For fourteen years T. A. Morton has delved back and forth into the works of W. Somerset Maugham – one of the all-time best selling authors in the English language. For the first time, this book collects, all T. A. Morton’s essays and short stories about W. Somerset Maugham. It gives us a valuable insight into his methods of storytelling and his life , at the same time providing a fresh encounter with Maugham’s most well known stories.
Living with Maugham is a modern appreciation of the importance of remembering those writers that make us want to write, and how truly inspiring it is to pay homage to them.
There is a second-hand bookshop that I often visit in Copenhagen, sometimes in search of inspiration or, more likely, just because I am bored and want to browse. There, in the cellar downstairs next to a working fireplace, is a corner filled with books in English; in that tucked away space, I have found work by Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Mary McCarthy, John Wain and a first edition of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill. The play text contains an original photo of O’Neill and a typed written letter on a thin blue piece of paper from O’Neill’s wife, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, giving thanks to the Danish critic Bent Mohn on receiving a copy of the Danish translation of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Recently, I returned to the bookshop and was immediately struck by the title of a book, Women Must Work. Initially, I laughed, took a picture of it and contemplated writing something witty on Instagram about it, but then, still feeling the after-effects of the derogatory language used by Trump about women, I picked it up. Even if I never read it, I thought, my daughter would see it one day, and she would read it; the title would root itself within her. I admit I didn’t recognise the author, Richard Aldington, but now I know I must have seen it somewhere for, on googling him, I realised that he had written an appreciation on Maugham. Quickly, I ordered it online, assuming it would be similar to the outstanding Patterns of Maugham by Anthony Curtis, and would provide me with another insight into Maugham. Yet, when it arrived, I was surprised to see it was a pamphlet. The appreciation by Richard Aldington was eight pages long; there was a short note by Maugham himself on turning sixty-five and a photo I have never seen before of Maugham staring at a bookshelf. I read it quickly and was instantly struck by Aldington’s anger over the lack of respect from literary critics that Maugham received during his career. In the early part of the twentieth century, W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most successful and popular writers in the world. He wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, non-fiction and travel books, and, to the critics of the day, he was often viewed as ‘competent’, but was deemed second-rate. Aldington writes, ‘What perverse nonsense it is to assume that a book or play which is immediately successful on a large scale must be bad!’
It occurred to me that if, in 1939 when this pamphlet was published, Maugham was already deemed as being beneath the great men of letters, then how had I ever expected that anyone would take what I had stated at about him at literary conferences to be taken seriously. From the first time, at the Anthony Powell Society when I compared Powell’s
London to Maugham’s, to Vienna at the 13th International Conference on the Short Story when I had considered whether the realist or modernist movement had influenced some of his short stories, each time I bravely stood, at my own expense, before academics, despite not being a literary scholar myself, pushing his work forward.
At these conferences, I found people were not overly favourable to Maugham; ‘out-of-date’ and ‘old-fashioned’, I was told. I suppose, in my own way, I am similar to Aldington, angry and disappointed that such a great writer, and one who had influenced writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Anthony Burgess, Ian Fleming and George Orwell who referred to him as ‘the modern writer who had influenced me the most’, should be forgotten.
Yet, Maugham seems to do that to us, his faithful few, and his work encourages a need to write about him, defend him while reminding the world of him. I am not the only writer who has felt like this about him, yet, in my recent practices, I have never met a counterpart. People tend to remember his name, but haven’t read him for years. They tell me they will go back and reread him, and I suppose that’s why I do it, to create a spark in his name once more. Others have queried me (mostly writers) over my relationship with him. They ask, ‘Why speak of him and not your own work?’ Maybe it’s easier for me to pay homage to a writer who has inspired me greatly than talk or address my own work.
Last year I finished rewriting a novel. It took me longer than I would have liked, and, despite the fact that I had another story in my head, I needed some distance, and so I saw that the Literary London Society was holding a conference. I put forward an abstract on Maugham and the English in the East. It was accepted, and I went along quietly, ready for those surprised eyes when I mentioned his name. Instead, we were welcomed, Maugham and I. One of the conference’s organisers actually thanked me for speaking about him at the opening ceremony. Surrounded by academics from around the world, I spoke of Maugham and his characterisation of the English; it was the first time I actually felt proud of my strange relationship with him, no longer did I have to stare into smug, bemused faces. We, the two of us, were met with warmth and appreciation.
The bookshop in Copenhagen never gave me any Maugham. I found him on New Year’s Eve a few years before I moved to Denmark—a tatty second-hand copy of The Razor’s Edge bought for four euros at the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop in Paris. I didn’t know then that he would come to mean so much to me, but, as we returned to Europe after living in Hong Kong, he seemed to follow me as I read him: from Monaco close to Maugham’s home in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat and
Villefranche Sur Mer to discovering that he had lived around the corner from where I was staying while I read
Remembering Mr. Maugham by Garson Kanin at Chesterfield Street in Mayfair. I have travelled to Singapore, Langkawi, Borneo and throughout Malaysia to the outstations he refers to, while reading his tales from the Far East. I found he was there, and now so was I. Travel, to Maugham, was valuable and essential, in The Summing Up, he wrote ‘I travelled because it amused me, and to get material that would be of use to me’.
But, I will be honest, it is odd living with Maugham; it drives my family crazy; my nine-year-old daughter refers to him as Uncle Willie. Each time I mention that I want to speak about him, my husband and parents roll their eyes: ‘Not him again!’ they cry. A photograph of him writing at his desk sits above mine; his books are the closest thing to me on the bookshelf. I cannot honestly tell you why, why him, why he has endured, only that he perhaps is a great teacher, and, like every good student, I want him to receive the accolades that he deserves. Over the last fourteen years, living with Maugham has been my own education into learning how to write. Maugham’s short stories, Outline:
Essay 1 The Secret Self: A brief comparison of the novels from Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell and the London novels from W. Somerset Maugham
Short story – Mr Maughams 500 words
Essay 2 W. Somerset Maugham – Realist or Modernist? A brief exploration of Maugham’s short story form.
Short story – My Maestro’s Maestro
Essay 3 W. Somerset Maugham – The English abroad in the East and Pacific.
Observing the Outstation
Short story – Willie’s Chinese Funeral Urn