Monday, April 08, 2013

Maugham on Maugham - and on Writing

Maugham being William Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965. (Coincidentally, the same birth and death years of Winston Churchill, Maugham's contemporary and friend.)





Somerset Maugham, if it need be said, was one of the most successful writers of the twentieth century. He excelled in writing novels, plays, short stories, travel books, and essays. Although he died almost 50 years ago, at the ripe age of 91, he has not, like some of his contemporaries, been forgotten. Most recently, four of his books have reappeared in movie form; in total, there have been dozens of films over the years made from Maugham's work.

The Razor's Edge, 1984, with Bill Murray and Theresa Russell:


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Up At The Villa, 2000, with Sean Penn and Kristen Scott Thomas:


Up at the Villa poster.jpg


Being Julia, 2004, with Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons (loosely adapted from Maugham's novel, Theatre):


Being Julia movie.jpg


The Painted Veil, 2006, with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton:


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As someone who has long admired Maugham's writing, it is a particular pleasure for me that he continues to entertain, even if it has been some years since I read any of his work. That changed a few weeks ago when I embarked on a course on 'spy fiction' at Carleton University. (My last post, 2 weeks ago, was on one of the writers we are reading in the course, John Buchan - later Lord Tweedsmuir - author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller from 1915 that Buchan would likely have referred to as a 'Shilling Shocker', the British version of the American 'Thriller'.)

The Maugham book that was chosen for our course was Ashenden - Or The British Agent. This is a collection of loosely-connected stories, in effect a quasi-novel, which could also double as a treatise of sorts on the serious, and frequently sordid, business of espionage in wartime. Maugham, in fact, is John Ashenden, the protagonist of the stories, briefly described in the opening story, "R.", as follows: "It was not until the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England." (The war broke out in August, 1914.) Once there, he chanced to go to a party where he was introduced to a middle-aged Colonel who asked Ashenden to meet with him the next day. The Colonel, thereafter known as "R", is with the British Government's Intelligence Department. Ashenden/Maugham is recruited as a spy, and continues in that role through most of the rest of the war. In several of the sixteen stories, Ashenden uses an alias, 'Somerset', clearly a play on his own name.

Maugham was a writer who took his craft seriously and, as noted, was hugely successful. Perhaps his greatest financial success was as a playwright;  by 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously in London's West End. His success was such that he eventually owned a villa at Cap Ferrat on the Riviera, the Villa Mauresque, or Moorish Villa. After World War II began in earnest, in 1940 with the collapse of France, Maugham was forced to abandon the villa, and he spent most of the war years in the United States, in South Carolina. At war's end, in 1945, he returned to Cap Ferrat, effected major repairs to the damage the war had brought to his home, and lived at the villa until his death twenty years later, in 1965.

Although Maugham based his Ashenden stories on his own (and perhaps some borrowed) experiences in the Intelligence Department, they are extensively fictionalised. In the Preface to a new edition of the book, written at the outset of the Second World War, Maugham makes this very clear:

"Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion ... it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance."

In other words, in direct opposition to the way Maugham writes. His method of writing, as he describes it, "chooses from life what is curious, telling and dramatic; it does not seek to copy life, but keeps to it closely enough not to shock the reader into disbelief ... it makes a formal decoration out of such of the facts as it has found convenient to deal with and presents a picture, the result of artifice, which, because it represents the author's temperament, is to a certain extent a portrait of himself, but which is designed to excite, interest and absorb the reader. If it is a success (the reader) accepts it as true."

This is a variation on the maxim, 'write what you know', but with the advice to package it in such a way that the reader will enjoy the journey; and if it's well enough done, will gain something from the journey that will stay with him/her long after the book is closed and consigned to a crowded shelf.

That espionage, even in wartime - perhaps especially in wartime - is not glamorous or exciting, is something that Maugham is quite definite about. One version might be to suggest that, as in war itself, it is an experience of long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Maugham describes the experience as "on the whole extremely monotonous", and a lot of it as "uncommonly useless". "The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless, the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable."

The Ashenden stories are all of that. I had read them years ago, and reading them again reconfirms my earlier feeling that Maugham, for all his many faults as a person - Noel Coward, another favourite of mine, unkindly referred to him as 'The lizard of Oz' - was exceptionally talented and insightful. In contrast to the "licence-to-kill" approach of some writers of spy fiction, one is left with the impression that Maugham/Ashenden cared about the individuals he was tasked with bringing to ground, and for whom an early and violent death was the likely result of his successful intervention. It was wartime, indeed, and terrible events transpired, but there was no joy for him in successfully outmanoeuvering a German spy who would then face a firing squad when apprehended:

From The Traitor:

"Ashenden guessed that Caypor had been arrested and by now had paid the penalty for his crime. He shuddered. He remembered a dreadful scene. Dawn. A cold, grey dawn, with a drizzling rain falling. A man, blindfolded, standing against a wall, an officer very pale giving an order, a volley, and then a young soldier, one of the firing-party, turning round and holding on to his gun for support, vomiting. The officer turned paler still, and he, Ashenden, feeling dreadfully faint. How terrified Caypor must have been! It was awful when the tears ran down their faces."

Maugham had a long, and by any standard that an aspiring, or even a successful, writer might hope to attain, a very successful one. He had his tribulations. He was a homosexual when that was deemed to be a criminal offence. He did marry, however, and fathered a daughter. His wife divorced him when she found she could no longer cope with his ongoing affair with Gerald Haxton, who stayed with Maugham until his death in 1944. For all of the turmoil in his life, Maugham entered old age with an admirable degree of equanimity.

From the Preface to his memoir, The Partial View:

"I do not believe that I envy anyone. I have made the most of such gifts as nature has provided me with: I do not envy the gifts of others; I have had a great deal of success; I do not envy the success of others ... I no longer mind what people think of me ... Nor do I mind what anyone thinks of me as a writer ... I have often wished that I had written under an assumed name, as I was within an inch of doing, so that I might have passed through the world unnoticed."

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