IMAGINE you’ve time travelled to 2052 and, between the soup and the fish course at a sparkling dinner party, you make a passing reference to Alexander McCall Smith. Your neighbour stares vacantly, before saying, “That sounds vaguely familiar. Didn’t he write stories set in Botswana?” You’d be gobsmacked – and justifiably so.
In his day, William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was just as prolific, and arguably even more of a celebrity, the subject of endless interviews and photo sessions. His work was translated into almost every language under the sun. He earned a fortune from his pen. One story alone – Rain – earned more than £1 million, at a time when a pound had serious spending power. He wrote more than 100 stories – many set in the colonies – dozens of popular plays, and 21 novels. Yet literary reputations wax and wane, and Maugham fell sharply out of favour after his death.
Every so often a revival seems imminent. In 2007 a new version of The Painted Veil (starring Edward Norton) hit cinemas, concurrent with a production of The Letter that did big business in the West End. Two years later Selina Hastings published her definitive biography. Now, filmmaker Michael House has made Revealing Mr Maugham, a biographical documentary with contributions from Hastings, McCall Smith, Pico Iyer, Ronald Harwood, Armistead Maupin, Alan Furst and Richard Davenport-Hines. The film had its UK premier at the BFI’s Gay Film Festival earlier this month and can be downloaded online.
House, an American based in Paris, made the film “for purely selfish reasons. I read Maugham all the time and wanted to know more about him. The Razor’s Edge, in particular, really inspired me as a young man. It made me realise that the world was mine and I could do whatever I wanted with my life. So in a way, I have felt indebted to Mr Maugham for a long time and this is a sort of thank you card to him.”
Maugham was born in Paris and though thoroughly English, he enjoyed a very French childhood. His father, Robert, was a solicitor, and de facto legal advisor to the British ambassador to France. In 1863 he married Edith Mary Snell, 16 years his junior. Although she, too, was English, she had been born in India, and lived in France most of her life. When widowed, Edith’s mother wrote novels and children’s stories to augment her income. Edith had three sons in as many years, and in 1874, William Somerset made four, though he lived like an only child because his brothers were at boarding school in Britain.
When he was ten his mother died, followed two years later by his father. Maugham was sent to England to live with his aunt and uncle at his uncle’s vicarage, where life was much more austere, emotionally as well as economically. The miserable youngster developed a profound stammer that plagued him for most of his life – though vintage recordings prove it all but disappeared during recordings made for the BBC.
Maugham studied to become a doctor at St Thomas’s hospital, where he said the training taught him all he needed to know about human nature. Those years inspired his debut, Liza of Lambeth, and one of his most famous novels, Of Human Bondage, about which he said: “It is not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel. . . the emotions are my own … I had recollections which tormented me, so I wrote them out in a book”. The novel initially languished, until a rave review from American novelist Theodore Dreiser gave it the boost it needed to become a massive success.
Publishers were shocked by Maugham’s sexual openness. For example, they nearly didn’t release Mrs Craddock, the story of a woman who “marries beneath her” and later develops a sexual attraction to her young cousin. And Cakes and Ale caused a scandal on its publication, thanks to its thinly veiled swipe at literary worthies Thomas Hardy and Horace Walpole.
Maugham’s private life was as colourful as anything he wrote. A homosexual when it was still illegal, he endured an unhappy marriage to Syrie Maugham – a famed interior designer – which produced a daughter, Liza. One of the most influential relationships of his life was with Gerald Haxton, an American who in 1915 was registered as an undesirable alien and banned from ever setting foot in Britain despite being cleared of homosexual acts in an Old Bailey court case. In order to be together, Maugham embarked on a lifetime of travel, eventually settling in the south of France where Haxton filled the house with the people Maugham would write about. As Pico Iyer says in the film, “Haxton serviced Maugham’s Id, almost.”
Iyer adds: “In some ways Maugham was more effectively fearless than any of his peers, because his subject matter was just as out-there, but he put it in a way that anybody could read. This ability to shock and put you at ease at the same time is what we, as writers, all aspire to, but few achieve.”
Stylistically, says McCall Smith, Maugham’s prose is concise and tight. “He was never boring; he was a real storyteller, and of course that meant he was viewed a bit stiffly by people who had high literary tastes.” That sentiment is echoed by Sir Ronald Harwood, who says, “Because Maugham entertained, it tainted his reputation.”
For a man who made no bones about craving money and fame, Maugham’s literary aspirations were unpretentious. He valued lucidity, simplicity and euphony. “The supreme virtue of a writer is to be readable. I have never pretended to be anything but a storyteller,” he insisted.
During the Second World War Maugham was a propagandist and a spy, and these experiences inspired the Ashenden books, which Hastings reckons revolutionised the spy novel. In fact, Maugham wound up destroying some of his manuscripts because they gave away too many secrets.
For all his fame, when he died in 1965 he became, according to Selina Hastings, “instantly unfashionable”. “It was partly,” she points out, “because his stories were so associated in the public mind with the British Empire. In the Sixties the Empire became almost too politically incorrect even to mention. We were terribly embarrassed: we had lost our empire, subordination and colonisation were bad words, and nobody wanted to be reminded of it. It’s only in the last few years that there’s a huge renewed interest in the history of the Empire again. I think Maugham is coming back, partly for that reason.”
Hastings had a very personal reason to tell his story. “I used to hear about him when I was a child. My mother was a writer and she knew a man who had a house very near Maugham’s, and so my parents met him and would return with fascinating stories about this old crocodile on his rock in the south of France. I was very intrigued. When I started reading his stories, in my teens, I thought they were completely marvellous. What always attracts me is personality and story. What every biographer dreads is somebody who gets incredibly famous in their thirties and then gives it all up, retires to Weybridge, and does nothing but play golf, whereas Maugham’s drama goes on right to the last page. It doesn’t let up for a minute. I think it would have made a huge difference to his life if he’d been born when homosexuality was legal.”
Maugham was also a perspicacious literary critic, not least when assessing himself, she adds. “He always said, ‘I am in the absolutely top rank of the second rate’ I think he was right about that. He wasn’t a great writer, he was a very, very good one.”
Michael House made this film to inspire viewers to return to the source. “My goal is to get people to read the novels, stories and plays. I always felt Maugham was very misunderstood. Whether he wrote about hookers, royals, priests, murderers or acrobats, he showed amazing empathy. I believe Maugham felt deep compassion for human beings, and no-one like that could have a black cruel heart.”
• Revealing Mr Maugham is available to buy via download from.swimcinema.com, priced e14.99
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