IN HIS LAST WILL W. Somerset Maugham specifically banned any biography and wished his letters to be destroyed. Consequently Spencer Curtis Brown, his literary agent, gave Ted Morgan carte blanche to proceed with the present biography, a bulky tome of 711 pages. To salve his conscience Brown states in a prefatory note that he was struck by the fact that Morgan "had not attempted to pass any moral judgment on any character concerned." Many people may think that I have acted wrongly," he adds disingenuously. After reading Morgan's Maugham , I am impelled to agree with those people. I consider that Brown has betrayed his trust.
The moral judgment is implicit in the narrative and it is definitely a harsh one. But as Maugham told his friend Garson Kanin: "My work will speak for me, I hope, as long as anyone is interested."
Maugham's plea to destroy his letters has been likewise disregarded, in particular by his perennial guest and confidant Barbara Back, who left some 600 of them, a treasure for Morgan -- apart from the assistance of Maugham's literary executioner. From Alan Searle, who had been close to Maugham for 30 years or more, I learn that Morgan deigned to communicate with him, which may help to explain his prejudiced account of Maugham's ailing secretary-companion, here depicted as a mercenary gigolo exploiting Maugham's senility.
Since the barely credible revelations of the present Lord Maugham (author of Conversations with Willie ) his uncle's admirers will be less shocked by those of Ted Morgan, who approximated in prose what Graham Sutherland has achieved in paint. Every wrinkle of the dear old crocodile is emphasized with gusto. But those drooping lips could curve upward in a smile the more winning because it was in infrequent. Ada Leverson, who is mentioned in these pages, maintained that Sir Gerald Kelly's portrait of him as a jaunty young man in a top had called "The Jester" (now in the Tate Gallery) was an excellent likenesses at the time when four of his plays were running simultaneously in London. Like Garson Kanin half a century later, she invariably spoke of Maugham with chuckling affection. (Ada Leverson, by the way, was a pocket edition of Sarah Bernhardt and her nose was not retrousse : There is a sketch of her by Sickert in the Yellow Book to which -- pace Ted Morgan -- Oscar Wilde was never a contributor.)
In his eagerness to squeeze the juicy orange dry Morgan swamps the readers in irrelevant details and digressions. Need we hear again about Oscar Wilde's trial and the Duke of Windsor's marriage? Is it pertinent that Maugham wondered whether to stay at the Sherry Netherland or at the Plaza "where he was given a ninth-floor suite"?
Ted Morgan has neglected Voltaire's advice: "If you want to bore the reader tell him everything." He has imparted every scrap he could pick up about Maugham's unhappy marriage and his sexual inclinations, showing that the euphemism "gay" is an ironical misnomer. In conversation Maugham employed the expression "queer" ("Do you really suppose he's queer?"). He made light of the subject.
Often Maugham the writer gets lost among musty magazines, reviews, newspaper articles and malicious backchat. Having accumulated such a heterogeneous mass of material Morgan could not bear to sift it with his muckrake. Everything is said twice over and heavily underlined. Altogether his anti-hero is depicted as a most unpleasant character. Morgan traces his pessimism to the loss of his mother at the age of eight ("the tradegy of Maugham's life"); to his humiliating stammer; and to the sexual bent he tried to conceal and repress. Much of this may be found in Of Human bondage , his autobiographical novel, by many considered his masterpiece.
As a conservative Edwardian born in 1874 no doubt Maugham regretted his difference from the "normal" majority, and the failure of his attempt to shield himself behind conventional marriage must have embittered him. A rational materialist, he also wished to believe in God, and as Plato said: "He that only wishes to believe what he can understand will believe nothing, for mystery is everywhere." At least his search for the infinite was turned to profit in The Razor's Edge .
His experience of poverty and squalor as a medical student in the Lambeth which inspired his first novel was an incentive to achieve financial security. Success did not come immediately, but when it came it stayed. For Maugham was a born raconteur with a knack for seeing stories and plots of plays wherever his footsteps wandered. He perfected his gift with a sharp eye for dramatic effect and an ear for natural dialogue, and he became a consumate craftsman in the manipulation of English prose. Poetry played hide and seek with him: His efforts at poetical prose fell flat, and I suspect this was another cause of frustration.
It was his versatile craftsmanship and the great affluence derived from it which prevented the denizens of Bloomsbury from appreciating his merits. This was another sore point: Though a universal best-seller he resented the indifference of an intelectual minority. Lytton Strachey was vastly amused by Cakes and Ale , but he thought it was "marred by some curious lack of distinction." On the other hand George Orwell confessed: "I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills." Bloomsbury might sneer, but Maugham's fiction would be enjoyed when their frills were forgotten. Indeed, he became an Old Master of short story, the English equivalent to Maupassant in France.
The best part of Morgan's book is his defense of Maugham's use of cliche's as "a deliberate attempt to achieve an easily accessible conversational style." It is a pity that some of Maugham's economy of language did not rub off on his industrious biographer, who even slips into rhyme: "Barbara Back was there -- slim, beautiful, intense,/famed for her earthy wit and common sense." Her parties, we are told, "were known for the size of the homosexual contingent." The insistence on sexual status grows monotonous. Maugham's behavior , moreover, "fits quite neatly into the list of negativistic syndromes developed by the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, according to whom 'stammerers immobilizes the other person and arrest the flow of process in the world,'" whatever this may mean. A strain of sado-machochism is detected in Maugham's domestic relations and his attachment to the rakish Gerald Haxton.
Despite his intemperance the latter proved an invaluable traveling companion on his voyages to the South Pacific and the Far East in search of exotic material. By himself Maugham would never have reaped so rich a harvest. After diving into a swimming pool and breaking his neck, Gerald was to become a constant anxiety until he died of an edema in the lung at the age of 52. "All the best years of my life were connected with him," Maugham once confided to a friend. Was he thinking of Haxton when he observed: "The love lasts longest is the love that is never returned"?
"He lives in hell and likes it," said Dorothy Parker. If so, it was a very luxurious hell which I was previliged to enter now and then at Cap Ferrat, but I need not rehash what I wrote in my early Memoirs (1948) which seems to me still valid. That he got little joy out of living has been contradicted by Garson Kanin in Remembering Mr. Maugham (1966). "He has a positive gift for enjoying himself," he wrote, and I can corrobate this. His habitual dry martini before lunch and dinner, his appreciation of good food and wine, his passion for bridge, his pride in his art collection and his Rolls-Royce, his daily satisfaction with the exercise of his crafts and the royalties it brought in, and his keen curiosity about friends and foes, were no symptoms of hypochondria. Would a man quite as miserable as he is generally described take such pains to his longevity?
Instead of allowing to grow old naturally he paid three expensive visits to Dr. Paul Niehans' Swiss clinic for rejunevation treatments after the age of 64. It may have been due to these treatments that he lived on to the verge of 92. But his final years were a torment: Twice Morgan repeats Alan Searle's complaint that "it was terrible to watch someone you loved fading away and to be able to do nothing about it." Apropos of which he quotes S. N. Behrman's epigram: "The curse of the rich is that they are not allowed to die."
Morgan fairly wallows in the macabre chronicle of maugham's mental decline -- the publication of a vindictive attack on his dead wife, the sale of his pictures, the squalid lawsuits, the sad rift with his daughter Liza -- while his body was still active. I called on him during the summer before he died. Alan Searle had warned me of his wretched condition but I decided to risk a visit. Maugham seemed to recognize me, he smiled, and for once he never stopped talking. He chain-smoked, pressing the stubs on to the lacquer table instead of the ashtray, and what he said made very little sense. Hitler and Sitwell, Munich and Seville, they all got mixed up without the usual stammer.
The substance of many a novel is embedded in the dense cocoon of Ted Morgan's biography, which is sufficiently provocative to invite controversy. No doubt it will be filmed. The top-hatted young playwright of Kelly's portrait would have hated it; the "Old Party" of Sutherland's would have shrugged his shoulders.
For those who seek a moral, one stands clear:
Don't marry if you happen to be queer!