>Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Review, Part II

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of the XXth century to those writers who remained completely untouched by Modernism and continued writing in the outdated realist style.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.

Incapable of finding an intelligent explanation of why Maugham was not seen as an equal by the artistic giants of his era, Hastings provides an answer of her own: they were jealous of his affluence, his big villa and his expensive limousine. Once again, one wishes that Hastings had some minimal familiarity with the development of literature in English. Maugham knew that he was consistently considered “a second-rate writer”, and it’s obvious that this knowledge was deeply painful to him. It is a disservice to the writer not to explore this issue and, instead, concentrate on excruciatingly boring sex lives of his numerous acquaintances.

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.”

[The first part of the review is located here]

8 thoughts on “>Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Review, Part II”

  1. >Your review of Hastings’s biography of Maugham is very perceptive and demonstrates what is wrong with this biography and many other biographies of late. I have not read this book my self, but have always felt that Maugham was underrated as an author. Yet it sounds as though Hastings is yet another biographer who rather than conduct a real analysis of an author’s work hides behind a façade of detail. After all it is the writings of somebody like Maugham that are important not whether he took one or two lumps of sugar with his tea.

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  2. >Thank you so much for reading the review, Richard! It always makes me very sad when people don't notice my reviews. 🙂 "After all it is the writings of somebody like Maugham that are important not whether he took one or two lumps of sugar with his tea."-Imagine what happens when you have page after page on how many lumps of sugar Maugham's one-time acquaintance took with their tea.

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  3. >Thank you so much for reading the review, Richard! It always makes me very sad when people don't notice my reviews. 🙂 "After all it is the writings of somebody like Maugham that are important not whether he took one or two lumps of sugar with his tea."-Imagine what happens when you have page after page on how many lumps of sugar Maugham's one-time acquaintance took with their tea.

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  4. >Perhaps this state of affairs can be attributed in large part to the fact that Maugham is out of fashion with the more academic literary community, and the vacuum has been filled by the less "competent" or less trained in critical theory types, who want to regale a fanbase with a kitschy rambling biography?

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  5. >Maugham's short stories are wonderful, as are many of the novels. Whether people enjoy them or not shouldn't be based on their knowledge of what kind of a man, husband or father he was. When I read a biography of a writer, I am interested to find what he was like and what he did, how he wrote and where he took inspiration from. But I have trained myself not to be swayed by such information: all that matters is that I like or dislike his work. If he beats his wife after writing a novel, that doesn't change my feelings about the work itself. In the same way, I despise people who vote for a certain politician because he fits into false, hypocritical values, decided by shameless critics and journalists whose own lives wouldn't survive much scrutiny. Is he a good writer? Do I feel pleasure or learn something by reading him? These are the only things that matter. As for this badly-written biography, there are fewer good biographers around these days, without a doubt. I have read countless poorly-researched, badly-written, cobbled-together excuses for biographies in the last few years, works that could have been done better by complete amateurs. I blame the education system and the lack of fear due to the lack of teacher power. Like Britain itself, mediocrity is taking over.

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  6. >Craig: I share your vision of literature. Francisco de Quevedo was an anti-semite and a woman-hater. Still, he wrote some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry I have ever encountered. We can't fixate on the author's life as if it were more important than the literary production itself.

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