Somerset Maugham: A Life

by Jeffrey Meyers

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

432 pages, 2004




Somerset Companion

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez


The plight of the critic remains that of one who is squeezed between a dutiful need for accuracy in matters of fact, and a mediator between the aesthetic vision of the artist and the perception of the public. While this relationship has never been an easy one -- never lacking in spirited and at times cantankerous disagreements -- the reality remains that artists are occasionally aided by critics in reaching their audience. The world of the artist is often an insular one. And what is considered a private, artistic vision does not readily find an appropriate channel for its objectification. Thus the dissemination of ideas and artistic values requires competency and, probably most importantly, a similar and sympathetic aesthetic temperament for these to flourish.

Jeffrey Meyers' Somerset Maugham: A Life is an insightful and interesting exposition of Somerset Maugham: the man. The book works best as a companion to the already existing biographical body of work on Maugham, which includes Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham by Robin Maugham; Ted Morgan's Maugham and R. Calder's Willie: The Life of Maugham. The problem with Meyers' book, however, is that it is egregiously anecdotal. Somerset Maugham: A Life leaves Maugham, the writer, a ghostly, terra incognita that remains obscure throughout the book. For an unsurpassed rendition of Maugham's ideas on literature, philosophy and aesthetics one must still turn to his seminal autobiographical work, 1938's The Summing Up .

Granted, Maugham himself found that a writers' life can prove to be more interesting than their work. But the business of biography is a tenuous one, too frequently only skimming the surface of what might prove to be a complicated and even profound existence. Thus how much of the inner reality of a person a biographer truly uncovers remains an exegetical and speculative point of contention. For a biography to succeed, much more than chronological pageantry is called for. Equally important is the ability or desire of the biographer to understand the essence of his subject and how this informs the public persona.

The most interesting part of Meyers' biography recounts Maugham's secret agent activities between 1916-1919, and how this duplicitous world relates to the plot and character development of Ashenden, one of Maugham's more colorful books. But, even here, what the reader takes from this experience in Maugham's life depends greatly on how much one already knows about his masterful spy novel. The chapter is not explicit about this connection -- one hopes for more. About this experience Meyers writes: "Incredibly, the relatively inexperienced Maugham was chief agent in Russia for the British and American secret services during the crucial few weeks [i.e., months] preceding the Bolshevik coup of [October] 1917."

This background information has a direct implication in furthering our desire to re-read Ashenden. Unfortunately, this chapter is too short, leaving the reader with the expectation of finding more similar chapters. This is a shame because the little that there is proves to be exciting reading. The author continues: "He stayed in Russia for only two and a half months, and his task, with hopelessly limited resources, was impossible. But if his mission had succeeded Maugham could have changed the history of the modern world." If taken cum grano salis, the validity of this statement offers added understanding of this juncture in Maugham's literary life.

Instead, too much attention is squandered describing an unhappy childhood, family ties, friends and personal anecdotes that add a rather gossipy angle to the book. Part of this approach is a worn and hackneyed staple of the genre. Also, informative is the chapter titled, "Villa Mauresque, 1926-1928." The title is taken from Maugham's two-story, 12-acre estate in Cap Ferrat, France that he purchased for $48,500 in 1926. Interestingly enough, Meyers tells us, the villa cost an additional $20,000 annually to maintain. This figure creates a valuable sense of historical perspective. Meyers' exposition alerts the reader to the fact that Maugham ran his private home like a glorified hotel, were guests, some of whom Maugham found unruly, paraded throughout. Also interesting is Meyers' informative writing as to the origin of the personal seal that Maugham placed on the outside wall of the villa and on all his books after the publication of The Hero, in 1901. "This curious emblem looks like a shield and spear, or the prow and mast of a ship seen from above, or two curved five-hackled swords over the double-branched cross of Lorraine." The symbol is in fact a sign to ward off the evil eye. In this chapter we also learn that Maugham was "rigidly disciplined in his work," and that he "hated to waste a second of his life." This is the kind of knowledge that can promote greater appreciation of Maugham, the writer. Captivating, too, is the character sketch of the author drawn by the writer C.P. Snow who mentions that Maugham's astringent character was "rather like visiting one's family lawyer." Also valuable is art historian and director of London's National Gallery, Kenneth Clark's advising Maugham on how to establish his vast art collection that included "eighteen important French paintings completed between 1870 and 1940." Included in these works, we learn, were paintings by Matisse, Gauguin, Renoir, Utrillo and Pissarro.

Unfortunately, one of the finest chapters of the book is the last one. Titled "Afterlife," this chapter is a depiction of Maugham's relationship with other writers including Orwell, Burgess and V.S. Naipaul. This latter information is important because these are people who shared and understood Maugham's literary concerns. Yet again, this kind of information comes about in infrequent snippets. The literate reader is left gasping for more writing that delves into Maugham's ability as a writer that describes him as such:

"With his practical, objective, atheistic turn of mind, Maugham did not struggle with existentialism or Freudian analysis, nor did he value complexity for its own sake. He was interested in listening to people's stories, in observing behavior and telling a tale. His canvas was colorful, his characters vivid, his plots excellent." | January 2005


Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.