What I find especially interesting about Maugham – and what I wished this biography addressed a little more intelligently than it did – is how fast his fame faded. As Hastings points out, Maugham’s works have even been adapted to the screen more times than Conan Doyle’s. Still, today almost everybody knows Conan Doyle, while Maugham’s name is familiar to a very narrow circle of readers. I only know his work so well because in the Soviet Union where I was born censorship limited our familiarity with English-speaking authors of the XXth century to those writers who remained completely untouched by Modernism and continued writing in the outdated realist style. And herein, I believe, lies the main reason for Maugham’s loss of popularity.
Hastings recognizes that
it was not done in highbrow circles to take [Maugham’s] writing seriously.
Hastings’s inadequacy at a serious analysis of Maugham’s legacy reduces her to filling page after page with painstakingly researched minutiae of the author’s daily existence. We find out the names of everybody who visited this extremely hospitable writer at his villa, what the guests ate and drank, where they went after lunch and before afternoon tea. Hastings provides us with names and brief biographies of pretty much everybody Maugham met in his long and active life. We are even regaled with the knowledge that one of the writer’s male lovers used to sit in the patio of Maugham’s villa in pink shorts at a certain point in time, while another lover walked around in very short white shorts out of which his thighs bulged ridiculously, and that Maugham once won $12 at a game of cards (which was far from the only one he played in his life). This wealth of mundane details can be of interest only to the most assiduous of fans. Since I am not one of them, I found those pages of the The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography incredibly tedious.
This biographer’s tendency to disregard what really matters in favor of utterly trivial details manifests itself especially strongly in the last third of the book. Hastings mentions a couple of times in passing Maugham’s “socialist beliefs” but fails to elaborate what they consisted of and how this intensely snobbish writer who spent his life in a relentless pursuit of aristocrats managed to remain any kind of a socialist. Instead of discussing Maugham’s politics, a feat for which this biographer is signally unsuited, Hastings tells us at length what cars the author bought before and after the war, that writer Ian Fleming enjoyed beating his wife with wet towels, and what a lover of Maugham’s lover’s lover (no, there is no typo here) wrote in a letter that had nothing whatsoever to do with Maugham.
The entire effort that Hastings made in writing this book can be summed up in the words of one of my favorite colleagues: “Incompetents abound.”