Review of ‘A Writer’s Notebook’ by Somerset Maugham.

‘Dear Diary,’ is something many of us wrote at least a few times while growing up and not finding a suitable confidante to share our thoughts with. It felt better and captured our youthful memories. Years later it was positively embarrassing to review the diary entries and am sure not much of it could pass the muster of being put in the public glare.

Maugham’s notebook is quite different though – it is one that was recorded by a professional writer over 57 years. The entries are varied but penned down succinctly. Maugham, as smartly noted by Cyril Connolly, transitioned distinct roles in his long literary career: the sentimental – realist, the man of the world (and the theatre), the oriental traveller and the Western sage.The Notebook travels the same path and we can see the growth of the writer as he progresses.

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Maugham opens his account by debating the merits of keeping a diary and how the conscious act may hamper the writer’s creative impulse that is the fount of his writings. Maugham has no illusions about his early notes. He admits that he was ignorant,ingenuous,enthusiastic and callow. To his credit he has let some of his representative entries stand in the book and we can give an indulgent smile when we read, ‘People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.’ 

Even early on we can spot the signature Maugham style as he struggles to evaluate art, religion, philosophy,values, popular writers etc. His most enduring theme is his lifetime duel to understand God. He never quite changed his mind on an early noting, ‘I’m glad I don’t believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness I think no belief can be more ignoble.’ Again to his credit he spent a lifetime trying to unearth a belief that would satisfy him and this refined his thoughts even further. He even dabbled a bit with Hinduism during his visit to India and seems to have been attracted to the philosophy of Karma and Maya.

Maugham’s diary seems to have served the purpose of providing creative inspiration to the writer. We can relish reading small notes and observations that were eventually transformed into popular stories like The Rain, The Colonel’s Lady, Before the Party etc. And the book holds many more nuggets that could have been developed into short stories but were still missed although Maugham was a rather prodigious writer. We also read an amusing analysis of Maupassant v/s Chekhov.

Maugham gives a good account of his travel to India and does seem to be as enamoured by the land and its people as many other Western tourists. He seems to be on a quest to find spirituality and gives multiple accounts of meeting Yogis and Sadhus. He gives a brief but moving mention of his visit to Benares where he came across a throng of humanity taking a ritual dip in the holy Ganges. Ironically the segment ends with a tribute to the emaciated Indian farmer toiling hard in the field – it seems to be a stereotyped image of India as viewed by a Westerner.  But I doubt that Maugham intended to play to the gallery. He even stoutly denied another anecdote regarding him fainting in the presence of a Yogi on account of a spiritual experience. It had more to do with his health  and he hints at it having happened on some other occasions as well.

Maugham provides a humorous account of transitioning into the Middle age. The realization dawned on him when he realized that he could not serve actively in the Military when the First World War broke out in 1914. He draws solace from the fact that one is no longer shackled by public opinion and can begin to reconcile with oneself.

True to style Maugham marks his 70th birthday with a comment that you need hardly ever do anything you don’t want to. So the greatest compensation of old age is its freedom of spirit. And it liberates you from envy, hatred and malice. Wonder if Maugham would have appreciated the Hindu philosophy wherein old age does mark the transition from material to the spiritual world – the onset of Vanaprastha.

Maugham entertains you with his anecdotal narrative and it reads very different from a typical autobiography. No personal milestones have been marked or celebrated, Maugham does not play the gallery and give you a peek into the lives of various celebrities he has hobnobbed with, there is no gushy account of his life at Riviera and he does not make much a mention of his success both as a writer and as a playwright. As is usual in case of Maugham – the focus is on his ideas and journey of life rather the man himself.

By: Print Collector Collection: Hulton Archive Courtesy Getty Images
By: Print Collector
Collection: Hulton Archive
Courtesy Getty Images

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