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!
Posted by Sandhya Iyer at 15:45