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Points of View (1958)

– tekijä: W. Somerset Maugham

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
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Eclectic and illuminating, these essays are the last that Maugham published. Ranging from an appreciation of Goethe's novels, to an encounter with an Indian holy man, with a considered analysis of the form at which Maugham himself excelled - the short story - they present the enduring views and opinions of this eminent writer.… (lisätietoja)
Viimeisimmät tallentajatHenrySt123, sarlis, KriRand70, cns1000, konidena, rkarnena, jdtchicago
PerintökirjastotGraham Greene

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In his life time W. Somerset Maugham was celebrated for his plays, while posterity mainly remembers him for his novels and short stories. Maugham is not specifically remembered for his essays. Indeed, he wrote but few, and these were mainly written and published in his later life.

His success as a novelist had brought W. Somerset Maugham considerable personal wealth, so that in 1926 he bought a villa in the south of France. Conceived while he was in his late seventies, the essays in Points of view were written as diversions, or as the author put it "{i}t has given me pleasure to do so". The Vintage edition does not mention whether the essays were published in magazines or newspapers. The essays are characterized by a highly personal style, as it seems, less with publication in mind, and more to satisfy the author's personal needs.

In the first essay "The Three Novels of a Poet" Maugham reminiscences on his youth in Europe when he learnt German at school, and came to love Heidelberg and the novels of Goethe. The essays is a very personal reception of Goethe's life and work, described as characteristic for its time and describing the movement of Romanticism and the literary and cultural scene of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, discussing Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (English: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (English:Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) (1796) and Die Wahlverwandtschaften) (English:The Elective Affinities) (1809).

The next essay "The Saint" is based on experience gathered during Maugham's visit to India in 1936. It describes the religious culture of India, based in a description of a holy man, the Maharshi Venkataraman. While Indian religion has entered the cultural awareness of many well-educated Westerners since the 1970s, Maugham's experience in the 1930s must have been exotic, while his description of the essay in Points of view in 1958, must have been at least as refreshing. Nonetheless, the piece stands out somewhat awkwardly in a collection of essays that is mainly focused on the reception of Western literature.

The most interesting essay seems to be the third, entitled "Prose and Dr. Tillotson". The essay deals with the life and works of John Tillotson who worked and lived as a clergyman during the English Civil War period and the Restoration. The essay is somewhat muddled, beginning with a false start, and the third part being the most readable. On the whole, however, this essay, while somewhat difficult, is most rewarding.

Himself a successful author in the genre of the short story, the next essay, "The Short Story" describes the work of a number of masters of the genre, who were already famous in Maugham's time, such as Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant and Katherine Mansfield. In the final essay, Maugham ponders on "Three Journalists" and their work, that is to says authors who journalise, i.e. "keep a journal". The authors described in detail in this essays are Edmund de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, Jules Renard and Paul Léautaud. There are asides to other literary figures during that period in French literature, such as Alphonse Daudet and André Gide.

Points of view offers a very mixed lot of essays, which readers are invited to enjoy as the author did while writing them, viz. leisurely, as a diversion. The organisation of this collection of essays seems to have exactly that reader in mind, starting with a light course on German literature, for entremeses a short piece of something exotic, a substantial main course in the form of the essay about John Tillotson. If the essay on "The Short Story" is a vintage wine, then "Three Journalists" can be taken as a cheese board, with three chunks and some lighter crumbs. ( )
2 ääni edwinbcn | Dec 9, 2013 |
W. Somerset Maugham

Points of View

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2000.

12mo. 255 pp.

First published by Heinemann in 1958.


The Three Novels of a Poet
The Saint
Prose and Dr. Tillotson
The Short Story
Three Journalists


Points of View was Somerset Maugham's last full-length book. It was first published by Heinemann on 3 November 1958, when the writer was 84 years old. After that he wrote only a short commentary to an album with his art collection published as Purely for My Pleasure (1962) and his notorious memoirs, Looking Back (1962), which are apparently of sufficient length for a book but have never been published in such form. Indeed, Maugham had announced that Points of View would be the last book he would ever publish and, on the whole, he was as good as his word. In his impressive Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham (Kaye & Word, 1973), after the section about the First American Edition (Doubleday, 1959), Raymond Toole Stott quotes a charming publisher's note which deserves to be re-quoted:

...and since he seems to have a way of doing what he says he is going to do, we may safely assume that with this volume of essays he will take his leave of the reading public and so put an end to a relationship that with ''Liza of Lambeth'' began just over sixty years ago.

Over sixty years ago indeed! I often reflect on Maugham's amazingly long career which did span more than six decades; I am always amazed by his productivity during those years and, most of all, I am impressed by his consistency. But Maugham's most fascinating feature is perhaps his versatility. Only poetry did he never write; at one time or another during his long life he turned his hand to short stories, novels, drama, travel writing and essays; he often wrote in several of these genres at the same time and he produced masterpieces in all of them, though by no means in equal amount.

The essay, that most elusive and personal of all genres, came rather late for Maugham. His first novel and his first collection of short stories were published when he was 23 and 25 years old, respectively; he was not yet 30 when his first full-length play was produced (1903) and had just turned 31 when his first travel book appeared (1905). But what he himself has described as his first book with essays - Great Novelists and Their Novels - was not published until 1948, when Maugham was 74 years old and about to become, if not already, the Grand Old Man of English Letters. Of course he had written before books which were essayistic in nature, like The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930), officially a travelogue but full of digressions and ruminations on many subjects, and he had also written some books which altogether defy classification but can be described, rather ineptly, as long essays: Don Fernando (1935) and The Summing Up (1938); indeed, the former is subtitled ''Variations on Some Spanish Themes'' and is all but a typical collection of essays, though divided into chapters. But Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948) really was the first book of Maugham which contained different pieces, independent of each other and with separate titles, that is it really was his first collection of essays.

It was not for nothing that Anthony Curtis titled his critical study of Maugham's oeuvre The Pattern of Maugham (Hamish Hamilton, 1974). The idea had originated with the writer himself, and a good many years ago at that. There is no need here to go into any detail about Maugham's slight obsession with pattern in his life. Suffice it to say that he deliberately left writing essays about the end of his life when he had altogether stopped writing fiction: in 1948 Catalina was published, something in between novel, romance and fairy tale for which Maugham had announced that would be his last work of fiction. One year later he burned his bridges by publishing A Writer's Notebook, a selection from his notes that offers an almost unparalleled insight into his working methods. The 1950s Maugham dedicated entirely to essays, mostly but not only dedicated to literature, which were published in three full-length books:

The Vagrant Mood (1952)
Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954)
Points of View (1958)

(The second of these is actually a greatly expanded version of Great Novelists...; whether one considers it a separate book or not is like everything else: a matter of personal opinion.)

On the whole, the essays are the weakest part of Maugham's mature works. There are chiefly two reasons for that: 1) he is sometimes inclined to go into a great deal too much biographical details (not about himself, alas); and 2) when he discusses works of others, which is often, he is apt to narrate plots at inordinate length. That said, Maugham's essays are pure gems well worth reading all the same. There are, broadly speaking, two formidable reasons in their favour too: 1) they contain numerous passages which are greatly revealing about Maugham's life and personality; and 2) they are invariably written in Maugham's simple, elegant, unpretentious yet authoritative style; a style which, more importantly, has a peculiar intimacy not to be found in any of Maugham's novels or short stories where, we should never forget, we may at best have to deal with a first person narrator who is after all a character too. Highbrow readers may sneer at Maugham's remarks and observations being trite and superficial, but less fastidious human beings might just as well find in his essays a lot to reflect seriously upon. I don't know about seasoned admirers of the essay as a genre, but I am pretty sure Maugham admirers will discover lots of priceless stuff in his essays.

As it must have become obvious by now, Points of View is a collection of essays, five rather longish pieces to be exact. Not surprisingly four of them are dedicated to writers and writing, but what an astounding variety there is among them! ''The Three Novels'' from the first essay are Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796) and Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809) and the poet in question is of course Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Prose and Dr. Tillotson is concerned chiefly with the life and sermons of the XVII century archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson but it also discusses in quite a detail Jeremy Taylor; Three Journalists takes us to France from the XIX and early XX century where the Goncourt brothers, Jules Renard and Paul Leautaud were keen on keeping journals; and The Short Story is a delightful cocktail of Henry James, Maupassant, Chekov and Katherine Mansfield. The only essay that has nothing to do with the calling of letters is The Saint which is entirely dedicated to Indian mysticism. Since each of these essays is about forty to fifty pages long, they sure deserve a more detailed study than one paragraph. Let's take a closer look at them.

All his life Maugham loved Goethe. After his blissful sojourn in Heidelberg during his teens, where he learned German, he was also able to read the great poet in original language - immense advantage indeed. It is doubtful that later in his life Maugham could speak German well, but he could certainly read well enough to devour Goethe and Kant in original. It is worth noting, and quoting, some of the most memorable passages from The Summing Up (1938) in which Goethe occupies a central place:

In Goethe's Wahrheit und Dichtung he relates how in his youth he could not bear the idea that his father was a middle-class lawyer in Frankfurt. He felt that noble blood must flow in his veins. So he thought to persuade himself that some prince travel- ling through the city had met and loved his mother, and that he was the o¤spring of the union. The editor of the copy I read wrote an indignant footnote on the subject. It seemed to him unworthy of so great a poet that he should impugn the undoubted virtue of his mother in order snobbishly to plume himself on his bastard aristocracy. Of course it was disgraceful, but it was not unnatural and I venture to say not uncommon. There must be few romantic, rebellious and imaginative boys who have not toyed with the idea that they could not be the son of their dull and respectable father, but ascribe the superiority they feel in themselves, according to their own idiosyncrasies, to an unknown poet, great statesman or ruling prince. The Olympian attitude of Goethe's later years inspires me with esteem; this confession arouses in me a warmer feeling. Because a man can write great works he is none the less a man.

[On the multiplicity of personalities that comprise a writer:]
The writer does not feel with; he feels in. It is not sympathy that he has, that too often results in sentimental- ity; he has what the psychologists call empathy. It is because Shakespeare had this to so great a degree that he was at once the most living and the least sentimental of authors. I think Goethe was the first writer to grow conscious of this multiple personality and it troubled him all his life. He was always comparing the writer that he was with the man and he could not quite reconcile the incongruity.

Aristotle has said that the end of human activity is right action, and Goethe that the secret of life is living. I suppose that Goethe means that man makes most of his life when he arrives at self-realisation; he had small respect for a life governed by passing whims and uncontrolled instincts. But the difficulty of self-realisation, that bringing to the highest perfection every faculty of which you are possessed, so that you get from life all the pleasure, beauty, emotion and interest you can wring from it, is that the claims of other people constantly limit your activity; and moralists, taken by the reasonableness of the theory, but frightened of its consequences, have spilt much ink to prove that in sacrifice and selflessness a man most completely realises himself. That is certainly not what Goethe meant and it does not seem to be true. That there is a singular delight in self-sacrifice few would deny, and in so far as it offers a new field of activity and the opportunity to develop a new side of the self, it has value in self-realisation; but if you aim at self-realisation only in so far as it interferes with no one else's attempts at the same thing you will not get very far. Such an aim demands a good deal of ruthlessness and an absorption in oneself which is offensive to others and thus often stultifies itself. As we know many of those who came in contact with Goethe were outraged by his frigid egotism.

In addition to these stirring passages, Maugham casually admits his great passion for Goethe's ultimate masterpiece:

Now and then journalist in search of copy ask me what is the most thrilling moment of my life. If I were not ashamed to, I might answer that it is the moment when I began to read Goethe's Faust.

Obviously Maugham knew quite well Goethe's works, both prose and poetry, and he delved deeply into his controversial and complicated personality which must surely have fascinated him. The Three Novels of a Poet is an attempt to explain why Goethe never became as great a novelist as he was a poet. But together with his novels, Maugham discusses quite a bit of Goethe's life and legendary love affairs too; towards the end he even touches gently on his poetry. Surprisingly or not, Maugham is uncommonly persuasive and perceptive when it comes to Goethe's life, personality, works and especially the complicated, fascinating and illuminating relationship between them. The only drawback of the essay is that he occasionally goes into a far greater detail about the plot of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) than is really necessary. But I have to say that on re-reading the essay I have found these passages more suggestive and less boring than I had before. Besides, Maugham always spices them with his own pithy and witty comments. And he has very good reasons to be somewhat obsessed by this novel, Goethe's second, which he is certain is the most important and interesting the great poet has produced. Except in his youth, Maugham could never understand how such masterpiece could be so badly neglected:

I suppose few people in England read it now, unless for scholastic reasons they are obliged to, and I don't know why anyone should - except that it is lively and amusing, both romantic and realistic; except that the characters are curious and unusual, very much alive and presented with vigour; except that there are scenes of great variety, vividly and admirably described, and at least two of high comedy, a rarity in Goethe's works; except that interspersed in it are lyrics as beautiful and touching as any that he ever wrote; except that there is a disquisition on Hamlet which many eminent critics have agreed is a subtle analysis of the Duke's ambiguous character; and above all, except that its theme is of singular interest. If, with all these merits, the novel on the whole is a failure, it is because Goethe, for all his genius, for all his intellectual powers, for all his knowledge of life, lacked the specific gift which would have made him a great novelist as well as a great poet.

Then Maugham proceeds to tell us what in his own opinion this specific gift of the novelist consists of. It is hardly necessary to point out that the paragraph is immensely revealing for Maugham himself. His suggestion about the lack of empathy in Goethe is well worth considering:

It is evident that the novelist must be something of an extrovert, since otherwise he will not have the urge to express himself; but he can make with no more intelligence than is needed for a man to be a good lawyer or a good doctor. He must be able to tell such story as he has to tell effectively so that he may hold his readers' attention. He need not love his fellow-creatures (that would be asking too much) but he must be profoundly interested in them; and he must have the gift of empathy which enables him to step into their shoes, think their thoughts and feel their feelings. Perhaps Goethe, terrific egoist as he was, failed as a novelist because he lacked just that.

The end of The Three Novels of a Poet, that subtle and fantastic journey through Goethe's mind, is incredibly moving. Maugham quotes in full (and in original language) what David Luke has called ''perhaps the most famous poem in the German language''. The very last sentence is one of Maugham's most famous quotes, but few people know exactly where it comes from:

Once upon a time, when they were all young and wild and gay, the Duke had built a hunting lodge on the summit of a mountain peak, and on the wall Goethe had written a verse in pencil.

"Ueber allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde;
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch." *

During the last year of his life, he visited the spot again, and read the lines he had written hard on half a century before. He wept. What makes old age hard to bear is not the failing of one's faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one's memories.

The Saint is probably the most disappointing essay in the volume. It is certainly the only one in which the biographical part, not just looms large, but is rendered in a curiously bland and impersonal manner for Somerset Maugham; that was indeed his purpose, as admitted in the beginning, but I would have liked the piece much more if Maugham had not deliberately restrained his pen. The essay mostly consists of the life of an Indian holy man whom the writer had a chance to meet when he was in India in the late 1930s. The story is often interesting and sometimes moving, but told in excessive detail and a rather dull manner. The only repetitions with Maugham's other writings are few descriptions in the beginning, of the saint himself and of his short meeting with Maugham, including the famous fainting of the writer, which can be found word for word in A Writer's Notebook (1949), in the section entitled ''1938'' to be exact. Also, in his poignant preface to The Partial View (1954), Maugham mentions something very similar to what he wrote in this essay just a few years later:

For a while I was attached to the Hindu conception of that mysterious neuter which is existence, knowledge and bliss, without beginning, without end, and I should be more inclined to believe in that than in any other God that human wishes, and fears, have devised. But now I think it no more than an impressive fantasy.

In 1958 Maugham was not so dismissive - ''an impressive fantasy'' indeed - but he didn't mince words all the same: he could never bring himself to believe in these Hindu conceptions, no matter how appealing some of them might have appeared to him now and then. One of the valuable things in the essay is that Maugham, before going on to tell us the life of the saint, explains in some detail the nature of Brahman, Samadhi and few other altogether foreign to the European mind notions. Though Maugham makes clear that he does so only with ''trepidation'' and especially with abundant use of other people's books, the passage is highly personal and tells quite a bit about its author. God, immortality, transmigration and the uneasy relationship of them all with evil, how one should live one's life in this world, how one should accept his fate: these were questions that troubled Maugham's mind all his life. For a while he thought he might find at least some of the answers in the Hindu religion. He certainly regarded the transmigration as the most sensible reconciliation of the eternal conundrum of God and evil. That may be so, but it doesn't make the idea less preposterous: why on earth should I suffer now for sins in past lives I have never been able to remember, only to enjoy a putative bliss in the future which would be equally foreign to me? I just don't get the idea.

When all is said and done, The Saint makes a pretty good read, with occasional touches of wisdom and poignancy which, however, are almost entirely concentrated in the beginning and in the end of the essay; the middle part is surely the dullest one. My negative attitude to it is due most probably to my lack of sympathy with the Hindu religion. There is something there, perhaps even something inspiring in the indifference to pain, mental or physical, and the virtually total absence of fear of death that are so characteristic about it. But ultimately the concept of Brahman, as quoted above and elaborated further in the essay, seems to me much too simplistic a mixture of cheap escapism and childish inanity. It simply is incredible. Perhaps it requires a very special kind of intelligence, or a lack of any. Apart from that, the philosophy is literaly bursting with abominable features like stupendous conceit, complete renouncement of the world, regarding the body as ''a disease'' and other symptoms strangely reminding me of a severe mental disorder but so vividly exemplified in the saint of the eponymous essay.

Another possible reason why The Saint is the weakest essay in the book might be that Maugham was always much more interested in sinners, rather than in saints. If anybody has any doubts about that, it is enough to read Three Journalists to be convinced that it most definitely was so. They are the Goncourt brothers, Edmond (1822-1896) and Jules (1830-1870), counted as one person of course, Jules Renard (1864-1910) and Paul Leautaud (1872-1956), whose journals - not diaries, not memoirs, but journals, mind you - provide one with a most fascinating picture of almost hundred years of French literary history. It is a pity that Maugham spends too short a time with Andre Gide whose journal he declares to be ''most consistently interesting'' than any of the other three he is dealing with and, moreover, Gide was a man of more talent and culture than any of the others. But the ''holy three'' all had aureoles of wickedness and it is not hard to see why Maugham found them compelling enough to write some fifty pages about them.

There are some notable common features among the Three Journalists. All of them were outstanding egoists, showed invariably crass indifference to all arts but literature and were all but convinced in their tremendous importance which the stupid world consistently denied. The Goncourt brothers are an excellent example of the deleterious side effects of taking one's (bought) noble name a great deal too seriously. Their pride, vanity, tactlessness and stupendous ability for hating and despising everybody are well-nigh unbelievable. The Goncourts knew Saint-Beuve, Taine, Renan, Michelet, Flaubert, Anatole France and Maupassant: none was spared malicious and malignant remarks in their journal; the fact that these were probably recorded accurately from the heated discussions after dinners didn't help the scandal either. As far as Jules Renard is concerned, he must have been the frankest person who ever lived, for he has presented himself in his journal as ''unscrupulous, grossly selfish, ill-mannered, envious, hard and sometimes even cruel'', at least if Maugham is to be believed; he himself agrees with some common acquaintances that Renard ''though brilliantly witty, was detestable.'' Pure vanity or maniacally blunt honesty, but Jules was always ready to shock with a novel, a play or a journal. In addition to Paul Leautaud's considerable talents as a writer, a critic and a talker, he also had the closest approximation to incestuous relationship with his mentally unstable mother. Not to mention that he came to this world as result of his father changing his wife for her sister one night - apparently, these things can happen, or could have happened, only in France.

Now, Maugham was not above sharing some nasty gossip or grand scandal, though in impeccably virtuous style, but to say that he was a scandal-monger or a gossipy dirty old man is to grossly misrepresent him. As a matter of fact, Maugham's interest in these journalists is coupled with his lifelong fascination for the human nature as a mixture of incongruities which somehow, inexplicably and mysteriously, manage to form something like harmony. For all harsh words he has for all three journalists, he often has a good deal of sympathy, and even compassion, for all of them too. Thus he is quick to recognise that the Goncourts, for all their arrogance, were also disinterested and honest in a world (the literary one in France during the XIX century) where corruption was more common than honesty; cad as he was, Jules Renard never tried to make himself in print better than he was in the real life and he bore an almost constant suffering all his life with ''a remarkable talent'': his creative faculty was at once his curse and his solace. As for Paul Leautaud, Maugham's character sketch is well worth quoting:

Paul Leautaud was the oddest, the most disreputable, the most outrageous, but to my mind the most sympathetic of the three. Though he produced little, [...] I am inclined to think that he had a remarkable and individual talent. He had traits that shock one and traits that extort one's admiration. He was an egoist, but devoid of vanity, a lecher without passion, cynical and conscientious, desperately poor, but indifferent to money, harsh in his dealings, harsh in his dealings with his fellows, but to animals compassionate, savagely independent, indifferent to what others thought of him, a brilliant talker with a caustic wit, truthful, honest but cheerfully tolerant of the dishonesty of others - altogether a very strange man...

A very strange man indeed! A hotchpotch of mutually exclusive traits if there ever was one.

It must be admitted that in Three Journalists, as often in his essays, Maugham is apt to get carried away with superfluous biographical detail, but that happens rather seldom and for a short time. It is surely a tribute to Maugham's literary powers that a non-fiction piece about obscure French writers more often than not reads like a short story with excellent twists in the plot, perfect pace, food for thought and, above all, extraordinarily singular and alive characters. As far as I can remember, the only other place in Maugham's oeuvre where he mentions any of the Three Journalists is his original preface to A Writer's Notebook (1949) which is almost entirely dedicated to Jules Renard and his journal. Which reminds me that another slight drawback of the essay is the fact that, save the Goncourts, Maugham says very little of the journals themselves. But, then again, the essay is titled Three Journalists, not ''Three Journals''.

One would do well to pay attention to Maugham's titles indeed: so as not to be surprised that in Prose and Dr Tillotson there is a lot about English prose in general and about Dr Tillotson himself and his prose in particular. The contrast with Goethe and the French journalists could hardly be greater: John Tillotson (1630-1694) was a clergyman who lived in England of the XVII century, wrote sermons and in the end of his life, largely against his naturally modest nature, he was made an archbishop of Canterbury. Yet again the essay is largely biographical and yet again Maugham is apt on occasion to be more interested in English history than in the more immediate subject of his discourse; now and then, for a few sentences at most, he is positively dull; but he is somewhat justified in this case though, since Dr Tillotson lived a very uneventful personal life during momentous for England times like the Civil war, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the restoration, the wars with the Dutch, the plague, the fire of London and so on and so forth. At any rate, Maugham draws a very engaging portrait and succeeds marvellously in conveying everything he promises in the beginning - and that's a lot:

He seems to have had to a considerable degree a quality which, so far as I know, the seventeenth century did not make the to-do about we do know - charm. It is a dubious quality, for it is often an attribute of worthless creatures, and then you have to be on your guard against it; but when it is combined with talent, uprightness and high moral character, it makes its happy possessor irresistible.

Worthless creatures with incredible charm: a favourite theme that Maugham has explored numerous times in his fiction. Think, to name but two examples, of Tom Ramsy from The Ant and the Grasshopper, one of the most amusing short stories Maugham ever wrote, and Rowley Flint, the disreputable but irresistible rascal from Up at the Villa (1941), his longest short story or shortest novel, take your pick. Strangely enough, I can't think of any character of Maugham who actually combines charm with ''talent, uprightness and high moral character''. Perhaps this is why he could not resist writing about Dr Tillotson, a man who was neither a genius nor an especially brilliant writer but who did have a most unusual combination of genuine modesty, goodness, intelligence, integrity and, above all, charm.

Apart from Dr Tillotson's doings and musings, Prose and Dr. Tillotson contains a fascinating, if short, discourse on the two ways to write English prose: the simple and the ornate. The subject, of course, was of paramount importance to Maugham, and he had written a great deal about it, most notably in The Summing Up (1938). For once, except for some remarkable consistency in the course of twenty years, there is hardly any repetition between the two works. As is well known, Maugham had a certain fling with ornate prose in his youth, but fortunately he realised early enough that he had no talent for it; he then concentrated on improving within his limitations, such as they were, and with Of Human Bondage (1915), after almost twenty years of incessant toil, his mature writing style was formed; scorned by the critics but loved by the reading public, this unique blend of ''simplicity, lucidity and euphony'' was used constantly for the next four decades or so. Naturally, Maugham as a reader and critic tended to admire simple and straightforward styles more than florid and rich ones, he said so many times and never made any false pretences that he had any great affection for the ornate English. That said, he certainly admired a great deal Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor, as well as Dr Johnson and Edward Gibbon ''in a different class''. Among the most arresting passages in Prose and Dr. Tillotson is a touching tribute of Jeremy Taylor who, apparently, was master of both styles: plain and straightforward as in The Liberty of Prophesying, and a completely different one in Holy Dying, ''remarkable for its dazzling embroideries and the luxuriance of its images.'' Dr. Tillotson is adroitly included among some sacred cows of the English language too:

No one has written better English than these three distinguished authors, Dryden, Swift and Addison, and if it is true that they learnt and profited by the works of Tillotson, it gives him an importance that he would not otherwise have had. It may be that it is not too rash to suggest that if we write as we do now it is in part because the Archbishop wrote as he did.

The real masterpiece among the essays in Points of View is The Short Story. Quite as expected of course. Short stories were Maugham's tour de force: he wrote well over 100 in the course of almost fifty years and never achieved greater excellence, or had greater success, in any other genre than in the short story. As it might be expected, he also wrote a lot about the history, the structure and the masters of the short story in his non-fiction writings. Two of them stand out because of their length and wealth of insight: the introductions to the first volume with his collected stories, East and West (1934), and to his own anthology of 100 short stories from five countries called Teller of Tales (1939). The former of these explores Chekov and Maupassant in great detail, while the latter is concerned with broader historical overview of the genre, if I may so lamely describe such magisterial essays. Of course there are many repetitions: Maugham always was highly repetitive and never made any secret of that; he confesses openly here as well. Granted, certain part of The Short Story is taken verbatim from the Introduction to Teller of Tales, but there is a lot of unique stuff here that is not to be found anywhere else in Maugham.

On the whole, I may without any exaggeration say that The Short Story is one of Maugham's most perfect essays. It is the only one in Points of View in which the biographical sketches, extensive as they are in some cases, are never boring or superfluous but, quite on the contrary, they are entertaining and enlightening. Among many other things, the essay contains pretty detailed for its size biographies of Chekov and Katherine Mansfield, and some of the details are rather sordid indeed, but Maugham somehow manages to persuade the reader - by which I of course mean myself - that what sort of people these writers were really is of great importance for their literary production. And then there is Henry James.

Maugham has written a great deal of Henry James. He was one of those Some Novelists I Have Known, a charming essay from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952), and he was discussed at length in the Introduction to Teller of Tales. In this case, however, there is surprisingly little repetition of things said in early writings. Only one thing has not changed at all: Maugham's dismissive attitude. He always thought the personality of Henry James absurd and his works pompous, artificial and trivial; whatever great gifts he might have had, they were only too often ill-directed and misused - at least Maugham thinks so and he flatly states that he asks nobody to agree with him. In The Short Story Maugham concentrates on James' works in that genre but he makes no bones about finding them ''highly unsatisfactory'' because his characters ''have neither bowels nor sexual organs'' and, on the whole, ''for all their elaboration many of Henry James' stories were uncommonly trivial''. Certainly, Maugham was not a man to mince words, especially as regards Henry James who is probably the most severely criticised among the many writers Maugham wrote about at all. But the real bombshell he left for the end.

One of the most interesting episodes in The Short Story is a touching tribute to Desmond MacCarthy, one of the very few eminent critics, not to mention a member of the Bloomsbury group, for whom Maugham had solid respect. But the great writer would not be himself if his admiration was not somewhat qualified:

Memories are short nowadays and I may remind the reader that Desmond MacCarthy was not only a charming companion, but a very good critic. He was widely read, and he had the advantage, that not all critics have, of being a man of the world. His judgements within their limitations (he was somewhat indifferent to the plastic arts and to music) were sound, for his erudition was combined with a shrewd knowledge of life.

Interestingly enough, Desmond MacCarthy was a passionate admirer of Henry James as well as a frequent guest to Somerset Maugham at his magnificent Villa Mauresque on the Riviera. One evening an argument as regards the merits of the illustrious American writer arose and Maugham, to ''tease'' his friend, invented an impromptu typical story of Henry James which I am now going to quote in full despite the monstrous length. It is a stupendously brilliant and tremendously amusing satire.

Colonel and Mrs. Blimp lived in a fine house in Lowndes Square. They had spent part of the winter on the Riviera, where they had made friends with some rich Americans called - I hesitated for the name - called Bremerton Fisher. The Fishers had entertained them sumptuously, taken them to excursions to La Mortola, to Aix and Avignon, and had invariably insisted on paying the bill. When the Blimps left to return to England, they had pressed their generous hosts to let them know as soon as they came to London; and that morning Mrs Blimp had read in the Morning Post that Mr. and Mrs. Bremerton Fisher had arrived at Brown's hotel. It was evident that it was only decent for the Blimps to do something in return for the lavish hospitality they had received. While they were deciding what to do, a friend came in for a cup of tea. This was an expatriated American, called Howard, who had long cherished a platonic passion for Mrs. Blimp. Of course she had never thought of yielding to his advances, which in fact were never pressing; but it was a beautiful relationship. Howard was the sort of American who, after living in England for twenty years, was more English than the English. He knew everybody of consequence and, as the phrase goes, went everywhere. Mrs. Blimp acquainted him with the situation. The Colonel proposed that they should give a dinner party for the strangers. Mrs. Blimp was doubtful. She knew that people with whom you have been intimate when abroad, and found charming, may seem very different when you see them again in London. If they asked the Fishers to meet their nice friends, and all their friends were nice, their friends would find them a crashing bore and the poor Fishers would be dreadfully 'out of it'. Howard agreed with her. He knew from bitter experience that such a party was almost always a disastrous flop. ''Why not ask them to dinner by themselves?'' said the Colonel. Mrs. Blimp objected that this would look as though they were ashamed of them or had no nice friends. Then he suggested that they should take the Fishers to a play and to supper at the Savoy afterwards. That didn't seem adequate. ''We must do something,'' said the Colonel. ''Of course we must do something,'' said Mrs. Blimp. She wished he wouldn't interfere. He had all the sterling qualities you expected from a colonel of the Guards, he hadn't got his D.S.O. for nothing, but when it came to social matters he was hopeless. She felt that this was a matter that she and Howard must decide for themselves; so next morning, nothing having been arranged, she telephoned to him and asked to drop in for a drink at six o'clock when the Colonel would be playing bridge at his Club.

He came, and from then on came every evening. Week after week, Mrs. Blimp and he considered the pros and cons. They discussed the matter from every standpoint and from every angle. Every point was taken and examined with unparalleled subtlety. Who could have believed that it would be the Colonel who provided the solution? He happened to be present at one of the meetings between Mrs. Blimp and Howard while, almost desperate by now, they surveyed the difficult situation. ''Why don't you leave cards?'' he said. ''Perfect,'' cried Howard. Mrs. Blimp gave a gasp of pleased surprise. She threw a proud glance at Howard. She knew that he thought the Colonel something of a pompous ass totally unworthy of her. Her glance said, ''There, that's the true Englishman. He may not be very clever, he may be rather dull, but when it comes to a crisis you can depend upon him to do the right thing.''

Mrs. Blimp was not the woman to hesitate when the course open to her was clear. She rang for the butler and told him to have the brougham brought round at once. To do the Fishers honour she put on her smartest dress and a new hat. With her card case in her hand, she drove to Brown's Hotel - only to be told that the Fishers had left that morning for Liverpool to take the Cunarder back to New York.

Desmond listened rather sourly to my mocking story; then he chuckled. ''But what you forget, my poor Willie,'' he said, ''is that Henry James would have given the story the classic dignity of St. Paul's Cathedral, the brooding horror of St. Pancras and - and the dusty splendour of Woburn.''

At this we both burst out laughing. I gave him another whiskey and soda, and in due course, well pleased with ourselves, we parted to go to our respective bedrooms.

In conclusion, Points of View contains five essays: one true masterpiece and four pieces in which there is certain amount of material worthy of discarding, and therefore certain amount of boredom too, but there is much more interesting information, impressive erudition and perceptive observations about literature and human nature. Trite as this may sound, Points of View seems to me to be, to say the very least, a remarkable book to finish one's literary career at the age of 84. The attempts of Maugham's biographers to discredit his last years harping on his senility or his notorious memoirs do not hold. Somerset Maugham completed the pattern.


*This poem is usually known as Wandrers Nachtlied II (A Wanderer's Nightsong II) and has been set to music several times with great effect, most notably by Franz Schubert (1798-1827) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). I allow myself to give here a verse translation by David Luke:

Now stillness covers
All the hill-tops;
In all the tree-tops
Hardly a breath stirs.
The birds in the forest
Have finished their song.
Wait: you too shall rest
Before long.

[Goethe. Selected Poetry. Penguin Classics, 1999, edited and translated by David Luke, p. 35.]

What is more interesting is that Maugham's moving story about Goethe's crying seems really to have happened, as made clear by David Luke's exemplary notes in the above-mentioned volume (p. 252). Apparently, Goethe wrote the famous lines on the wall of a small hut near Ilmenau, dating them September 1780. He revisited the place more than half a century later, in August 1831, only seven months before his death, and reportedly wept. Today the hut - being burned down in 1870 and later exactly restored - still stands. So do Goethe's lines, engraved on a brass plate. ( )
3 ääni Waldstein | Dec 24, 2010 |
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Eclectic and illuminating, these essays are the last that Maugham published. Ranging from an appreciation of Goethe's novels, to an encounter with an Indian holy man, with a considered analysis of the form at which Maugham himself excelled - the short story - they present the enduring views and opinions of this eminent writer.

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