A Memoir of Sorts…
In 1938 W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up was published by Heinemann’s, with numerous re-printings ever since, with my yellowing Penguin paperback, printed in 1978, on the brink of giving up the ghost.
As might be expected it is beautifully and clearly written in the not untypical Maugham style of an elderly Edwardian man of letters in conversation with an aspiring writer over drinks in Maugham’s London club, or aboard a steamer heading for Samoa, or China.
There can be no doubt that Maugham is very much in charge and not about to give away any secrets or indiscretions:
“ This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. In one way and another I have used in my writings whatever has happened to me in the course of my life. Sometimes an experience I have had has served as a theme and I have invented a series of incidents to illustrate it; more often I have taken persons with whom I have been slightly or intimately acquainted and used them as the foundation for characters of my invention.”
The book came out in the January of 1938, as Maugham, now sixty-four, was touring India, and received some very mixed reviews, with it being likened to the best of Swift, and by David Garnett in the New Stateman & Nation, as “…too long and diffuse.”, but then he was never really a fan of Maugham’s. Graham Greene, writing in the Spectator, made the point “…that Maugham was limited by his agnosticism…”, which for Greene was probably a sin. The novelist G. B. Stern (Gladys Bronwyn), commented that “…never have I read an autobiography that contains so little auto…”, which suggests she hadn’t read it, or missed Maugham’s clause that it was not an autobiography.
In many ways The Summing Up was way ahead of its time in the way it is written out of chronological sequence, as have been most such memoirs since the 1960s, which is also a way of writing some, but not all of one’s life and adventures.
And Maugham states quite clearly, and early on, that his life was not an adventure, but a sedentary writers chair existence, which of course it was not, with Maugham (who was a British spy as well as a qualified doctor), sent to Russia in 1917 to try and stop the Revolution, which he couldn’t and nearly lost his life trying. You won’t find anything explicit about his espionage exploits in The Summing Up, which you wouldn’t expect of a professional intelligence agent who, in 1938, was more than likely still working for MI6.
I love The Summing Up as much for its style (it’s not unlike one of his short stories, which it is I suppose), as its content, which is overflowing with thoughts, philosophy, likes and dislikes. For instance he has no time for young writers who have not read widely and deeply, suggesting that to have read Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster is simply not enough if you plan on becoming a novelist. Good advice.
Of course Maugham did read widely and deeply, including Woolf and Forster, and D. H. Lawrence (who was not really to his taste), and the novels of Mrs Humphry Ward, which he thought dull, but which did give a “…very good picture of what the life of the ruling class was then.”
Somerset Maugham is perhaps one of the most confident English writers of the first half of the 20th century, a confidence which exudes from every page of this memoir, yet leaving dark holes in the narrative that have, over the years, been filled by his biographers.
The Summing Up is a book all writers (aspiring or otherwise) should read.
It is also a glimpse into a time long gone by a man who helped create it.
He also makes the point that writing, good writing, is damned hard work, and Maugham was a damned good writer.