I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Fugitive Pleasures

Fugitive Pleasures

David Askew
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, John Murray, 624 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0719565540 W Somerset Maugham is known for his objective – critics would say his cold, clinical, and cruel – view of the world. His own work did not escape his sardonic eye. “I know just where I stand,” he frequently said, “in the very front row of the second rate”1. This judgment was shared by some of his contemporaries. On reading The Painted Veil (1925), Lytton Strachey echoed Maugham’s own words when he gave an evaluation of the book that could be applied to Maugham’s entire oeuvre: “class II, division I”2. Edmund Wilson was crueller, claiming bluntly that Maugham was “second-rate”, “a half-trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing”3. Cyril Connolly classified his work as constituting “important bad books”. Selina Hastings is more generous. “The last couple of decades have seen a remarkable revival in the work of this extraordinary man … it is safe to say now that he will again hold generations in thrall”. That is overly optimistic. But he was and will surely remain “the great teller of tales”4. Two major biographies were published in the 1980s. First, Ted Morgan’s Maugham (1980), which was based in part on the correspondence – Morgan persuaded Maugham’s first literary executor to lift the writer’s explicit ban on the publication of all unpublished materials – and was written with the cooperation of his daughter, Liza, Lady Glendevon. Second, Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989), which made use of but could not cite the unpublished materials, and was written with the cooperation of the companion of Maugham’s last two decades, Alan Searle. There are significant differences between the two biographies. Calder, while more critical of Maugham’s wife, Syrie, paints a much more sympathetic picture of Maugham himself. Indeed he complains that Morgan portrays Maugham as a vindictive character and a misogynist (Morgan does indeed do so), and as anti-Semitic (it would be fairer to say that Morgan’s Maugham is ambiguous: he got on well with his Jewish friends, but at the same time made anti-Semitic remarks in his writings). Morgan’s description of Maugham’s sexuality, Calder claims, “always emphasizes the nasty, procuring side of his homosexual life” (the “always”, at the very least, is an overstatement). Finally, Calder writes: “Alan Searle, whose unselfish devotion to the aging author in the…

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