19 September 2012

The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham

 Author: Selina Hastings Pages: 550 Published in: 2010


Not a rollicking read, but Selina Hastings' biography on Maugham is balanced, credible and engaging enough

Given that Maugham reveals so much of himself in his works and has given such a vivid description of his childhood, his views on art, love, marriage, life and sundry things, there's only so much more that a biography on him can reveal.

Selina Hastings' work therefore has nothing drastically new to say. But the book picks up with her description of Maugham's stunning professional ascent as a playwright after several years of struggle. She throws light on each of his works, the circumstances surrounding them and the public and critical response they elicited. Selina describes the plot line of most of Maugham's major works with a brief analysis and is spot on most of the time. None of her reading is particularly brillaint or insightful, but it is clearly from someone who has enjoyed studying Maugham.

She of course focusses amply on the author's private life which is what stayed under covers. Most of this is revealed through the letters that Maugham wrote, some of them being to his male lovers. The author, the biography says, distroyed all his private correspondences and even urged his friends to do the same. But his friends were no fools and opportunistically preserved the letters knowing they would fetch them handsome returns. Maugham was a biosexual, and appears to have had many affairs but thankfully Selina maintains a balance, never going overboard with salacious personal information. This despite the title of the book suggesting otherwise. This naturally lends the biography more credibility and if nothing more, it is an excellent chronicle of his life and work.

Her authorial voice is fluid and elegant but also a wee bit too restrained, so that at times the biography tends to drag.  Yet, Selina has one admirable quality. Much like Maugham, Selina is able to see things from multiple persepectives and understands the compulsions under which characters act.  Though Maugham disliked his wife, Syrie, and hated acknowledging her, terming his marriage as a very insignificant detail in his life, Selina is able to view Syrie's predicament and takes an empathetic view of her situation.
 Maugham who enters the marriage  never fully convinced about it soon realises his mistake. He becomes eager than ever to take up long travels with his male companion, Gerald, staying away from home for extended periods. Syrie by now is in love with Maugham and feels despondent and lonely. This results in ugly, loud scenes that unsettles and infuriates the author. The marriage ends in spite of resistance from Syrie and Maugham till the end resents having to shell out big amounts in allimony. This despite the fact that he was otherwise quite generous with money throughout his life. They have a girl child, Lisa and though Maugham is fond of her, he is never particularly close. Selina also suggets that the author might have preferred to have a son. Selina similarly also gives a rounded perspective of the two men in Maugham's life, Gerald Hastings and Alan Searle.

One recurrent theme in the book is of Maugham's increasing wealth and him moving into bigger and lavish homes. Though he belonged to reasonaly well-off parents he was left with very little money when they died. For many years Maugham was forced to live frugally. He was a novelist but money only trickled in at this point. Then almost overnight his career as a playwright took off and Maugham was famous. The cheques flowed with many added zeroes now. Maugham posessed shrewd wisdom with respect to his craft,  and knew best how to satisfy an audience. His set-up was light and entertaining that appealed to the masses, and yet there was a cetain complexity, a dark core he provided to his characters and themes (extra-martial affairs...)so that the thoughful man in the audience too had something to chew on  This meant that Maugham wasn't producing any high art, but he wasn't selling his soul either. What he wrote was perfectly acceptable entertainment. Today the author is remembered for his novels and short stories which is where Maugham's heart always was and he wrote them with unfliching honesty and passion. But it was his plays that brought him his millions.

As money poured in, the author was able to fully devote his time to travel, leisure and writing. Having made so much wealth on the dint of his genuis, Maugham was not only an inspiration for everyone around, he weilded a rare creative and personal power leading life entirely on his own terms.
Maugham of course had an active personal life but that never seems to have interfeared with his writing career which he 'ruthlessly protected.'   He liked stimulating company and sex but his daily schedule where he spent most of his morning hours writing was never disrupted till the end. He entertained guests, enjoyed tea times and dinner but promptly went to bed at a fixed time. It is this discipline to his craft that is inspiring about Maugham's life.

His passion for places and people, combined with his need to be productive and relevant at all times is what prompted him to take up assignments as a British secret agent during World War 1 & 2. Maugham soaked himself in the thrill of new experiences as it was all finally material for writing. He hated dullness and constantly sought change.

What do you take home about Maugham after reading Hastings' biography? For someone with such deep insight into human behaviour and a pragmatic, clever grasp of life,  Maugham's success was expected and most deserved.
His marriage was miscalculated and this was a bitter irony for someone who was so curiously fascinated by marriage and wrote about all kinds of complexities in relationships. But he also believed that it was almost always tipped to fail, only with a slim chance of escaping that fate. Even with that knowledge his marriage was a disaster. The important moral here is that all of us, no matter how intelligent or shrewd are prone to misjudge and make mistakes.

Did his own soured marriage impact his writing? Hard to say because Maugham's stories depicting the doomed nature of love and marriage, like Mrs Craddock, Liza Of Lambath, Merry-Go-Round,   including many of his plays were written before he tied the knot. It is very likely that some of his feelings to do with his vexing marriage may have found an expression in his stories. Selina attempts to draw constant parallels and a few examples do seem to mirror Maugham's thoughts on his marriage. But nothing very substantial.

A gifted story-teller who could enthrall his listeners even as a child, he was clearly born to write. Beyond his complex relationships and conflicted sexuality, Maugham's life essentially speaks of great persevearance, discipline and drive. His constant travel and reading ensured he had a wealth of experience and wisdom from which he drew upon to create unforgettable stories.