The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)
William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person. He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual. Well, mostly gay. He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham. And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned. If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw. While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave. But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.
A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate. The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances. Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly. What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.
The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China. He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays. Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight. By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits. Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.
This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham. It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer. Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history. What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.
Christine Van Winkle
Used by permission. To see more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .