Column on Somerset Maugham and I

Somerset Maugham & I

Tibor R. Machan

        My most enjoyable and rewarding reading time has been with W. Somerset Maugham.  Even the works that annoy me are a pleasure to read, not to mention the many very entertaining books, short stories and essays he has penned that are dear to me.

        What it is about Maugham I am not entirely sure–I pretty much just bathe in the enjoyment without doing much analysis of why it happens.  But there are a couple of things about his writing that agree with me thoroughly. 

        One is that nearly every sentence is superbly crafted so it is suitable for those like me who are slow readers.  Even if I get to read but a couple of pages just before falling asleep or being called by the dentists or doctor after waiting for the exam, sentence after sentence appeals to me.  Sometimes I want to shout out my praise for him but, sadly, he has been dead for several decades now. 

         Some of his books contain a good collection of brief observations but they are nearly always keen ones.  Here is one where he chimes in with something in my own field of philosophy:

“Looking for the special function of man Aristotle decided that since he shares growth with the plants and perception with the beasts, and alone has a rational element, his function is the activity of the soul.  From this he concluded, not as you would have thought sensible, that man should cultivate the three forms of activity which he as­cribes to him, but that he should pursue only that which is especial to him.  Philosophers and moralists have looked at the body with misgivings.  They have pointed out that its satisfactions are brief.  But a pleasure is nonetheless a pleasure because it does not please forever.” [The Summing Up (Pocket Books, 1967), pp. 35-6]

         Right on, I say, even though the author isn’t some highfalutin Aristotle scholar.  And there is this pithy comment I tucked away in my growing collection of worthy quotes:

"… finally science had not fulfilled the promises which the unwise expected, and, dissatisfied at not receiving answers to questions that science never pretended to answer, many threw themselves into the arms of the Church."

         And there is this bitty from his rare but poignant political observations:

"If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too."  

         Cannot argue with that–both reason (theory) and experience (history) bear it out.

         OK, so I have given just a couple of samples from the vast writing of W. Somerset Maugham to show how appealing he can be.  The first of his novels I read was titled Theater and was only a couple of years ago made into a movie starring Annette Bening, Being Julia.  His most famous novel, Of Human Bondage–also made into film maybe more than once, directed by John Cromwell and starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Kay Johnson–didn’t sit well with me because its subject matter was a pathetic love affair that pretty much mirrored my own pathetic love affair of the time.  But there were many other works, among them the novella, Up At The Villa which was also made into a film by that name, directed by Philip Haas and starting Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and Anne Bancroft.
          I am always conscious of the fact that English is my third language, learned just at the end of my adolescence, and so I am partial to writers who not only entertain me, present fascination or intrigue, but do it impeccably and there-through teach me a thing or two.  And Maugham has been the number one example of such writing to me and I am still reading his works–the latest is one of his travel books, full of gems, titled The Gentleman in the Parlor: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (Armchair Traveler Series).


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