15 OCTOBER 1977, Page 23


Richard Shone

Somerset Maugham, Anthony Curtis (Weidenfeld .26.50) Anthony Curtis is not entirely to blame for having written a displeasing book. One senses a publisher's cheque fluttering in the room where he wrote and the voice of Somerset Maugham rasping in his ear 'Thou shalt have no other biography but mine'. Maugham destroyed' many personal letters and much of the unused material in his notebooks. He wished no life to be written and as Mr Curtis says, with disarming honesty: `Up to now he has been successful.' But he should not have let it be seen that he was up against such formidable difficulties. Apart from this central blockade, the fault lies with the author. He teases us into thinking We know more from reading this book than other accounts, his literary criticism is perfunctory and his style is one long shuffle (with occasional sprints) from cliche to To someone seeking an introduction to Maugham's career, the book is satisfactory enough. We are given the outline of his miserable schooldays, the London years as a medical student, his travels abroad, his work as a secret agent; there is a vivid picture of the old man burning his letters in the luxury of the Villa Mauresque. The game of 'spot the real life character' is gone into pretty thoroughly and there is an admirable summary of the reception of Cakes and Ale with Hugh Walpole indignantly squealing about London at Maugham's mischievous portrait of him INAlroy Kear. The one person whom Maugham in his middle years was really attached to, Gerald Haxton, is given a thumb-nail sketch; their relationship, one feels, is a clue to much in Maugham's character. We are tantalized when we read suddenly of Maughatn's 'private anguish' but have to make do with hints and halfsuggestions. Many of the so-called 'period' illustrations have surely reached their time of life. Frederic Raphael's recent Somerset Maugham and His World skimmed the cream in that direction, though one is grateful for the series of portraits by Gerald Kelly and the splendid Gauguin door. Few would deny Maugham's fascination; his gifts are transparent, so much so they need little scrutiny or elaboration. His books will go on being read, a few of his plays performed; his stories make superb television, Mr Curtis feels Maugham has not been paid his due and Mr Curtis is the literary editor of the Financial Times, so something must be up. But he is perceptive enough to agree that Maugham is not of the company of Tolstoy or James. Why then does he think it intellectually arrogant of Lytton Strachey to put The Painted Veil in 'Class II, Division I'? Where does that place Strachey or, for that matter, Mr Curtis? He lacks a positive case for the defence — for in his eyes Maugham is the accused — and passes us off with saying something about the magic of the Master's art. It won't do. He would have fared better by keeping to a simple and accurate account of the life and books — which indeed he sporadically maintains — instead of pitting Maugham against the 'highbrows' thus doing himself and his subject a disservice. Bloomsbury of course are the wicked 'highbrows' (though there are some swipes from D. H. Lawrence and Edmund Wilson); yet the author bites the hand that feeds him. He actually quotes Virginia Woolf's praise of The Summing Up and Desmond MacCarthy's of the short stories ('the English Maupassant'); others in Bloomsbury greatly enjoyed Maugham's books and Clive Bell was a close friend for years. That they found his work 'beyond the pale' is simply not supported by the facts. But this is perhaps a trivial misrepresentation. More seriously, Mr Curtis delivers himself of a stunning aesthetic dictum. Although Maugham, he writes was certainly not great in the sense that Henry James and Proust and TOIstoy are , Maugham does occupy the middle ground. He occupies it more brilliantly perhaps than it has ever been occupied before. But then does one always wish to be living on the heights?

What a formula for reducing everything to the average common denominator; what a confusion of terms!

In his foreword, Mr Curtis writes of 'how rapidly words get out of control . threatening to swamp the original conception in banality and cliché'. One would mind less perhaps the small factual errors (Maugham's oldest brother was apparently born four years before his parents' marriage) or some of the omissions (Maugham's picture collection might have been discussed), if the way the book was Written had been more free from 'banality and cliché'. Must sweeps be majestic and ground stony? Do people really slip across the Channel and conjure with names; do fateful summers still unfold? Will pasta always be washed down with yin rose? And 'tossing off a tart observation' seems an astonishing occupation. Years of reading Maugham's serviceable prose seem to have been squandered on Mr Curtis.