titled of, The Unattainable.”
[15]Caesar’s Wife, Act I.”
[16]The Breadwinner, Act III.”
[17] Mr Curtis correctly sources this from the preface to the last, sixth volume to The Plays of Somerset Maugham, Heinemann, 1934 (reprinted in 1952 as The Collected Plays, 3 vols.). The full passage is as follows:
Any dramatist will see how easily the changes could have been made. The characters had only to be sentimentalised a little to affect their behaviour at the crucial moments of the play and everything might have ended happily. The audience could have walked out of the theatre feeling that war was a very unfortunate business, but that notwithstanding God was in his heaven and all was right with the world; there was nothing to flash oneself about and haddock a la crème and a dance would finish the evening very nicely. But it would not have been the play I wished to write.
By the way, For Services Rendered didn’t do so badly. The premiere lasted for 78 performances. See Mander & Mitchenson, A Theatrical Companion to Maugham, Rockliff, 1955, p. 220.
[18]The Times, September 15, 1933.”
[19]Theatre, XIV.”
[20] Mr Curtis presumably meant “Mackintosh”.
[21] So much the worse for “the modern liberal-minded reader”!
[22] These “character equations” are nothing but gross oversimplifications. It is truly lamentable that Mr Curtis, of all people, should stoop so low. Izzard may have the yellow streak all right, but the same certainly can’t be said of Norman Grange from “Flotsam and Jetsam”. Both have some native blood. The character of Alban Torel is much more complex. He may turn yellow when it comes to quell a Chinese rebellion, but he shows enough courage to have his lunch at the club when he’s just been sacked for cowardice. Even the governor is impressed enough to remark: “Courage is a queer thing. I would rather have shot myself than go to the club just then and face all those fellows.”
So let’s take it easy with the character equations, shall we, Tony? The limitations of the short story are not license to misrepresent it. The author at least admits that “The Fall of Edward Barnard” is the one exception “in these exotic tales when Maugham finds this power, to break with the inherited code and makes one’s own law, in a person of culture and sensibility”. I’m not sure this is the only case and I don’t think “bookish yellow-streakers” suited Maugham’s aim in his exotic tales.
[23] Mr Curtis probably means “Virtue” from First Person Singular.
[24] To these locations one is tempted to add Capri (“The Lotus Eater”), the Asia Minor (“In a Strange Land”), Vera Cruz (“The Bum”) and St Laurent de Maroni (“A Man with a Conscience”, “An Official Position”). By no means in all these places “centuries of civilized living have left their mark.”
[25]Spectator, April 17, 1936. S.1197.”
[26] “The two ‘Ned Preston’ stories ‘Episode’ and ‘The Kite’ are the last two stories in Creatures of Circumstance (1947).”
[27] See the original Foreword to The Mixture as Before (1940).
[28] “Included in The Mixture as Before (1940). Made into a film [and ruined, one might add] as part of Encore (1951) with screenplay by Eric Ambler.”
[29] “Included in The Mixture as Before (1940).”
[30] Even though Mr Curtis is correct that music is the least prominent of all arts in Maugham’s writings, perhaps one is justified to expect a treatment slightly less perfunctory. An attempt for something like that has been made here. The reference to The Sacred Flame is a fine touch, though. Stella and her brother-in-law, be it remembered, attend a performance of Tristan und Isolde. This is an almost Wagnerian use of the leitmotiv technique in literature. It anticipates the action. It tells us that there is something more between Stella and her brother-in-law long before it is made clear in the text.
[31] “Evelyn Waugh to the author, October 7, 1961. The fellow novelist was Richard Hughes interviewed in The Sunday Telegraph about the forthcoming The Fox in the Attic.”
[32] “For my own part, I feel that Shakespeare should not be judged on the basis of Cymbeline nor Maugham on the basis of Then and Now.” (Garson Kanin, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Atheneum, 1966, p. 265.)
[33] Tony’s sloppiness in this paragraph passes belief! “Ten Novelists and Their Novels” does not exist. He evidently confused the first version of this book, Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948), with the revised and expanded edition, Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954), neither of which was published in 1945, of course. The Writer’s Point of View is not a volume of essays but a single lecture published in pamphlet form (CUP, 1951).
[34] Complete nonsense! The complete essay may be consulted here.
[35] I’d like to know where this comes from. The only “obituary” of himself I can think of is in the postscript of A Writer’s Notebook, dated 1944. It is rather different than Tony’s version:
I think that one or two of my comedies may retain for some time a kind of pale life, for they are written in the tradition of English comedy and on that account may find a place in the long line that began with the Restoration dramatists and in the plays of Noel Coward continues to please. It may be that they will secure me a line or two in the histories of the English theatre. I think a few of my best stories will find their way into anthologies for a good many years to come if only because some of them deal with circumstances and places to which the passage of time and growth of civilisation will give a romantic glamour. This is slender baggage, two or three plays and a dozen short stories, with which to set out on a journey to the future, but it is better than nothing. And if I am mistaken and I am forgotten a month after my death I shall know nothing about it.