Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

     Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) was one of the most popular and well-paid writers in the world from the 1920s through the 1940s.  He experienced an unhappy childhood, became a doctor, and wrote on the side until it could pay him more than medicine.  This happened quite quickly and by thirty, he was already a novelist to watch whose plays were being produced in London and New York.  The real money at the turn of the 20th century was in playwriting and especially in adapting one’s novels to the stage.

The Novelist at Work 
     From there, he went on to success after success, though he was never taken as seriously by critics and by the guardians of the canon as ‘the mandarins,’ which was his term for Joyce, Woolf, etc.  His personal life was fascinating and it’s that aspect which is the engine for Hastings’ work.  Not only was he gay at a time when it was illegal in England and the U.S., which was part of the reason he resided in the south of France for much of his life, but he worked for the British intelligence service during both world wars.  He was probably one of the most well traveled authors of any era and it was those experiences that played into his work.

     Maugham’s highly disciplined writing method depended upon him working four hours each morning on fiction culled from stories told to him by various friends, acquaintances, and strangers during his travels.  He was incredibly prolific, writing hundreds of stories (he felt this was his métier), and dozens of novels and plays over a sixty-five year period.  He had something acerbic to say about many things, including drunks, which makes sense since his most significant partner was an alcoholic.  However, he was also very supportive of younger writers.  He started an award – still given annually – for future generations of authors to travel and thereby enrich their work.  

     Selina Hastings’ research was extensive and Maugham lived a very, very long time.  I felt I was dragging along month by month with him.  It doesn’t help that although the binding on this Canadian edition is smooth and durable, the font seemed archaic and the point size miniscule.  Yeah, I know I sound middle-aged with that comment.  My biggest compliment to Hastings is that her 2009 biography has encouraged me to check out some of Maugham’s writing.  Both The Casaurina Tree:  Six Stories (1926) and Cakes and Ale (1930) sound enticing, especially after I disliked the script of The Constant Wife (1926) in The Shaw Festival’s smart 2005 production.

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