7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 15

Ambiguous sort of clay

Beverley Nichols

Escape from the Shadows Robin Maugham (Hodder & Stoughton, £3.50) "All of us," observes Somerset Maugham "have crossed thesholds of which we do not boast." Though he was speaking through the lips of one of the characters in Rain, the remark was poignantly autobiographical. Maugham had crossed many such thresholds, and some of them were very queer indeed, in every sense of the word. And he certainly never boasted of them. On the contrary. He covered up his tracks with meticulous care till the end of the journey; the mask was fixed more and more tightly over the withering features; and the world, by and large, was fooled. It was not till the publication of one of my own books that the general public had any inkling that Maugham's picture of himself was largely fictional and that the feet of the Master were fashioned from a very ambiguous sort of clay.

And now comes Rabin, his nephew, who has crossed over stranger thresholds in the course of his career. But though Robin has more than a touch of his uncle's genius — as Willie once reluctantly admitted to me — there the resemblance stops. For Robin has something that Willie always lacked — courage. Not only physical courage, of which he gave abundant proof during the war, but moral courage. It took exceptional guts to publish Escape from the Shadows. It is the sort of book which, had it appeared in an earlier age, would have caused the author's peers to rise from their chairs as soon as he entered and leave the room "in a marked manner," as they did in the days of Dorian Gray. For all I know there may still be a few pillars of the Upper House who will choose to exercise their privilege in this manner.

For this, as far as I am aware, is the first autobiography in which a writer of Robin Maugham's standing — using the word " standing " in its widest sense, to indicate his social as well as his literary significance — has openly proclaimed his homosexuality in prose that is scrupulously exact and capable of no other interpretation. Needless to say, there have been many other such works in which the writer's predilections are clearly apparent. But even in the case of Andre Gide, who went as far as he dared, the theme, though it was stated, was always subtly softpedalled. The stage was dimly lit; there was always an escape-route, which enabled the 100 per cent heterosexual to read on without much discomfort or indignation. Not so in Escape from the Shadows. There is no soft-pedalling, the stage is flood-lit and if we don't like what we see . . . well, there are always the exit doors.

Sometimes, in assessing the quality of a work of art, it is useful to consider not only what it is, but what it is not. This book might have been exhibitionist; it is not. Those who read it "for the juicy bits" will be disappointed. True, some of it is rather horrifying. The descriptions of the goings-on at the author's private and public schools made me feel that my own Marlborough College, though it was a harsh and brutal place, was by comparison a monastic institution. But the shock of these episodes is not contrived; it arises naturally from the context. If there were even a momentary suspicion that Maugham had set out to " epater le bourgeois" or to earn an easy buck, this would be very shocking. But the blazing sincerity of the writing dispells any such suspicion.

Again, the book might have been embarrassingly snobbish. It is not, although the temptation must have been considerable. Even in these days, the English dearly love a lord, though they are sometimes reluctant to admit it. As a viscount, Robin might have thrown his weight about; he does not. When he mentions distinguished figures — (there are some fascinating glimpses of Churchill) — he does so, not as a name-dropper, but because they played an important part in his life's development.

Finally, the powerful theme of the book — homosexuality — might have been so dominant that it drowned what one might call incidental music. It does not. This is a cunningly orchestrated book, in which the two other shadows — his father and Uncle Willie — loom very large. His sombre portrait of the first Lord Maugham, the Lord Chancellor, is Dickensian in its force. He was, indeed, an essentially Victorian character.

As for Uncle Willie — well, here perhaps I am prejudiced. However, on the somewhat dubious assumption that future generations will continue to regard Somerset Maugham as a major novelist and a master dramatist, it may be stated that this book is essential reading. 'The Master' — Willie bitterly resented the later transference of his accolade to Sir Noel Coward — is stripped to the skeleton. Willie once said to me "I try to get down to the bare bones of style." Robin has got down to the bare bones of Willie, and the result, if not edifying, is unforgettable. And once again we hear an echo of Oscar Wilde, who said "I put my genius into my life and only my talent into my works." Willie might have said the same.

And what about Robin, with those flashes of genius which Willie reluctantly admitted, and the stormy erratic life which he has shared with us? Which comes first? I wouldn't know, for this is a book which can only be finally reviewed by posterity. It is by no means a perfect work of art. There are traces of hasty writing, as though the author were so eager to cleanse his bosom of this perilous stuff that he could not pause to polish his paragraphs, and sometimes the heat of his emotions betrays him into journalese — brilliant journalese admittedly, but more appropriate to the public platform than the printed page. All that can be said, with assurance, is that after this grim and gripping book the art of autobiography will never be quite the same again.