A Study of the Hollow Earth

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Modernism without Confirmation: The Exclusion of W. Somerset Maugham from Modernist Canon

W Somerset Maugham Books
The Novels of William Somerset Maugham

Was it because his books were bestsellers? Was it because Virginia Woolf never invited him to tea with the rest of the Bloomsbury set and never had his work published by Hogarth Press? Was it because he tempered liberalism with the unpopular idea of patriotism? Was it because his prose did not require a road map and a shovel to decipher its meaning?

Without a doubt, Maugham’s first novel, Liza of Lambeth, is in the tradition of the Realists, depicting unrelenting poverty and consequence. But his later – and more successful – work shifted to those characters of middle class aspiration and upper class desperation. Disaffected with society, disturbed by colonialism, and detached from the past, Maugham’s oeuvre embraced those same themes as his contemporaries, yet remains conspicuously absent from most Modernist study (and anthology) because his style is not considered as abstract/experimental. Gore Vidal accuses the author of an “unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way”[1] because Maugham’s prose was without nuance. But should stylistic metaphor alone account for defining Modernism?

Elizabeth Bowen accused him of being “without pity” in his treatment of words and the world.[2] It is true that Bowen’s characters were often pitiable creatures in a cruel world, but Modernism must surely have meant more than empathic treatment of those swallowed by the world. If Maugham’s characters appear cold, it’s because he himself was known to be icy and aloof, hiding his own homosexuality and pained feelings of being unloved. Virginia Woolf said the Modernist author is most inspired by “the dark places of psychology”[3] and there is no doubting that Maugham was a tormented individual whose psyche spilled over into his characters.

In the 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Maugham takes an almost Postmodern and experimental turn by including himself in the narrative (not metaphorically, but as himself). But Maugham also had experience in playing himself – an author – when he worked as a spy for the British SIS between the wars. This later became the character Ashenden, British spy, a dapper, aloof fellow preceding the development of James Bond. Many other Modernists included autobiographical elements of their lives into their works – from Woolf’s family holidays in To the Lighthouse to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so accusations of too-much autobiography should not be cause for exclusion.

Maugham’s work on the twilight of colonialism (i.e. The Moon and Sixpence and The Painted Veil) is no different in theme from, say, Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India. His sweeping commentary on the frippery of wealth and shallowness of society (à la Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge) echoes the same as The Good Soldier (Ford) or Howard’s End (Forester). Maugham is not merely imitating these other works, but publishing contemporaneously the same social stumbles and evolutions seen by his peers, whether they counted him as such or not.

If I have a contention here at all, it is that Maugham has been unjustly omitted from the Modernist canon by those contemporaries who defined themselves by their work as much as their social circle, and Maugham felt much the same about his exclusion from Bloomsbury.[4] Flipping through the indexes of four different general academic books on Modernism, not one mentions Maugham, where Hastings’s biography of him doesn’t miss any of his contemporaries. While his works mostly remain in print (Vintage being the primary publisher) and Hollywood will pick them up from time to time for star-studded period piece, Maugham seems in danger of disappearing from academic study and reading lists, relegated to the shadows of his fellow Modernists.

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[1] Gore Vidal, February 1, 1990, The New York Review of Books, 10

[2] https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0217/p14s02-bogn.html

[3] Peter Childs, Modernism, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 80.

[4] Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, New York: Arcade, 2009, p. 360.

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