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View Full Version : Somerset Maugham - Opinions?



ktm5124
07-28-2010, 01:22 AM
I am thinking about reading him next. What do you think of him? I read on Wikipedia that he was quoted for saying "I am in the front row of second-raters" or something like that. While it proves him a modest man, it makes me a bit skeptical nonetheless. Would you consider him a second-rater? Or is that just an unfortunate allegation owing to his popularity at the time? He also said of himself that his writing "lacks a lyrical quality" (again from Wikipedia) Is he not such a great hand at prose?

Thanks in advance, and I'd welcome any recommendations for what to read by him (looking for novels, not short stories).

dfloyd
07-28-2010, 03:55 AM
of the pre WWI and post WWI years. So there was more competition in those years. Now, with the dearth of writers whose work will perhaps become classic, he looks a lot better. I can give you some novel suggestions, but you really should read a few of his short stories. All are pretty good and some are definitely classic, such as Rain, the story of Sadie Thompson, or his Ashendon stories about the Great Game played by British intelligence. I have his collected short stories in four volumes published a few years ago by the London based Folio Society. I went through them all in a short time. No boring stuff there.

As for novels, try The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, respectivly, fictionalized versions of the lives of Paul Gauguin and Thomas Hardy. The Moon was made into a movie starring George Saunders who was perfect for the role of the perpetually sneering artist.

My favorite novel is The Razor's Edge. It is the story of a young man searching for himself after surviving the trauma of WWI. It was made into a very good movie with Tyrone Power, Clifton Web, and Gene Tierney, one of the true beauties of 40s films.

After reading these, you should be ready for Of Human Bondage. This is what is onsidered Maugham's masterpiece. It is the story of Philip Carey whose struggle to become a doctor is hindered by his infatuation with Mildred, a waitress, who treats Philip very badly. This was Bette Davis' great role in her early years when she was a blonde. Leslie Howard plays the sometimes hapless Philip. Most will remember Howrd from GWTW fame. This is an easy novel to read, but it is long: about 900 pages.

I started reading Maugham at the end of his career when he was in his 80s He wrote a series about his life in the old Saturday Evening Post. After reading this, I started on his novels, then went on to his short stories.

Maugham wrote many things which were taken from his own life. He was a doctor turned writer. He also left his wife as did Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence. He lived with a lifelong male friend in France so he was obviously gay. This may have contributed to his unpopularity in the 50s and 60s since being gay was looked at much differently then.

As for Maugham being a worthwhile read, the three novels mentioned above certainly are, as well as many of his short stories. He is an English writer who should be read by every literate person.

TheFifthElement
07-28-2010, 03:56 AM
I just read The Moon and Sixpence. I wouldn't say Maugham was second rate, I thought it was a beautifully written book. Perhaps Maugham was simply modest, or perhaps he suffered from the feeling that his writing wasn't up to what he wanted it to be. I don't think that is particularly uncommon in writers.

I would recommend The Moon and Sixpence. It is a tough little book; the main character is very, very unsympathetic (the book was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin) but despite this it is beautifully drawn. I've heard Of Human Bondage is considered to be the pinnacle of Maugham's work.

Seasider
07-28-2010, 06:17 AM
Great writer? I don't think so. Great storyteller? Absolutely.

Sebas. Melmoth
07-28-2010, 10:13 AM
Great writer? Absolutely.

Maugham wrote in the purest English, with a good vocabulary, clear syntax, nice sentence and paragraph structure, excellent punctuation.

His works have an architecture with intro, arc, and conclusion--frenquently with a thrilling dénoument.

But most importantly, Maugham had a great insight into human nature which indeed is really the subject of most of his works.

He had great empathy, clinical clarity, and a sense of humour.

His novels and short stories are imminently readable and enjoyable.

Sebas. Melmoth
07-28-2010, 10:19 AM
I've heard Of Human Bondage is considered to be the pinnacle of Maugham's work.

Well, it's his longest novel and semi-autobiographical.

My own personal favourite Maugham novels include The Magician (loosely based on Alistair Crowley) and especially The Narrow Corner--which I consider his best novel as it reads like his short stories.

Really his collected short stories are now considered his best work, frequently compared with Chekhov and Maupassant.

Early on Maugham was very successful on the English stage for which he wrote a number of plays which competed with Wilde and Shaw.


Maugham is every bit as good as Galsworthy, D.H. Lawrence, Hardy, et alii.

kasie
07-29-2010, 03:06 PM
I'm sorry to say I really did not enjoy Of Human Bondage at all, neither the first time I read it in my teens, when I was possibly not ready for it, nor last year when I decided to give it a second reading in light of the enthusiastic endorsement it received in another thread here. I found Philip Carey a weak, spineless character and could not empathise with him at all though clearly the reader is supposed to sympathise with him.

***SPOILER***

I found the relationship with Mildred and the subsequent descent into degredation extraordinarily unlikely - this is a supposedly intelligent young man who embarks on several professional careers but I could not see any evidence of common sense let alone intelligence. At the very point when his career might have become interesting, even inspirational, when he throws himself into the practice of medicine, Maugham skates over the moment of self-realisation, the introspection and enlightenment that gives rise to the determination to make a better man of himself and expects the reader to take his word that Philip has experienced life-changing insight which sets him off on the road to self-fulfilment and realisation of potential. I found the bucolic ending to be out of sync with the earlier part of the story and impossibly romantic.

I then tried Cakes and Ale - enjoyable enough but it did not inspire me to try other books by Maugham, as The Painted Veil did not persuade me to more of Maugham years ago. I will give the short stories and the Ashendon stories a try sometime as they come so highly recommended but I am afraid that at the moment, Maugham is an author I am content to leave on the shelf.

I think - and I do stress that this is a strictly personal opinion - Maugham was maybe aware of this inability to portray the inner workings of his characters' minds, by comparison with his contemporaries such as Lawrence, Joyce and Woolf and in the views of critics such as Leavis, which was why he recognised that he would be judged by some to be in the second rank of writers - and I feel it took a considerable degree of courage to acknowledge this. I think he may well have been an author out of his time who in an earlier generation might have been judged more kindly for his skill in narration and construction.

Emil Miller
07-29-2010, 04:33 PM
I have referred to Maugham on a number of occasions on this forum because I think that members would benefit from reading him. He is probably the best short story writer England has ever produced. He was, at one time, the richest writer in the world and it is this popularity that caused the literati to turn against him. This literary snobbery is why he isn't on the curriculum and it has caused generations of students to ignore a great writing talent. I would rather read Maugham than either Hardy or Lawrence who seem parochial when compared to the sophisticated Maugham who was one of the world's great travellers in search of materiel for his writing. George Orwell championed him in England as did Theodore Dreiser in the US. His novels can be read over and again and the best of them are The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and Cakes and Ale but, apart from possibly Then and Now and Up at the Villa, they are all marvellous stories. His major novel, Of Human Bondage, is not one that should be tackled until one of the shorter ones has been read, and, yes, it is a good idea to try some of the short stories first; they are all masterly. It is true that Maugham placed himself in the second rank of writers but that was only after a lifetime reading and rereading literary giants. In 1954 he published a book of essays on his favourite novels they are:

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal
Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
War and Peace by Tolstoy

I would submit that none of Maugham's contemporaries are in that rank either.

breathtest
07-29-2010, 05:01 PM
If you go on amazon you can read extracts from his books and see if you like his writing style and technique. I have done that with a few writers in the past before buying anything. Concerning Maugham i don't know a lot about his writing, and was hoping to be educated a little from the posts on this thread, which i was. Maybe i'll have a look at some of his novels, or more interestingly his short stories in awhile.

Sebas. Melmoth
07-29-2010, 05:28 PM
Yes, Maugham did enjoy financial success both on the stage and on film, and this brought him in for sour-grapes criticism.

It's true he never explored the stream-of-consciousness technique of contamporaries Proust, Joyce, or Woolf.

But his understanding of human nature and the frailties of humankind both mental and physical is unsurpassed in clarity and sympathy.

His novels are simply entertaining; his short stories are like Chekhov and Maupassant, deeply exegetic.

Really all his novels are worth reading at least once:

Liza of Lambeth (1897)
Mrs. Craddock (1902)
The Magician (1908)
Of Human Bondage (1915)
The Moon and Sixpence (1919)
The Painted Veil (1925)
Cakes and Ale (1930)
The Narrow Corner (1932)
Theatre (1937)
Christmas Holiday (1939)
Up at the Villa (1941)
The Razor's Edge (1944)
Then and Now (1946)
Catalina (1948)

His short stories bear multiple readings.

The Comedian
07-29-2010, 10:18 PM
I've recently been reading Maugham -- so far only The Moon and Sixpencen and The Razor's Edge and I find his prose to be among the best I've ever read. He is a master of style and every sentence is a delight. His stories too are great. I'm hoping to read Cakes and Ale or a short story collection of his next. But, as Brian Bean has noted, reading his work is worth every second spent.

Sebas. Melmoth
07-30-2010, 10:39 AM
The Razor's Edge was made into a film (although it deviates from Maugham's novel) in which comedian Bill Murray acted a dramatic rôle. It's not a bad film, and Murray actually was quite good; only problem is that it's difficult to look at his face without laughing.
http://www.amazon.com/Razors-Edge-Bill-Murray/dp/B000069HYF/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1280500357&sr=1-1

The Painted Veil is nice.
http://www.amazon.com/Painted-Veil-Naomi-Watts/dp/B000NOIX48/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1280500471&sr=1-1

And Up at the Villa is really pretty good.
http://www.amazon.com/Up-Villa-Kristin-Scott-Thomas/dp/6306010955/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1280500533&sr=1-1

As previously mentioned, my own personal favourite Maugham novels are: The Magician and The Narrow Corner. Also Christmas Holiday is very good.

His last two novels are period pieces of Italy and Spain.

Emil Miller
07-30-2010, 11:07 AM
The Magician[/I] and The Narrow Corner. Also Christmas Holiday is very good.

I think The Magician is more likely to appeal to people who have an interest in Alastair Crowley. It is an uncharacteristic work for Maugham and has an aura of the Grand Guignol about it. I would agree that The Narrow Corner is a superb piece of writing and definitely one of his best. Christmas Holiday is also well worth reading with an interesting storyline.

Sebas. Melmoth
07-30-2010, 11:18 AM
The funny thing about The Magician is that (from 1908) it's imbued with fin-de-siècle decadence, corruption, and mysticism set in the capital of it all, Paris.
Furthermore, while Crowley is an obvious source, the character of Haddo also has some Wildean characteristics, and of course Maugham (being a gay playwright) had watched in horror Wilde's London downfall and followed his demise in Paris, 1900.

bouquin
08-03-2010, 04:10 AM
I am thinking about reading him next. What do you think of him? I read on Wikipedia that he was quoted for saying "I am in the front row of second-raters" or something like that. While it proves him a modest man, it makes me a bit skeptical nonetheless. Would you consider him a second-rater? Or is that just an unfortunate allegation owing to his popularity at the time? He also said of himself that his writing "lacks a lyrical quality" (again from Wikipedia) Is he not such a great hand at prose?

Thanks in advance, and I'd welcome any recommendations for what to read by him (looking for novels, not short stories).



The Razor's Edge is book of choice for August'10 Reading at the Forum Book Club.