W Somerset Maugham has written a book about his favourite novels. In this interview, Malcolm Muggeridge questions him about his choices, beginning with one of the authors who didn't make it into his top ten. In selecting his personal favourites, and with some provocation from Muggeridge, Maugham reveals something of his own philosophy on the character of a good novelist.
W. Somerset Maugham set up a fund in 1947 to enable young writers to enrich their work by gaining experience of foreign countries. Prize money totalling £1,000 is awarded annually to British authors under the age of 35 for a published work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The prize money must be used for foreign travel.
Here is a man with bitter truth in his work, with brilliance in his execution, with a sense of grim tragedy and deep irony.
In 1915, Maugham met an intelligence official, who recruited him to join the SIS, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. His first novel, Of Human Bondage, had just been published. The official suggested to Maugham that his language skills would benefit the intelligence service and that he could use his writing as a cover for his spying activities. As an agent in the SIS, Maugham's first assignment was in Geneva...
To view the world of Somerset Maugham and his work is to view the tensions of the Boer War, World War I, and World War II; to observe the London stage during the first thirty years if the twentieth century; … to understand the complexity, duality, and fear of the homosexual in a society where homosexuality could lead to imprisonment; to realize the friendships and jealousies among the literati; to bask in the lavish lifestyles of the upper echelons of British and American society…; and to grasp the subtlety weaving through the inner weaknesses of a supposedly strong British...
From October 1897, when he completed his medical education at St. Thomas' Hospital, London, until his death in December 1965, Maugham wrote twenty novels, filled nine volumes with his short stories, wrote thirty-one plays, published seven volumes of prose nonfiction, and provided the substance for no less than seven motion pictures.
"Maugham took himself seriously as a novelist, despite token displays of self-depreciation, and was proud of his enormous commercial success; he had no desire to jeopardize his reputation by quixotic gestures in defiance of sexual prejudice."
Many of his readers associate Somerset Maugham with the British Empire and the Far East, with Maugham himself a symbol of the quintessential English gentleman,…, descended from generations of old established county family. Yet in fact Maugham's parents were recent arrivals among the professional middle class, and they had lived not in England but in France
For much of his long life - he lived to be over ninety - Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was the most famous writer in the world. He was known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the immensely acclaimed, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the twentieth century.
Maugham jump-started his work by thinking of the first two sentences he wanted to write still in his mooring bath… he believed that it was impossible to write while looking out at a view, and always sat down to work in front of a blank wall… Maugham never suffered from a writer's block.
The struggle between sexual repression and artistic expression was at the heart of [Maugham's] personal and creative life.
The period of Maugham's greatest achievement spanned the twenty years if l'entre deux guerres, and of the many books he then published none received greater critical acclaim than two nonfictional works, Don Fernando (1935) and The Summing Up (1938).
…he deliberately set out to be provocative, flouting convention and treating the sacred cows of the time (religion, class, sexual morality) with scant respect… his favorite theme was adultery.