I started my Thanksgiving break with a plan to relax completely and exorcise the accumulated exhaustion of a very difficult semester. In order to do that, I embarked on a project of reading Selina Hastings’s bulky biography of Somerset Maugham. In case you don’t know, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most successful and popular British authors in the period between the two great wars. Today, most people don’t know Somerset Maugham and he isn’t widely read at all. His novel Of Human Bondage is still quite popular. However, his short stories and plays that made Maugham so famous have fallen out of favor with the readers. There are several reasons for that. For one, Maugham was a strong believer in the colonial system of the British Empire. His colonialism jumps off the pages of his short stories and is quite disgusting. He was also a vicious misogynist and made a career out of selling his contempt towards women. Maugham pretty much missed the boat of Modernism and kept writing in a plodding realist style, which was quite unsuited to the realities of the XXth century.
Obviously, Maugham’s colinialism and male chauvinism disgust me profoundly. Still, I have to confess that I have a secret love for his short stories because they are so beautifully crafted. It is my contention that before Julio Cortazar’s time, nobody could write a short story better than Maugham. If you have no idea what I’m on about, just read Maugham’s short story “The Lotus Eater” (which is available in open access online here
) and you’ll see what I mean. Sadly, Maugham proved incapable of inscribing himself into the XXth century either ideologically or stylistically. He wasted his considerable gifts on pushing the outdated message of colonial and masculine domination, which is why his erstwhile fame is well-nigh forgotten nowadays.
Unfortunately, Selina Hastings lacks the most basic understanding of how to analyze literature. She could have definitely benefitted from taking at least a couple of literature classes. Then, she would have known, for example, that it is wrong to confuse the writer with his characters. She has this annoying habit of saying: “This is what Maugham felt/thought/did” and trying to prove that with a quote from his novel Of Human Bondage
about the feelings, thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist Philip Carey. As autobiographical as that novel might have been, Carey and Maugham are not the same person. Trying to psychoanalyze the author on the basis of what his characters say or do is the kind of a rookie mistake that a serious literary biographer should never commit. Whenever Hastings attempts to offer an analysis of one of Maugham’s works, she invariably slips into the language of a seventh-grader’s book report:
One of Maugham’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to create three-dimensional characters, women as well as men, interacting with one another.
Imagine that. A novelist writes about men – and even women – who actually interact with one another. This surprising fact definitely needed addressing in the writer’s biography.
Given to hero-worshipping her subject, Hastings manages not to notice his vitriolic hatred of women. She goes as far as suggesting that the opposite is the case. For this biographer, Maugham was
a man who enjoyed the company of women, who in his fiction and his friendships was so understanding and compassionate toward them.
I wouldn’t be able to address Maugham’s friendships with women (although I do know – and Hastings offers ample proof for my opinion – that he treated his wife and daughter abominably), but as for his writing, it isn’t often that one encounters an author who has done quite as much as Maugham to create a gallery of horrible, nasty, disgusting, stupid, venal, brainless women. It is unsurprising that Hastings, who can construct a turn of phrase as atrocious as
doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women
would be incapable of noticing Maugham’s misogyny. Hastings is so blindly uncritical of Maugham’s every word, position, and action that she quite sincerely suggests that one of the reasons why Maugham’s marriage was such a disaster was that
the traditional feminine occupations of knitting and needlework held no appeal for [his wife] whatsoever.
Of course, it is just as probable that the marriage suffered more because of the fact that the traditional husbandly occupation of having sex with his wife held no appeal whatsoever for Maugham, who was gay. Hastings, however, chooses to demonize Maugham’s long-suffering wife Syrie for not learning to knit, which, as Hastings seems to believe, would have distracted her from her husband’s numerous homosexual affairs and turned this marriage into an endless bliss.
[Find Part II of the review here.]