6 MAY 1978, Page 21

Uncle me no

Alastair Forbes

Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham Robin Maugham (W. H. Allen £5.00) 'Fifty years, it's a very long time,' remarked

Willie Maugham, stretching out a hand to Pat the sleeve of Noel Coward, who in 1962, according to this book, had just reminded hurl of the length of their acquaintance, and for almost as long a time have I counted myself the affectionate friend of Robin Maugham, though .I seldom see him. (Once, before the last war, we even tried to start a Magazine together, though it failed to get off the ground, perhaps because we had saddled it with the same name as an earlier Publication of Lenin's.) 'I suppose we must rant Robin a touch of g-g-genius' his aMous uncle, in a rare moment of benignity, grudgingly conceded. I think that such genius as there is to recognise comes not from his father, surely the most curmudgeonly and constipated Lord Chancellor ever to sit on the Woolsack, judged by Is brother Willie 'a despicable shit', a verdict accepted without dissent or appeal k,freul his son, but from his mother, born "ellY Romer of the noted family of lawyers of that name. 'She had the secret of dis

engaging the kernel of fun or absurdity which often lurks within the most unpromising material and bringing it to the surface, a process warming to the cockles alike of the heart and of the mind . . . that made her a potent and persuasive cause of happiness in others.' So, with truth, Cyril Asquith wrote of her, and Robin's similar gift for turning, with much droll embroidery, almost any incident into a tall tale with some punchline of sheer comedy made him the joy of his friends at Cambridge and after.

He was lucky to survive, albeit with a fair bit of desert shrapnel ensconced within his cranium, a gallant war about a part of which he wrote a moving account in diary form, entitled Come to Dust, which had a deserved success. Three or four of his dozen or so novels later won him equally merited renown and ample reward from the sale of their movie rights.

Over the years his immensely rich uncle delighted to cat-and-mouse with him over the prospects of a considerable future financial inheritance. Before becoming, towards the end of his life, half-gaga, half malignantly mad, he had also told him, 'I have no objection now to you writing my biography after my death,' nor even, he added, to such a work being handled by the publishers of all his own work, Heinemann. A year after his death, which brought Robin only a disappointly measly annuity, Heinemann, jointly with Longman's, did bring out, after prior serialisation in the Sunday Telegraph, his Somerset and all the Maughams, a portrait in which his uncle's many warts seemed to be shown clear winners over all the rest of him. To me at the time he gaily excused the doubtful taste of much of his necroscopic study with a quip about his hopes of it bringing him a sum

nearer to what he had hoped Willie might have come across with in the first place. It was certainly a model of decency and fair

mindedness by comparison with Willie's own beastly attack (Looking Back, pub

lished by Beaverbrook in England and by

the shortlived Show magazine in the United States) on his former wife Syrie, the attrac

tive and gifted mother of his only child Liza, now Lady Glendevon, a shameful polemic which disgusted all who read it. Thanks also

to Heinemann's high standards, Somerset and all the Maughams was very well produced and emerged from its editing by no

means ill-written. 'You don't spend enough time on your books,' his uncle had once justifiably accused him. 'You buggered up the book through your idleness, of course,' he said of one; 'If you'd only read it through, you must have seen parts that could come out'. He also told Robin of his discovery that, 'the only sure way to rid myself of haunting memories is to write them out of my system'. But his nephew clings to his memories of his haunted uncle and dishes the old horr up again and again, producing

as it were an ever weaker and more transparent draught from an exhausted teabag. Little more than five years after Somerset

and all the Maughams there appeared his autobiography, not this time 'published by Heinemman, which contained a hundred or more separate references to his uncle and once more served up whole chunks from the earlier book about him. It has long been evident that the writ of the Trades Description Act does not extend to publishers' blurb-writing. For along, six years after the autiography, comes W. H. Allen's practitioner of those artful conceits and deceits, to tell the poor bookbuyer that `at last' the author `has assembled in book form the observations of and about his uncle . . . recorded all his uncle's conversations . . . astonishingly revealing treasure trove'. The Sunday Times has, perhaps characteristically, jumped at the chance to print almost word for word what had appeared in the Sunday Telegraph a dozen years earlier, even down to photographs. Much is made of the recent rediscovery by the author ('Inasmuch', he writes, lapsing into legal jargon, `as this book has been compiled from my diaries') of some old diaries and a page of foolscap MS, undoubtedly in his handwriting, dated 4 August '62, is reproduced from them. This has also been sloppily, and as anyone who bothers to can see, even incorrectly transcribed into print, and these 'diaries' add little or nothing to what this reviewer at any rate and others to whom he has spoken of them knew already. Certainly there rises from almost every page a miasma of déjà lu to suffocate the reader. It requires the most wakeful attention for a `treasure' hunter to spot any fresh gems at all in this trove of paste — and scissors.

Some Americans, it is true, may either puzzle or giggle, or even do both, to read of Willie . rebuking Beverly Nichols with a 'Weren't you ter-taught when you were young not to stroke the fruit?' or picking his words equally unhappily when proclaiming that 'Noel and I never stuck our personal predilections down our public's throats'. Older readers of the Spectator will be surprised to be told that Harold Nicolson used to contribute a weekly book review (it was, of course, an essay: his book reviews were done for the Observer and the Evening Standard). I suppose one should not be surprised at such carelessness from an author who has already set exactly the same 'firsthand' story, complete with quotations, about Willie in one book at the Dorchester Hotel and in another at his South of France villa, Yet surely it is a little unfair on Willie, who was born in France and spoke French as his first language before returning to live there more than half his life, to see him being made to make the most appalling howlers, to say nothing of committing the solecism of not knowing that a Rolls, like every other car, is in French feminine. It is irritating to find references to the late Doctor Salazar as a General and to see Prince Rainier of Monaco's exceedingly cultivated and charming father, the late Prince Pierre, already given rough treatment by Proust as the 'Prince de Luxembourg', attributed in one unkind passage the surname de Polignol instead of de Polignac. It is simply lazy of the author not to have discovered the difference between a mortuary and a crematorium. It remains a vexation to read placement when what is meant is place a table or even 'seating at table'.

Edmund Wilson called the elder Maugham a 'half-trashy novelist' whose 'language is such a tissue of cliches', though he had to recognise that his short stories were both readable and interesting. They are a good deal more than that — and so are his first two novels, while he was a skilful playwright. Certainly much of his nephew's latest book appears to have been ghosted by that genial creation of Gore Vidal's, Herman Victor Weiss, who has clearly now assumed the mantle of the late Mr Arbuthnot, the New Yorker's famous 'cliche expert'. Mindful no doubt of the old saw 'A watched pot never boils', the author has simply hacked up his stale ingredients, tossed them in any old which-way, hoping that his uncle's name on the menu would be enough to bring in the customers. 'As a thoroughly second-rate writer,' Willie is quoted as once saying, 'there's nothing very much I deserve'. He surely deserves better than to be judged on the basis of nine score or so pages about his last pathetic years with only one single remaining friend and scarcely more remaining marbles.

On the other hand, the idea, first adumbrated by Robin Maugham more than a decade ago, that his uncle came to resemble a man filled with remorse at having in youth concluded a pact with the Devil who had offered, in exchange for his soul, to make him the most successful living writer, seems to me to be an admirable theme for a work of fiction. So does that of the qualified doctor, too terrified of the death he claims to long for, to write out his own prescription for a fatal overdose and swallow it. And it is fiction, based on his own experiences and observation, which is the forte of the nephew as it was of the uncle. The latter was quite right to complain that Robin put too much of himself into his non-fictional writings. A great deal of this book could have been entitled 'Line on two Gingers'. Willie hated the boasting about the boys with whom Robin lived in such flagrant 'sin' CI use them as girls,' he once rather strangely explained to me and it is true, one finds, that a lot of girls do like being used that way, though perhaps not quite as many as George Melly supposes), and he was perhaps jealous of the very brief spell before the war which was all Robin had to spend before coming out of the closet, whereas he himself had had to wait half an unhappy lifetime, the rest of which he was to spend being fairly faithful to only two successive male companions, his grief at the premature death of the first being something he never quite got over.

He was by no means alone amongst writers lacking a vocation for happiness and sadistically punishing others for this pitiful impotence, quite unable to obtain adequate consolation from his worldwide literary success. He was cruel and vindictive to the mother of a daughter he much loved after his fashion and of whose children and the successes they are are making today of their lives he would surely have been very proud, if only in a worldly way. He was a Monstre Profane and he ought anyway to be the subject of a serious biography. It is alas a task for which his nephew Robin has shown himself to be less and less fitted as the years go by and it is to be hoped that he will henceforth leave ill alone. I suddenly recall that, for his twenty-first birthday, I presented him with a Morocco-bound edition of the works of Flaubert, who complained that, 'All English writers lack composition. This is intolerable for us Latins.'