Published in 1938 when Maugham was 64 years old, the title turned out to be a misnomer – it wasn’t really his autobiography. It was non-fiction for sure but more like a visit of writer’s workshop – the toolkits were on full display as he bared the essentials of what made him tick as a writer. And that is far more interesting than any routine toting up of one’s life minutiae.
Maugham gives us a glimpse of his tortured childhood. His parents were ill-suited for marriage as they had arrestingly different temperaments and an age gap of 20 years. He didn’t see much of them as his mother died when he was 8 and he lost his father when he was 10. Maugham’s early loss of his mother scarred him for life and the subsequent events were painful as well. He was thrust into the custody of an unsympathetic uncle who had no means or inclination to nurture him. He found little comfort at school as he was given to a ‘stammering’ problem and found English to be a challenge since French came naturally to him.
He escaped as a teenager to spend some years in Germany followed by a stint to study medicine in London. His outlook of the real world broadened as he did an internship of delivering babies in the slums of Lambeth. His personality didn’t change much – he was painfully shy and rather naive. A lot of this is reflected in more graphic detail in his magnum opus – ‘Of Human Bondage’.
The book gives us great insight into his various experiences as a young writer. Maugham found relief and catharsis from his painful memories of ‘growing up’ by penning it all his novel ‘Of Human Bondage’. It remains his most enduring work that was marred by a surprise ending where the hero abruptly decides to get married. Maugham is sporting enough to admit that this was a reflection of his plans in real life. Alas it didn’t work out well either in the book or in reality.
Maugham’s initial experiences as a writer were troubling as well. He found it difficult to follow the trend of the day – he couldn’t express his descriptions and thoughts in rich florid text. Over the years he made peace with his limitations as a writer and focussed on the goals of lucidity, simplicity and euphony backed by his power to observe situations and human nature.
He found startling success on stage as a dramatist but gave it up rather stunningly in 1933 post the failure of his play ‘Sheppey’. He explains the tricks of trade that drive the drama business and how the trends change on similar lines as in the world of fashion. He reveals the practical problems faced by the dramatist – often the director’s vision is not in sync with that of the writer, compromises are often made in casting the actors particularly for the ‘bit’ roles that are essential but won’t appeal to the good actors and the other incidentals that impact the business.
Maugham’s life has been a series of interesting experiences – he toured Spain and Italy, he spent a lot of time visiting Malaya, India and China, he served as an ambulance driver during world war and was a ‘spy’ visiting Russia just before the Bolshevik revolution broke out. He even spent a couple of years in a Sanatorium recovering from a TB attack. He was a keen observer in life and used all these experiences to write novels and short stories.
Maugham achieved great commercial success and a wide following that was spread across the wider geographies of US, Russia and even Japan.However his preference for French naturalism didn’t quite appeal to the critics who were scathing in their appraisal. So Maugham unloads his angst on a variety of pet peeves –
- People expect that his characters were inspired by them and yet are not wholly happy about the way they have been portrayed
- Critics just didn’t get him though he was a popular and enduring writer. Maugham summarizes their assessment as follows : 20s – brutal, 30s – flippant, 40s – cynical, 50s – competent and 60s – superficial.
Maugham shares some nuggets about his fellow writers too : Chekov unique style of writing sans focus on individual characters with more emphasis on the overall setting and situation, an interesting hypothesis that the writer gifted with realism imbues his personality onto his characters and renders them unreal so we get a truer picture of life in the novels of Anthony Trollope than in those of Charles Dickens, Henry James perfected a technique of using verisimilitude to lend credibility and interest to narration of the story, the writer’s succeed when their direction of interest guides the plot so Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ succeeds where Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale falters.
Maugham’s conclusion is a juicy section – he talks about religion, immortality, science and the ‘pattern of life’. It’s a delight to note his idiosyncrasies as he demolishes quite a few ‘holy cows’ so to say –
- On religion – He explains his disillusionment that led to him ceasing to believe in God. Yet he still believed in the Devil and it is reflected in his stories
- The perfect explanation of theory of life doesn’t exist. Man and his troubles are not quite explained by any of the popular narratives though Maugham concedes that a few held their appeal for him including solipsism, the Buddhist stream of ‘Nirvana’ and the Brahma of the Upanishads
- On Science – Maugham impresses with his knowledge of origin of the universe and quantum physics
- The Perfect Philosophy tenet – Maugham quotes Kant, Spinoza, Aristotle and seems to like Bertrand Russell. And yet there is a perfect fit on this one as well.
- On Life’s battles and the concept of Suicide – Maugham acknowledges the trials and tribulations that are the forces driving people’s lives. He makes a startling quote though – ‘I wonder why so many people turn with horror from the thought of suicide. To speak of it as cowardly is nonsense. I can only approve the man who makes an end of himself of his own will when life has nothing to offer him but pain and misfortune. Did not Pliny say that the power of dying when you please is the best thing that God has given to man amid all the sufferings of life? Putting aside those who regard suicide as sinful because it breaks a divine law, I think the reason of the indignation which it seems to arouse in so many is that the suicide flouts the life-force, and by setting at nought the strongest instinct of human beings casts a terrifying doubt on its power to preserve them.’
So an unconventional approach but entertaining nonetheless. Maugham chooses to share his thoughts and soul – the baubles of his personal life and celebrity life @ Riviera are not required to liven things up for us.