In praise of Somerset Maugham

The introduction to Somerset Maugham happened to me through a couple of short stories of his that we read in our text books; one was called The man with the scar; I have forgotten the title of the other story — but it is about a bet on the authenticity of a lady’s pearl jewelery on a cruise ship, if I remember correct.

During my school days, the English teacher who gave me a list of must read books, included Maugham’s The moon and sixpence in his list. I managed to find the book in the local library, and did enjoy reading it. And, as I noted elsewhere, in the next several years, I became such a great fan of Maugham that I passed through the first five stages of falling in love with Maugham, and read even his notebooks (A writer’s notebook — and enjoyed it a lot too).

Amitav Kumar’s latest blog post set me thinking about Maugham — especially, part of the last sentence:

… I’d rather have it explained to me why Maugham’s writing, with its practiced irony, its heavy tropical air, its middlebrow mysticism, has been so popular, particularly in our part of the world.

Is Maugham’s writing that bad, really? I do not think so; however, I have read his books a very long time ago — I think the last one was his The Lisa of Lambeth, which I read probably three or four years ago. I may have to revisit some of his books for a fresh evaluation. However, simply based on what I remember of his Great novelists and their novels (which book, at least for me, belongs with Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader ), I think it is not surprising that Maugham is still read and liked, in spite of his faults.

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4 Responses to “In praise of Somerset Maugham”

  1. Michael Fiedler Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Maugham was often dismissed because he was easy to read, but he’s only easy to read because he writes so well. His clarity should not be counted against him. But I also think one of the reasons he is still so popular today is the same reason why Dostoevsky is still read: they both had brilliant insights into the human psyche and communicated them in a way that resonates with readers.

    Also, a side note: nothing Maugham wrote was “middlebrow mysticism.” While he did write about eastern religions in some of his work, he didn’t believe in any of it.

  2. samudrika Says:

    The second story you mention is “A String of Pearls” notable for its positive(for its time) portrayal of a South Asian (insinuated) man named Mr. Kelada (of all things!)

    Or in retrospect he might have been Bong. Heh.

  3. Guru Says:

    Dear Fiedler,

    I agree; I also feel that Maugham’s writings are excellent examples of a style that is worthy of emulation; further, Amitava Kumar being such a perceptive writer himself, I do not understand why he accuses Maugham of middlebrow mysticism — surely, that some of his characters hold any opinions can not he held against Maugham.

    Dear Samudrika:

    Thanks for the title of the story; I do not remember the Mr. Kelada character that vividly — may be it is time to revisit the story!

  4. Wally Jenkins Says:

    Although most of the blog discussion on Maughm centers on his novels, Of Human Bondage, Razors Edge etc, I personnaly prefer his short stories.
    He seems to be generally recognized as the master of that art and, regardless of what author I’m currently reading, I always seem find myself returning to his brilliant short stories.

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