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Posts Tagged ‘somerset maugham’

If a novel was ever written for a writer, this is the one. Blisteringly satirical, it tells the story of a writer, Willie Ashenden, and his relationship with another writer Alroy Kear, who is tasked with writing a glowing biography of the recently departed, the venerable, and much revered writer Edward Driffield. A lot of writers, then. Ashenden knew Driffield in his earlier days, when he was not so revered, and indeed despised by polite society, on account of his lowly origins and his marriage to his first wife, the vivacious, promiscuous and prolifically unfaithful Rosie.

Most reviews I’ve read focus on the story of Ashenden’s relationship with Rosy. Her free spirit and even her promiscuity are written up as a refreshing poke in the eye for a stuffy, class-ridden society that rejects truth in favour of appearances. Personally, I found her rather shallow and cruel, the sort of girl who would break an honest man’s heart. But there’s much more going on here than that.

The inspiration for Edward Driffield was the then recently deceased novelist, Thomas Hardy. Alroy Kear was the writer Hugh Walpole. The novel caused a scandal, and broke the friendship between Maugham and Walpole, who recognised himself in it at once. Hardy’s widow, his second wife, and guardian of Hardy’s saintly legacy, was equally put out. She had a friend pen a novel by way of revenge, called Gin and Bitters, under the pseudonym of A Riposte. It was subtitled “A novel about a novelist who writes novels about other novelists.” Thin-skinned, Maugham took the hump and threatened to sue, preventing publication in the UK. Naturally, I’m on the look-out for a copy, but this is a rare book.

Anyway, besides trampling his fellows into the dirt, Maugham focuses a caustic eye upon the business of writing itself, or rather the business of books and publishing, which is really the story of the relationships between writers, critics and publishers, and how appallingly these literary types treat one another in order to get anywhere. And the book does this by being in itself an example of a writer – Maugham – trashing the reputations of other writers, both dead and living. Maugham denied all of it at the time, and his denials, given in the introduction to my edition, are plausible, but whatever the truth, I dare say the publicity did him no harm.

I’m very fond of Hardy, but agree with Maugham, he had a taste for the melodramatic. Walpole I know from his Herries series of books, and agree he could be terribly long-winded, one memorable description of a person’s hat taking more than a page, though these indefatigable efforts did little to actually impress the hat in my memory. That said, he produced four Herries, books and I stuck with all of them, and gladly, so he must have been doing something right. Nor does Maugham spare himself from ridicule, painting himself as his alter ego, Ashenden, a highly cultured, but rather unlikeable and self-entitled snob.

Although first published in nineteen-thirty, the book should still find resonance, not least among the contemporary generation of us so-called independent authors, who might be thinking, smugly, we have risen above this messy fray. But we haven’t. Not really.

As Maugham says:

The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one that has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking no writer can hold the public’s attention for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choices not from among the unknown writers, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the bestsellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.

What Maugham is pointing out here – albeit a to a future audience he could not have conceived of – is that while we might easily bypass the big publishers with our use of online media, without the massive machinery of attendant critics, hacks and reviewers singing our praises, our works are no better than those he describes as falling stillborn.

The commercial book business is a messy one, says Maugham. There is much back-stabbing and hypocrisy. Its writers can be vain, jealous creatures who will court approval and posterity at any price. But it’s from this milieu the great and lasting works must necessarily be chosen. By contrast, a book, self-published, might gain only modest altitude, marketed within the humble means of its author. But without a whole industry standing up on its behalf, no matter its merit, it falls into the void when compared with those conventionally published works, regardless of their actual merit. And that’s a sobering thing, one the independent author should digest before ever setting pen to paper.

As I have written elsewhere, there is likely a good reason my own books did not tickle an editor’s fancy, and I am at peace with that. I self-publish, but the only marketing my stories get is in the margin of this quiet backwater of a blog. So it comes down to the sort of writer you want to be. My books have not, and will not change the world, but they have changed me. They have held me together over the years, provided direction, and they have introduced me to ideas I would not otherwise have entertained. More, I believe my life would have been all the smaller for not having lived a good part of it in the imagination.

So, whilst not the most in-depth review of a book on my bookshelf, I hope I’ve been able to capture at least what most impressed itself upon me, as a writer of sorts, reading about a writer of another sort, gleefully and ruthlessly sending up writers of a similar sort. Whatever kind of writer you are, I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending time in the company of Cakes and Ale.

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The Razor’s Edge mostly concerns Larry Darrel, an American youth who has returned home from the first war. He’s expected to pick up where he left off, marry Isabel, his childhood sweetheart, and take up a position in business with his best friend’s father. His future looks set, and he’s well-placed to move into monied, and fashionable society, partly also by virtue of Isabel’s well-connected socialite uncle, Elliott Templeton.

But Larry’s experience in the war has changed him, and he sets off instead on a journey of self discovery that takes him through Europe and India, leaving Isabel to marry his best friend, the lovable but ultimately dull “Gray”. Maugham plays himself, popping in and out of the various characters lives, and thereby updating us on their progress, as the years pass.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dull, but Maugham draws his characters well and has us believe in them. Although a major thread of the story, Larry’s gradual path to a kind of enlightenment is delivered with a light brush, especially when compared with the lavishness heaped upon Elliot Templeton, who’s outrageous snobbery, tempered by his kindness and devotion to his family, nearly captures the entire book. Templeton’s highly strung obsession with the socialite scene, with matters of taste and position, are however, the perfect contrast to Larry’s gradual, happy impoverishment.

As for Isabel, although superficially happy with her marriage, money and the trimmings of her social position, she has never stopped wanting Larry. She simply couldn’t bring herself to be a part of the humble life he’d chosen, and when Larry resurfaces after many years looking set to marry Sophie, a broken drunk of a girl from his and Isabel’s past, no matter how reformed Larry claims Sophie to be, Isabel is determined to thwart the match by fair means or foul.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s one that lingers for a long time afterwards. We realise by the end we’ve become part of Maugham’s world, sat with him at the pavement café’s of inter-war Paris, attended Templeton’s fastidiously crafted society parties, and hobnobbed with the continental aristocracy. What the main characters all have in common is they are seeking happiness, Isabel through a good marriage, Gray through the making of money, Templeton through the recognition of his social prowess, and his exquisite tastes in fashion and art. And then there’s Larry. Larry’s path is the hardest of them all, unlike the others, not even knowing exactly what it is he’s looking for. He walks the Razor’s Edge, the title coming from a line in the Kathe Upanishad:

Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, difficult to traverse.

But as we follow Larry’s path, we see him grow, become grounded and at ease with life and himself. By contrast Isabel, still bound up with the material trappings, grows brittle for the choices she has made, and ever desperate for the man she loves, while Templeton, ageing yet forever striving to keep up with the times, fears being sidelined by the high society of which he believes himself to be king.

A little daring for its time, sexually frank, Maugham even ventures so far as profanity, though delicately, and in French. But what we also have here is the portrait of a lost world, the story taking place mostly in Europe of the 20s and 30s, a world that was swept away, even as Maugham was writing about it, and so lucidly.

It was the subject of two film adaptations, the first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, the second in 1984 with Bill Murray, but I can recommend neither. I’ve not read Maugham before, and I’m told this isn’t the best place to be starting, it being rather towards the end of his canon, but I found him nevertheless good company, and an engaging storyteller. A bestseller in its day, I thought it was a terrific read, its message as fresh now as ever, which only goes to show how little we’ve advanced, that while the wise know full well the material life is a dead end, most of us simply can’t help ourselves. Besides, anything else is a path so hard, and so narrow, few have the mettle, or the balance for it.

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