WILLIE: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder

WILLIE: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham

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This biography of the most widely read novelist since Dickens is also the most balanced and compassionate life to date. Unlike Ted Morgan's controversial, melodramatic portrait of a decadent misanthrope (Maugham, 1980), Calder (English/Univ. of Saskatchewan) sees the homosexual author as a highly disciplined Edwardian gentleman, tormented by self-doubt and fear of exposure. Living in two worlds that made heavy, often contradictory, claims, Maugham still managed to win great success and find love on his own terms. The unseemly spectacle of his last years--senility; a highly publicized quarrel with Liza, his daughter, forced to litigation--Calder regards as the effects of a pressurized life forced to continue beyond endurance. This view of Maugham as Lear, more beset upon than besetting, is supported by testimonials Calder has drawn up from Maugham's friends and acquaintances, revealing many acts of kindness and generosity. Calder also regards Maugham's homosexual life sympathetically. Unlike Morgan's dismissive contempt for Maugham's lovers, Gerald Haxton and Alan Searle, as a pair of parasites and thieves, Calder succeeds in presenting a wiser, balanced estimate of gay life, one that understands how such a relationship between two men might be ""supportive, sensitive, compassionate and loving."" Calder does not disguise the fact that under the best of circumstances, Maugham remained a pessimist (""Life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous . . .""), and under the worst, saw existence as a state of siege, to be escaped from by writing about it. Nonetheless, Calder makes clear, this complex man, perhaps because of his sense of the futility of life, responded to life with more warmth and generosity than he has been given credit for. A much-needed, welcome corrective to earlier biographies--and a pleasure to read.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 1989
Publisher: St. Martin's