Maugham's gay life
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Why, do you think, there are no recognizably (or even hinted at) gay characters in Maugham's fiction. (Please chime in if you know of any---I haven't read much Maugham).
I can think of at least a couple stories where a bit of a homoerotic element is apparent, such as "Red", and others where a given character was probably meant to be homosexual by the description given. Maugham of course had to be careful not to call attention to his own sexuality, so it's easy to see why he was careful what he wrote. After all, his early career coincided with Oscar Wilde's prosecution and imprisonment.
I see a strong parallell with EM Forster, who was careful to disguise struggles over sexuality by making his characters safely heterosexual. The Longest Journey was (by his own admission) autobiographical, and therefore about a homosexual relationship. One would only know this from other sources, not the book itself. His one explicitly gay novel, Maurice, he dared not publish, and it only came out after his death. The same goes for those of his short stories with gay themes (see here for a review of a collection)
I guess I'd like to think more about your question as applied to Maugham however.
My theory is similar to Daniel's. If Maugham was busy trying to convince himself that he was three quarters normal, part of convincing himself included stuffing his writing into the closet. After all, even Wilde was very careful about writing about homosexuality. The Picture of Dorian Gray was about as close to bringing your writing out of the closet that was allowed late 1800s, early 1900s.
That's of course a slightly educated opinion. I haven't made a study of the matter.
If you ask Maugham's biographers (Mr Calder, especially), they'll tell you that Maugham's works are full of homosexual stuff under cover. Few examples:
- the androgynous Mildred from Of Human Bondage - clearly a homosexual relationship under cover, maybe something Maugham had amidst the promiscuity of the public school, maybe a passionate affair from Heidelberg, maybe... who knows.
- the description of Red in the eponymous short story: it's dead obvious that no homosexual writer can write such a description of male beauty.
- The Narrow Corner: completely homosexual stuff, the only ''crypto-fag'' novel of Maugham (as wisely pointed out by Gore Vidal). The relationship between Fred and Erik: homosexual. The relationship between Dr Saunders and his boy servant, Ah Kay, too, is terribly homosexual in nature.
- But there is a second ''crypto fag'' novel, Selina Hastings shrewdly points out, and that is Christmas Holiday. Why? Because there are few words about passionate relationship of Simon in his youth.
- The Razor's Edge: obviously a novel with a lot homosexual stuff inside. Elliott Templeton is a perfect queen and Larry Darrell himself has been described as a ''discreet homosexual'' by no other than Anthony Curtis himself (normally, the most perceptive and sympathetic critic of Maugham).
Now, if you ask me (supposing you do), everything above is a farrago of nonsense. I myself have never been able to accept such claims seriously. For my part there is absolutely no hint of any hidden homosexuality in any of Maugham's works. The reason is simple: Maugham may well have been a promiscuous homosexual, but in his writings he had other fish to fry, much bigger and much more important than the naughty games in the pool of Villa Mauresque. The emphasis that biographers have laid of Maugham's homosexuality is a pure abomination.
Indeed, I should have thought that one's homosexuallity is likely to be expressed in one's fiction only if it in some way repressed in his private life - and that Maugham's homosexuality, for pretty much all his life as his biographers have informed us, never has been.
I daresay Maugham might have had something of the kind in mind when he created some of his characters. If one looks carefully, from a highly prejudiced angle and with a firmly formed preconception in mind, one might discover some hidden homosexuality. But it is so slight and so insignificant - and it so often has been discussed in a much greater detail than other themes that Maugham did explore in his works far more extensively. Typical example: Elliott Templeton. He does look like a queen all right, but there is so much more in this character, surely one of the most perfectly realised characters in all of Maugham's oeuvre, that even to mention that stuff is to grossly misrepresent the character.
By the way, pretty much the same is the case with Maugham's notorious misogyny. Here there are better grounds to make a case that Maugham was a misogynist, but it is a poor case all the same. Sure there are many detestable females in Maugham's fiction, but there are also a number of very charming ones, who often are of great beauty too. And why nobody bothers to notice that Maugham virtually never condemns his women, no matter how disgusting they may look; even the most extreme cases, Fanny and Mildred in Of Human Bondage, are not drawn without sympathy.
As far as Maugham's non-fiction is concerned, he spoke openly of homosexuality but twice: firstly, in Don Fernando about El Greco and, secondly, as pointed by Daniel as well, in the chapter about Melville from Ten Novels and Their Authors. I can't say I find either convincing. About Melville Maugham lapsed into the same sort of inanity as his biographers when claimed that Red's description is homosexual in nature. Nonsense! Is there no aesthetic value in male beauty which is sexually disinterested? Believe me or not, but I am not a homosexual at all. but some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen are male bodies (Prometheus, Heracles) made of marble or bronze - I don't want to go to bed with either. It's pretty much the same with those in flesh. So what's all fuss about?
Maugham's passage on El Greco is much more interesting and revealing about himself. He describes a very cynical attitude which was very much his own attitude, but he also mentions passion for decoration and detail which certainly was not typical for him at all. But that's another story, and a long one, which I will address in more detail in my attempt for a review of Don Fernando.
Anyway, when a man has been given - by God, if you believe - supreme gifts of expression, who cares whether he is homosexual or not? I am much more well versed in music, so let's talk about homosexuality in music: we may start with Tchaikovsky and finish with Freddie Mercury. But it would be such an awful waste of time.
Indeed, when I read these already famous words of Maugham - the quantitative assessment of his homosexuality quoted by Robin Maugham - I am reminded of Freddie Mercury's no less memorable words: ''People ask me if I am a homosexual. That's something I have to find out.'' (this is probably misquotation, but the sense is absolutely the same). I have yet to read Robin Maugham's two books about (mostly) his uncle. From what I have heard I am afraid to do so and his claims should be taken cum grano salis. But I daresay this remark may well have been true and Maugham may well have tried to convince himself in that - but he did so in his youth and in his private life. As far as I am concerned he never did in his works, simply because one's sexuality is not of such paramount importance as obscene biographers would have us believe.
PS It is a great pity that Robert Calder's Willie: the life of Somerset Maugham should suffer so severely from its author's pathological obsession with homosexuality. It is certainly the only biography of Maugham which tries - as it should be done - to examine his life together with his works, for they are one, and not emphasising Maugham's private affairs and throwing Maugham the writer in the dustbin.
PPS Mr Calder is the only one among the gang of Maugham biographers who has actually written a separate critical study of some of his works, if not his complete oeuvre: W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom.
"For my part there is absolutely no hint of any hidden homosexuality in any of Maugham's works. The reason is simple: Maugham may well have been a promiscuous homosexual, but in his writings he had other fish to fry, much bigger and much more important than the naughty games in the pool of Villa Mauresque. The emphasis that biographers have laid of Maugham's homosexuality is a pure abomination."
Of course biographers can write what they choose and our opinion of their work is entirely our own.
My point in not that Maugham would write about the "naughty games in the pool of Villa Mauresque" but rather the plight of gay people in his (and sometimes our) time: outcasts, unrequited loves, coming-of-age with no points of reference except condemnation, banning together for protection, legal horrors, pointless suicide (which continues to occur),
marriages of convenience which do not work, exploitation and blackmail.
Maugham had such a great talent for portraying character. Too bad he did not choose to include such characters in his work. s4sando
You wrote: "As far as Maugham's non-fiction is concerned, he spoke openly of homosexuality but twice: firstly, in Don Fernando about El Greco and, secondly, as pointed by Daniel as well, in the chapter about Melville from Ten Novels and Their Authors. I can't say I find either convincing. About Melville Maugham lapsed into the same sort of inanity as his biographers when claimed that Red's description is homosexual in nature."
Re: El Greco, the quote I have come upon is as follows:
"I should say that a distinctive trait of the homosexual is a lack of dep seriousness over certain things that normal men take seriously. This ranges from an inane flippancy to a sardonic humor. He has a wilfulness that attaches imiportance to things that most men find trivial and on the other hand regards cynically the subjects which the common opinion of mankind has held essential to its spiritual welfare. He has a lively sense of beauty, but is apt to see beauty especially in decoation. He loves luxury and attaches peculiar value to elegance. He is emotinoal, but fantastic. He is vain, loquacious, witty and theatrical. With his keen insight and quick sensibility he can pierce the depts but in his innate frivolity he fetches up from them not a priceless jewel but a tinsel ornament. He has small power of invention, but a wonderful gift for delightful embroidery. He has vitality, brillance, but seldom strength. He stand on the bank, aloof and ironical, and watches the river of life flow on. He is persuaded that opinion is no more than prejucdice. In short he has many of the characteristics that surprise us in El Greco."
Now--I ask you---isn't the above great raw material for fiction? s4sando
Certainly, the material is great for fiction and Maugham used it superbly in many of his works. He just chose not to confine these matters to homosexuals, nor do I see any point in doing so. One doesn't have to be a homosexual to have coming-of-age problems, or to experience unrequited love, or to commit suicide, or to enslave oneself in a marriage of convenience, or to be blackmailed, a social outcast or a criminal. You just need to be a human being, of what sex or with what sexual orientation matters not.
The same is true for the El Greco passage - you've found the right one - where I think Maugham got carried away with portrait of a man who is by no means necessary to be a homosexual. Absolutely nothing of what he mentions is typical only for homosexuals.
Needless to add, many a character in Maugham's fiction, taken separately, have just about all character traits and experiences already listed. Whether they are homo-, hetero- or bisexual, I, personally, couldn't care less. It's human nature all the same.
I am very glad Maugham never was occupied with homosexuality in his works, for this surely would have restricted their appeal. I am happy that I read his own works before those grossly prejudiced biographies. I shudder to think how many people did the opposite and came out with severely distorted view of Maugham and completely unable to appreciate his works - but that's their own problem and no business of mine.
Thanks for the recommendation of The Razor's Edge. A guy in one of my groups wants to put that in the queue for later next year and I think we will be reading it. I haven't read it and don't really know what it's about.
I think I haven't really expressed myself very well on this issue re: Maugham's lack of writing a "homosexual work". I would not expect him to create a work centered on the gay life with a gay main character. What I should have said is that I have never found a character in Maugham's work that have any, even minimal, characteristics that could be called homosexual or gay. And it's puzzling to me since I think he must have known some. Not really that important---just puzzling.
As we know, following Maugham's death, a few biographers and critics scanned his work and his life with minute care in order to find ways in which his sexuality purportedly was evident in his fiction. From what I've seen, efforts tended towards clumsy and amateurish hack-work, and at worst, represented sensationalistic efforts by those seeking to boost their reputations at the expense of a literary icon. The revelation that Maugham was (gasp!) "a homosexual" -- becomes the most important element of his existence to such writers, and is used to explain much of the content of his creative work.
In this historical context, it becomes difficult to discuss the issue dispassionately, even though it is quite legitimate to ask about the influences on his writing. Discussion seems polarized between some who deny that Maugham's sexuality was at all relevant and those who argue that it is everywhere apparent. It seems quite likely to me that the truth lies somewhere in between; but I wonder whether and how much it matters. Maugham avoids the subject of alternative sexualities in both his fiction and non-fiction, partly because of his times, and his need to protect his reputation, and partly because he has other fish to fry... other things to explore about the human condition, and things of a more universal nature.
One further complexity, to my mind, is that in this most complex of people, Maugham had a polymorphic sexuality that doesn't fit neatly into the "gay/ straight" dichotomy currently in vogue in Western culture. He did after all have a number of liaisons with women in the earlier years, including one whom he loved and asked to marry him, and he fathered a child with another whom he did marry. And we don't really know that the Mildred character in his (semi-autobiographical) Of Human Bondage wasn't in fact based on his experience with a woman. Following Gore Vidal on this issue, it's far easier to define "acts" than "people" in terms of sexuality. What label one applies to Maugham (if any) is a matter of cultural definition, and depends on which phase of his life we're speaking of.
To be sure, I'd be most surprised if Maugham's yearnings and sexual experiences had no influence on his work. Maugham undoubtedly saw quite a range of people during all those years working in theater. But one searches in vain to find a homosexual character, and only finds a plausible one by reading a great deal into the gaps left in Maugham's characterizations.
The genius of Maugham, I think, lies in how he could draw on his private experiences and observations in writing fiction that had universal appeal. The loss of his mother at a young age was the most terrible experience of his formative years; his stammer caused him great anguish as a schoolboy, coupled with his small stature and accent. Did his developing sexual leanings tend to isolate him from his peers? I have no idea. But I do know that loneliness and fear and marginalization transcend boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, so if what we care about is his art, the question becomes moot. Maybe in Of Human Bondage Philip's clubfoot represents the stammer, and maybe Mildred was a man. I have no way to know and care mainly because I care about him as a person. But curiosity aside, the work spoke to me powerfully and personally as a teenager (and for the record, I have neither a clubfoot nor a stammer). :-)
The important point is, as I see it, is that Maugham, as a most sensitive and astute observer with a deep understanding of other people, drew in part on his personal experiences and private pain -- whatever its multiple sources -- to speak of universal aspects of human experience in language that has resonated in several successive generations of readers the world over. That is the mark of true genius in a writer, and in part, where Maugham's extraordinary genius and skill as a creator of fiction lies.
One is never simply a writer living in a vacuum divorced from one's self, one's history, and one's cultural context. In other words, we are not well-wrought urns any more than the well-wrought urn was this splendidly beautiful decontextualized object. We often reveal information about ourselves or our responses to the dominant ideologies of the period as much by what we don't say as what we do say. For example, when I look back over the various journals I have written throughout my life, I am struck by many of the omissions. I find it interesting that my journals are mostly discussions of ideas. I include little emotion and very little about political, economic, and social concerns in the world. When I look at the creative writing I have done over my lifetime it is either funny (a way of avoiding engagement with emotions) or the protagonists in my stories observe rather than engage at least with their emotions. Interesting? Telling? I think so (but then it's my life, which interests me). On the other hand in my day to day life, I cry easily, laugh easily, engage easily. So I think Proust or Maugham or any writer is fair game in a certain sense. In any case, one should beware of the intentional fallacy as much as the biographical fallacy. What a writer intends and what a work means may end up being two entirely different creatures altogether. Do we kick authorial intention out the window completely? Of course not? However, we approach it with healthy skepticism. And vice versa. Same with a person's biography and that person's writing.
Regarding Proust and Maugham (in the El Greco piece--thank you, Waldstein) seeming to put down "inverts", I think they are not necessarily, as may be assumed, drawing attention away from their own homosexuality, but may actually be criticizing overt homosexual behavior. I've known several gays who objected to the sterotypical image of the flaming queen, and criticized it accordingly. One imagines a man as reticent as Maugham also harboring some objection to the extrovert queens of the time, examples being Sebastian Flyte and the irrepressible Anthony Blanche in Waugh's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. Maugham, I imagine, wouldn't have had much sympathy for them.