Author Topic: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham  (Read 4862 times)

Offline Aloysius J. Gleek

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The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
« on: July 24, 2010, 03:58:22 pm »

“I tried to persuade myself that I was three-­quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer — whereas really it was the other way round.”

A Biography
By Selina Hastings
Illustrated. 626 pp. Random House. $35

Lives of the Novelists:
Somerset Maugham

Published: July 15, 2010

Somerset Maugham, 1957.

In 1962, William Somerset Maugham’s nephew, Robin, his own literary efforts having not amounted to much, informed his wealthy and famous uncle that an American publisher, Victor Weybright, had offered him an advance of $50,000 to write Maugham’s biography. “Obviously I can’t afford to turn down such a good offer,” the younger Maugham explained. “As you know, although I earn enough from my writing to keep me going each year, I haven’t a penny of capital.” The letter’s affectionate tone notwithstanding, Maugham had no trouble grasping its import and responded by sending Robin a check equal to the one he would have received from Weybright. “I give you my word that I shall not write any other biography about you — ever,” Robin replied. “I’m really awfully shy about all this, but I’m also very ­grateful.”

“Shy” is a peculiar adjective to use to describe blackmail, which was, as Selina Hastings makes clear in her biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” Robin’s intention. Himself homosexual, Robin had been privy to Maugham’s erotic and emotional involvements with other men since he was a teenager, and might well have been the object of more than avuncular interest on Maugham’s part. (“I’m not saying I think there was incest,” ­Glenway Wescott recalled, “but Willie was infatuated with Robin.”) Nor was Robin’s word to be trusted. Ten years later, in a memoir entitled “Escape From the Shadows,” he quoted his uncle as saying, “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-­quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer — whereas really it was the other way round.” Fifty thousand dollars, though enough to keep Robin quiet for Maugham’s lifetime, was not enough to keep him quiet after his death.

Forty-five years later, what little remains of the fortifications with which Maugham sought to secure his post­humous reputation has been swept away. Taking advantage of the Maugham estate’s decision to allow scholarly access to the author’s correspondence, as well as the unearthing of a transcript of an interview with Maugham’s daughter, Has­tings has written a biography that does not so much give us a new Maugham as add shadings to the old one. That Maugham was, to use his own terminology, three-quarters queer will most likely provoke about as much surprise as Ricky Martin’s recent announcement that he is “a fortunate homo­sexual man.” What we get here are the details, many of them sordid: for instance, the story of Louis Legrand, or Loulou, the “ravishing 16-year-old male whore” whom Maugham and his longtime lover, Gerald Haxton, shared and also made available to the guests at Maugham’s villa on Cap Ferrat, “Gerald afterward discreetly settling the bill. Both Harolds, Nicolson and Acton, became appreciative customers (‘Mon cher Lulu,’ wrote Nicolson from Paris, ‘merci pour la soirée délicieuse’); and so, during the course of the summer, did . . . Robin.”

The passage is typical of Hastings’s prose style, which privileges breeziness and readability over compassion. Not that Maugham was a particularly compassionate character. “Tra-la-la, no more alimony, tra-la-la,” he sang when he learned that his despised former wife, Syrie, had finally died. Upon his reunion with Alan Searle, the great love from whom he was separated for most of the Second World War and who had put on weight in the interval, he remarked acidly, “You may have looked like a Bron­zino once, but now you look like a depraved Frans Hals.”

Hastings, who has written biographies of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, explains that this habit of cruelty had its origins in a cruel childhood. Born in Paris to English parents in 1874, Maugham was orphaned early on — the loss of his beloved mother was a particular blow — and sent back to England for his education. ( “Of Human Bondage” is based on this period in his life.) Toward the uncle and aunt who raised him he felt no great fondness, and as soon as he could, he struck out on his own, entering into medical training at St. Thomas’s Hospital in the Lambeth section of London. It was here that he learned the physician’s art of observing the suffering of others, if not with dispassion, then at least with sang-froid; an art he would exploit in his fiction. Visits to the “grim houses” in which desperately poor women, as often as not, died in childbirth propelled him to write his first novel, “Liza of Lambeth,” of which he later observed, “My lack of imagination . . . obliged me to set down quite straightforwardly what I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.” As Maugham himself was the first to admit, invention was not his strong suit, and if, later in life, he spent so much of his time traveling, it was as much to gather material as to escape his unhappy marriage. “The writer cannot afford to wait for experience to come to him,” he once wrote; “he must go out in search of it.”

Maugham’s earliest successes were in the theater, and by the 1920s, with several plays often running simultaneously in New York and London, he had the money and leisure to devote himself to the form he loved best: the short story. Amazingly, this was an age in which stories could be cash cows. A 1923 contract with the Hearst magazines guaranteed Maugham payment of $2,500 per story, while from his most famous story, “Rain,” he earned more than $1 million in royalties.

In his fiction, Maugham often sought to lay bare the hypocrisies of his characters. Renowned as a “brilliant castigator of modern morals,” he excelled at dramatizing the exposure of lies and secrets, the duplicities of class and organized religion. Nor did he always take care, when using someone he knew as the basis for a character, to change details or even names. In his novel “Cakes and Ale,” for instance, he modeled the sycophantic, second-rate Alroy Kear on his close friend Hugh Walpole, “palpably exposed,” in Virginia Woolf’s words, “as the hypocritical booming thick-skinned popular novelist.” Much to Woolf’s surprise, Walpole responded to this “flaying alive” not with rage but with bewilderment: “What I mind are a few little things — little things that Willie and I had together — only he and I knew — those he has put into print.”

Is turnabout fair play? Perhaps. Indeed, as I read Hastings’s biography (and I read it in great gulps), I could not help wondering if Maugham might deserve the “flaying alive” to which she subjects him. After all, here was a man who, despite his passionate erotic partnerships with two men, could write with detached humor that “the homosexual” has “small power of invention, but a wonderful gift for delightful embroidery”; a man who, in a late memoir, so vilified his deceased ex-wife as to provoke one friend, Rebecca West, to denounce him as “an obscene little toad” and another, Graham Greene, to dismiss the memoir as “a senile and scandalous work”; a man who tried to disown his own fragile daughter on the grounds that he had no evidence that he was actually her father.

I could go on. Hastings makes a strong case against Maugham the man. Where she runs into trouble is in her half­hearted attempt to make a case for Maugham the writer. Is it, in fact, “safe to say,” as she does, that Maugham “will again hold generations in thrall, that his place is ­assured”?

Probably not. “I know just where I stand,” she quotes him as having said on more than one occasion; “in the very front row of the second-rate.” If so much of Maugham’s fiction comes across today as brittle, arch, world-weary and heartless, it may be precisely because he devoted more energy to maintaining his own double standard than he did to interrogating the double standards of others. He tried to have it both ways, and as his stories so amply demonstrate, those who try to have it both ways rarely come to a happy end.

David Leavitt is the Waldo W. Neikirk term professor at the University of Florida for 2010-11.
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