By Hills, C. A. R.
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4640
W Somerset Maugham's status is ambiguous. His death is now almost 40 years in the past. Although he was famous in his lifetime, his reputation was mainly a popular one. Many critics despised him. But today, in every branch of Waterstone's, there is a long row of his works; in rural France, in Athens or in Lisbon you can easily pickup a second-hand volume to read on holiday. It is difficult to think of another author born in the 1870s who remains with us to the same extent.
I myself fell in love with his works as a teenager and, as the French say, on n 'aime qu'une fois, la premiere. After many years of not being able to read him, I have returned to him in troubled middle age. I have a theory that every literary teenager falls in love with either Maugham or Virginia Woolf, and that no one will ever fully see the appeal of these writers if they do not know it then.
He was born rather later than, say, Hardy or Gissing, but his readership rivals theirs, and his reputation will be comparable.
What is it about him, I wonder, that I find so appealing? I find his works enjoyable as stories and as writing, but that may be because they now fit me like an old coat. No, I think he persistently addresses an emotional dichotomy that is at the centre of my own life. It is the conflict between the need for detachment from others, and the feeling that to lack commitment is an irrecoverable disaster. This is the theme to which Maugham returns again and again. His most famous novel, after all, is called Of Human Bondage. The hero rather unconvincingly finds a good and sensible partnership at the end, but it is his hopeless passion for the dreadful waitress Mildred, humiliating and inescapable, that remains long in the mind. In The Razor's Edge, Larry Darrell rejects love in his search for spiritual enlightenment, but paradoxically, being loved by him would have been the only chance of redemption for his childhood sweetheart, Isabel.
He destroys her soul in saving his. There is always that bitter twist in Maugham, and if it brings you as much sadness as satisfaction you will acknowledge him as the Master.
In his play The Constant Wife, which I saw recently in London, five society women come on stage soon after the curtain rises and engage in artificial chatter. We seem to be in the utterly conventional stage world of the 1920s. …