A well-considered life of the phenomenally successful but little esteemed English writer.
Pity poor W. Somerset Maugham, whose friends called him “Willie”: he complained that his manicured Riviera villa and yacht were poor places to write, “out of touch with the stream of life, with people, with happenings of import.” When he entered into that stream, he sometimes got himself into deep trouble, but also turned up material for stories that approached literature—Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge. Having achieved success early on with books that critics dismissed as potboilers, Maugham found himself outside the best literary circles; he lived to be a ripe 92, but “he developed no coterie and was sustained by no reliable faction,” and was indeed most unpopular. Literary and film biographer Meyers (Inherited Risk, 2002, etc.) enumerates the reasons for Maugham’s poor standing: he had a “chilling character,” lived abroad to avoid paying British taxes, was openly homosexual, and “enjoyed writing and composed with great facility in an age when highly admired authors, like Joyce and Kafka, tortured themselves with creative agony.” The last reason seems a little unlikely; like Stephen King and the National Book Award, after all, Maugham got his honors and his moolah too, a million dollars for the play Rain and its subsequent adaptations alone. But it finds echoes in critical assessments of the time, which accused Maugham of emotional tone-deafness and general hackishness. Meyers turns in a respectful account of Maugham, delivering a few nicely turned surprises that touch on, for instance, Maugham’s service as a spy in the South Seas and early Bolshevik Russia. All that doesn’t make the writer any more likable (as Meyers quotes C.P. Snow as observing, visiting Maugham was “rather like visiting one’s family lawyer”), but such moments at least make him seem more interesting.
A major biography, then, of a minor figure.