- The Washington Times - Friday, July 23, 2010

By Selina Hastings
Random House, $35
640 pages

He was a man who liked to listen, and he talked to some of the loneliest people in the world. That perhaps is why Somerset Maugham gained his reputation as a greatstoryteller and at one time, possibly the most famous writer in the world.

In this far-ranging biography of a complex and troubled man who never quite overcame either his unhappy childhood or a stammer, Selena Hastings acknowledges the more sensational aspects of Maugham’s personal life, yet she casts a shrewd and compassionate eye on a man who was as prolific a writer as anyone in his generation.

Maugham wrote plays, novels and short stories, but in the eyes of many critics, it was in short-story writing that he excelled. A wanderer, he roamed the British colonies in the Far East, collecting material for short stories and vignettes that bring to vivid life a past world. The late Raymond Chandler wrote this accolade about Maugham stories: “His plots are cool and deadly, and his timing is absolutely flawless.”

Maugham himself acknowledged that it was in his short stories that he found his true metier. As he roved the remote places of the earth, his patience found him eager confidants. Strangers and friends alike confessed the dark side of their lives to the polite and well-groomed little man with the observant dark eyes and sardonic sense of humor, and perhaps never realized what literary use he would make of the information. Ms. Hastings notes that his “hallmarks were the plain style, the absolute verisimilitude, the dramatist’s taut plotting and deftness with dialogue … and the twist in the tale that leaves the reader shocked and delighted.” It says everything about Maugham that though most of his short stories were written in the 1930s, they remain not only readable, but fascinating.

Cyril Connolly once penned what amounted to an epitaph for Maugham, in which he asserted that the author had told his readers “exactly what the British in the Far East were like, the judges and the planters and civil sergeants and their women folk.”

He winds up with a flourish. “If all else perish, there will remain a storyteller’s world from Singapore to the Marquesas that is exclusively and forever Maugham, a world of veranda and prahu, which we enter as we do Conan Doyle’s Baker Street, with a sense of happy and eternal homecoming.”

Maugham was a very successful writer, sometimes with several plays on stage in London at the same time, and he often used personal experience as a backdrop. “Of Human Bondage,” “Liza of Lambeth,” “The Letter” and “The Razor’s Edge” all were drawn from the experiences of Maugham’s life, and on a social level, he knew everybody from Henry James to Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker and D.H. Lawrence. On the Riviera, in London and in New York, Maugham was always elegantly dressed and the conventional English gentleman, observes his biographer. However, she reminds tartly, “Conventional he was not. In Maugham’s outwardly respectable life, there was a great deal he was determined to keep hidden and in old age … he did his utmost to make sure his privacy would remain intact.

The cold fact of Maugham’s personal life was that he lived in an era in Britain when homosexuality was against the law. He was 21 in 1895 at the time of the trial of the great satirist Oscar Wilde, “an event that traumatized a generation of men who were not by nature inclined toward marriage.”

And although Maugham did reluctantly marry and fathered a daughter, he was wretchedly unhappy in that relationship, according to Ms. Hastings. She relates how a recently released transcript of a long and detailed recording made by his daughter, Liza, of her father’s private life exposed everything Maugham had sought to conceal, including his longtime affair with Gerald Haxton, a drunken and dissolute but charming rogue. Maugham’s life, writes Ms. Hastings, was that of a man who after a harrowing childhood “learned early to live undercover.” It was appropriate that in both World War I and World War II, Maugham worked for British intelligence, a career that fueled some of his famed short stories.

Because of his stammer, he sought to have an interpreter by his side, usually his lover, who would enable Maugham to remain in the background. “Yet for all his elaborate defenses, Maugham remained intensely vulnerable,” asserts his biographer. “He was a passionate, difficult man, capable of cruelty as well as great kindness and charm, but despite his worldly success, he never found what he wanted. His miserable marriage wrecked years of his existence and the great love of his life remained unrequited.”

Ms. Hastings writes that after his death at 92 in 1965, Maugham’s reputation suffered the usual decline of renowned writers, which she notes would not have surprised him. In 1946, he predicted a “dead period” of 20 to 30 years for a writer even if there was “anything of enduring value in his work.”

His biographer now argues for a renewal of interest in Maugham and even predicts, “It is safe to say that he will again hold generations in thrall, that his place is assured as Somerset Maugham, the great teller of tales.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.



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