A moment with Maugham | Daily News


A moment with Maugham

“Have you had the chance of reading the novel ‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Somerset Maugham?” Asked our English class teacher as far back as the late fifties. We had no clue as regards the title or the creator. Then she went on kindling our interest taking Maugham as a must for us to know. Maugham became one of our most interesting writers depending on several literary factors.

William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1966) has jotted down notes that go to perceive his creative skill in two works: A Writer’s Notebook and The Summing Up. In 331 readable and resourceful pages, A Writer’s Notebook underlines the sensitivity of a short story writer, novelist and a playwright about his observations, encounters, events and visions in a lifespan spent as a full-time creative writer. He shows the vision of a high calibre independent thinker who had devoted to both reading and writing on his free will. Maugham had spent ten of his childhood years in France and came to England for higher studies.

Unpublished works

As a consequence, he had the chance of being influenced by two major literary cultures. In his initial observation, he states the following in the preface to ‘A Writer’s Notebook’.

“There is one practice common to French authors that has always caused me astonishment and that is their practice to reading their works to one another either when they in process of writing them or when they have finished them. In England, writers sometimes send their unpublished works to fellow craftsmen for criticism by which they mean praise, for rash is the author who makes any serious objections to another’s manuscript; he will offend, and his criticism will not be listened to; but I cannot believe that any English author would submit himself to the excruciating boredom of sitting for hours while a fellow novelist read his latest work.”

The reader of the work, A Writer’s Notebook, may feel that Maugham had not allowed his fellow creators to listen to his writings. Instead, he prefers to let them read whatever is written by him, perhaps initially in longhand writing before the typing process.

In the strict sense of the term, the pages look like notes kept meticulously as a self-expressive method of helping himself to determine what should go into creative pieces in the ultimate selection. In the usual manner of most other writers, Maugham does not use the term ‘journal’ instead prefers to call them ‘notes’ or ‘notebooks’. He does not give any titles for his notes but prefers to jot down only the year in which he had written them.

The reader finds the years marked from 1892 to 1844. During the period, the reader comes across various types of people he had met from statesmen and thinkers to writers and whores. Then he, being a traveller, avoids the mere style of the convention and travelogue form and presents them in an imaginative narrative form. At times, he becomes a humorist of a sort. For instance, consider the remembrance of his time spent as a medical professional at St Thomas Hospital in the UK in 1892.

While being a medical professional for five years, he writes:

“Consider how foolishly people act and how pleasantly they prattle, perhaps it would be better for the world if they talked more and did less.”

Then he adds:

“Music hall songs provide the dull with wit, just as proverbs provide them with wisdom.”

He develops the stream of thoughts like the following:

“Good luck always brings merit, but merit very seldom brings good luck.”

Concept of success

As a reader, I felt that Maugham had tried to develop his own saying, wisecracks and maxims. He jots a few that would interest the reader. Some are as follows.

“A parson is paid to preach, not to practice.”

“Only ask those people to stay with you or to dine with you who can ask you in return.”

“Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.”

Perhaps these are some utterances of the others in the course of Maugham’s journeys to places encountering events.

In 1908, his notes resumed deal with the concept of success. Maugham writes:

“Success. I don’t think it has had any effect on me. For one thing, I always expected it and when it came, I accepted it so natural that I didn’t see anything to make a fuss about. It’s only net value to me is that it has freed me from financial uncertainties that were never quite absent from my thoughts.”

In his notes, Maugham too shows traces of his creative process as a theatre enthusiast cum spectator. To enjoy the Greek theatre, he had been tot Athens. Thereafter he states the following:

“I was sitting in the theatre of Dionysus, and from where I sat I could see the blue Aegean. When I thought of the great plays that had been acted on the stage, I got cold shivers down my spine. It was really a moment of intense emotion. I was thrilled and awed. A number of young Greek students came and began chattering to me in Bad French. After a while, one of them asked me if I would like him to recite something from the stage. I jumped at the chance. I thought he would recite some great speech by Sophocles or Euripides. And though I knew I shouldn’t understand a word, I prepared myself for a wonderful experience.”

In 1917, Maugham was in Russia where he had the chance to know more about his favourite Russian authors such as Tolstoy Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Then he comments in his notebooks the following verdict.

“They made the greatest novels of Western Europe look artificial. Their novelty made me unfair to Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope. With their conventional morality and even the great writers of France Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert in comparison seemed formal and a little frigid.”

Self-effacing comment

Maugham presents a panoramic vision in three countries, England, France and Russia with an emphasis on the creative content of the leading novelists. In 1922, he had written a note on the great performer Charlie Chaplin as a self-effacing comment.

“Charlie Chaplin; He is of an agreeable exterior. He has a neat figure, admirably proportioned. His hands and feet are well-shaped and small. His features are good, the nose rather large, the mouth expressive and eyes fine. His dark hair, touched with white, is waving and abundant. His movements are singularly graceful. He is shy. His speech has in it still a hint of the cockney of his early youth. His spirits are ebullient. In a company in which he feels himself at ease, he will play the fool with a delightful abandon. His invention is fertile, his vivacity unfading and he has a pleasant gift of mimicry; without knowing a word of French or Spanish, and he will imitate persons speaking in one or the other of that language with a humorous accuracy which is wildly diverting.”

Maugham was also concerned about a hyper state of mental state and his views on concepts such as spiritualism and reincarnation to cite two. In 1944 notes, he states the following as a visionary statement.

“I am like a passenger waiting for his ship at a wartime port. I do not know on which day it will sail but I am reading to embark at a moment’s notice. I leave the sight of the city unvisited. I do not want to see the fine new speedway along which I shall never drive nor the grand new theatre, with all its modern appliances, in which I shall never sit.”

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