Author: Somerset Maugham
Published in the year: 1954
The one aspect, among many others, that draws one to Somerset Maugham's writing is the elegant simplicity and clear-headedness in them.
He can be a very compassionate writer, as The Painted Veil reveals. And with Ten Novels And Their Authors, it is his analytical abilities as a scholar and critic that come to the fore
This particular book is especially illuminating, as Maugham expounds on the various aspect of fiction writing, giving a fairly detailed analysis of the books and authors he admires. Literary criticism, no matter how challenging and exhilirating both for the writer and reader, often makes for heavy reading. Maugham achieves that rare feat in that he writes a book as engaging as a novel and yet offers you wonderfully original and insightful views on each author's work and craft, linking them closely to their personal lives.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, 2 chapters offer invaluable observations and insights on fiction writing. The 10 chapters are about different authors, where one of their major novels is chosen and discussed by Maugham.
The first chapter, 'The Art of Fiction' discusses various elements of fiction writing - all greatly readable (for me, that has come to be the hallmark of Maugham's works --- he's also that rare writer who does not ramble. This quality helps in an endevour such as this where one needs to be genuinely curious about another author's life and works. Maugham proves to be astute and all his elaborations make a definite point)
This chapters discuss some very important aspects of writing. Why does a reader feel tempted to skip lines or pages from a book? According to Maugham, the responsibility to engage a reader lies with the writer. He daringly points out how even some classic novels are unnecessarily long. He mentions Don Quixote in this regard and says that even if some chapters were to be edited out of the book, it would cause no serious loss to the reader in his/her enjoyment of it.
Then he discusses the advantages and disadvantages of narrative choices. Should it be written from the standpoint of omniscience or in the first person? The assessment shows that it must be done according to the subject at hand.
Maugham's other significant point is on what constitutes a good novel.
There are many aspects that he talks about , but the central one is that of achieving verisimilitude. "A story should be persuable. The episodes should have probability and should not only develop the theme, but grow out of the story"
He then goes on to talk about each author in considerable detail, paying special attention to personality traits and episodes in the writer's life which may have had a part to play in the fiction he/she went on to produce.
He observes how Charles Dickens could never really sketch out a gentleman very well, because he'd never seen many of those kind in his childhood.
Similarly Emily Bronte's "strange, mysterious, shadowy" character permeates through Wuthering Heights. Says Maugham of her, "Emily Bronte disliked men and without exception, was not even ordinarily polite to her father's curates."
She was clearly anti-people and avoided proximity, which could be one of the reasons why she chooses Mrs Dean to be the narrator of Wutherings Heights. Says Maugham, "I think it would have shocked her harsh, uncompromising virtue to tell the outrageous story as a creation of her own. This technique of having the housekeeper tell the story enables her to hide herself behind, as it were a double mask.”
Leo Tolstoy, he describes as "irritable, contradictory and arrogantly indifferent to other people's feelings" even though to Maugham there can never be a greater novel than War And Peace.
He talks of French writer Stendhal's pompous manners and utter desperation to appeal to the fairer sex. “His passions were cerebral and to possess a woman was chiefly a satisfaction to his vanity"
Many authors, like Gustav Flaubert and Balzac had complicated love lives and all of that Maugham describes without the slightest bit of hesitation. They all come across as complex characters, with very many issues relating to money, their lovers and family life. Maugham tends to concentrate a tad too much on each author's sordid personal life, which can be distracting. But the book's prime appeal is Maugham's rich and masterful observations on the works of these great authors.
Like what he says of Henry Fielding, who started out as a playwright before turning to fiction. According to Maugham, this was a great advantage because "by then the author has learnt to be brief, he has learnt the value of rapid incident"
He has very many interesting things to say about Jane Austen as well, whose Pride And Prejudice he regards as a greatly entertaining and charming novel. According to him, Austen was the most consistent among her contemporaries. "Most novelists have their ups and downs. Miss Austen is the only exception I know to prove the rule that only the mediocre maintain an equal level. She is never more than a little below her best"
He may take from one hand what he gives her from the other, yet, Maugham's appreciation for Austen is genuine. He says of her works, "Her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and a prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same story in all her books. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. She never tried to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things, she could never have heard."
Among all the authors he talks about, he calls Balzac 'an absolute genius'
"His greatness lies not in a single work, but in the formidable mass of his production he was able to give a vivid and exciting impression of the multifariousness of life, its cross-purposes and confusions. I believe he was the first novelist to dwell on the paramount importance of economics in everybody's life. He would not have thought it enough to say that money is the root of all evil; he thought the desire for money, the appetite for money, was the mainspring of human action" Yet, his criticism of Balzac is that "he never learned the art of saying only what has to be said and not what needn't be said"
Maugham doesn't give a very flattering account of Stendhal's life and says that his works were almost destined to remain under oblivion. However, by a stroke of rare luck, certain intellectuals discovered merit in his writings and they spread the word around. Fortunately, these men became famous enough for their word to be taken seriously. In that respect Stendhal is that rare writer who was rescued from obscurity in which he languished during his lifetime. Maugham praises Stendhal's book, Le Rouge Et Le Noir for his psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives and the freshness and originality of his opinions.
Maugham while talking about Moby Dick and Melville has something to say about the novel being viewed by several people as an allegory. “Allegories are awkward animals to handle. You can take them by their head or by the tail and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is plausible."
In the concluding chapter, Maugham points out how none of these writers who produced these unforgettable works were particularly intellectual. He believes it was their unique personalities and their emotional instincts/responses that made them so successful at what they did.
Maugham’s most emphatically stated point in the book is that a novelists’ job is to entertain beyond everything else. That is his foremost duty to his reader, he says.
It would be impossible to talk about everything that is part of the book, but suffice it to say that Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors offers a wealth of information and is studded with such illuminating commentary, so as to make this literary criticism of the highest order.