Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Grand Old Party

Published in GCN, April 1980. I was embarrassed, as I was typing this in, to notice that I wrote confidently about the bulk of Maugham's writing as if I knew it. In fact I'd only read Of Human Bondage, and one or two his stories, and though I've had his collected stories on my shelves for many years, that is still all I've read. Time to do something about that, I guess.


by Ted Morgan
Simon & Schuster, 1980

“Gossip is the food of the gods,” the noted raconteur and bon vivant Andrew Sutherland once remarked, and I don’t doubt that W. Somerset Maugham would have agreed with him. Gossip was the dust into which Maugham breathed the breath of life to make his best fictions, and what was the Villa Mauresque intended to be but his own private Olympus, where the witty and notable could sip ambrosia and be brilliant, with Maugham presiding over it all as Father Zeus? Complete, as Ted Morgan’s biography of Maugham reminds us, with thunderbolt.

Of course, Maugham’s fondness (indeed avidity) for gossip stopped short of his own affairs, and in his will he directed not only that all recipients of his letters should please destroy them, but that his estate should give no assistance to biographers. He had indulged in a certain amount of autobiographical writing, in which he had told the world as much as he was willing it should know. If he could not prevent the writing of biographies, he could at least hope to limit their revelations and their reliability. It is not surprising that few if any letters were burnt, but it is surprising that Maugham’s literary executor should have broken down and given his imprimatur to Ted Morgan’s Maugham, citing Morgan’s “scrupulous research” and “the fact that he had not attempted to pass any moral judgment on any character concerned.” About this “fact” I will have more to say presently.

The trouble with gossip about the great – and a biography is gossip – is that we who read it may not ourselves be great enough. We may titillate ourselves with shock that the famous (like our parents, another revelation from which many of us never quite recover) have genitals and use them. We may grab too eagerly at the subject's weaknesses for evidence that he was no better than we are, worse even, and so we are justified in being complacent.

As much generosity of spirit is required to write a biography as to read one. The biographer, flush with knowledge and power, may take too much pleasure in bringing a legend to earth. Maugham’s best fiction was an invitation to join him on a lofty, omniscient level where to understand all was to forgive all, to be as worldly and unshockable as the Old Party himself, to feel empathy with rather than smug superiority to the frailties of others. Biography can offer the same invitation, provided its literary model is Madame Bovary and not the National Enquirer. Mr. Morgan, it seems to me, tends toward the latter.

On one hand, reading Maugham requires the reader to play biographer. Mr. Morgan has certainly done his homework, and has assembled a huge mass of data – letters, gossip, interviews, summaries of Maugham’s books and plays with excerpts from reviews, passages from memoirs by Maugham’s friends and enemies, and trivia such as the number of the stateroom Maugham once occupied on the Queen Mary – and dumped it all together, undigested, imposing on it only a chronological order. Someone could write a fine shorter book on Maugham using this one as a source, and I wish someone (preferably gay) would. I can’t imagine anyone reading Mr. Morgan for, or with, pleasure. At best his prose is competent. It’s a pity he didn’t have the humility, as Maugham did, to ask a grammarian to pick over his manuscript.

On the other hand, where Mr. Morgan has made some effort to digest his material, I find myself grateful for the large amounts he leaves more or less untouched. He has a tendency to attribute statements to his sources indirectly so that it is hard to tell where the source ends and he begins. For example, he neds a long paragraph footnoted to Lady Alfred Ayer with the comment, “Homosexuality … had contributed to the death of the heart.” Who is passing judgment here? That Alan Searle’s “sexual services were still needed” by Maugham in his seventies is attributed to Searle, but judging by direct quotation from Searle elsewhere I don’t believe he would have worded it so clinically. Would Mr. Morgan sum up a heterosexual marriage in such terms as “In addition, he provided sexual relief whenever Maugham required it”? Barbara Back’s parties may have been known to heterosexual London “for the size of their heterosexual contingent,” a bigot’s way of saying that gays at at her parties were not required to wear a straight fa├žade. If the isle of Capri became “a sanctuary for the third sex,” a sanctuary was, after all, needed. Mr. Morgan may feel impressively Olympian when he adopts these clinical, patronizing, and snide turns of phrase, but I have the impression that homosexuality makes him uncomfortable. But he is such a bad writer that I can’t be sure.

Mr. Morgan is also given to facile psychologizing, so that he hardly needs the moral judgments which Maugham’s executor praised him for eschewing. He tries to pin Maugham’s misogyny on feelings of abandonment caused by his mother’s death when he was eight. “Women, going back to his mother, were a disappointment, an unreliable species,” he speculates on Maugham’s motivation. “He appears to have enjoyed turning [actresses] down for parts, as if through them he were punishing all women,” Morgan writes later, as though Maugham weren’t equally petty in the exercise of power over men. He seems to think Maugham’s homosexuality was caused by his misogyny, but if that were true there would be few straight men in the world. He goes on at great length about Maugham’s stammer – there are twenty-eight entries under “Maugham, W. Somerset, stammer of” in the index – citing “the list of negativistic syndromes developed by the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan,” into which “Maugham’s behavior fits quite neatly.” The fact that “its origins are quite unknown” does not prevent Mr. Morgan from saying things like “a stammer is something you do to yourself,” “a way of telling the world that he was not like others,” “a way of guaranteeing the situation that you foresee.” “The stammerer has some quarrel with himself, he sets up his own roadblocks.” With comments like these, who needs moral judgments?

Still, the book is valuable. Everything you ever wanted to know about W. Somerset Maugham, plus much else, is in it: Maugham’s unhappy childhood, his wretched marriages (to Sylvie Barnardo and Gerald Haxton – Maugham once said of Haxton to Godfrey Winn, a young writer, “You do not know what it is like, Godfrey, and I hope you never will, to be married to someone who is married to drink”), his humiliating senescence (“If you think I’m gaga, you should see Winston [Churchill]”, he told S. N. Behrman). Yet he was a fascinating figure: his writing career spanned sixty-five years, he was famous for most of it, and he hobnobbed with the literary and social lions of three generations. It’s easy to despise him – he made it easy – and as a role model for gays he had little to offer. He never spoke up for the repeal of the British Sexual Offenses Act (but neither did W. H. Auden or that old darling E. M. Forster), and he never spoke again to one man who tried to get him to do so. But Maugham himself summed up the matter best, in a passage about Wagner quoted by Morgan:
I do not believe they are right who say that the defects of famous men should be ignored. I think it is better that we should know them. Then, though we are conscious of having faults as glaring as theirs, we can believe that that is no hindrance to our achieving some of their virtues.