Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Monday, March 14, 2011
My review of Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, for the Claremont Review of Books is now online. I defend Maugham against the charge of middlebrowism and argue that he is overdue for a revival:
P.S., In an essay on Marilyn Monroe, Larry McMurtry describes a telegram the actress sent to Maugham on the occasion of his birthday. (Maugham sent back a very kind reply.) "Imagine," McMurtry writes, "Marilyn Monroe, the star commonly thought to be an airhead, keeping up with Somerset Maugham’s birthday and taking the trouble to send him a telegram." It seems they both were misunderstood.
For his defense of pleasure and commercial success, Maugham was dismissed as a mere entertainer, shamelessly pandering to the public taste. (Edmund Wilson, while admitting he had read little of Maugham's work, famously denounced him in the New Yorker as "a half-trashy novelist who writes badly, but is patronized by half-serious readers, who do not care much about writing.") Maugham was unabashed about his desire to entertain, reminding his critics that such pleasure need not be unintelligent. "To a healthy understanding there is nothing disagreeable in the activity of the intellect," he wrote. "One of the signs of culture is that you are able to extract pleasure from objects or events to which the ignorant are indifferent." He was himself a man of erudition, whose idea of an enjoyable afternoon was to translate a play by Shakespeare into German. How many highbrows—then or now—could, as he did, speak Spanish, Italian, and Russian, in addition to French, German, and English?
Where he parted ways with them was in his belief that "ordinary people are as capable of enjoying great music, great paintings, and great literature as those others who have had ampler opportunities to form their taste and confirm their judgment." To that end, he compiled several anthologies and critical works celebrating his favorite authors: Maupassant, Chekhov, Conrad, Dickens, and Kipling, among others. As should be obvious from such a list, Maugham, while prizing unfashionable "readability" in his criticism, did not depreciate style or technique. It is "wholly comprehensible," he wrote, that critics would be most interested in stylistic innovations, like the new stream of consciousness, since they offered "a sort of freshness to well-worn material and were a fruitful matter of discussion." What he warned against was allowing style to become an end in itself, where "willful obscurity" masquerades as "aristocratic exclusiveness." Above all, he reminded his avant-garde contemporaries that "a work becomes a classic only because succeeding generations of people, ordinary readers...have found delight in reading it. It affords that because it appeals to the human emotions common to all of us and treats of the human problems that we are all confronted with."
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen on Sense and Sensibility at 200:
[Austen] elevates romantic love, making it the central, much desired focus of her double courtship plot, but she also provides a fall-back position. Elinor and Marianne give us point-counterpoint: marry the man you love, be faithful and true as far as possible, but if the person you choose proves unworthy and betrays your trust, get over it and marry someone else. This lesson is timeless.