Friday, January 4, 2013

A Writer’s Notebook by Somerset Maugham

Capri. I wander about alone, forever asking myself the same questions: What is the meaning of life? Has it any object or end? Is there such a thing as morality? How ought one to conduct oneself in life? What guide is there? Is there one road better than another? And a hundred more of the same sort. The other afternoon I was scrambling among the rocks and boulders up the hill behind the villa. Above me was the blue sky and all around the sea. Hazy in the distance was Vesuvius. I remember the brown earth, the ragged olive trees, and here and there a pine. And I stopped suddenly, in my confusion, my head buzzing with all the thoughts that seethed in it. I could make nothing of it at all; it seemed to me one big tangle. In desperation, I cried out: I can’t understand it. I don’t know, I don’t know.

This entry from Somerset Maugham's A Writers Notebook (1949) offers the reader a glimpse of the restless young author on one of his many sojourns on the island of Capri, then (and now) a popular haven for writers, artists, and homosexuals.  From 1892, when he was eighteen, until 1949, when this book was first published, Maugham kept a notebook, diligently recording his thoughts and observations, providing readers today with a fascinating journey into the life and developing sensibility of this brilliant, decidedly private man.  Author of such highly acclaimed novels as The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, Mrs. Craddock, The Moon and Sixpence, and Up at the Villa, as well as numerous plays and short stories, including “Macintosh” and “Rain”, Maugham spent the better part of his life travelling the world in search of experience and understanding, both as a writer and man. His notebook, fragmentary as it is, offers a compelling record of this.

Long a fan of Maugham’s work, I recently discovered a copy of A Writers Notebook among my late step-father’s books.  Remarkably, I had never heard of it before and set down to read it at once.  I was not disappointed.  Varying from the philosophical to the precocious to the lyrical, witty, mordant, and grave, the entries also vary significantly in length, some of them a page or more in length, some – crisp as aphorisms -- but a single sentence or two.  “Fragments of cloud, tortured and rent, fled across the sky like the silent souls of anguish pursued by the vengeance of a jealous God,” reads one. “It goes hard with a woman who fails to adapt herself to the prevalent masculine conception of her,” reads another, while still another reads, “The hothouse beauties of Pater’s style, oppressive with a perfume of tropical decay: a bunch of orchids in a heated room.” 

Traumatized when still a child by the death of his parents, Maugham was a life-long introvert who stuttered terribly when nervous, though his life was anything but reserved.  Indeed he travelled widely, served as a spy for Britain in both world wars, spoke many languages, was married, fathered a daughter, achieved celebrity status among artists and writers, earned gobs of money from his plays, and lived openly as a homosexual for extended periods of time.

Maugham died a dissolute man in 1967 in the south of France at the age of 91, “having concluded he was not in the first rank of writers and, somewhat surprisingly, that he had never had enough sex.” At least on the former point we can be the judge of that.    

Peter Adam Nash

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