The Who2 Blog

Somerset Maugham: Swami-Loving Third-Rater?

Somerset Maugham photo in a necktie, jacket and handkerchief in someone's garden

Carl Van Vechten / U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division

The New York Times visits the ashram that helped inspire Somerset Maugham‘s terrific 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge:

In his 1944 essay “The Saint,” Maugham describes a mostly silent meeting with the swami [Sri Ramana Maharshi], who was “of a dark honey color with close-cropped white hair and a close-cropped white beard” and wore only a loincloth. When Maugham said he felt sick and weak, Sri Ramana replied, “Silence is also conversation.” This and many of the details of his visit found their way into “The Razor’s Edge.”

Colorful stuff and well worth a read for Maugham fans. The Times also has a review by David Leavitt of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, a new biography by Selena Hastings. Leavitt makes it sound as if Hastings isn’t too kind to Maugham, and then Leavitt takes a few moments to tee off on Maugham as well.  (“Brittle, arch, world-weary and heartless,” is how Leavitt describes Maugham’s prose near the end of his review.)

What did W. Somerset Maugham ever do to modern readers and literary critics, anyway?  In the last decade he seems to have gone from “writer being slowly forgotten” to “writer who gets dumped on as some kind of villain.”  I don’t have hard proof to back up that assertion (and I haven’t yet read Hastings’s biography), but it’s certainly my impression from general reading.

Maugham himself said that he knew his place in literary history was “in the very front row of the second-rate,” and that seems like a clever statement: witty, self-deprecating, and accurate.  The rap on Maugham used to be that he could never be a first-rater because he told “small” stories and didn’t take on the tragedies of life on a grand scale, a la Tolstoy or Dickens or even Hemingway.

And that’s fine.  That could be true and he could still be a swell writer — which I think he is.  The Razor’s Edge is really one of my favorite books. It was the first grown-up novel I ever read with real interest and engagement on my own, not just because it was supposed to be good or because it was a class assignment. It still has some of the best pure descriptive writing I’ve ever read.  Maugham draws characters beautifully and then puts them through their paces.  Ashenden is a great spy story, generally acknowledged as a minor classic of the form. And weren’t Maugham’s short stories generally agreed to be rather important classics of that form?

But these days the urge seems to be to move Somerset Maugham down to the ranks of the third-raters, or below.  Was his writing a little cold-blooded or too precise for some tastes?  Sure. But brittle, arch, world-weary and heartless?  I don’t get it.

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