Somerset Maugham, a very popular writer from the1920s through the1950s, presents the critic with a real problem because, although he had undeniable gifts, his achievement was mediocre. The gifts, a lucid, supple style and a born storyteller's ability to move all the elements -- characters, actions, words -- in one direction to a destined end, are admirable and you keep expecting them to produce a masterpiece, but they invariably disappoint. "Why?" is the question the critic must answer.
The first thing he published, in 1898, was a novel, and he continued to write novels and stories, but from 1907 until the 1930s he was mainly known as a writer of witty drawing-room comedies. His semi-autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage (1915) is of some interest, but the novel as a form was really beyond him. The short story running to about 10,000 words, was his medium; much longer stories are unfocused, and much shorter ones tend to be inconsequential. His aim, as he said, was to tell interesting stories, and he worked to create a style that was clear, simple, and euphonious. No one can read his stories without recognizing these qualities.
Here's the opening of "The Treasure":
Richard Harenger was a happy man. Notwithstanding what the pessimists, from Ecclesiastes onwards, have said, this is not so rare a thing to find in this unhappy world, but Richard Harenger knew it, and that is a very rare thing indeed.
In those two sentences the clarity and simplicity are obvious, and the balance and emphasis of the second sentence is beautifully graceful. There is something else here which Maugham always spoke of when he wrote about his technique: plot. He thought that stories should have a beginning, middle, and end, that they should have a point, and that the material should be so arranged -- the plot -- as to move inexorably to its end. Although we will not know it fully until the last sentence, we are reading a story about the nature of Richard Harenger's happiness, and the announcement here alerts our attention. The clever plotting is furthered, and disguised, by the smooth surface of the story which half-conceals the writer's subtle effects. Note this description of the maid:
. . . she was certainly comely, in another class of life you might almost have said a handsome, woman.
The fastidious, class-based choice of adjectives -- "comely," "handsome" -- tells us how, with the faintest touch of irony, the protagonist's class consciousness pervades his smallest thought, advancing the plot and point of the story.
What happens is that Richard Harenger hires a maid (Pritchard) who turns out to be the treasure of the title, perfect in every way. Then one evening, quite by chance and contrary to their usual behavior, he and Pritchard go to the movies, have supper, go dancing, and wind up in bed together. When he awakes next morning, he's horrified by his behavior: "How idiotic to lose the best parlor maid a man ever had just for an hour's folly. . . . Richard Harenger was a very unhappy man." Then Pritchard comes in as usual, bringing him his letters and the papers, putting out his clothes for the day, selecting a tie and so on, behaving as if nothing had happened.
He knew that never by word nor gesture would she ever refer to the fact that for a moment their relations had been other than those of master and servant. Richard Harenger was a very happy man.
How are we meant to read this story? On the surface -- and remember how smooth it is, giving the impression that surface is everything -- this is an amusing story about how a moment's indiscretion threatens a man's happiness, but it is precisely the harping on happiness/unhappiness that makes us question the surface; we are forced to question the context of the dichotomy. He is unhappy when faced with the consequences of normal human behavior, happy when that is suppressed, replaced by the "master and servant" relationship. In that light, Richard Harenger is a pathetic figure and his characterization as the perfectly appointed gentleman is seen as hollow.
But there are problems with that reading. For one thing, the tone of the whole thing is light and there is no feeling in the story, no emotion at all beyond Harenger's momentary chagrin when he thinks he has spoiled the perfect maid. The absence of feeling is only consistent with the first reading. For another thing, that isn't the way Maugham's mind worked. As he makes clear in The Summing Up, a book about his ideas, and as all his fiction demonstrates, he was an extreme latitudinarian, and he had no strong feelings about anything. He believed, for instance, that people were capable of love, but not for long, and then they might as well move on with no hard feelings. It is very difficult to believe he would have disapproved of Richard Harenger or seen him as a human failure. It remains a light, amusing anecdote neatly finished with some small irony, no more than a shrug of the shoulders.
I've spent a lot of time on "The Treasure" because it tells us, in a small compass, a great deal about the writer. He had a wonderful gift of fluency: he could tell a story beautifully, but then, what kind of story was it? When you finished it, did any residue remain in your mind? He was voluble about the unpredictability of people, about their hidden capacities, but he didn't see very deeply into them, so the characters he created are, like Harenger and Pritchard, very shallow. These are anecdotes, things complete in themselves, finished off with a resounding end. But all good fictions are, like Conrad's Jim, "inscrutable at the heart," and when we finish reading them we are not finished with them at all; they live in our hearts and minds where we turn them over and over again, because good fiction is like life itself -- there is a mystery at its heart.
There are two volumes of his collected stories, The World Over and East and West. The light ones like "The Treasure" are the best. He also wrote some amusing comic satires. When he tried to write weighty stories, the situations he imagines are always melodramatic cliches. He traveled widely, especially in the Pacific and Far East during the 1920s, and many of his stories are set there, with the writer as narrator, staying for a few days with a District Commissioner, say, in a remote station in Borneo, relaxing on the verandah with a cheroot and a gin stengah while the Commissioner tells him a story and the jungle looms in the background. I must say that he manages the role very well, and I'm usually a sucker for it, but sometimes it gets a bit tiresome.
When Maugham defended his writing methods, which ran counter to the canons of the day, his tone was aggrieved, as if he were being persecuted. In The Summing Up, a book about his literary and philosophical ideas, he says again and again that he doesn't care about his critics, an obvious giveaway. Literary people certainly regarded him with contempt, but I doubt if it were for his style; it's much more likely that it was because he made a lot of money writing for magazines and was admired by Philistines. Of course he resented their attitude; in fact resented the whole serious literary world he could never break into, and his insinuations are a little pathetic.
Some people have taken up Maugham as a case of a good writer maligned by fashionable snobs, and I'm sorry to say they're conservatives. The argument is that since the cultural elite, lefties since the 1920s, dislike such a fellow, conservatives must rally round to his support. Unfortunately, no matter how sympathetic we may be, we cannot evade the judgment that he was a second rate writer, and conservatives make themselves look stupid by championing him. Partisanship of this sort is contemptible.
This kind of partisanship is also apparent in the admiration for Flannery O'Connor, a very second-rate writer. Being a devout Catholic and scorning the fashionable literary scene does not, alas, make one a good writer. Her conceptions of the way her characters think, like her plots, are always cliches, and no amount of piety will make her a good writer.
I have not yet answered the question: why, with all his gifts, Maugham is mediocre? He himself attributed his limitations to the absence of love. As he says in The Summing Up:
Though I have been in love a good many times, I have never experienced the bliss of requited love . . . never having felt some of the fundamental emotions of normal men, it is impossible that my work should have the intimacy, the broad human touch and the animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.
It is true that homosexual writers often suffer from the limitations he describes, but I don't think it's the whole answer. A clue lies in his remark that he's been in love "a good many times." No one who knows love could say that, and the reason he could never know love, I think, was his point of view, his extreme latitudinarianism. We have considered writers with all kinds of views in this series, and that has never been an issue. Victorians thought a writer had to be moral to be good; Communists that he had to believe in the proletariat; modernists that he couldn't be a conservative; reactionaries that he couldn't be a modernist; postmodernists that he had to be amoral and unintelligible; and so on, but so far we have rejected the idea of an indispensable quality. After studying Somerset Maugham, however, I'm tempted to offer, provisionally, one thing I think a writer must have: a passionate feeling about something. Everything follows from that. *
"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" --Mark Twain