10 October 2009

Somerset Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors

Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 340
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.

-Sandhya Iyer

58 comments:

~PakKaramu~ said...

Pak Karamu visiting your blog

Alexander said...

Terrific review, Sandhya! Very enjoyable to read!

I am very glad to see that people read and enjoy Maugham as much as I do. I have always admired his readability and the fact that he always has something to say and always says it lucidly. I am often amazed how much he wrote - plays, novels, short stories, essays - and how little if anything is without interest.

Should you like to visit my place and/or library, you are very welcome. There are a lot of Maugham reviews very badly written but you might find something interesting, who knows.

Greetings,
Alexander

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alexander: Thanks so much. I've come to love Maugham for all the reasons you mentioned and many more. I plan to read all his works in the time to come. I want to pick up Of Human Bondage soon.

This book - Ten Novels...I especially enjoyed. I borrowed it from a library but ideally would like to own it. It offers a wealth of information and insight.

Btw, where are you based?

Alexander said...

Hi Sandhya,

Nice to hear from you. Btw, I've read your review about "The Painted Veil" - and promptly ordered the DVD.

It may interest you that "Ten Novels and Their Authors" (1954) is actually a revised and enlarged version of "Great Novelists and Their Novels" (1948) that was not a book at all in the beginning but a series of essays about the "Ten Greatest Novels"; Maugham wrote them as introductions to special editions of these novels abridged by himself. Of course he was harshly criticized for having mutilated masterpieces. Interestingly, he did the same with his longest and greatest masterpiece (at least according to the critics), "Of Human Bondage"; its abridged version was first published in 1950, I think, with special introduction by Maugham.

Funny that you want to read the complete Maugham. That's precisely what I want and have been trying to do for some time. It's not easy to find some of his early works but I believe except for one early novel and few early plays (which are obtainable only for crazy collectors) everything else Maugham ever wrote (except few articles for periodicals) is easy to get at very reasonable price.

I am not sure what you mean by "based". In Internet, I am based in LibraryThing and Multiply, mainly, and in terms of the big, big world - I am currently in Dresden, Germany.

Here are links to my LibraryThing profile

http://www.librarything.com/profile/Waldstein

and to my Multiply one:

http://ingemisco.multiply.com/

"The Summing Up - part 1" in the latter is an attempt of mine to compile a bibliography of Maugham which you might find somewhat useful. Don't pay attention to my confused reflections.

Take care,
Alexander

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alaxander: Your introduction is interesting! What you wrote about being anti-social reminds me of another good Jane Austen quote - "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal" :-)

I see you've read a lot on Maugham. All of your writings I intend to read carefully and get back to you. For me, my romance with Maugham has just begun. I saw The Painted Veil - the film and was completely smitten. That's how I got hooked to him! I love his simple, elegant and unaffected style of writing. He almost never digresses - there's always a point to his observations. This serves him so well in Ten Novels and Their Authors (didn't know it came in a different form earlier).

But I think the reason I like him as an author so much is because of the compassionate themes he takes up - all relating in some way or the other to human weaknesses.

Would love to carry on my discussion about Maugham with you. Maybe you can "follow" the blog or something, so we can exchange notes.

Alexander said...

Shame on me, Sandhya. I have yet to read anything by Jane Austen; judging by your quotes it would definitely be something entertaining. I have to confess I haven't read any of Maugham's Ten Greatest Novels. Shame on me yet again. (Ah, so many books, so little time!) But since there is not much sense in just being ashamed I intend at least to try to read all of them as soon as possible. Of course the main stimulus for this in Maugham who is still the only author I can safely say I have read a lot; the little I have read of any other author has never stimulated me to collect their complete works, at least not to such degree of completeness.

Here is the strangest thing of all. Despite having read a lot by Maugham, my quest with him is still in the very beginning. It is astonishing how different an experience a re-reading of his books after year or two can be; certain short stories I've read at least 10 times and I continue to marvel more and more at their excellence. Certain pages from 'The Summing Up' I have read I don't know how many times, all of them totally diferent experiences. It is pretty much the same with all his works.

I intent to review them all; the already written reviews being revised constantly as well. You are very welcome at any time for a discussion about Maugham (or anything else) and I'd love to keep in touch with you. Your blog, of course, is already under constant surveillance.

P. S. I love that adjective: smitten. Do you know that Maugham once confessed that at one time he was completely smitten with the famous American actress Ethel Barrymore? Now, as I look at her on my desktop, I think I find myself in pretty much the same predicament. But that's another story.-:)

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alexander: I got an opportunity to read your review of Liza of Lambeth and I cannot express enough what a wonderfully lucid writer you are! This was especially useful as I was planning to read the book myself soon - it's a pretty slim book no?
I didn't know he wrote it when he was 23! Obviously his ideas were still just taking shape.

Also, it's interesting to see what you say about Maugham not exactly being a natural talent and really cultivating it with hard work and persistence.

I think your reviewing style is special beause there is a definite authorial voice and you provide an excellent background on the novel.

I hope to catch up at least one review of yours a day :-)

On Austen, really shame on you! You ought to read all her novels. Start with Persuasion.
I'm such an Austen addict, I've even read her obscure epistolary novel, Lady Susan (you'll find the review on this blog :-) See it and lemme know. Next discussion has to be on Austen!

Alexander said...

Hi Sandhya,

I am glad you like my review of 'Liza'; I don't like it myself actually. Yes, it is a slim book, 100 pages or so. An so very far from the mature Maugham, which is to be expected of course. The 20 pp or preface, written almost 40 years later, is quite interesting though. Maugham speaks about his early books and why he excluded most of them from his Collected Edition. He also says that he wanted to make 'Liza' more interesting by an effort of his imagination but he just didn't know how and that's why he used his experience as medical student almost literaly; he had a lot of it by the way, he attended some 60 confinements or so (I think) for a period of just several weeks.

It's interesting that you mentioned 'Liza'. I've just been writing something like a review about the three volume set 'The Selected Novels' (Heinemann, 1953) by Maugham where 'Liza' is put in the first volume together with two of the greatest masterpieces of Maugham, written some 30-40 years later, 'Cakes and Ale' and 'Theatre'. I was simply dumbfounded yet again how the same man could write so different books, even in the course of decades. Maugham's developement as a writer is something that impresses me very, very much.

In this great book of his, 'The Summing Up', Maugham wrote with remarkable candour about his shortcommings as a writer, I don't suppose anybody ever knew them better than he did. He says honestly that he had little imagination and no gift for rich language; he describes his striving for writing better and better and how he tried to make the best of a bad job. As he often said, a writer writes not because he wants to but because he must and he writes not how he wants to but as best as he can. He also said flatly that there are two types of writers, born writers and made writers, and he is in the latter group. As you probably, he often referred to himself as 'second-class' and the critics were only too eager to label him as such. I have read very little so far but I hope one day I'll manage some first-class writers; I wonder what a miracle that would be - if Maugham is just second-class.

By the way, on my profile in Multiply, besides my reviews, you can find something much more valuable, namely extensive quotes from many of Maugham's books. I enjoy typing everything in them that has impressed me one way or another. When I came to 'The Summing Up' I was into really big trouble. The book is so perfectly written and so rich of invaluable reflections and insights that... I actually quoted half of the book. You can find it here.

http://ingemisco.multiply.com/reviews/item/18

You flatter my vanity with this 'authorial voice'-:) And since I am an extremely vain person, I am as pleased as Punch. I do not pretend to do anything with these reviews but expressing some thoughts that occurred to me or some facts that have come to my knowledge; all this for my own pleasure of course. It's fun trying to write and shape something, hopefully not altogether devoid of sense and lucidity. And it's an excellent chance to improve my English which, as it's quite obvious, needs a lot of improvement.

Now I have a solemn promise to make. I don't have 'Persuasion' but I promise you to read 'Pride and Prejudice' (waiting on the shelf) until the end of next week. Then I would be delighted to discuss it with you. Should I like it (which I hope I will), I would be looking forward to an exciting exploration of a new field (Jane Austin) with an experienced and charmind guide (you).

Sandhya Iyer said...

"Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live upon"

hmmmmm....your blog is truly special Alexander, though I'm having a little difficulty with the small font. There is immense depth and charm to your writing. You've reviewed so many different biographies on Maugham and sharply pointed out what one can expect from each of them, without mincing words. This is literally a
one-stop place for anything on Maugham!


I liked the way you reviewed The Hour Before Dawn. Not a novel I have read, but it's heartening to know that even at his worst, Maugham is utterly readable.

Thanks for this! And that page on quotes I'm going to bookmark and keep.

Alexander said...

Hi Sandhya,

I see you've stumbled across Miss Ley.-:) She is something like Maugham's early alter ego: tremendously cynical. Later she was replaced my the much more urbane and elegant (but not less cynical) Willie Ashenden or just the nameless first person raconteur.

You hit the nail on the head there, with the small font I mean. I have absolutely the same problem. Isn't the combination of 'ctrl' and '+' working on your browser? It works both in Mozilla and Internet explorer I am using and it makes the reading much easier, if the scrolling somewhat more difficult.

I've just been reflecting about Maugham's infamous and notrorious and I don't know what else misogyny. It is quite brutal in his early notes, when he was 18-24 years old but later he created a gallery of captivating female characters. And he always regarded them with a lot of affection no matter how silly, loose, hypocritical or cynical they might be. You already know Kitty. She is in the very good company of Bertha (Mrs Craddock), Julia (Theatre), Isabel (The Razor's Edge), Catalina (Catalina) and of course the unforgettable Rosie (Cakes and Ale), not to mention a number of female characters in the short stories. But if one wants to reach at least some degree of objectivity, one should point out that the women in Maugham's short stories are very often rather bad lot (although not so much worse than men); yet, they are never one-dimensional or simple. More importantly, Maugham always has a good deal of compassion for them. He neither judges nor condemns. He observes. He understands.

Whatever. Glad you find something interesting in my writings. As they say here in Germany:

Viel Spass
(Have fun)

P. S. I am currently having a lot of fun with different kinds of pride and prejudice. I don't know if I'll make a Maugham buff out of you but it seems that you're going to make a Jane Austen buff out of me. But that's another story for another discussion.

Sandhya Iyer said...

"I've just been reflecting about Maugham's infamous and notrorious and I don't know what else misogyny. It is quite brutal in his early notes, when he was 18-24 years old but later he created a gallery of captivating female characters."

Really? His portrayal of Kitty is obviously very compassionate and in fact, shows a rare insight into the female psyche. So you say, he was brutal when he was younger. What prompted the transormation? Do the biographies explain something in this regard?

PS: I'm itching to read another Maugham book and get back to you. Will do it sooner than later.

PPS: Most of the books I've reviewed are Indian Writing In English (IWE). Is that tickling your interest in any way? :-)

Sandhya Iyer said...

This is a great opportunity for discussion actually. Male authors and their treatment of female characters.
Straight off, I can think of E M Forster, who had the irritating 'old maid' stereotype in all his novels. The 'elderly unmarried woman' was always a part of the Edwardian world he created, Howard's End, A Room With a View and so on.

If you read A Passage to India, again you will see the portrayal of the lead female character, Adela - as someone who is priggish, sexually unattractive and confused.

Not that I don't enjoy Forster. I infinitely enjoyed A Passage To India. Though with A Room With A View, I thought, the film was far more engaging than the novel.

Alexander said...

I am quite curious what you would say about Julia Lambert. She is cynical, promiscuous and probably one of the greatest hypocrits ever created in a novel. But she is also a brilliant actress and on every page of 'Theatre' is obvious that Maugham was madly in love with his heroine; he says something very much like that in the Preface to The Collected Edition in 1939, only two years after the novel was first published. Four years after his retirement from the stage, Maugham finished completely with it by writing a novel entirely dedicated to the stage and to the genius of actors and actresses. I think this is the only book in which Maugham tried to view everything through a woman's eyes; there is little story in 'Theatre' but a lot of psychology. As he says, in the same preface, only a woman could say if he had succeeded to get completely inside a woman's mind.

As for the misogyny, there was no change with the years actually; just Maugham's style develop enormously and became a great deal subtler. Maugham himself changed a lot with the years. If you ask his biographers, they'll tell you that women in his fiction were always drawn in the blackest possible manner (Rosie being the only exception). They'll tell you that, being a homosexual (mostly at least), Maugham thought of women as sexual rivals and that's way he gave them a rather nymphomaniac outlook; also that he disguised his men lovers as detestable female characters (Mildred in "Of Human Bondage", for instance) and so on and so forth. I am tired of that nonsense. Before reading any biography of Maugham (and I can't tell you how happy I am that I read almost all of Maugham BEFORE that) I couldn't find any such thing in his writings; now, with the preconception in mind, I do find something but it is so slight it hardly deserves to be mentioned - but it's always been exaggerated to an amazing degree. But then again, maybe I am a misogynist as well. -:)

So far the only two fine points about Maugham and his misogyny I have ever read are Gore Vidal's charming statement (in his otherwise terrible essay on Maugham) that when Maugham found that women enjoyed sex as much as men and said so he was called misogynist; and Wilmon Menard, in his fascinating book 'The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham', who says flatly that if Maugham was a misogynist there were good reasons about that and no male was ever born such; his explanation is not very convincing but it is something; in short, his main point is that the chief reason was the death of Maugham's mother when he was a boy and that he grew up largely in the hands of indifferent nannies. There may be something there. Maugham must have loved his mother very, very much indeed. He thought the love of the mother is the only one in the world that is completely devoid of selfishness. He once described his mother as 'the most unselfish person' he ever knew. He kept her photograph beside his bed until his death - more than 80 years after hers. Even writing the 'Of Human Bondage' could not rid him of those horrible memories (which he always claimed was the greatest advantage of the writer but apparently it doesn't always work); once Maugham was invited to read parts of the novel but when he came to that place he broke down completely and could not continue. Whatever the explanation for his attitude towards women, I have always found his female characters rather compelling and not at all so terrible as some people tried to make them. Perhaps his attitude to them is what makes them compelling.

I can't say that IWE tickles my interest at all, but I have never read anything of that literature actually. Maybe one day, when the number of unread books on my shelves is greatly diminished, I will try some IWE. It is always a thrill to try something completely new; for now I am trying some classics using Maugham as a starting point, with books like 'Ten Novels' and his HUGE anthologies.

Alexander said...

It may interest you to know about Maugham's attitude to India. He was always afraid to write stories about it because he felt that Kipling had already done everything in this area. But Maugham went to India anyway, in the late 1930s, was fascinated by the country and for some time was quite hooked on Hindu mysticism. 'A Writer's Notebook' briefly follows his steps in India
and his meetings with wise men there. Later he used much of that material for 'The Razor's Edge', where the mystical experience of Larry is just one of the myriad of themes, and in his essay 'The Saint', published in his last book, collections of essays called 'Points of View' (1958).

Sandhya Iyer said...

"When all is said and done, when we come down to brass tacks, the most probable reason why so many people are consumed with envy and malice toward Maugham is that whatever the details one thing is sure: he made a great success of his life and most people are terribly conscious what an indifferent hash they have made of theirs."

I loved this line you wrote Alexander. A great penetrating mind you have!

I don't want to keep praising your writing, but Maugham would have been truly delighted with your observations on him. And I don't say this because you are mostly appreciative of him, but because your points on his novels and his life are so incisive and born out of objective, thoughtful study!

Which novel of his do you recommend me to take up next?

Sandhya Iyer said...

What you mention about Maugham and his mother is another bit of valuable biographical information. But since I have only so far read two works by him, it's obviously early for me to discuss the various shades of his personality (him being a supposed misoginist and so on) or comment on the psychological impulses that impacted his writings. Once I read a fair bit, I think will be able to be a better participant.

Alexander said...

Did I really write that, Sandhya? It sounds a bit too perceptive for me.-:)

Maugham loved saying that a writer has the right to be judged by his best work; in his case this is certainly the short story. I would recommend to start with them. But you can hardly go wrong with any of this novels as well. The problem with recommending one of them is that they are so very different; for sure leave the early ones, written before 1915, for later. Here is a brief summary of his 12 mature novels so that you can decide for yourself which one to pick up. Personally, I'd most love to hear your opinion, as a woman especially, for 'Theatre' (1937).

'Of Human Bondage' (1915).
Yes, it is long; about 250 000 words. Basely loosed on Maugham's life. Basically it contains every theme he explored later in his works. Fascinating psychological insight into an unbelievably masochistic love affair. Philip Carey is one of the most exasperating creatures in the world - and the most sympathetic. Compelling but somewhat depressing read.

'The Moon and Sixpence' (1919).
Loosely, very loosely, based on Paul Gauguin's life. Charming narrative in first person singular. Charles Strickland is an odious man, yes, but he is still a great one. His greatness, moreover, is authentic; and so was his genius. Chilling end amidst the exotic charm of Tahiti.

'The Painted Veil' (1925).
This one you know at least as well as I do.

'Cakes and Ale' (1930).
Maugham's greatest masterpiece in terms of satire. London's literary circles, with all their hypocrisy and superciliousness, are mercilessly exposed. Maugham's most charming female character, Rosie, apparently based on a actress he was very much in love with; he offered her marriage, she turned him down, almost 20 years later he created Rosie out of her. Btw, exceptional first person narrative.

'The Narrow Corner' (1932).
Exotic set, Indonesia, and far from exotic human passions; fascinating combination executed with rare subtlety. Vivid characters. Good story with excellent climax.

'Theatre' (1937).
The stage and the world through the eyes of a great actress - Julia Lambert. Maugham's most thorough exploration of the female psyche. Very cynical and very compelling. Somewhat weak plot but that insight into human nature who cares?

'Christmas Holiday' (1939).
Charlie is a charming young English gentleman who looked forward to quite a lark in Paris during the Christmas holiday. Despite spending all his time with a Russian prostiute (and wife of a imprisoned murderer) not only did he remain chaste but he was completely shaken. Chilling novel. Ruthelss and merciless delving into some of the most pathological sides of the human nature.

'Up at the Villa' (1941).
Very short one. A novelette Maugham called it and hoped it will give us an hour delight. It does so and so much more. Highly improbable plot yet convincingly done. Compelling characters, especially the main heroine and the typical English Empire builder. Most despised by the critics. Most loved by me.

TO BE CONTINUED

Alexander said...

'The Razor's Edge' (1944).
Maugham's only bestseller. A rare combination of moving story and astonishingly alive characters: Larry is extraordinary charming, Isabel is terrible but irresistible, Elliott is definitely the best (and the greatest) snob Maugham ever created. All of them - captivating. Nice touch of Hindu mysticism. Perhaps Maugham's most accomplished first person narrative.

'Then and Now' (1946).
Historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance. Nicolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia and a lot of intrigues (political and amorous) in Maugham's most complicated plot. Greatly despised by the critics. For my part, brilliant characters and matchless storytelling. And, of course, very shrewd insight into human nature.

'Catalina' (1948).
Maugham's last novel. Historically set in Spain during the XVI century. Demolished by the critics and more or less everybody else. It has a very important subtitle: 'A Romance'. Actually it is like a fairy tale and has some honestly impossible moments (magics and miracles included). I am madly in love with Catalina - female character of rare enchantment. All other characters extraordinary alive. Devastating anti-Church and anti-Religion motives. Chilling description of Autodafe.

And abominable description by me of all twelve. I've reviewed 'Of Human Bondage' and 'Cakes and Ale' (twice) only; also 'The Selected Novels' you may find something more. The short story collections I have reviewed all.

Hope this helps a little.

P. S. Think of watching 'The Painted Veil' this evening. Will post a comment under your review tomorrow.

Alexander said...

I missed 'The Hour Before the Dawn' (1942) but you know about it. Maugham wrote in reluctantly for no more than a month as a pure propaganda: to show to the American readers how the war could ruin completely an English family. Maugham strongly detested the novel but I find it a pleasant read. Certainly not on par with the other but the characters are interesting and the story, albeit quite predictable, is not without some fine dramatic scenes. It was made to a movie with Maugham himself introducing it.

Btw, he did so also in 'Trio', 'Quartet' and 'Encore' in the late 1940s and early 1950s; altogether 11 of his short stories were filmed in these three movies, most of them rather nicely but they cannot hold a candle to the subtle insight into the human nature of the short stories. But it is great to see Maugham on the screen talking about himself (only few minutes, unfortunately) and trying quite successfully to control his stammering

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thanks so much for this! From what you say, it seems each of Maugham's book has something special to offer one way or the other.

My mind is set on Cakes & Ale, Of Human Bondage and Theatre to begin with!

Alexander said...

What an excellent choice, Sandhya!

And an excellent point as well. Indeed, I can't think of two novels by Maugham that are very if at all alike; except for all of them having deep insight into human nature and fascinating characters. It's rather interesting to note how well they fit Maugham's life. In 1907-1911 he was immensely popular dramatist, much happier than in earlier years; so he wrote 'Of Human Bondage' to get rid of as much of his old unhappiness as possible when he was, literally, starting new life. In 1928 he moved to the Riviera and two years later published the most damning satire of English literary life which at the time he was no longer part of and only observed comfortably from the south of France. Same with the stage, after leaving it for good in 1933 he finished completely with it putting everything he ever knew and felt about it in 'Theatre'. He always said that a writer should turn to the historical novel late in his career when his knowledge about human nature is big enough to give life of characters based on people who died centuries ago; so his last two novels were historical.

Maugham really did make a pattern for his life and fulfill it with amazing determination. It is curious to note one of the very few cases when he actually failed to do so. He thought to finish his career as novelist with another slum novel because it seemed to him to make the perfect circle: his first novel, some 50 years earlier, had been about the slums. He visited several times Bermondsey with his friend, the cockney bookseller Fred Bason, and collected a lot of material before the Second World War. But on his visit after the war he was astonished to find the place and the people completely changed; he couldn't cope with that and the novel remained unwritten.

I have to control my loquacity!

Now something really important. Reading 'Pride and Prejudice' has become an almost intolerable burden for me. The reason for this of course is the abominably small font size of the Penguin Popular Classics edition (if it was bigger, I guess the book wouldn't cost 3,10 euros). The novel is charmingly unreal and completely fascinating. It will bear a good deal of re-reading. And it seems you've been quite right when you said that I ought to read all of Jane Austen's novels. Indeed, that's precisely what I intend to do as soon as possible. I need your help, as an Austen addict, to recommend me an edition (complete, if possible) with a normal font size which is comfortable for reading. If not complete, some such editions of 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Persuasion' will do perfectly for beginning.

P. S. I am astonished now how extremely perceptive Maugham's points about Jane Auste really are. I could never have realized that without reading 'P&P'.

Sandhya Iyer said...

The backgroung that you've provided on Maugham's novels and how they came to be written is going to prove invaluable to me when I actually read them. What you say about Of Human Bondage and the author seeing it as a cathartic outpouring to bury his past is such an intimate, touching detail.

I had no doubt you would enjoy Pride and Prejudice, but please do not strain your eyes with the small font. It's such an elegant book, one that instantly puts you in a good mood, and hence deserves to be read in the best of spirits. :-)

So pls get rid off this book with small font and opt of Worsworth Classics or any other one. Pride and Prejudice is a fixture in every book store, so you will find a good copy for sure. Lemme know.

PS: Have commented on The Painted Veil review, with a question for you.

Alexander said...

These little books, Penguin Popular Classics, are actually quite nice and they're so cheap one can afford to buy titles without having any idea if one would like them. For a first reading it will do, but surely not for second. I've already chosen the other Penguin edition which seems rather more acceptable in terms of font size and rather thoroughly introduced, annotated and so so with extensive critical apparatus. I have some Oscar Wilde from the series and I as far as I remember was satisfied with its presentation. In any case, I will have finished the novel until the new one arrives. But I know I'll go through many more times in the future. I am curious if I could write a review of 'P&P'. Certainly I would try.

sandhya said...

I would find it very difficult and challenging to review an outright classic like Pride and Prejudice. I find the book the work of a miniaturist, such is the perfection and beauty in its construction and plot.

But I am most eager to read what you thought of the book.

Alexander said...

It's interesting to speculate a bit on that. On the one hand, the fact it is classic shouldn't matter to me; the book might well have said (this one certainly did) a good many things to a good many generations of readers but if it doesn't say anything to me I couldn't care less it is a classic.

But on the other hand, the fact that it was first published almost 200 years ago is staggering. Not only is it still very much in print but is widely read and filmed; it constantly wins new readers. I have noticed in LibraryThing that from all books in my library 'P&P' is the one with most new reviews, even more than the notorious 'Da Vinci Code'. So I am wondering what exactly is that that has made this book appealing for so many people from all over the world for so long a time; it must be something pretty substantial.

I guess the review will be pretty terrible but I'll let you know when I write it, sometime next week hopefully. It is a pity that, being something of a book illiterate myself, I am not able to compare it with other books from that period. I haven't read any, except few chapters of Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall' but that is quite far from 'Pride and Prejudice'. Is it really?

Sandhya Iyer said...

The closest Austen comes to is George Eliot - another author who I absolutely adore. But there's a vital difference. Eliot was an intellectual. She took interest in the politics of the day, understood a great many subjects. So even if she primarly dealt with relationships, her stories always had larger social and philosophical concerns. While there is a "prim liveliness" to everything Austen wrote and her narratives are seldom heavy, Eliot's characters always have a deep private sorrow, there are existential dilemmas and a profound sadness to every story. Yet, in terms of the period, the charming use of language, keen insight on human proclivity...Austen and Eliot are comparable.
I really recommend Eliot's Middlemarch. I took 3 months to finish it - because every page is so rich. I used to get overwhelmed reading some of her insights and would set aside the book to think and marvel at her writing.

Alexander said...

That sounds frightening indeed. But since you recommend it so enthusiastically, I will give 'Middlemarch' a try as soon as possible. Never read a word of George Eliot, except few preview pages on Amazon just now. Looks quite impressive and I am afraid it might well be beyond my knowledge of English, perhaps beyond my intelligence as well. But I'll give it a try all right (this time in normal font size from the beginning though!).

It's funny to immerse oneself into a world so different than the present one; Jane Austen's one, as well as Eliot's I suspect, are completely socially obsolete. It's almost like reading science fiction novel set on another planet. But then you get a bit deeper into the characters and evrything looks so familiar - and so very modern. One doesn't even need to read between the lines. Fancy that...

Sandhya Iyer said...

I'm astonished you keep suggesting that your English is not good enough! What exactly are your standards :-)


It's interesting what you say about Austen seeming socially obsolete at first glace. Yes, many of the issues can seem remote. Much has changed for women since then, so some of the situations and conventions of those times can seem stifling and silly.
But the reason Austen scores is because almost all her novels are about women and their search for the perfect man. It's the same story retold in every book of hers, with some mild alterations.

In matters of the heart, women have not changed much, and it's astonishing how what she said 400 years ago applies so perfectly to the fairer sex even now.

Sandhya Iyer said...

The other day I checked all the Maugham books you mentioned at a book store. They have mostly the Vintage Collection, all priced above 400 rupees! Dunno if I should check out some of the books in the library first. The problem is this though - I end up liking the book so much that I end up buying it even though my book shelf is teeming now.

Sandhya Iyer said...

http://sandyi.blogspot.com/2007/10/lady-susan.html

This is the only Jane Austen review I've done, precisely because it is her most obscure piece of work.

Alexander said...

Yes, that's precisely what I meant about Jane: in terms of human nature, character and relationship she is as modern as she could be and I daresay such books as 'P&P' will continue to be read until the end of the human race (whenever that happens, hopefully not in my lifetime).

And when I come to think more carefully about (and cynically, no doubt! Willie would have been proud of me!) marriage, as he says, for love certainly but also for position is perhaps not so obsolete nowadays. In any case, I admire very much this view of marriage - as a perfect way for doing business. Very sensible. To quote Maugham (from 'Up at the Villa):

'But don't marry for love next time; it's a mistake; marry for position and companionship.'

Not that Mary married for that in the end but that's quite another story.

I have no idea about the Indian rupees exchange rate but an online converter tells me that 400 are about 5,7 euros?! If that's true, I should order my books from India indeed. (Willie would have been displeased with the alliteration). Here in Germany they cost something between 11 and 14 euros, the Vintage classics I mean. Penguin classics are a bit cheaper and can be found sometimes for 8-9 euros. Penguin Popular Classics of course cost 3,10 euros - and your eyesight as well! It is unfortunate though that very few titles can be bought in the book store, English titles in German book store I mean, and everything must be ordered; ah, the whole romance is lost that way.

By the way, if you are keen on old books, you can find a lot of Maugham on very sensible prices through Internet. I am somewhat in love with old hardbacks but no, I am not a collector. I think the most expensive book of fiction I ever bought was something like 35 euros and that's rare. For something like 15 euros (to 20 max), a bit more expensive than the Vintage classics, almost all of Maugham can be found quite easily; if you don't insist on first editions signed by the author and dust jackets in immaculate condition.

Almost. 'The Bishop's Apron', early novel by Maugham, is the only one I am still missing in my library. And the only modern edition I am offered is some lousy library binding that costs... 100 euros! Some people are truly insane! Otherwise the novel hasn't been reprinted for more than 100 years and original edition costs a good deal more than 100 actually.

I think the most expensive Maugham book I have ever seen was first edition of his spy stories ('Ashenden', 1928) is excellent condition with dust jacket. Only for 6000 american dolars! You know, this is his most influential book, even Ian Fleming and James Bond profited by it; so the collectors are crazy for it - and in general.

As for the English, my aim is of course perfection, even if Maugham loved saying perfection is apt to be dull. Fortunately it is unattainable. The only drawback of reading a lot of Maugham I have so far discovered is that English starts looking a very easy language to speak and even to write. And it is neither. But beautiful nonetheless. And with so much easier grammar than the German.

Alexander said...

I have read your review of 'Lady Susan'. When I read all novels of Jane Austen, should she continue to entertain me, I'll read 'Lady Susan' as well. By the way, I should like to include my own sex too, in Jane's exceptionally shrewd observations. I daresay men haven't changed much if at all for the last 200 years or so, either. As Maugham noticed, Jane had a keen eye for the ridiculous and didn't hesitate to make fun of people.

I am pretty sure people today all over the world are just as much full of pride and prejudices as they were in the English countryside two centuries ago. Surely the pride is different than the tremedous class consciousness that was so common then and I suppose the prejudices have been modified a good deal too; but the essence remains the same. I don't know about pride, but I am fully aware that I am full of prejudices myself. Tons of them. For example, I am prejudiced against writers like Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence and Graham Greene because of their negative (and often absurd) critisicm of Maugham's works. That's why I still refuse to read them; I am waiting for my prejudices to diminish a little bit with time so that I can appreciate their doubtless great literary merit. Maugham didn't spare some harsh words about all of them but he was kind enough to include their writings in his antologies. I don't think I will ever be able to read a book by Edmund Wilson after reading his notorious 'criticism' from 1946 about Maugham's 'Then and Now' in particular and his complete oeuvre in general. One can't read everything.

The book entirely dedicated to Maugham I will never read for sure is 'W. Somerset Maugham - The Critical Heritage', no matter that it is edited by two great Maugham admirers, Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead. Few excerpts online were quite enough; positive or negative, they are equally pointless. Although the introduction to 'The Critical Heritage' is worth reading. It is the only place I know of where the obvious (almost to me only, alas) is said plainly: that Maugham's best critic was Maugham himself in his nonfiction writings about himself and that such shamefull and scathing (my words) criticism like that of Edmund Wilson and D. H. Lawrence were written chiefly out of malice for the man that had nothing to do with serious critical attempt to evaluate the writer.

Where did I start, where did I finish...

Sandhya Iyer said...

I can understand - your deep love for Maugham makes you resent authors who may have unbfairly criticised him. I love Austen, but I think it was Mark Twain who said the below: He was comparing her to another author. I'm not sure who...

"To me his prose is unreadable – like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death."

As much I find this a grossly unfair and nasty assessment, I can't get myself to like Twain less. I absolutely adore his Huckleburry Finn and Tom Sawyer.


Again, since you mention D H Lawrence, I should tell you I have read most of his novels - Sons and Lovers, Rainbow and Women In Love - they are intensely sensual, provocative and stirring. And the language is magical.

So maybe with time - you should give it a try.

Sandhya Iyer said...

I need to make this one observation.
I viewed Maugham as a very gently, compassionate author with The Painted Veil. But my impression of him vis a vis Ten Novels And Their Authors is a little different.
He can be extremely critical and focusses a great deal on each author's personal life - sometimes I felt he went way too overboard, drawing unmistakable glee in writing about their scandalous, personal lives - esp relating to Stendhal and some others.
I must say that Maugham's unflattering description of some authors and their craft -while extremely useful and insighful - dampened by enthusiasm to read their novels. Like Flaubert and Madame Bovari. Of couorse I will be reading it, but Maugham's observation that he laboured to achieve the perfect cadence for his sentences, and that he lacked spontaneity, has sort of disappointed me.
A lot of times, I felt Maugham focussed so much on the unsavoury details that it becomes a bit difficult to respect their works.
I don't mean to undermine this wonderful book, but this was one aspect I needed to point out.

Alexander said...

I fully concur with you about that observation. That's why I like somewhat more the earlier version of 'Ten Novels' where the biographies are largely reduced and the essays are shorter and more to the point. Certainly Maugham was very keen on doing with others what he never wanted to be done with him, namely delving (a bit) too much into their personal lives. At least he did it for persons that had long since been dead; and after his death of course everybody did it for him, culminating with Mr Morgan's magisterial variation on theme 'Maugham and prejudice'; but that's another story.

I also know what you mean about Maugham discouraging the reader to read these ten novels; I concur again, to some extent at least. Sometimes, often perhaps, I suspect he points out too many faults and neglected the merrits of these works. I remember myself wondering why exactly did he choose 'Moby Dick' since he had very little if anything nice to say about it. I am already curious to read Maugham's abridgement of 'P&P'; I can't imagine what is there to cut in the original novel. Btw, this is a point I completely disagree with Maugham about: cutting works and skipping while reading. I never skip, even when re-read a book I've read few times already. Maugham's own abridgement of 'Of Human Bondage' looks fine - but only if one's never read the complete original.

Still, Maugham in his most brutal criticism simply cannot hold a candle to Mark Twain. That remark about Jane was really nasty. That of course has nothing to do, at least shouldn't have, with the fact that Mark Twain is a great writer and probably a great man too. Read Huckleburry Finn and Tom Sawyer a loong time ago, in my childhood and in my native language; have fond memories of them, perhaps should read them again, in English. But I should think it is a pity that Jane's natural death came when she was far too young to die... 42 or something like that if I am not mistaken.

Alexander said...

I realise quite well that I must not restrict myself to Maugham only; even if for now he seems to give me pretty much all I want from books this is a very warped point of view nonetheless. I certainly should like to expand it. I have to thank you for speeding up this process a great deal; I wanted to read 'P&P' for at least an year but somehow never found the time. Surely I'll try D. H. Lawrence as well; as soon as possible but not yet. I've noticed that 'Sons and Lovers' is among your all time favourites and that's another strong urge that I should read something of him; as far as I know he was a very interesting and unusual personality; I am sure this is reflected in his books and so they are worth reading. And the only way for one to see if one likes a book or not is to read it. Preconceptions must be avoided at all costs, no matter positive or negative, no matter what anybody (Maugham included!) said/write.

I am trying to use Maugham as something of a guide in this direction but I also try to look upon an author with as unprejudiced eye as it is possible, no matter what he wrote/said about Maugham or vice versa. But it is not a very easy thing to do. Recently I have read Joseph Conrad for the first time, a short story called 'Youth' and included in one of Maugham's anthologies. It was an excruciating experience. Maugham never was a great fan of Conrad but he says in the preface to this volume that he didn't included in it a single piece he wouldn't have been happy to have written himself. I find this very hard to believe about Joseph Conrad's 'Youth' - 30 closely printed pages short (?!) story in which the story is 3 pages maximum, written in an abominable style pretending to be a narrative of a sailor; confused, convoluted, without a trace of any dramatic point, let alone something like a character. That was a really discouraging first Conrad experience. Some time should pass before the second. It might be just an unfortunate accident among his stories.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Oh! Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness I may have taken up to read atleast 3 times, and each time I gave up after the first page. He's just not my kind of writer.

On skipping pages, I don't think Pride And Prejudice was included in Maugham's list of novels that are too lengthy, was it? He had very kind things to say about P&P, calling it a very charming, endearing novel. Since Ten Novels...is fresh in my mind, I can tell you he was essentially talking about Don Quixote that he felt can be shortened. He has a point you know. I'm sure you may have heard this but many novels in those times were released as series every month and people looked forward to the next installment. So many a times, authors were forced to prolong the length of the novel - either due to excessive demand or some such reason. That always led to many novels being unnaturally lenghy.

PS: How are you enjoying P&P? Most women would preserve this novel like a Bible :-)

Alexander said...

Conrad is quite obviously not your cup of tea, yes. -:) Nor does he seem to be mine, but he'll get his next chance sometime next year.

Yes, I've heard about the instalments novels, I think most of Dickens' were written in that way (but I have read none yet). I don't think Maugham looked upon 'P&P' as too long and in his essay about Jane he was is somewhat kinder mood than in most others. 'Ten Novels' is unfortunately not so fresh in my head but I seem to recall the part about Cervantes' masterpiece which could well bear some cutting. I don't remember exactly what was the story about the essays and the abridged editions. I think Maugham was asked by somebody to make a list with his 'ten greatest novels' and later a publisher suggested to him that he could write introductory essays about new and abridged editions of the novels since, when making the list, Maugham mentioned that the wise reader should learn to skip. I should check this when I get home (hopefully before midnight!) but I think initially the essays were written especially as introductions to the novels although they were published in the press and later in a book; and later in another book ('Ten Novels') substantially enlarged but basically not very different. So, in short, it seems that Maugham agreed to write the essays (the early versions at least) with the abridgements of all novels in mind. Surely in every novel you can find something to cut if you scrutinize it carefully but in a really fine one like 'P&P' this something would be next to nothing. I am curious what Maugham did.

Alexander said...

I started 'P&P' somewhat slowly but soon got carried away. If I haven't finished it yet this is entirely due to the sad fact that the things in my work got pretty difficult (no doubt due to my extraordinary laziness). It's a strange book. Sometimes I have some problems with Jane's style which seems to me exceedingly formal but I guess it was quite normal for its time and 200 years ago people really did talk with each other in that manner. Despite this formality of the language, there is singular grace in the sentences, the plot, simple and trite as it is, moves with a firm pace and the conversation is quite often quite to the point.

But the real gem in 'P&P', I think, is Jane's simply astounding sense of humor, her just amazing ability to see the absurdities of the people around and her and to put them down on paper in a most amusing way; that formality of language creates glorious effect in terms of humor. Hardly a single page fails to bring smile on my lips, often I have to stop reading for a minute or two because I am laughing my head off. Most importantly though - I have to stop at some places because they give pause and make me think deeply about the human character; certain passages, especially in the conversations between Lizzy and Jane, contain fabulous wealth of insight into human nature.

I think this must be what chiefly makes 'P&P' classic and enourmously popular two centuries after it was first published. I don't know if that was common for the time, never read any other author from that period, but I think what strikes me most in 'P&P' is that it is book so entirely dedicated to human character. When I come to think of it, there are hardly any other descriptions but of the character of the characters; their physical appearance, clothes, houses, countryside, let alone the world outside of it, are scarcely mentioned - and so much the better. This concentration on the characters and the relationships between them (in combination with Jane's prodigious sense of humor which alone, I should think, would not be enough to confer a classical status) is, I believe, what makes out of 'P&P' a masterpiece with a rare charm; and a classic as well of course.

This was the first and very, very rough draft of my review of 'P&P'; it does need a great deal of polishing.It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first drafts are rough.-:)

Sandhya Iyer said...

You seem to have really enjoyed the book. And you summarize it beautifully. Yes, now that I think of it, Austen's novels are all about human character( there's not much in terms of plot really.)
Every sentence brings out a new facet of a character, gives you fresh insight into human proclivity. She doesn't waste a single detail!
And what makes it so endearing is Austen's ironic wit. I can so relate to you shutting the book and laughing your heart out. It's not only about WHAT Austen says that makes her so humourous, it is also about HOW she says it.

Alexander said...

Definitely a great enjoyment. Now the most difficult question is where to put all other Jane's novels which I intend to purchase as soon as possible; the teeming bookshelves are something I am very familiar with too.

Exactly. That's one of the most perceptive points Maugham makes in his essay; so does Walter Scott, though not so lucidly: Jane writes about ordinary, commonplace things and it is she, with her so very keen sense of absurd and utterly charming wit, who makes them unusually compelling. I really wonder how much of this is due to her personality and how much due to the times she lived through; I really don't know I am almost sure the former is of much greater importance than the latter. It is only to her credit, as Maugham also observes, that she always wrote only about what she knew so well and was never tempted to venture into writing about something foreign to her. There is certain charm in a world that has London on its end; there is only nothingness beyond. Perhaps this adds even more to the vividness of the characters; strangely, exactly the opposite of Maugham who often (though by no means always!) put his characters among a lush tropical background - even more strangely that has the same effect of making them more fascinating. One great similarity between them: Maugham too was smart enough to write pretty much only about what he knew.

P. S. I can't help rolling in the aisles when I read something like a company being 'superlatively stupid' or men who 'eat and admire'. At the same time lines like 'Affectation of candour is common enough - one meets it everywhere.' do give me a pause - and a very serious one. (Quotes from memory, might be word or two different than the original.)

Sandhya Iyer said...

SO guess what!
I was kinda desperate to get my hands on a new Maugham book and visited the British Library. My idea was this - if I couldn't manage to get it there, I would obviously buy it. So i scanned through the shelves and I found every single Maugham book was "OUT'. And the one that was available could not be found!
After a good half an hour's search, I gave up. Looks like Maugham books get picked up in a jiffy! Anyway, I was disappointed. I opted for a P G Wodehouse and walked down to the withdrawal counter. Imgaine my surprise when I saw Maugham's Collected Short Stories at the desk among books which had just been returned! BTW, in addition to that one, I also found there Hanif Kureshi's Intimacy - which I have been dying to read.

It's a small thing of course, but I love these lucky turnarounds! Made my day.

Alexander said...

I didn't know Maugham is so widely read nowadays. It's nice to hear. So you'll continue your Maugham quest with his very best; even critics are ready to acknowledge him some merit here (except Edmund Wilson of course but he is very special case). Keep in mind though that the Collected short stories were written during a span of about 26-27 years and originally published in at least 10 different books (8 collections and 2 travel books); also some were written very short and some very long by desing; I mean they might differ greatly in terms of style and subject. Despite that, I think in the short story Maugham showed his most remarkable consistency; not even one of these 91 piece do I find boring, no fewer that 80 I do find compelling, 50 perhaps are masterpieces. Most curious to know your thoughts and reflections about them.

Libraries are beautiful things. I wonder I don't like them at all; perhaps because they have always been in abominable condition in my native country where, a good many years ago, I used to use them sometimes. But now I'd rather buy books; it is very nice to own books, as Maugham too observed once. If an author catches my imagination, I'd buy a book of him more for himself, for at least part of this must be in the book, rather than for the book itself. Speaking of this, I've just ordered all of Jane Austen's novels (Lady Susan included) and the most complete collection of her letters I could find; for the latter Maugham is to blame, and for the former you are; for which I thank you both very warmly. If I don't like a book I have bought, it can always be sold or given to somebody (or to a library of course).

Meanwhile the Penguin Classics of "P&P" arrived and now I can finish the novel, finally, in a normal font size. Fine edition in terms of scholarly work; there is exhaustive research on changes in differen editions and all emendations (very minor ones) to Jane's original text are conscientiously noted. I like that.

But the introductions are rather disappointing; the new one by Vivien Jones especially. I continue to be amazed what a nonsense can be written about writers and their works, no matter the attitude. Maugham really must be something of an exception to write on this topic without any harm for his readability or keen insight. Vivien Jones, in her introduction, tries to convince me that Jane Austen wrote 'P&P' as post-evolutionary alegory with a great deal of political significance in it, subtly hidden of course, and last, but certainly not least, she was a feminist and that's why Lizzy Bennet is so charming. Simply amazing. Such an introduction, should I have read it before the novel, is quite capale to kill my desire to read it for quite some time indeed. For my part I should like to think that Jane wrote her novels because it was such a fun to laugh at the absurdities of all and sundry and because she was interested in exploring human character and if she was a feminist I should like to believe she never knew it.

Speaking of this, I strongly advise you not to read my reviews of Maugham's short stories.

Alexander said...

And speaking of giving books I have an offer for you. I have two copies of one book by Maugham and if you are interested I could give you one. It is rather a special book, two books in one actually, the two most personal and autobiographical books (save his late memoirs) of Maugham: The Summing Up and A Writer's Notebook, originally published in 1938 and 1949, respectively. In 1954 Heinemann published them together in one volume with new and special, very special indeed, preface written by the 80 years old Maugham. It is his most poignant preface, it fits perfectly the books and contains a lot of the original preface of 'A Writer's Notebook' (1949) which is omitted in this volume. So far as I know there is no other edition of these two books in one volume, nor this one, titled 'Partial View' by the way, has ever been reprinted, to the best of my belief at least. Now let me assume the role of a bookseller for a moment.

W. Somerset Maugham. The Partial View. Heinemann, 1954. Hardcover. No dust jacket. Gilt lettering on the front cover and on the spine. Black boards slightly faded but in good condition. Binding tight. Text clean save very few unobtrusive pen marks in the beginning (which were made by the previous owner and the bookseller that sold the book to me gently forgot to mention).

I believe you would appreciate these books. If you are interested all I need is an exact address to send it. Don't write it here, send it to alexander_arsov@abv.bg

P. S. It is funny that even in original Heinemann edition one can find stupefying misprints. The dedication of 'A Writer's Notebook' in The Partial View is to Frederic Gerald Maxton, Maugham'S long time companion/secretary/lover/whatever; hsi name, of course, was Haxton. Fortunately, there are no such bloopers in the books.

Sandhya Iyer said...

You are so kind Alexander! If you hadn't told me that you ordered all of Austen's books already, I would have naughtily assumed you were doing it just to get her books from me ;-)

Leaving aside the fact that I would be thrilled to have the books, I genuinely hope there isn't going to be much trouble involved in it for you. If that is remotely the case, I urge you not to bother. Though this is a great gesture!

I'm am so glad to know you have the entire Austen series with you now! You have some very pleasant days ahead of you reading it.
As for the feminist reading of Austin, there's a good laugh. There have been critics who have tried to analyse her works from the prism of feminism, but I do not for a minute think of it that way.
Yes, her heroine in P&P is spirited, and the fact that she doesn't blatantly run after the moneyed Darcy makes her stand apart from the rest. She is suitably rewarded for it in the end.
But that's about it. I dare say, Elizabeth's change of heart towards Darcy comes strongly when she sees his Pemberly Estate and imagines how she could have been the mistress of such a magnificient place! So she's not removed from all that.
Neither is Jane Austen. She negociated all her stories within a certain patriarchal framework only. She understood the limitations of her time vis a vis women, and even partook in the common idea of a woman finding fulfilment only through an affluent, charming man. Women in her novels are always in search of a life-partner. Their chronic romanticism is constantly inturrupted with pragmatic concerns.

So, I do not see Austin as any kind of feminist. She said stories the way she saw them.

Alexander said...

Now I see why Maugham appeals to you so much, Sandhya; you're both cynics par excellence. So am I, of course, only without the excellence. Your remark about this wholly despicable motive of mine is uttely charming; I think Jane would have been happy to have written it. -:)

I don't foresee any problem. It's rather a pleasure actually. No, I'm not kind, I am doing this for my own pleasure, not for yours. But it will be great if you get a good deal pleasure reading the book because this will increase my pleasure as well. The packet will look pretty terrible but I hope it will be safe.

I am looking forward to reading Jane Austen's works. It's always curious for one to see how a writer develops and changes with the different works in his oeuvre. Of course I don't great changes in Jane's works, she didn't have the time for that anyway. But seeing the pattern in an oeuvre adds something to the appreciation of a writer. Definitely.

I certainly admire very much such attitude to marriage that combines affection with financial comfort. I think Jane is not so dated in this respect, or if she is our times are much more narrow-minded than hers, at least in relation to marriage. I remember that horrible woman Mildred from 'Of Human Bondage' saying something similar a century afterwards: what's the point of marrying if you're not going to be in a better social or financial or any other position, I really don't see. (Horrible as she was, Mildred was not without some common sense!) Love is all very well but what it has to do with marriage I still fail to see. And the famous dictum 'If you love me, you'll merry me' has always sounded to me like the famous socialist-communist one, popular in my native country during the totalitarian regime long ago, that to check somebody for something is the greatest and purest form of trust you can confer upon him/her.

I am rather charmed by Lizzy's not been removed from the purely material profit (quite agree about her being mistress of Pemberley). It fits perfectly with her character one of the most prominent features of which is her intelligence. I certainly wouldn't expect so smart a girl to marry purely for love, or any other feeling without any practical benefit; especially in Jane Austen's time - but nowadays as well.

Alexander said...

By the way, 'Middlemarch' has just arrived. I don't know what kind of novel that is, but it certainly is a formidable book: 830 pages, and despite that the font is smaller than usual; I guess if it wasn't the book would be 1000 pages at least. Still comfortable for reading. Small wonder it took you three months to finish. I'll consider myself lucky if I could finish it until Christmas - the next one of course!

P. S. At least the introduction of one Rosemary Ashton I will skip; I already know these things are better to be read as epilogues.

Alexander said...

Dear Sandhya,

At last I have finished my review of 'Pride and Prejudice'. Challenging it was, indeed. Should you care to read it, you can find it here:

http://ingemisco.multiply.com/reviews/item/78

or here:

http://www.librarything.com/work/2773690/book/53721637

But I have to warn you, my dear: it is extremely long and uncommonly tedious. I am extremely dissatisfied and frustrated with it; but I simply can't see how to make it any better, at least for now. The revision, much needed as it is, will have to wait for some time.

What a charming, delightful, lovely book!

sandhya said...

Alexander: That is a stunning review by all means. Loved it! This is the most comprehensive and illuminating piece I have read on Austen and I have read a great deal of critical matter on her!

I agree with your assessment that for a first time reader, the plot will seem (as is also true) obselete and tedious. But the succint wit, the characters, the language (with her fine ear for words, as you put it), the filgiree-like narrative craftsmanship....all make P&P a true classic to cherish.
And all of this you write with so much passion, affection and insight.

Two points of mild disagreement.

You say, the Lady Catherine - Elezabeth encounter is more dramatic than the Lizzy-Darcy one. I would have to concur with Maugham on this. The Lizzy-Darzy scene is one of simmering passion and rare intensity in the book. It is also that one singular moment when the meaning of the title (Pride and Prejudice) comes to the fore in full force.

I don't mean to say the pre climax scene with Catherine and Lizzy is not important. But the way I see it, only to the extent that it works as a catalyst in facilitating and hastening the union of the lovers.


Also, on Lizzy's pragmatism, where you think she's less hypocritical than the rest but by no means a fool to marry just for passion, I think the Wickham episode in some meansure subverts this argument. She does momentarily fall for Wickham, who is penniless. So for all her smartness, Austen establishes that Lizzy may not always be a good judge of people and situations. She's impulsive and feisty. And she comes across as someone who at a different time and age, would have been an even more individualistic person than the Victorian period allowed her. She's a reluctant participant in the frlls and frippery of balls and groom hunting exercises.

There is a refreshing naivete about Lizzy, a quality not alien to those who think with their heart. I think the astute Darcy senses that when he falls for that.

The Pemberly incident of course is a vital scene where Lizzy is struck by the charmed life she could have lead, had she married Darcy. But that is human nature and obviously Lizzy - for all her spirit and charm - was hardly immune to the blessings of a good match. But importantly, she had started falling in love with him already. I think the seeds of that affection had started to grow from the very moment after she insults and turns down Darcy. That's my reading as a woman :-)

Again, a fabulous review from you, brimming with such lovely quotable quotes! You have a ear for nice words too :-)

sandhya said...

I will be emailing you my address for the books you promised me :-)

Alexander said...

Sandhya, it's fascinating to read your reflections about 'P&P' as a woman. Such differences of opinion, I think, make a book a great one; given that, on the whole, reading it is a great pleasure for both sides, which is the case here. You really ought to write reviews about all of Jane's books: as an Austen addict and especially as a woman.

I daresay you have an excellent point about Lizzy's naivete; strange that it didn't occur to me. I guess it's part of her charm and she must have it. After all, if she hadn't been wrong about Darcy and Wickham, there would harly have been any story to tell. Yes, she was somewhat smitten with Wickham at one time but I don't believe she would have married him had he proposed to her; but I might be wrong of course; at any rate, that would have made a very good story as well, albeit quite a different one.

I'll send the book as soon as I get your address. Hopefully you'll get it before the end of the year.

P. S. For Christmas I'll be reading 'Persuasion'.

P. P. S. Now, as I look on that review of mine, I see what it lacks; exactly the first thing that I want everything I write to have: structure.

sandhya said...

Guess what, next review is going to be The Moon and Sixpence! I'm beginning today.

Alexander said...

Glad to hear that. Wonderful book. I was thinking of re-reading it myself, together with the other two 'exotic' novels of Maugham, namely 'The Painted Veil' and 'The Narrow Corner'. But they all will have to wait a few days (and one review) more; sudden musical obsession seized me. Looking forward to reading your reflections about 'The Moon and Sixpence'. I hope you'll like it more than Katherine Mansfield.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alex: I emailed you. Did you get it?

Alexander said...

Yes, I did; the book's on its way to you. I also got your invitation for Goodreads and of course accepted it; But I need to work a bit on my profile there.

Alexander said...

That's a discussion of considerable sentimental value. :-)

To the point, I have these days been re-reading parts of "Ten Novels and Their Authors" (because I had inadvertently started "Moby Dick") and I am downright amazed how well it bears re-reading. Once got started and can't stop myself.

True, some of the biographical background does seem superfluous, and yes, some of it is downright malicious meddling with personal matters of no literary significance whatsoever. But most of it is curiously apposite, not to mention wonderfully written and informative. Many things are provocative to the extreme - e.g. Melville's repressed homosexuality or the brutal judgment passed on Dickens' pathos - but even these are stimulating, and might become more so with the reading of the novels in question.

The introductory chapter, "The Art of Fiction", and the hilarious yet dead serious "In Conclusion" are sheer masterpieces of literary criticism. Either is worth the price of admission alone. There's is so much in them (including appalling notions like "skipping"). I do wish literary critics would write the same degree of clarity, simplicity and insight.

It's a bit sad that of all forgotten books by Maugham still in print this one should be one of the most forgotten.

Sandhya Iyer said...

yes very nostalgic, went through the whole thread.

Ten Novels is right up there among my favourites, and yes, it is one book worth revisiting again and again.

Much like you I closely read Maugham's chapter on Flaubert and Madame Bovary when I took up the novel. And that will of course be my guide for all the other novels featured in the book.

So you are taking up Moby Dick?

Alexander said...

Well, one accident follows another. I've started "Moby Dick" just because it was close on the shelf and I didn't have anything better to do just then. It suck me in completely. The writing's totally weird, but the authorial voice is devastatingly compelling, mighty digressions and misguided metaphors notwithstanding.

Then I thought I'd revisit Maugham's "Ten Best" and - guess what? It sucked me in completely. Now, once I finish Melville, I have to start "Wuthering Heights" and "Madame Bovari" (and "David Copperfield"). Willie just doesn't give me a choice.

Will soon expand greatly the selection of quotes from this book. They need some tidying-up too.

P.S. Three years passed, did they!