Sad storyteller's lonely liaisons

Somerset Maugham
October 1, 2004

"Although I have been in love a good many times I have never experienced the bliss of requited love," Somerset Maugham once wrote of himself. "I have mostly loved people who cared little or nothing for me, and when people have loved me I have been embarrassed."

This is the epitaph to a pathetically sad life, for which the solace was his success as a writer. And that is the overall impression one is left with at the end of Jeffrey Meyers's new biography of Maugham, however attractively garnished it is by tales of Maugham's early success as a dramatist, wartime career as an intelligence agent, millionaire lifestyle in France, rejuvenation therapies, friendship with royalty, and the rest.

Meyers draws an accurate portrait of a man not merely disappointed in love, but whose philosophy was summed up in the baleful remark: "Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep." Maugham lacked spiritual belief of any kind, concluding that Indian mysticism was "an impressive fantasy" and that "life has no meaning". Meyers's interpretation is that Maugham filled the void within through writing and sex.

For much of this book, the focus is on sex. Maugham described himself as "a quarter normal and three-quarters queer", which hardly does justice to someone who married and had a child not long after being invited by Arnold Bennett to share his mistress. All the same, Meyers is probably right to conclude that Maugham was predominantly homosexual both in life and art, with many of his stories using straight characters to explore gay themes.

On those occasions when Maugham writes about men and women as such, the characters are doomed, with marriage resulting in stillborn babies, sexual revulsion and long-term unhappiness. D. H. Lawrence, whose unfortunate luncheon engagement with Maugham is recounted here in detail, once wrote that "one sheds one's sicknesses in books - repeats and presents again one's emotions, to be master of them" - and this, Meyers thinks, was the case with Maugham.

Given that Meyers is writing in essence as Maugham's advocate, there is a dismaying quantity of information here about the murkier aspects of Maugham's life with his two "secretaries", Gerald Haxton and Alan Searle (with whom he lived for 30 and 20 years respectively). Both seem to have behaved like unruly schoolboys, Haxton being wildly promiscuous and addicted to alcohol, Searle being camp to the point of curtsying to the exiled Queen of Spain on her visit to the Villa Mauresque. According to Meyers, the villa lived up to its reputation as "a Garden of Eden filled with the hissing of snakes", as one of its habitues called it.

But what are we to make of Maugham's taste for the boys procured for him locally by Haxton? "Maugham, it seems, could resist little girls, but not little boys, with whom desire proved stronger than compassion." This is the closest Meyers gets to judgement; the same problem has cropped up in recent biographies of Byron. Does it matter that an artist such as Maugham had what was presumably non-consensual sex with children? I can't help but feel that, having mentioned it, a biographer needs to contextualise such things, especially if he is acting as an apologist for his subject - although it may be that no context could possibly ratify Maugham's rarefied sexual tastes.

A rigorous investigator of all aspects of Maugham's life, Meyers has added some witnesses to those who informed earlier biographies. There is new material here on Maugham's time in Heidelberg, his medical training, espionage in the South Seas, his dealings with Kropotkin and Savinkov, quarrels with Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, and friendships with Isherwood and Coward.

But there is no getting round the problem that confronts all Maugham's biographers - that the primary research materials that are the lifeblood of any such study (private papers, diaries and the like) were destroyed by Maugham during his lifetime, silencing the most authoritative commentary on his inner life. As a result, Meyers is dependent, as his predecessors have been, on gossip, which his subject generated in large quantities.

As Meyers admits, Maugham's acquaintances rarely had a good word to say for him, even those who had enjoyed his hospitality. On the occasions of his 70th and 80th birthdays, his publisher was compelled to abandon commemorative tributes because no one wanted to contribute. This lifelong failure to generate loyalty or affection is never adequately explained by Meyers, who tends to see Maugham as a victim of envy and hypocrisy.

Perhaps the most important of Meyers's objectives is to argue for Maugham's qualities as a writer: he was "the dramatic link between Wilde and Coward (and) the fictional link between Conrad, Orwell and Naipaul". The first of these points is advanced more persuasively than the second, although there are grounds for crediting both. All the same, I do not think he is the equal of James or Conrad, both of whom he sought to better.

Both his strengths and weaknesses are evident in Cakes and Ale , which Meyers regards as one of his greatest works. The character of Rosie is tiresomely sentimentalised, far less persuasive than the more venal Alroy Kear, who is the focus for Maugham's satire on literary hacks. All the same, whatever the shortcomings of his characterisation, the narrative is impeccably well constructed.

And it is as a storyteller that Maugham has most to teach. That is why his stories have so often been made into films - Meyers lists 48 between 1915 and 2000. That, and his popularity with the reading public, was something that his critics never forgave. It was both his misfortune, and the secret of his success, to be a gifted storyteller in the age of modernism.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

Somerset Maugham: A Life

Author - effrey Meyers
Publisher - J Knopf
Pages - 410
Price - $30.00
ISBN - 0 375 41475 4

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