Maugham’s Veil

Though he does not break into the canon of twentieth-century literature as imagined by American academics, W. Somerset Maugham remains (more than forty years after his death) one of the most popular writers worldwide—and one whose works continue to be filmed with regularity. The Painted Veil, Theatre (as Being Julia), and the short Up at the Villa have all been released this decade. Maugham was also one of the most successful dramatists of the years before and into World War I with plays that continue to be revived (the most recent on Broadway having been The Constant Wife in 2005).

Readers and viewers like Maugham, even if academics don’t. Edmund Wilson probably sealed Maugham’s fate in American universities when he opened a 1946 New Yorker review of Then and Now by writing:

It has happened to me from time to time to run into some person of taste who tells me that I ought to take Somerset Maugham seriously, yet I have never been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate.

Snobs themselves (for the most part), both academics and popular critics have since rushed to ignore Maugham or, at best, to condescend towards him. Take Manohla Dargis, writing about the new film of The Painted Veil. She even starts the review with a swipe at Maugham:

It’s no surprise that one of the best scenes in the latest and third film iteration of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil doesn’t happen in the book.

At one time, it might have been argued that the modern antipathy to Maugham arose through the homophobia that still bedevils America—but that’s insufficient in a day when the fact of being gay can actually add to one’s intellectual attractiveness, in university settings, at least. No, the reason Maugham has been exiled from American reading lists is that he concentrated on the whole in his work and not on the parts. And on character–even when it’s to the detriment of artistry.

Let me explain: Since the rise of the New Critics, we’ve paid increasing attention to detail in discussion of art—the brush-stroke, so to speak, receiving more attention than the impression of the whole. Our very ways of “helping” people view and read have exacerbated this. I remember an exhibit of Claude Monet’s Riviera landscapes at the Brooklyn Museum in 1997. As I walked through it, I felt slightly disoriented and restless. We were guided past the works, crowded by cordons that kept us moving rather than milling, forcing us down one side of each room, around the last, and then back down the other side. It was frustrating: I couldn’t see the landscapes—that is, I was too close to them to feel the impact that I knew was there. That is, until I happened to look across the room where the crowd was spilling in the opposite direction. Through them, I could finally look at the works as they were meant to be seen. The cordons, of course, had been keeping us too close.

And that has happened in literature, as well. There are cordons created through our own “learning” keeping us too close. They keep us from stepping back to see the work as a whole. While we can admire the perfectly formed phrase, we tend to be unable to see the intended effect of the whole.

And this, in reading someone like Maugham, is a problem. With a focus on character and plot, the words themselves were only tools to Maugham, not the artistry.

But what an artistry he commanded! Maugham had a way with character that few other writers—Dickens and Greene come to mind—approach. There’s a compassion, a desire to understand, that slips aside from the simplistic judgments we humans rely on so often. Far from adding to The Painted Veil, as Dargis suggests, the movie pares away from the novel, transforming it into a rather simple (though sweetly sad) love story. The original is something far more complex.

Maugham understood human perplexities and never stooped to stereotype. His characters can never be understood as just one thing, for they change. Sometimes they grow, but the growth is usually patchy. Mostly, even if they don’t exactly learn from experience, they do come away altered. In other words, they act as human beings, recognizable (if I may dare say so) to readers of any culture and any time.

The quest, in Maugham, is ever inward. Even in my favorite of his books, The Razor’s Edge, it’s the inward quest that leads to the outward—not the other way around. The quest, in Maugham, generally concerns ethical issues of a personal nature. It is this, perhaps, that has led to his dismissal from the canon (though Of Human Bondage is given grudging acceptance—not enough to be taught, but enough to be listed).

Personal ethical and moral questions do not fit well with a concentration on close readings and the well-turned phrase. Sloppy and contradictory, they cannot be rendered with precision the way Mother Modernist and her Children seem to demand. Furthermore, Maugham attempts to lift his portraits off the page and into the imagination of his readers. That’s anathema to a focus on “text,” where the ink on the page is the center of the writer’s art—a focus that, since World War II, has dominated American letters. This is probably why actors like Edward Norton and Bill Murray are drawn to Maugham. Character is at the center of their art just as it is of Maugham’s.

Dargis paired Maugham with Edna Ferber in her review of the movie, as though both writers could be conveniently forgotten—or had been. Maybe she should get out more—out of the United States, at least. In the rest of the world, Maugham continues to be one of the most read and most loved writers of English.

The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence are two twentieth-century novels that I, at least, can return to frequently. Cakes and Ale is also worth a re-read every decade or so. And the rest of his books are certainly worth looking at. About how many books can one say even that? How many particular authors, in addition to Maugham, have produced three books worth reading a third or a fourth time? For me, of twentieth-century novelists, perhaps only Graham Greene and William Faulkner.

“Bunny” Wilson was wrong—at least in my eyes: W. Somerset Maugham is one of the few genuinely first-rate writers of his time. Over a century since his first novel, he continues to be read and, if I may hazard a prediction, he will be, another century on.