Sunday, November 21, 2010

Selina Hastings's The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Review, Part I

I started my Thanksgiving break with a plan to relax completely and exorcise the accumulated exhaustion of a very difficult semester. In order to do that, I embarked on a project of reading Selina Hastings's bulky biography of Somerset Maugham. In case you don't know, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most successful and popular British authors in the period between the two great wars. Today, most people don't know Somerset Maugham and he isn't widely read at all. His novel Of Human Bondage is still quite popular. However, his short stories and plays that made Maugham so famous have fallen out of favor with the readers. There are several reasons for that. For one, Maugham was a strong believer in the colonial system of the British Empire. His colonialism jumps off the pages of his short stories and is quite disgusting. He was also a vicious misogynist and made a career out of selling his contempt towards women. Maugham pretty much missed the boat of Modernism and kept writing in a plodding realist style, which was quite unsuited to the realities of the XXth century.

Obviously, Maugham's colinialism and male chauvinism disgust me profoundly. Still, I have to confess that I have a secret love for his short stories because they are so beautifully crafted. It is my contention that before Julio Cortazar's time, nobody could write a short story better than Maugham. If you have no idea what I'm on about, just read Maugham's short story "The Lotus Eater" (which is available in open access online here) and you'll see what I mean. Sadly, Maugham proved incapable of inscribing himself into the XXth century either ideologically or stylistically. He wasted his considerable gifts on pushing the outdated message of colonial and masculine domination, which is why his erstwhile fame is well-nigh forgotten nowadays.

Unfortunately, Selina Hastings lacks the most basic understanding of how to analyze literature. She could have definitely benefitted from taking at least a couple of literature classes. Then, she would have known, for example, that it is wrong to confuse the writer with his characters. She has this annoying habit of saying: "This is what Maugham felt/thought/did" and trying to prove that with a quote from his novel Of Human Bondage about the feelings, thoughts and actions of the novel's protagonist Philip Carey. As autobiographical as that novel might have been, Carey and Maugham are not the same person. Trying to psychoanalyze the author on the basis of what his characters say or do is the kind of a rookie mistake that a serious literary biographer should never commit. Whenever Hastings attempts to offer an analysis of one of Maugham's works, she invariably slips into the language of a seventh-grader's book report:
One of Maugham’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to create three-dimensional characters, women as well as men, interacting with one another.
Imagine that. A novelist writes about men - and even women - who actually interact with one another. This surprising fact definitely needed addressing in the writer's biography.

Given to hero-worshipping her subject, Hastings manages not to notice his vitriolic hatred of women. She goes as far as suggesting that the opposite is the case. For this biographer, Maugham was
a man who enjoyed the company of women, who in his fiction and his friendships was so understanding and compassionate toward them.
I wouldn't be able to address Maugham's friendships with women (although I do know - and Hastings offers ample proof for my opinion - that he treated his wife and daughter abominably), but as for his writing, it isn't often that one encounters an author who has done quite as much as Maugham to create a gallery of horrible, nasty, disgusting, stupid, venal, brainless women. It is unsurprising that Hastings, who can construct a turn of phrase as atrocious as
doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women
would be incapable of noticing Maugham's misogyny. Hastings is so blindly uncritical of Maugham's every word, position, and action that she quite sincerely suggests that one of the reasons why Maugham's marriage was such a disaster was that
the traditional feminine occupations of knitting and needlework held no appeal for [his wife] whatsoever.
Of course, it is just as probable that the marriage suffered more because of the fact that the traditional husbandly occupation of having sex with his wife held no appeal whatsoever for Maugham, who was gay. Hastings, however, chooses to demonize Maugham's long-suffering wife Syrie for not learning to knit, which, as Hastings seems to believe, would have distracted her from her husband's numerous homosexual affairs and turned this marriage into an endless bliss.

[Find Part II of the review here.]

23 comments:

Denny said...

Thanks for the link! I enjoyed reading Maugham's "Lotus Eater" very much. Excellent title there. I had read "Moon & Sixpence" and "Razor's Edge" when I was a teenager, which in hindsight was quite a good age to read them.

Clarissa said...

Welcome, Denny! Of Human Bondage is also a great novel of growth and development, as well as of obsessive love. I highly recommend.

Denny said...

Geez, you're fast! I can see this blogging thing is very addictive.

I've actually attempted to read "Of Human Bondage" on at least two occasions. Each time I read to when Mildred is introduced, and I become so horrified, I stop reading. He really hates women, doesn't he? Fortunately (?), I read the other books when I was young enough not to notice any sexism.

Clarissa said...

I think Mildred is supposed to be based on one of the writer's male lovers. :-) But as usual, women have to pay the price. :-)

I try to answer the comments as often as I can, although that's not always possible.

I even sometimes wake up at night specifically to moderate comments. Which is very weird, I know. :-)

Denny said...

Not so weird. Quite understandable because it's not always possible in real life to have the sort of exchanges the internet facilitates. Or at least it's not possible to have them as frequently and as eloquently, since writing is so much more amenable to editing.

In addition to my lack of sympathy for Mildred, I'm also rather irritated by Philip, especially during the episode when he becomes obsessed with Mildred. He's a pompous jerk, and I'm unable to repress the schadenfreude when he falls so deeply for Mildred. Moreover, I personally find reading about the pangs of unrequited love to be rather discomforting. However, I shall give it another attempt once I've reduced my reading list a bit.

Great blog, btw!

Johan said...

Clarissa, I found your review of 'The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham' by Selina Hastings to be mean. You peck at little exposed pieces and then hold them up to the light gleefully. And you ignore all that is good in this biography.

Good critiques are often creative gems in themselves; not so your piece. It is just plain vicious and, in the end, not very good.

And it's upsetting, which is why I am writing this, something which is unusual for me.

Johan

Clarissa said...

Johan: is there anything that's preventing you from starting your own blog where you'll post your own reviews and attract your own 160,000 readers from all over the world? It sounds like you must know really well how to do that.

Johan said...

That's like saying, Clarissa, you have dared to criticize the Hastings' biography, but before you can do that, first write a biography of Maugham yourself.

Mere readership figures is no guarantee of quality, Clarissa, nor is a professorship.

By the way, and I might be wrong, but my impression is, contrary to your claim that Maugham fully endorsed colonialism, that he found the colonials often lame and decrepit. In fact, Hastings makes reference to this in her biography.

Best wishes

Johan

Clarissa said...

Johan: is there a reason why you are so emotionally attached to this poor piece of writing? It's written by such an obviously unintelligent person.

"he found the colonials often lame and decrepit"

-This is a very confusing sentence.

Johan said...

Clarissa, no point in continuing.

Bye.

fiona said...

Clarissa,
I have just read your silly review of Selina Hastings' entertaining and scholarly biography of Somerset Maugham.
Your narcissistic diatribe would be of little consequence but for the concern that it could dissuade people from reading Hastings' admirable work.
Fiona

Clarissa said...

This might surprise you but different people have different opinions of what constitutes admirable work. Feel free to publish your own opinion of the book on your blog, as I did on mine.

TheWriteChristine said...

Did you actually read Of Human Bondage? Or this biography for that matter? It's questionable. You seem to be of the opinion that all of literature exists for the purpose of reassuring you that women are great and when it doesn't you just cherry-pick quotes to that effect. Don't look over your shoulder constantly for misogynists or you might accidentally walk into a post. And I did publish my own opinion of this biography - and of Maugham, objectively, without panicking about whether he was a feminist or not - on my blog.

Clarissa said...

If your blog were any good, you wouldn't need to trawl other people's blogs promoting yours in this annoying way. A little hint: nobody reads your blog or your reviews because your writing is really bad.

TheWriteChristine said...

So let me make sure I have this straight - if anyone leaves a negative comment on one of your posts but doesn't back it up with his or own content, you tell them to shut up and say post your own reviews if you have something to say. But if someone actually does that, it's "trawling" and you resort directly to insults without reading it? Brilliant really. You definitely have the upper hand.

Clarissa said...

Please count how many cliches you have used in two short comments and you will understand why nobody wants to read you. I know that it's upsetting to hear that your writing sucks but I'm doing you a huge favor here.

Now, strain your intellectual capacities and answer the following question: when did I tell anybody to post their own reviews AND then come here and promote them on my blog?

Exactly.

TheWriteChristine said...

Well thank you kindly for your tremendous favor after the hours you spent carefully poring over everything I have ever composed. My formerly uncontested mastery of the English language is clearly no match for your jejune world view and banal writing, and I will now retire into obscurity. Clearly I could never recover from this virtual smackdown.

Clarissa said...

If you want people to pore over everything you have written, I introduce you to your new best friend: Strunk and White, Elements of Style:

http://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-50th-Anniversary/dp/0205632645/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1299433755&sr=8-2

It will change your life. Seriously.

TheWriteChristine said...

I didn't realize that we were having an exciting contest to see who could get the last word. I will now also leave you an unformatted link to something irrelevant - yet edifying - that would make you less ignorant if you read it: the Penguin History of the World!

http://www.amazon.com/History-World-Penguin-Revised/dp/0140154957

Clarissa said...

It is precisely because you find Strunk and White irrelevant that your writing is so bad. What's the point of wasting so much time arguing when you could be working on your written style right now?

Stop concentrating on the format of the link. Just enter the book's title in the Amazon's search box.

Clarissa said...

I always wondered about people who leave a comment about how much they dislike my ignorant blog and then stay on that ignorant blog, pressing the Refresh button like crazy. If you hate what I write, why not just move on?

Are these people's lives so empty that they waste them on blogs they hate?

TheWriteChristine said...

LOL, thanks, I'm all set on how to Use The Internet. Go have yourself a lovely day.

Clarissa said...

More crappy writing. "Go" and "yourself" are redundant in the last sentence. I'd avoid "all set" too. It has been overused. "Use" and "the" don't need to be capitalized.