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
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.
The succeeding interlude in Maugham's life was also ready-made for his purposes as a popular novelist. He was recruited by British intelligence. For some reason they wanted to send him to Western Samoa, which had been German-occupied until 1914. This was his introduction to the Pacific. In a subsequent letter unearthed by Meyers, Maugham explained his long connection with the region thus:
The exotic background was forced upon me accidentally by the fact that during the war I was employed in the Intelligence department, and so visited parts of the world which otherwise I might not have summoned up sufficient resolution to go to.
Note the slight clumsiness, which seems to have inflected everything Maugham ever wrote. Out of this episode, however, came The Moon and Sixpence, a rather prettily done fictionalization of that other great refugee from domesticity, Paul Gauguin.
The ludicrous failures of British and American intelligence during the Russian Revolution, retold many times through the biographies of Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly, can be encapsulated in the single fact that in mid-1917 Somerset Maugham was dispatched from the Pacific to Saint Petersburg as chief agent. He had never visited the country before and had only a nodding acquaintance with the language. He made the trip by railway across Siberia, and in the preface to Ashenden he wrote about it in this manner:
I felt the lonely steppes and the interminable forests; the flow of the broad Russian rivers and all the toil of the countryside; the ploughing of the land and the reaping of the ripe wheat; the sighing of the wind in the birch trees; the long months of dark winter; and then the dancing of the women in the villages and the youths bathing in shallow streams on summer evenings.
Only the haunting strings of the balalaika, the warm scent of the samovar, and the glimpse of an onion dome would be required to make this the perfect summary of all clichés about Russia. Moreover, the ploughing and reaping bit was presumably "felt" secondhand, since the salient fact of the moment was that there was no bread. Indeed, the Bolshevik slogan "Peace, Bread, and Land" was enough in itself to negate the British aim of staving off revolution while continuing to insist on Russian participation in the war. It did not, to his credit, take Maugham very long to see that his task was an impossible one. He gave an account of a meeting with Kerensky, the preferred British candidate, that confirms the opinion later expressed in my hearing by Isaiah Berlin—that Kerensky was "one of the great wets of history."
Flashbacks: "Spy vs. Spy" (March 20, 2001)
Robert Philip Hanssen, meet Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, Greville Wynne, and Gordon Lonsdale. Atlantic articles from 1998, 1988, and 1966 consider the phenomenon of renegade intelligence agents.
A latent connection has often been supposed to exist between homosexuality and espionage. This seems to "work" in the cases of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, but it emphatically does not explain the (rather superior) performances of Kim Philby and Graham Greene. Elements of secrecy and disguise and "code" may be innate in the gay makeup, but they didn't confer any advantage on Maugham when he was confronted with Lenin and Trotsky. It was simply a matter of drawing realistic conclusions, which he generally did. In any case, by that time he was leading enough of a double life already. And, as for so many of the homo duplex English literary queens of that epoch, the solution was—abroad.
Maugham's splendid exile at the Villa Mauresque, on the coast between Nice and Monte Carlo, was the centerpiece of his reputation as well as the answer to his problems. No longer would he have to fear the deportation of Gerald Haxton, who as an American was constantly running that risk in his trawlings through the bars of London. France was Maugham's birthplace, and the British tax inspectors couldn't follow him there either. He could shelter his growing literary income and his private life at the same time. The villa had been built by the odious King Leopold II of Belgium, as a place to house his personal confessor. (Not even Anthony Burgess could have made that up.) It had a Moorish style, as the name implies, with some fake-Renaissance appurtenances, but Maugham removed the vulgar cupola, built a library, and began to assemble a collection of Oriental art and classical painting.
Comparable, I suppose, to Harold Acton's celebrated retreat in Florence, and visited by critics such as Kenneth Clark and Raymond Mortimer, the villa managed to be at once a museum and a discreet place of resort for what was later to be called the Homintern. That aspect to one side, every page of description seems to contain a useful hint for one's own retirement: the Bernini fountain, for instance, and the specially planted avocado trees, with a skilled resident cook to transform the luscious green fruit into an ice cream flavored with rum. (This contrasts with the rebarbative lobster ice cream served by Ribbentrop at a dinner recorded in "Chips": The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon.) Quentin Crisp was entranced, and summed up Maugham as one of "the stately homos of England." Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy were slightly aghast when the tireless staff unpacked and laid out all their belongings, including the tubes of lubricant and the powder for warding off crab lice. Edna St. Vincent Millay, making a stop at the villa at a time when Noël Coward and Cecil Beaton were of the party, exclaimed loudly, "'Oh Mr. Maugham, it's fairy land here!' ... Noël and Cecil were just a bit taken aback." This is all quite good fun (Maugham to Emerald Cunard, excusing himself for leaving early: "I have to keep my youth." Cunard to Maugham: "Then why didn't you bring him with you?"), but it does begin to pall after a bit, as it must have done in fact.
Things were not all brittle and witty and artistic, in any case. The Villa Mauresque exerted a magnetic force on spongers and toadies and climbers of all sorts, and poor Maugham was always finding his bookshelves and wine cellar and bric-a-brac subjected to shameless pilfering. Gerald Haxton, caught between the twin local lures of the Monte Carlo casinos and the waterfront full of sailors, became mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Through it all, and even through the Second World War, which saw him expelled from Cap Ferrat, and during a long and more respectably senescent friendship with his contemporary Winston Churchill, Maugham kept to a rigorous regime at his desk, and turned out third-rate prose by the yard, or the furlong. If he put his genius into his life and property rather than his work, it was because the former were apter repositories for such talent as he possessed.
The main contradiction seems to be this: Maugham was gay, all right (he probably exaggerated when he said that he was one-quarter "normal"), but he wasn't especially pleased about the fact. Pursuing a pet artistic theory of his, that the paintings of El Greco were revelations of the aesthetic of a repressed homosexual, he chose to phrase it like this:
It cannot be denied that the homosexual has a narrower outlook on the world than the normal man. In certain respects the natural responses of the species are denied him. Some at least of the broad and typical emotions he can never experience ... A distinctive trait of the homosexual is a lack of deep seriousness over certain things that normal men take seriously. This ranges from an inane flippancy to a sardonic humour.
Deciding that "the homosexual can never reach the supreme heights of genius," as Maugham did, may be slightly preferable to the tiresome insistence of some gays that all great artists have been members of the club. However, if one merely keeps the name W. H. Auden in mind while reading the above passage, one sees that Maugham's difficulty was not just a tinge of self-hatred but a real inability to see literary "genius" when he encountered it. (Though Auden, by the way, rather liked his stuff.) And this was not merely a question of his particular repression or guilt. He just got things wrong. One could hardly classify Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim as a gay novel, even subliminally, yet when it was published Maugham wrote a review praising Amis for his outright attack on the young barbarians ("they are scum") who were then threatening English campuses with their beery, plebeian subversiveness. As a satire on the "Angry Young Men" this would have been delicious (and in the long run rather prescient), but it became painfully apparent that Maugham was being entirely and pedantically literal.
See for yourself: pluck down The Razor's Edge from the shelf. Elliot Templeton, in lieu of characterization, is described as "well-favored, bright, a good dancer, a fair shot, and a fine tennis player." More effort is expended on describing the rugs and drawings that he owns. The sending of flowers and chocolates is alluded to as if it were a breathless social secret, and repeated in the first few pages. "Gregory Brabazon, notwithstanding his name, was not a romantic creature." Come again? A girl enters a room during dinner and asks,
"Are we late? ... I've brought Larry back. Is there anything for him to eat?"
"I expect so," smiled Mrs. Bradley. "Ring the bell and tell Eugene to put another place."
"He opened the door for us. I've already told him."
So that was a waste of dialogue, wasn't it? A little further on we learn of Gray Maturin that "though built on so large a scale he was finely proportioned, and stripped he must have been a fine figure of a man." Presumably this would also be true of him when unstripped.
I deliberately did not look up Edmund Wilson's once celebrated polemic against the terrifying banality of The Razor's Edge before revisiting the book myself, but I defy anyone to come to a different conclusion. Even Gore Vidal, himself no stranger to the Mediterranean-villa milieu, was compelled to agree that Maugham's success was, in effect, in writing for people who did not have a clue about English as a medium for either tragedy or comedy. I would add that mass wants class and always has, and that without the snobbery and the knowing references to fine chefs, splendid galleries, and refined houses, the enterprise wouldn't have stood a chance. But the old boy did show generosity and patience, and set up a prize in his name that encouraged many young writers, among them Kingsley Amis. Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honor from the Crown—but it was for "services to literature," rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.