Tag Archives: playwright

A Well Respected Man

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/ .

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Our House

No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (Harmony Books, $23.00, 251 pages)

“There are so many times I have asked the question: Am I home?

This is a fun one that will remind adult readers of the struggling times in their twenties, looking for stability, romance and a  place that feels like home.   Brooke Berman tells about her period as a struggling young playwright and writer in Manhattan and Brooklyn during the period from 1998 through the summer of 2002.   It was in these years that the chronically  penniless Berman lived in 39 different apartments.

One thing that’s entertaining about this memoir is learning about the language of real estate in New York City.   There are terms like floor-through apartments, couch-surf, railroad flat (I once lived in one in Los Angeles) and 420 friendly.   OK, the latter term is not actually mentioned by Berman but she made apartment shopping in Manhattan and Brooklyn sound so interesting that I came upon the term online.

Note:  420 friendly means that one’s prospective roommates smoke pot and want their new tenant to be cool with that.

There’s also the reminder of what it’s like to be without money among people of prosperity.   Part of the experience, for Berman, is a good one:  “When I’m struggling, I know what to do and who to be:  I don’t spend money…  When I have money, I am forced to make choices.”   I recall a friend who in college said, “I feel pure when, as a struggling student, I have no money.   It feels better than when I do have money and I feel like I’ve done something wrong.”

But because Berman was raised by a stylish mother in the fashion industry in Michigan, she also knows how far she’s fallen…

“I was the only eight-year-old in the Detroit suburbs who could speak on Giorgio Armani’s fall line.  …now I feel like I come more from Avenue A.   From the poppy-seed cafe and dance workshops, downtown sublets and unmatched clothes, care of Salvation Armani.”

That should give you a hint of Berman’s humor which is laced through more serious things.   During this period she seems to be extremely unlucky in love, always choosing the guy who’s exactly wrong for her.   It’s as if she has a personal radar system for finding Not the Right Guy or Mr. Wrong.   There’s also the fact of having to deal with her mother’s illness and apparent demise after not one but two kidney transplant operations:  “My mother’s death is the thing I have been most afraid of my entire life…  The fear of (her) death is more threatening to me, and more primal, than anything.”

Brooke’s mother’s illness seems to stand as a symbol of the things that have gone wrong in Brooke’s life:  “I want to feel better, too.”

While this is an engaging memoir, it does have one disturbing flaw.   Like Julie Metz in her memoir Perfection, Berman tells us far more about her sex life (with whom she did what, and exactly what) than we’d care to know.   Too much information, girl, way too much.   Is there some type of anti-privacy virus going around that makes  people disclose everyone they’ve gotten next to in their lives?

And, yet, the true tale ends with Berman living happily ever after in perfect city abodes, with the perfect “forever” partner and the long dreamt of career.   Who says that modern fairy tales don’t come true?

Recommended.

“To deny change is to deny life.   And the present moment contains miracles.  …I can say now that I have many homes.”

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Thanks to Elaine at Wink Public Relations (wink pr) for her assistance.

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