Saturday, February 26, 2011

Somerset Maugham, Teller of Tales by Selina Hastings

Although an extremely successful playwright, it was as a teller of tales, as a writer of short stories, that Somerset Maugham was most widely known and admired. With one single exception, all his 122 stories first appeared in magazines, easily accessible on newspaper stands and station bookstalls even to people who never dreamed of entering a library or bookshop. “Beloved by unliterary, unofficial, unacademic humanity,” as Glenway Wescott put it, Maugham, 'the mahatma of middlebrow culture,” exerted a hold over the popular imagination matched by few of his contemporaries.

There is something infinitely seductive in the persona he frequently adopted as narrator, a narrator who both is and yet is not part of the story, a man of the world with a clear eye and sardonic sense of humor, who in a leisurely manner over drink and a cigar settles down to confide in the reader something pretty fascinating about the kind of ordinary chap encountered any day of the week in a bar or club.“His extraordinary knowledge of human beings is like that of an experienced confessor, said Raymond Mortimer, and like a confessor, “he is never shocked”.

The deceptive simplicity of Maugham's method conceals a highly honed technique, as anyone who has tried to imitate it will know: in the opinion of the novelist John Fowles it is as necessary for a writer to have mastered the Maughamesque short story... as it is for an artist to have mastered the art of drawing.” His hallmarks were the plain style, the absolute verisimilitude, the dramatists taut plotting and deftness with dialogue, and often the provision of the unexpected denouement, the twist in the tale, that leaves the reader shocked and delighted.

“His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless.,” said Raymond Chandler, himself an expert in the genre. Naturally there were critics quick to condemn him for what he was not: his stories were not remarkably profound; he was never particularly inventive; and he lacked the vision, the genius, “the transforming passion,” in V.S. Pritchett's words, of a Conrad or a Chekhov; and what he did he did superbly well, and occasionally approached perfection.

It was with the short story that Maugham found his true metier. “I have never pretended to be anything but a story-teller,” as he stated more than once. He enjoyed the form and he worked hard at it, and was always on the lookout for new characters and themes. Just as he had done all those years before while traveling in the East, he continued to encourage strangers and familiars alike to describe their experiences, even if there was a high price to be paid for the process. “I find it often a very tedious business,” he wrote in his notebook. “It requires a good deal of patience... [Y}ou must be ready to listen for hours to the retailing of second-hand information in order at last to catch the hint or casual remark that betrays.”

For Maugham, writing was not just what he did: it was where he lived. “I have never been able to persuade myself that anything else mattered,” he wrote in The Summing Up. While at work he was completely in control, in a world of his own making, and in extreme old age he stated that the happiest hours of his life had been experienced while seated at his desk when his writing was going well, and “word followed word till the luncheon gong forced me to put an end to the day's work.”

The tools of his trade were simple: a fountain pen specially designed with a thick collar to give added weight, a bottle of black ink, and white unlined paper purchased from the Times Bookshop, of which there was always a neat stack on his desk. He wore horned-rimmed reading spectacles, and chain-smoked as he worked; in later years he took to wearing a pink plastic mitten with zip fasteners designed to protect against repetitive strain and poor circulation.

While Maugham's productivity was unceasing, he always made a point of differentiating between invention and imagination. “I have always had more stories in my head than I ever had time to write,” he said, but

though I have had variety of invention... I have small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories. I have been incapable of those great, sustained flights that carry the author on broad pinions into a celestial sphere. My fancy, never very strong, has been hampered by my sense of probability.

The countless stories in his head meant that he was never at a loss for a subject; indeed, most of his life was passed in a state of possession, with ideas for plays, novels, and stories dominating his thoughts, not letting him rest until he had written them down. Because he lived with his themes and characters for months beforehand, sometimes years, there was never any need for an outline, and when eventually he was ready he wrote fast, not stopping for anything. While in the middle of a novel, Maugham said, his characters were more real to him than the characters of real life; he inhabited a different dimension, more vivid and more meaningful than the physical world outside.

With the first draft complete, the work of revision followed. “Then I go over very carefully all I have written & get order into the thing, look for the right words, bother myself with euphony, shorten, make what was obscure clear.” The words did not always flow, and sometimes a single page had to be written and rewritten, but however difficult, the experience never failed to be wholly absorbing. Yet in the final analysis the actual process of creation, 'the most enthralling of human activities,” as Maugham described it, was impossible to pin down.

As many writers have attested, the precise moment of alchemical reaction remains a mystery, explicable only as a work of the subconscious, of “the useful little imp that dwells in your fountain open and does for you all your best writing.” Once he had rid himself of the story by putting it down on paper, once the text was revised, the proofs corrected, the final version edited and approved, there was the excitement of seeing the work in print; a brief excitement, however, as by the time the book was published and in the shops, “I am no longer interested in it and I don't really care what people say about it.”

Among the actors and actresses he worked with in theater Maugham had the highest regard for Glady's Cooper; he admired her beauty, her professionalism, and her no-nonsense attitude toward life in general, while she for her part had the greatest esteem for him. “I place Somerset Maugham as our finest writer for the stage,” she stated in her autobiography. It was during rehearsals for The Letter , of which she was also co-producer, that Gladys properly came to appreciate Maugham's method, impressed by how accommodating he was with regard to making changes in his text. “The majority of authors,” she wrote, “are terribly sensitive and jealous of their work, regarding every word they have written as almost a pearl beyond price...Not so Somerset Maugham.” He would sit in the stalls, ready with his blue pencil to cross out or rewrite whatever she or the director Gerald du Maurier wished.

In large part this relaxed attitude derived from the detached view Maugham took of his dramatic work: it was the private process of composition that engaged him, not the play's evolution onstage; once the work was in the hands of the actors and director, it became something else, with which he no longer felt closely concerned. For this reason the theater was ultimately regarded as an unsatisfactory medium for a writer. For Maugham, rehearsing became dull work, attended to more from a sense of duty than because he felt crucially involved in the interpretation of his script. This attitude was noted by the director Basil Dean during preparations for East of Suez. “Maugham lacked genuine enthusiasm for the theatre. Throughout rehearsals he remained withdrawn, neither helpful nor obstructive, never offering advice unless it was asked for. I think he found the whole business tiresome and the actors' arguments rather petty. Yet, when appealed to, he was always ready with the unconvincing response: “Oh, ex-excellent!”. Once I asked him whether I might cut certain lines: “Wh-wh-why not?” he spluttered “The st-st-stage is a w-w-workshop.”

After his death, the reputation of Somerset Maugham suffered the inevitable decline of renown writers, the decline that especially follows a long career that has been lived much in the public eye and in tunes with its times. In the 1960s the times were rapidly changing, a few cared to read then of the old order, of the days of the Empire, of District Officers in the jungle or the wiles of wives in repressive Edwaurdian marriages. Maugham would not have been surprised. “the first little splutter of interest that follows a person's death in the case of a writer is followed by some years of neglect,” he wrote in 1946. “Then if there is anything in his work of enduring value, interest in him will be renewed."

This was prescient, for the last couple of decades have seen a remarkable revival of the work of this extraordinary man. Maugham learned very young to be wary and secretive in his personal life, which was full of pain, but in his writing he found happiness and release. He described the act of creation as 'the most enthralling of human activities,” the one place where the writer can find solace, “can tell his secret yet not betray it.”

His love for his art, his single-minded dedication, made him one of the most popular and prolific writers who ever lived, and it is safe to say now that he will again hold generations in thrall, that his place is assured: Somerset Maugham, the great teller of tales.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; A Biography by Selina Hastings; Random House; 2010

Portrait by Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery

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