The New York Times, April 2, 1961

Another Summing Up

SOMERSET MAUGHAM: A Biographical and Critical Study. By Richard A. Cordell. 274 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. $5.95.


This "biographical and critical study" of Somerset Maugham by Richard A. Cordell will have to meet the charges so often leveled against the work of his subject: it is highly competent and extremely readable. Even those who know Maugham personally will learn much from this book that will be new to them; the biographical sketch at the beginning is admirable and informative. It dissipates, for example, the notion—promulgated occasionally by Maugham himself! —that his early years were spent in poverty. He always had enough to live on, just this side of poverty—a vast difference.

He was born in Paris were his father was a well-known lawyer and counselor to the British Embassy. His mother was considered the most beautiful woman In Paris, knew everybody and came from a family of immemorial distinction. Maugham's misogyny, about which Cordell has a good deal to say when he comes to consider this element in his work, did not include his mother; her death, when Maugham was 8, constituted a trauma from which her son never fully recovered. The photograph of Mrs. Maugham, which hangs by her son's bedside in the Villa Mauresque, supports her reputation for beauty.

Of his father Maugham says that he was as ugly as his wife was beautiful; he was referred to affectionately by his friends as "the monster." The future novelist was brought up as a French boy; after his mother's death, he had to be taught English by a clerical tutor. His first play, "Schiffbrüchig," was written when he was 18, in German, when he was studying at Heidelberg. The biographical sketch documents the unhappy years Maugham spent with his uncle the vicar of All Saints' Church in Whitstable, familiar to everyone who has read "Of Human Bondage"; the years as a "perpetual student" at St. Thomas' Medical School; and the peregrinations, physical and mental, that led from the publication of "Liza of Lambeth" in 1897 to his last novel, "Catalina" in 1948.

Concerning Maugham's mental peregrinations Mr. Cordell (Professor of English at Purdue University) makes much of the writer's early encounter with the "Maxims" of La Rochefoucauld, which he read when he was at Heidelberg. By this "he was confirmed," Mr. Cordell writes, "in his materialism and his bent toward Zolaesque determinism." He copied some of the "Maxims" into his Notebooks and added some of his own: "We learn resignation not by our own suffering but by the suffering of others"; "Science is the consoler and healer of troubles for it teaches how little things matter and how unimportant is life with all its failures"; "If women exhibit less emotion at pain, it does not prove that they bear it better but rather that they feel it less."

The author traces this influence, described by some as cynical, through all the Maugham oeuvre—the plays, the novels, the travel books, the critical and autobiographical essays. To each of these categories Mr. Cordell devotes a chapter. Not the least interesting is the final one: "Maugham and the Critics."

There is no doubt that Maugham is the most popular author in the world, that he is, in fact, one of the most widely read authors who has ever lived. He is a wow, for example, in Japan, and even gets royalties from Russia. His fan mail is incessant and comes from all over the globe. Maugham is a meticulous man and almost frighteningly disciplined: he answers all of it. He received one fan letter, however, which he found it impossible to answer. It came in 1953 from a 15-year-old school girl in Devonshire:

Dear Mr. Maugham,

I have read nearly all your books and have liked them, but my daddy says I am only wasting my time because they are only a potboiler and will be forgotten as soon as you are dead. Are you a potboiler?

Yours affectionately,

Mr. Cordell is in total disagreement with Rosemary's daddy—otherwise be would not have taken the trouble to write this book—but he gives full attention to those critics who, like Edmund Wilson, believe that when Maugham took up writing he chose the wrong metier. Maugham refers to his adverse critics as "highbrows," but he is too intelligent not to be aware that the epithet does not dispose of them.

A dazzlingly eminent British scholar holds it against Maugham that he has used his vast popularity to impose his own canon of critical judgment in literature—a canon which transforms his own limitations into virtues. "Mind you," this scholar added, "there are no flies on him!" But behind the embankment of this canon, the most popular author in the world is nevertheless, as Mr. Cordell makes clear, sensitive.

Maugham was told by a visitor that Thomas Mann had said of his work that it revealed a French mentality. "Oh," said Maugham, "by that he means that I am superficial!" In a quick rhyme he added, "I am not a Mann fann!"

In a chapter called "The Enigmatic Somerset Maugham" Mr. Cordell states flatly that there is no enigma, that it is all clear as clear and plain sailing. The present reviewer begs to disagree? There is an enigma. Perhaps the "incandescent autobiography," which Mr. Cordell tells us Maugham has written, will shed light on it. In any case, whether you are with Rosemary or with her daddy, this book will entertain, stimulate and inform you.

Mr. Behrman, the playwright, is author of an autobiography, "The Worcester Account."

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