Peter Oborne is Political Columnist for the Daily Mail and Contributing Editor to the Spectator, and he presents documentary films for Channel 4. After starting out in the magazine Financial Weekly, he worked for a number of newspapers including The Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Daily Express and Sunday Express. He was Political Editor of the Spectator for five years. He is the author of Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class and The Rise of Political Lying. His biography of Basil D'Oliveira won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. Peter's films for Channel 4 Dispatches include 'Iraq: The Reckoning'; 'Afghanistan: Here's One we Invaded Earlier'; 'Mugabe's Secret Famine'; and 'Spinning Terror'. He is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4's 'The Week in Westminster'. His The Triumph of the Political Class has just been published. Here Peter writes about Somerset Maugham.
Peter Oborne on Somerset Maugham
As I grow older it becomes more and more obvious that the most important English writer of the 20th century was Somerset Maugham. It is not fashionable to make this claim. Maugham is ignored in university English faculties and other places where literary reputations are destroyed or constructed.
The reason for this is pretty obvious. Lecturers in English literature have a very strong vested interest in making out that their subject is like nuclear physics, intelligible only to specialists. For this reason there is a tendency for obscure or hard-to-read novelists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce to have a higher reputation than their achievement actually deserve.
By contrast Maugham was a very clear writer. There was no obscurity in his meaning which could later be unravelled by clever and self-regarding academics. Nor was he technically adventurous. Maugham's books, unapologetically aimed at a mass public, all have a very strong narrative pull.
Unlike most writers, at any rate most modern ones, he had a very interesting and adventurous life. As a young man at the end of the 19th century he worked in hospitals and became familiar with London's slums. During the Russian Revolution he was a British intelligence agent in Russia. Maugham was a homosexual who lived under the shadow of illegality, probably the reason why he chose to live in the South of France towards the end of his life.
There was another problem with Maugham. He was not one of those exiguous writers, like Beckett or Pinter, who favoured the world with just a handful of productions. He wrote dozens of novels, numerous short stories and at one point, just before World War I, I think he had four plays simultaneously being performed on the London stage. This success inspired huge jealousy. It may be one reason why, even though he deserved the Nobel Prize for literature more than any other 20th century English writer, he never got one.
Maugham wrote in a very plain, even homely way. I think he judged that the purpose of words was to help the reader through the story as agreeably as possible, not to show off en route. He had little time for writers like Leonard Upjohn, the fictional man of letters in Of Human Bondage who 'had formed a style for himself by a close imitation of Sir Thomas Browne; he used elaborate sentences, carefully balanced and obsolete, resplendent words; it gave his writing an appearance of individuality.' There are plenty of Leonard Upjohns today, equally unreadable, although they now tend to be experts in postmodernism rather than Sir Thomas Browne.
Maugham was a very fine craftsman. He had decided to become a writer from a very early age, and set about his task with exemplary attention to detail. It is very striking that, even though he has been ignored by academics, the finest writers of his time understood his significance. Evelyn Waugh, some 30 years younger, acknowledged Somerset Maugham as a master. George Orwell called him 'the modern writer who has influenced me most'.
I think that the most striking thing about Somerset Maugham was not, however, his craftsmanship. It was his understanding of human nature. Like all really good novelists he had an indecent ability to look straight into a person's soul. He could dissect a human being the same way that a biologist dissects a dead animal. He was very strong indeed on sexual passion, and how it could enslave and destroy a man or a woman. This was one of his great themes. He also returns again and again to portrayals of men who throw their lives away on fruitless artistic endeavour.
Everything that Maugham wrote (I can speak only for his prose: I have seen few of his plays) is hypnotically readable. Even his worst books are works of very high professionalism and his very best are superb. I would suggest to somebody starting out on Maugham that they read the short stories first. Many of them are really gripping, economical portraits of men and women who have been trapped in some way by fate.
I am not sure that Of Human Bondage is his best book but it is his most moving and ambitious. Maugham wrote it at the start of World War I, as he was returning to writing novels after his great success on the stage. It is an autobiographical work, all the better for being written when he was approaching the height of his powers and not just starting out as a writer. So it can be compared in structure to Dickens's David Copperfield or Tolstoy's War and Peace. It is the story of a young man setting out in life and making terrible mistakes in his search for meaning and completeness.
In the process of self-discovery young Philip Carey tries and fails to establish himself as a painter in fin de siècle Paris, loses all his money and is forced to sleep on the streets; he lives through a long, degrading, unrequited love affair with a waitress, and finally abandon his ambitions as an artist and settles down as a doctor. When I first read this book as an undergraduate, it held me gripped all through the night, and I remember finally casting it aside the following morning feeling utterly spent. Before writing this essay for Norm I read parts of it again, and I was relieved to find it was as good as I remembered. Some parts of it do now seem dated - above all, the discussions about the meaning of life that Philip enjoyed as a young man - but at the end of it I felt as if I had completed a long and exhausting journey.