I have a very smart friend named Jerry, a poet and musician from New England who is older than me and is well read and educated and knows books and music and art very well. I used to see Jerry quite a bit when I was waiting tables and he would come in to drink coffee, work and smoke his pipe. Once I asked Jerry why Somerset Maugham’s work was not considered canonical literature, and Jerry said, “Cuz he was queer.”
Jerry was being flippant but he may have accurately summed up a large body of opinion. But what “they” have really got against Maugham is that he was not a pretty writer, nor a writer accomplished in symbolism, allegory, metaphor, or other tools of high art. He was, rather, a plain writer who used plain, economic language and told plain stories. The fact that they are interesting stories invested with Maugham’s unique character is, at least it seems to me, overlooked, especially by more recent generations of readers.
I first encountered Maugham, as many people my age seem to, through his novel The Razor’s Edge, which is a book beloved by many expats and spiritual seekers. I got my copy of the book from just such a person – I was working in that same restaurant and spied it among a customer’s artifacts, and when I mentioned to him that I had always wanted to read it, he gave it to me on the condition I give it to someone else when I was done. It’s that kind of book.
I read it and loved it and gave it away and got another copy years later and read it again and finally got around to reading more Maugham recently. I dove into a collection of his stories – probably a great way to encounter Maugham – then read his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage and his favorite, Cakes and Ale. Next up for me will be some of his travel writing if and when I get my hands on it and more stories. I really should track down his plays.
I can’t tell you anything about Maugham that isn’t better told elsewhere, but I can tell you what I like about his stuff. Maugham was unique in that he experienced a great deal of European history. He came of age in the Victorian period and blossomed in the turn of the century and traveled and had adventures during and in between the great wars and enjoyed theatrical success in the 20s and 30s and lived til the 1960s. So he was able to write with clarity about each of these eras and also about a great many environments, from battlefields to English drawing rooms, colonial outposts to saloons. Of Human Bondage is about a Victorian doctor. Cakes and Ale is about an English writer. The Razor’s Edge is about an American expatriate and mystic. His stories are about Englishman, Jews, Malays, Chinese, crooks, gentlemen, ladies, whores, lawyers, artists, sailors, spies.
Maugham, it seems to me, is a strong writer equally capable of setting down an adventure tale and a pastoral soap opera. His stories are frequently about crime, my favorite genre, whether it is real crime or quasi crime or emotional or social crimes. A typical Maugham character is, like Maugham himself, a man of the world such as they don’t make anymore because the colonial days as we once knew them are long gone (good riddance). It is a man equally adept at navigating a train timetable and a lawn party, a man at home in polite society but, like Maugham’s stand-in in The Razor’s Edge, capable of showing a highborn crowd “the tough joints and the rough trade.” Sometimes it is a rough man and sometimes a smooth man, sometimes it is a man in the very grain of the law and sometimes it is a man who dabbles at the law’s fringes.
I enjoy Maugham’s writing in part because he creates characters I’d like to know in worlds I’d like to inhabit or at least visit. His echoes can be heard in the works of other great English writers that appreciate plain language, like George Orwell, who turned his admiration for Maugham to such great journalistic and political ends, and Ian Fleming, who was influenced by Maugham beyond just the great Ashenden stories. I recently re-read Fleming’s story “The Quantum of Solace” and realized it could easily be, word for word, a Maugham story.The fact that he was queer doesn’t bother me or interest me in the least. In fact, it rather pleases me that a gay man can be, in my reckoning, among literature’s most virile writers.