Somerset Maugham was one of my grandmother's favourite authors, and though she only ever got me to read one of his books – The Moon and Sixpence – when I was a teenager, I still remember her going on about his last years, the shame and the embarrasment to such a great man. I wasn't really listening, didn't really understand, and didn't really care. Now, having read this excellent biography, the last chapter of which is reminiscent of Othello and can only be decribed as pure classical tragedy, I do understand and I do care.
I am now in the middle of reading Rain and Other South Sea Stories, and have Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge to hand, so there is going to be a lot of Somerset Maugham on this blog during the coming months.
Back to the biography. Maugham was born in Paris, spent his early years there, and remained for the rest of his life at home in French and in France. But following the death of first his mother then his father, he was transferred to the care of his uncle, an Anglican vicar in Whitstable, Kent. And so grew up English, attending King's School, Canterbury, and St Thomas' Hospital, London, where he qualified as a medical doctor.
However, his heart was elsewhere and he never practised medicine apart from his time as a probationer in the slums of south London, which formed the setting for his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. After that, although the early years were not easy for him, he never gave up on his determination to succeed as a writer.
It was in the theatre that he had his first real success, but as soon as the money started rolling in – four plays running simultaneously both in the West End and on Broadway – he began to develop that itch to travel which never subsequently left him. (An itch I, oh, so well understand!)
And from these travels all over the world came the many, many wonderful short stories for which he was, and still is, so admired. I am quoting here from the biography, where Selina Hastings is quoting fairly typical adulatory comments:
"In the opinion of the novelist John Fowles it is as necessary for a writer to have mastered the 'Maughamesque short sory ... as it is for an artist to have mastered the art of drawing.' [...] 'His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless,' said Raymond Chandler. [...] 'His extraordinary knowledge of human beings is like that of an experienced confessor,' said Raymond Mortimer, and like a confessor 'he is never shocked.'"
And so on. What, then, went wrong?
The problem was that, although married (unhappily, and later divorced) with a daughter, he was a closet gay. It was a time when, if you were gay, it had to be "closet". (He was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde's – he had met him and Robbie Ross and knew Reggie Turner well – he simply lived much, much longer.) His life revolved around the in many ways admirable Gerald Haxton and the totally despicable Alan Searle.
This biography, unlike many literary biographies) is compulsively readable, and if it doesn't have you, like me, ordering his books before you are halfway through it, I'll be surprised.