“The critic I am waiting for,” wrote Somerset Maugham in a letter near the end of his life, “is the one who will explain why, with all my faults, I have been read for so many years by so many people.” The edge of defensiveness was unusual in a man who generally accepted that he had more readers than friends or admirers, but the perceptiveness was characteristic. A century after Maugham’s literary career began, the other best-selling writers of his day, even those who won the Nobel Prize, such as Pearl Buck and John Galsworthy, are largely forgotten; the “serious writers” by whom he was often eclipsed, whether Hardy or Joyce, are mostly consigned to the classroom. Yet even the most discerning readers continue to push Maugham’s sales beyond the 40 million mark, while the slightest of his novels, Up at the Villa, was recently made into a 21st century film. On himself, as on most things, the old man exercised a precise clairvoyance.
Maugham’s biographers have been no help at all in explaining the mystery of his success. “I wasn’t even likeable as a boy,” Maugham once wrote, and, eager to take him at his word, especially when that word is negative, later writers have built up a portrait of an almost marmoreal figure, clenched and captious and unkind. His nephew Robin, whom Maugham took under his wing, repaid the debt by writing “three increasingly unreliable and malicious memoirs,” in Jeffrey Meyers’s words, asserting that Uncle Willie was “a sadistic queer.” Frederic Raphael pounced on the same material to pronounce that Maugham’s homosexuality was not just a flaw, but a fault “in the geographic sense,” and that he was “too clear to be great.” Anthony Burgess reimagined the life in a 607-page tome, Earthly Powers, that begins with the 80 year-old Maugham figure in bed with a catamite.
The sense that Maugham was a workmanlike journeyman has somehow inspired biographers to approach him in just that spirit. Ted Morgan wrote a full, but not revelatory, biography in 1980, after persuading Maugham’s literary executor, Curtis Brown, to part with papers that the novelist had wanted suppressed. Now Jeffrey Meyers, biographer of Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Katherine Mansfield and Edmund Wilson (to name but a few) turns his fast-moving pen on what he calls an “engaging Gila monster.” Maugham’s work, he assures us in his preface, “can be explained by the struggle between sexual repression and artistic expression.”
As ever, Maugham himself was much more agile than any of those who have tried to follow him. The whole point of the writer, he says repeatedly in his autobiography, The Summing Up, is that he is “not one man, but many.” Men are mysteries even to themselves, he always told us, and in The Moon and Sixpence, he says again, “In social intercourse [a man] gives you the surface that he wishes the world to accept…But in his book or picture the real man delivers himself defenceless.” To use the life to understand the work, he might be saying, is to try to explain the larger self by the smaller; to use the work to shed light on the life is to begin to understand how a figure who looked buttoned-up and unfeeling at the dinner table could write books that hold readers with their openness and warmth.
For to turn from the biographies to the novels themselves is to move from a darkened chamber into the fresh air, and to be confronted by what you didn’t expect (the explosion of expectation is, of course, the books’ steady theme). The stories’ most sympathetic characters are nearly always renegades–seekers, drop-outs, innocents who throw everything away for love–and their villains are mostly those who think they know it all or uphold the status quo (society hostesses, in short, or clergymen). For all their feline air of undeludedness, the books feature characters of almost startling innocence and even goodness. Their life springs from a ravenous curiosity that seems ready to follow any trail as far as it will go.
The Maugham we meet on the page, in short, could not be further from the unsmiling, bespoke figure we see in all the pictures (handkerchief protruding from the double-breasted suit). The riddle he presents us with is how a stammering, conventional-seeming Edwardian, writing in civil service prose, could somehow become the spokesman of hippies, black magicians and stockbrokers throwing it all over for Tahiti. His books are measured explorations of extravagance.