Books May 2004

Poor Old Willie

The life of W. Somerset Maugham was a good deal more "exquisite, dramatic, torrid, and tragic"—especially in his splendid Mediterranean exile—than any of his works
More

Here is the opening sentence of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers (1980)—incidentally, one of the most underrated English novels of the past century: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

One knows at once who is the object of this pastiche. One knows it before "Geoffrey," described tersely as "my Ganymede or male lover as well as my secretary," is further described as responding to the intrusion by "pulling on his overtight summer slacks." Yet one is tempted to continue quoting, about the Mediterranean villa and the goings-on there ("I lay a little while, naked, mottled, sallow, emaciated, smoking a cigarette that should have been postcoital but was not"). This is quite simply because the parody is so much better than anything that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote himself. Poor old "Willie" was more given to openings like this: "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it."

Thus the deadly kickoff to The Razor's Edge, a story that furthermore turns out to be narrated by someone named Maugham. There was a time when many readers thought this kind of thing to be profound, and quite the cat's meow when it came to the delineation of searing human emotion. Even at that time, however, one shrewd writer—and also near-perfect pasticheur—saw through it without too much difficulty. "How about old S. Maugham, do you think?" P. G. Wodehouse wrote to Evelyn Waugh.

I've been re-reading a lot of his stuff, and I'm wondering a bit about him. I mean, surely one simply can't do that stuff about the district officer hearing there's a white man dying in a Chinese slum and it turns out that it's gay lighthearted Jack Almond, who disappeared and no-one knew what had become of [him] and he went right under, poor chap, because a woman in England had let him down.

Well, it turned out that one simply could do that stuff, and go on doing it. Sometimes, for the sake of variety, it's the white woman who goes right under, or who succumbs in other ways to the lush madness of the tropics. Such is the case in "Before the Party," "P&O," and "The Force of Circumstance," though with females there is usually the redemptive possibility of a return by steamship to dear old England. The best of the sweltering colonial stories, which I can remember re-reading for the sake of atmosphere in a Malayan hotel once patronized by Maugham, is "The Outstation." Here we meet Warburton, a solitary middle-aged Englishman who is the resident administrator of a jungly area somewhere in the Malay archipelago. Rigid in respect of the upper lip, he sticks to a stern routine of exercises and always dresses in formal attire for dinner. His copy of the London Times arrives by sea mail six weeks late, and sometimes several successive days' editions are delivered by the same post, but he disciplines himself to open them one at a time, in strict order. The greatest test of this practice comes during the faraway Battle of the Somme, when by opening some later editions he could easily discover the outcome. But Warburton forces himself to keep his nerve, and breaks the wrappers seriatim. The effect is that of Conrad in tweeds. Maugham's overall debt to Conrad is so evident that one usually finishes by putting him down and picking up the real thing.

Just as he was a character in one of his best-known novels, so Maugham worked assiduously to create a persona for himself in life. And the life was, according to this admirable biography, a good deal more exquisite, dramatic, torrid, and tragic than any of the works. Born and brought up in France, Maugham lost his parents when quite young and from then on was farmed out to mean relatives and cruel, monastic boarding schools. The traditional ration of bullying, beating, and buggery seems to have been unusually effective in his case, leaving him with a frightful lifelong speech impediment and a staunch commitment to homosexuality. (Ashenden—the name of his secret-agent character, was also the name of a comely youth at the King's School in Canterbury, where Maugham served his term, so to speak.)

An ideal way to "lock in" homosexual disposition is probably to spend time as a gynecologist in a slum district of London—which, astonishingly enough, is what the fastidious young man did. Though he would ultimately abandon medicine, he passed considerable time delivering babies in the abysmal squalor of Lambeth, on the south bank of the River Thames. As part of his training he witnessed cesarean births in the hospital, where death was not uncommon. The experience gave him the raw material for Liza of Lambeth, his first novel, and also made him surprisingly radical in his infrequently expressed political views, which were strongly sympathetic to the Labour Party's social-welfare proposals. The arbitrariness of death and suffering, moreover, persuaded him that religious belief was merely fatuous.

Throughout Jeffrey Meyers's book one is reminded of the remarkable difference made to English letters by the Victorian-era law that prohibited homosexual conduct. Maugham was a young man during the Oscar Wilde scandal, and he developed all the habits of subterfuge that were necessary to his survival. It seems certain that he married Syrie Wellcome partly as "cover," and thereby doomed himself to decades of misery and litigation. But Meyers allows us to speculate that he did this, and also embarked on a dismal exercise in fatherhood, in order to satisfy himself as a writer that he had done everything at least once. (My contribution to the gay-marriage debate would be this: remember what vast unhappiness was generated in the days when homosexuals felt obliged to marry heterosexuals.) Syrie was a greedy and impossible bitch to begin with, and did not improve upon intimate acquaintance, or want of acquaintance, of that kind. If one scans the few and cringe-making attempts to describe man-woman sex in Maugham's fiction, or if one attempts to infer anything of his conjugal relations, one is forced to picture him screwing his courage to the sticking place (or perhaps vice versa).

One of the many great appeals of war for men is that it allows and legitimizes flight from domestic entrapment. The year 1914—his own fortieth year—afforded Maugham just this chance of deliverance. He spoke French perfectly and he had a medical qualification, and before his only child, Elisabeth (naturally called "Liza" for most of her life), was born he had volunteered for the Western Front. The work of an ambulance man in wartime was the perfect counterpoint to gynecology—and has a vivid connection to gay iconography, as we know from the poetry of Walt Whitman and also the work of Wilfred Owen and Yukio Mishima. It's not by coincidence that the pierced and bleeding nudity of Saint Sebastian (whose name is shared by Waugh's epicene hero in Brideshead Revisited, with the addition of "Flyte" to suggest arrows) is the supreme symbol here. Not long after his arrival in the trenches Maugham met a dashing young American named Gerald Haxton, and never slept with a woman again. He had found the great entanglement of his life, and though Haxton was every bit as bitchy and greedy as Syrie, and exhibited many other vices as well, he seems never—or at any rate seldom—to have been boring. For the next several decades it was part of Maugham's job to look after the person whom he'd ostensibly hired to look after him, and to keep him out of jail.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In