Selina Hastings's 'The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,' reviewed by Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, May 20, 2010


By Selina Hastings

Random House. 626 pp. $35

During the second half of his life, William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was the most famous writer in the world. Not only did readers love his sardonic tales of sexual passion and dark secrets, of desperation and sudden violence, but so did Hollywood: More of his stories, novels and plays have been filmed than those of any other author. Just one short story, "Rain" -- about the prostitute Sadie Thompson and the preacher obsessed with saving her -- has provided star turns for Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, among others.

As this excellent biography by Selina Hastings makes clear, Somerset Maugham lived a life of quite astonishing richness and variety. Over the course of his 91 years, Maugham moved effortlessly around the world and in society: He dined with Henry James and Thomas Hardy, clashed with the sinister Aleister Crowley, argued Russian politics with Alexander Kerensky, discussed art with Sir Kenneth Clark and managed to enjoy the longtime friendship of both Winston Churchill and the Duchess of Windsor. Maugham's luxurious home on the Riviera, the Villa Mauresque, offered guests beautiful gardens, first-class cuisine, delicious conversation and multiple sexual opportunities. It also boasted a fabulous collection of paintings, including a Gauguin that Maugham had discovered in a farmhouse when visiting Tahiti.

Throughout his life, Maugham always managed to look the perfect English gentleman, exquisitely turned out in bespoke suit and tie, punctilious about social conventions and just a bit shy because of an embarrassing stammer. But he was also exceptionally cosmopolitan in a decidedly continental manner, being absolutely fluent in French, Spanish, German and Italian and possessing enough Russian to work as a spy in Petrograd in 1917. Once he started to earn serious money, he traveled constantly, gathering material for his fiction and happy to be away from England. This was, in part, because he had been trapped into a wretched marriage with Syrie Wellcome, a noted interior designer and the mother of his only child, Liza.

Even though Maugham was always at his desk for three steady hours every morning, he wasn't just a successful, celebrated author: He was also a very active bisexual. In fact, the two great loves of his life were a promiscuous young actress named Sue Jones and his charming and gregarious secretary Gerald Haxton.

While his sexual appetite was hardly a secret among his many friends, Maugham certainly didn't wish his admiring public to know about it. As a result, he would never authorize any biography, and he burned most of his correspondence and private papers. Naturally, this didn't stop anyone. In her bibliography, Hastings lists more than 30 previous works about the writer, including the delightfully Boswellian "Remembering Mr. Maugham" by Garson Kanin (1966), and Ted Morgan's magisterial "Maugham: A Biography" (1980).

While certainly a page turner, Hastings's new biography won't replace the far more detailed work of Morgan. Still, my only serious reservation about "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham" is that it lays out the plots of many of its subject's stories and of all his novels (though the political reading of "Christmas Holiday" seems a bit one-sided, given the love affair at its heart). Perhaps such spoilers are unavoidable when examining a writer's evolving artistry. But they do slightly inhibit a reader who actually wants to go out and rediscover Maugham's work.

For after his death in 1965, Maugham's reputation plummeted, and I suspect that he is largely unread today. Old copies of his novels seem to linger on the shelves of used bookstores. The semi-autobiographical "Of Human Bondage" -- about a young man in masochistic thralldom to a waitress -- no longer appears high up on lists of the important fiction of the past century. The witty dramas of marital discord -- the original source of his wealth -- are seldom revived. Once it was common for aspiring young writers to study the first half of "The Summing Up," in which Maugham discusses the finer points of storytelling. Not anymore.

Today, the only Maugham works that do survive are those in which the author himself plays an important part. First is the collection of World War I spy stories titled "Ashenden," an acknowledged influence on every espionage writer from Eric Ambler to John le Carré. No one who has encountered "The Hairless Mexican" ever forgets its last line. Then there's "Cakes and Ale," a roman à clef about London literary life in the 1920s and one of the most deliciously ironic masterpieces of the century.

Most important of all, though, are Maugham's many tales of British colonials in various outposts of empire who suddenly crack, unable to keep up the polite fiction of stiff-upper-lip normality. On a hotel veranda or in the bar of some white man's club, while the ceiling fan slowly turns overhead, Maugham will be the recipient of a shocking confidence about the seedy local doctor or the plantation owner's mousy wife. Anything can happen when you start such stories as "The Letter," "The Book Bag" or "The Outstation."

Infidelity, incest, all the scriptural forms of depravity, the expected murder or unexpected suicide -- Maugham is always scandalously entertaining. Critics, however, have usually dismissed him as commercial and sensationalistic because he emphasized clever plots, wrote a plain, declarative prose, and -- horrors! -- appealed to ordinary men and women. That he was the English Maupassant doesn't seem to count.

No matter. With few illusions about his talents (or about anything else), Maugham accepted that he was only a writer of the second rank, but quite rightly insisted that he was in that second rank's first tier. It's been said that if you were to name the four Englishmen who have given the most pleasure to the most people during the 20th century, you would choose the actor Charlie Chaplin, the comic master P.G. Wodehouse, the consummately witty playwright Noël Coward and, not least, W. Somerset Maugham.

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