08 December 2010

Somerset Maugham A Writer's Notebook

Most of us who grow up with the vague idea of becoming writers sometime in the future or at least putting what one reads to good use professionally will admit to have maintained a note book. I, for one, have. And since I rarely revisit a book for a second time, and since my own retention powers are so woefully limited, I rely either on making markings -underlining the text or then often diligently jotting it down in pretty notebooks. If employed with discretion and intelligence, as Maugham would say, the habit is not without profit.

Somerset Maugham's The Writer's Notebook is a collection of his thoughts, observations, ideas that he gathered along his prolific writing career that lasted over 50 years. The author kept a notebook and would scribble away anything that caught his fancy as he travelled far and wide and met a great deal of characters (one calls them 'characters' and not 'people' because Maugham always saw them as such and was otherwise quite a loner in real life.) It's a practise he started when he was all of 19, and kept updating it till he was well over 70 years. Maugham explains that it was not vanity that prompted him to publish his private notebook, instead it was born out of the thought that he himself would have been thrilled if a well-known writer had came out with such an edition while he was embarking on a writing career.

But when Maugham actually made the notes, it was with the idea of putting the material to future use. So what you find are several brief descriptions of characters and places, and reflections on life, art and human character. I must confess I didn't read everything in the book and though I glanced every single page, I rested my eyes and got immersed only on topics that I was inclined to read about. It's rightly a book that is usually found as a supplementary part of Maugham's stunning autobiography, The Summing Up, because there is an expected resonance in both works.

The parts which caught my eye were about Russian literature, which Maugham doesn't have very complimentary things to say about. Because the collective body of Russian literature is so small, Russians know it with a great thoroughness, he piquently observes. Maugham is a bit bewildered at its over-estimation all over Europe, and believes Russian literature to suffer severely in the area of characterisation. He notes that even someone like Dostoevsky -who has other strengths - has all his characters as 'all of one piece' and as personifications. He says, "It is humour which discerns the infinite diversity of human beings, and if Russian novels offer only a restricted variety of types it is perhaps because they are singularly lacking in humour. In Russian literature you will look in vain for wit and repartee, badinage, the rapier thrust of sarcasm, the intellectual refreshment of the epigram, or the lighthearted jest. Its irony is coarse and obvious."

The other insight is on 'irrationality' in characterisation. Maugham says that though man is fundamentally not a rational animal, he/she feels dissatisfied when the persons of a story do not act from motives that we accept as sufficient. He references Othello in this regard, terming how all of Shakespere's characters in this play were highly irrational. Critics have of course tried to justify their motives, but Maugham sees it as a futile exercise. "The critics would have done better to accept the play as a grand example of the fundamental irrationality of man."

There are other observations of the 'value' of art, the purpose of life and many such philosophical musings. The book in many ways points at the evolving of a writer, through his insatiable need to travel, meet new people, be exposed to new sensations and finally give expression to it in his books. Insightful, stimulating and bristling with original ideas, The Writer's Notebook is a terrific treasure trove that takes you into the rich and ever-curious mind of Maugham who considered every thing he saw as material for his writings. His invention, imagination and sense of narrative drama did the rest!


Alexander said...

That was a very pleasant surprise, Sandhya. I am happy you enjoyed Maugham's notes. Quite a disparate selection indeed, but there are tons of gems inside. One of those books one reads from cover to cover but once, but it's always a great pleasure to dip into.

sandhya said...

Alexander: This edition that I read was not part of The Summing Up. It was a book by itself. Does this mean the one included in The Summing Up is an abridged one?

Where hv you reached with Middlemarch?

Alexander said...

Let's first try to clarify this issue with the books.

'The Summing Up' is a completely different book from 'A Writer's Notebook'. There were published with a gap of more than ten years between them, in 1938 and 1949 respectively. In 1954, both were reprinted - complete and unabridged - under the title 'The Partial View', for which Maugham wrote a special preface.

The only 'abridgement' in 'The Partial View' is that the original preface of 'A Writer's Notebook' was omitted; otherwise the book is complete.

I am exactly nowhere with 'Middlemarch', alas. Haven't even started it. Right now there is an ominous pile of books that fall under the category 'currently reading': from Maugham's early plays, through evolutionary biology, to biographies of Franz Schubert and German poetry. Will try to put 'Middlemarch' in my impressive reading plans for Christmas.

sandhya said...

Alexander: What is this I hear! You actually met Vikram Sampath in Berlin!!

Alexander said...

Extraordinary, isn't it?

Berlin is always full of surprises. One of the most enchanting is meeting celebrated Indian authors.

Vikram was extremely kind to waste some of his time with indifferent PhD student from Dresden. He's been quite busy these months, criss-crossing European capitals and archives.

I was so overcome by Vikram's charm that now I am trying to read his first book about Mysore. It makes a perfect companion volume to 'Middlemarach' - for it is just as huge.

sandhya said...

Wonderful, great to know you had a wonderful time, and Vikram seemed as happy and thrilled to meet up with you :-)

What about doing a trip to India now?

Alexander said...

I wanted to some time ago. But I was told the cheapest ticket is 1000 euros and had to give up any hopes. Besides, I am really scared of India. I no longer think about it - as I used to when I was ten - as a very dangerous country full of fierce tigers and aggressive cobras, but it seems so utterly foreign all the same. Strange, that. Vastly different culture, I guess.

sandhya said...

Alexander: I think the styaing costs can be taken care of, now that you know Vikram in Bangalore and me in Pune :-)

Anyway, was reviewing a book witten by an ex journalist, and Maugham's words about how journalism doesn't necessarily help in the cause of writing (fiction, non-fiction) and can work as an impediment occured to me. i was trying to look it up in The summing Up - which is where I read it - but I'm unable to trace it now. Do you remember his exact words?

sandhya said...

Ok I found it. He calls it a 'very dangerous vocation for writers' :-)

Alexander said...

I found only the following among my quotes from The Summing Up about writers and journalism by way of side occupation:

'The most common one for him to adopt is journalism, because it seems to have a closer connection with his proper work. It is the most dangerous. There is an impersonality in a newspaper, that insensibly affects the writer. People who write much for the press seem to lose the faculty of seeing things for themselves; they see them from a generalised standpoint, vividly often, sometimes with hectic brightness, yet never with that idiosyncrasy which may give only a partial picture of the facts, but is suffused by the personality of the observer. The press, in fact, kills the individuality of those who write for it.'

Interestingly, one of Maugham's last essays was called 'Three Journalists' but it actually referred to three French writers (Goncourts, Renard, Leautaud) who kept journals (don't remember if any of them actually did some journalism in the more ordinary sense of the word).

PS Don't forget my girlfriend in Hyderabad. -:)

sandhya said...

Alexander: I was doing a bit of a research for Then And Now - and came across a scathing attack by a gentleman called Edmund Wilson in a book that is a compilation of all reviews of Maugham books - I think it's called The critical heritage?

I agree with him that Maugham sounds somewhat peevish and ungenerous in Ten Novels and Their Authors, but clearly there seems to be plenty of personal malice in Wilson's essay

Alexander said...

Oh, dear, you have caught the bull straight for - the horns. Wilson's notorious attack is more or less legendary today, at least among Maugham buffs. It is mind-boggling how such vitriol could have come from a man that was considered - and still is, indeed - one of America's leading literary critics. He used 'Then and Now' to lauch, so far as I know, by far the most scathing attack on Maugham's complete output and place in literature. Apparently, he later confessed that he had never read 'Of Human Bondange', 'Cakes and Ale' and 'The Razor's Edge'; just another proof that critics, literally, don't know what they talk about. Wilson, indeed, read Maugham's short stories only after lots of angry Maugham fans insisted on his doing so after his shameful 'review'. He promptly dismissed them as 'magazine commodities', if my memory serves me right.

'Then and Now' may not be Maugham's best novel, but it isn't the worst either. I have dealt with Wilson in my attempt for a review of the same book you mention, 'The Critical Heritage', for the fellow is so wide of the mark, and so obviously motivated by pure envy and malice, that it's actually a great fun to read him.

Interestingly - I would never have thought that possible - I have to agree with Wilson about Maugham's last major anthology, 'Great Modern Reading' (1943), that it is indeed a mixture of fine writing and near rubbish. Still have a good deal of the book to read but I have already come across some stuff I really wish Maugham never had included.

Alexander said...

P.S. And yes, I rather feel at home here. -:)

sandhya said...

Hard to believe Maugham wrote anything close to rubbish ever, but I will believe you. What book is this - Great Modern Writing. So is 'this' the book Wilson is referring to, and not Ten Novels and their Authors? In any case, though I did feel Maugham was indulging in a lot of slander and getting personal - but all around the language is excellent and the book sparkles with lush critical observations.

So I'm keen to read this other book too at some point soon. You won't believe though that almost every Maugham book is available here ( not readily) , except Ten Novels... and I very much doubt if I can find Great Modern Writing.

Alexander said...

You are rightly doubtful that Maugham ever wrote anything like rubbish. For my own part, he didn't. Even his first novel 'Liza of Lambeth, by far the dullest stuff of him I've read, is not quite rubbish, though it is close (but many people like it and do see merit in it). His other early books, most of them, to put it mildly, despised by the critics, all have something that appeals to me.

'Great Modern Reading' is only an anthology of English and American literature which Maugham selected, introduced and annotated during the Second World War and especially for the American reading public. It was published in 1943 and has been out of print since then, so it might be difficult to find it physically in India; online it's easy to find and very cheap. I have given the contents and a bunch of confused reflections (still in progress) here:


It's often forgotten that Maugham was not only a great writer but a great reader as well. He spent some six decades, not just writing, but reading as well. I, for one, am very much interested what he would choose as the best of English and American literature. That said, I am often disappointed with Maugham's choice: just another proof that taste is something completely inscrutable.

Here you can see all four anthologies Maugham compiled during his life, together with their tables of contents; I add thoughts of mine now and then when I happen to read piece here or there. But I'm still in the very beginning, so, except for 'Great Modern Reading', only 'Traveller's Library' has one brief note of Maugham-Conrad comparison, or, rather, the absurdity of such comparison: