The journalist Janet Malcolm defines a biography as a medium through which the secrets of the dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. In an effort to stem a flood of misinformation, some writers resort to publishing autobiographies. Toward the end of his long life, following the example of Charles Dickens and a host of others, William Somerset Maugham made a bonfire of his private papers and earnestly beseeched his friends to destroy his letters—a request which, of course, had the contrary effect. (Many were sold to American universities at high prices.) He further directed his literary executor not to assist in any way eventual biographers, his motivation being, as Ted Morgan says in the preface to his scrupulously researched Maugham: A Biography (1980), an attempt to preserve “the benign image of himself he had been working on for years and wanted to perpetuate beyond the grave.”
Much has been written about the author of The Painted Veil (1925)—sometimes with an apparent lack of responsibility. But even where integrity has been maintained, the resulting portraits have generally been inaccurate or incomplete because access to required material had been blocked. To prevent further distortion of Maugham’s reputation, the artist’s literary executor finally decided to ignore the explicit instructions he had been given and to cooperate with Ted Morgan in what was advertised as “the definitive biography of W. Somerset Maugham.”
A Probing Portrait
But now we have another “definitive account” of one of the most widely read writers of the 20th century: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings (Random House), author of the award-winning Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. The adjective in the title smacks of hyperbole. For one thing, Maugham’s nephew, Robin, who had agreed for a substantial sum of money never to publish anything about his father’s brother, went ahead and did just that after his uncle’s death. Hastings, who has, to be sure, also taken advantage of the estate’s decision to allow scholarly access to Maugham’s surviving correspondence as well as to a recently found transcript of an interview with Maugham’s daughter, writes engagingly and with great perception of the interaction between the life of her subject and his work.
It is striking that French, not English, was the native tongue of the author of The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin. Maugham’s father, an English solicitor who handled the legal affairs of his countrymen in France, arranged for his son to be born at the British embassy in Paris, in 1874—thus circumventing the French law that mandated that all children born on French soil be subject to conscription for military service. Orphaned at age 10, the boy was sent to England to live with his uncle, a clergyman. The loss of his beloved mother traumatized him, and he developed a stammer that he had to cope with for the rest of his life. His new classmates taunted him because of his speech impediment, his short stature and his foreign accent. A target of derision, he became shy and withdrawn. His misery is reflected in the autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1915), generally considered to be his outstanding achievement.
During his final year of medical school, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), in which he drew upon his experiences attending women in childbirth in a London slum. The book was a commercial success and prompted him—even though he had qualified as a doctor—to abandon medicine to become a full-time writer. It was in the theater, however, that he first gained fame, at one time having four plays running simultaneously in London. A cartoon in Punch showed Shakespeare nervously biting his fingernails as he looked at the billboards. Willie—as he was known to his friends—developed the lifelong habit of writing for precisely three hours every morning. Writing for Maugham was more than a source of income; it was a kind of exorcism. He wrote about what weighed heavily on his mind and heart; once put on paper, the devil was banished. In his autobiographical essay The Summing Up (1938), he says that the artist produces what he produces for the liberation of his soul.
In the First World War, he served in France as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross but was soon transferred to the Intelligence Service—being a writer was good cover for a secret agent. His assignments took him to Switzerland, Russia and the South Seas. His experience of the grim, brutal world of espionage appears in the collection of short stories titled Ashenden (1928), a volume that influenced the James Bond series by Ian Fleming; for the first time in literature a spy is portrayed as gentlemanly, sophisticated, coolly aloof.
Even when Maugham was not on a mission, he traveled widely to the Near East, the Far East and North Africa—for pleasure, but also in search of material for his writing. Out of his voyages came highly readable travel books—On a Chinese Screen (1923) and The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) plus a number of collections of short stories, told in a taut, lucid, economical style, often with cynical overtones. Perhaps the most memorable are those dealing with the isolated lives of British colonists in the Far East, of which “Rain,” in The Trembling of a Leaf (1921) is undoubtedly the best known. Inspired by fellow passengers on a voyage to Pago Pago, it chronicles the moral disintegration of a missionary as he attempts to convert a Pacific island prostitute. As with many of his stories, it was adapted for stage and screen. The inclusion in his fiction of thinly disguised events and characters who closely resemble friends and foes became his trademark—a practice that occasionally resulted in law suits. His books often provoked controversy. Cakes and Ale (1930), for example, is seen as a veiled satirical attack on Thomas Hardy. “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work,” Maugham remarked, “that...I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
Prone to moods of deep depression and capable of cruelty as well as great kindness, Maugham presented himself to the world as a handsome, elegantly dressed man-about-town, a wealthy and witty satirist of British society—in short, a conventional English gentleman. Nonetheless, as Hastings notes, he was irresistibly drawn to the sexual underworld. Living at a time when homosexuality was considered indefensible as well as illegal—he was 21 when Oscar Wilde went on trial—Maugham felt obliged to be discreet about his own sexual practices. Although he had affairs with both men and women, he much preferred a body like his own, preferably younger, much younger.
He did marry, however—which made him wretchedly unhappy and ultimately ended in divorce—and fathered a daughter, Liza. But the love of his life was a young alcoholic charmer, an American gambler named Gerald Haxton, who acted as his personal secretary, traveling companion, lover and pimp for 30 years. After Haxton’s death, he was replaced by a young cockney who had been supported by a series of older men. Alan Searles became Maugham’s devoted companion for the rest of his life.
Maugham’s writing continued to bring in an enormous amount of money, which afforded him a life of luxury. At his magnificent villa on the Riviera—to which invitations were highly prized—he lavishly entertained such friends and celebrities as Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Noel Coward, the Agha Khan and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. There were also teenage boys, picked up at the wharf, whom he shared with some of his guests.
With the collapse of France, Maugham became a very wealthy refugee and spent most of the Second World War in the United States. He passed much of the time at the house of his publisher, Nelson Doubleday, in North Carolina, some of the time in Hollywood, where he became a popular figure while working on the screen adaptation of his last successful novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944), the tale of a young man’s spiritual quest for the infinite. Echoing the author’s own personal concerns, the protagonist declares, “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.” In A Writer’s Notebook, (1949), Maugham comes to the conclusion that there is no God and that death is indeed the end.
A First-rate Second-rater
Although he was the recipient of many honors, it rankled Maugham that he never attracted much critical acclaim. He attributed this to his lack of a gift for metaphor, to the fact that he had “no lyrical quality,” and little imagination. His talent lay, he said, in his extraordinary power of observation. As a writer of fiction, he was a realist; his imagination needed actual events and real people to work on. In The Summing Up, he remarks that he stood “in the very first row of the second-raters.” It should be noted that Maugham wrote at a time when modernist literature, like that of Faulkner, James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf, was gaining popularity and respect. Alongside these writers, some might consider Maugham’s prose plain. Hastings comments that her subject’s relationship with Haxton had undoubtedly damaged his reputation. Still, this biographer adds that at the time of her writing, there have been 98 adaptations of his work for film and television.
At the end of hostilities, Maugham returned to his villa on the French Riviera, where he continued to write and entertain the rich and famous until he succumbed to dementia. Under the nefarious influence of his companion, Alan Searles, who feared he was soon to be left virtually penniless, he attempted to adopt Searle as his son and disinherit his daughter. As he lay dying in Nice, at the age of 91, he asked the philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer for reassurance that there is no life after death.
Hastings expresses admiration for Maugham’s prodigious output, stating unequivocally that his place in posterity is assured. Her very readable biography, replete with 32 black and white photos, does not so much add new information to portraits we already have of Maugham as add engrossing—sometimes sordid—details. A film documentary about “the grand old man of letters” is scheduled for release in 2011.