Born in Paris, of Irish ancestry, Somerset Maugham was to lead a fascinating life and would become famous for his mastery of short evocative stories that were often set in the more obscure and remote areas of the British Empire. Suffering from a bad stammer, he received a classic public school education at King's school in Canterbury, Kent. Rather more unconventionally he studied at Heidelburg university where he read philosophy and literature. He then studied in London, eventually qualifying as a surgeon at St Thomas's hospital. He conducted his year's medical practice in the slums of the East End. It was here that he found material for his first, rather lurid, novel Liza of Lambeth in 1897 and much of the material for his critically acclaimed autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage although this wasn't to be published until 1915.
He moved to Paris where he would strike up a successful working relationship with Laurence Housman and write a number of plays that would be run in London from 1908. At the outbreak of The Great War, Maugham, at age 40 and 5'6" was both too old and too short to enlist in the military so he joined a British Red Cross ambulance unit attached to the French Army, becoming like his comtemporaries, one of many Literary Ambulance Drivers. One of his co-drivers was Desmond MacCarthy, a writer in his own right who later became literary critic for The London Sunday Times. Before long Maugham was recruited for a far more interesting assignment as secret agent in Geneva and then Petrograd. In Russia, he was given the rather mammoth job of attempting to prevent the Russian Revolution from starting. His novel Ashenden published in 1928 would draw on these eclectic experiences.
Continuing with more peacable travels, Maugham took to the South Seas, where he visited the island of Tahiti and on which he based his novel The Moon and Sixpence. Sickness would then force Maugham to return and remain in a Scottish tubercoulosis sanatorium. However, on recovery, he returned to the Far East and collected imperial information and experiences that would form the basis of many short stories, plays and novels: East of Suez in 1922, Our Betters in 1923 and The Letter in 1927, are amongst the better known of these.
St. Jean Cap Ferrat, the French Riviera
(click image for additional photos)
Photo by: J. Y. Geoffory
Returning to settle in France in 1928, Maugham bought a villa in St. Jean Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera called Mauresque (a word meaning 'of Moorish style') where he enjoyed a near royal lifestyle. An invitation by Maugham to spend a few hours to a weeks was highly prized by the literary and social elite of the era. In France he wrote what many regard as his satirical masterpiece Cakes and Ale, a literary biography within a novel that examined the private sin that accompanies public success. From early January 1938 until the end of March 1938 Maugham Travels in India, meeting the venerated Indian holy man Sri Ramana Maharshi, returning to France the first part of April. The brewing winds of war would not allow Maugham to remain in France indefinitely. On September 1, 1939 the German Army invaded Poland and reached Paris by June 14, 1940. With the Nazi's lightening advance, as might be expected, many, many lives, both large and small --- including Maugham's --- were adversely impacted. He was forced to flee late one night with nothing but a single suitcase.
Although the full nature of his escape is seldom brought up by Maugham as being anything special, it was far more harrowing than most people have come to realize. The following quote on the subject is from an article that covers the escape somewhat concisely, albeit still fairly thoroughly, especially if one takes time to go down to the Footnotes. The article, called Guy Hague, refers to the person thought by many as being the role model for Maugham's main character in Maugham's best selling novel The Razor's Edge:
"W. Somerset Maugham himself, at age sixty-six, was ensconced in his villa in the south of France. When the Nazis crossed into France and raced toward Paris, he too was forced to flee. Waiting too long, Maugham sought refuge aboard his then only means of escape, one of two coal barges slowly plying their way off the coast of the Mediterranean. His escape turned out to be a horrific twenty-day voyage to England. Onboard the barge, a vessel that was not designed for even one passenger, he was crammed together with 500 other fellow escapees. It has been reported a number of the children as well as older and weaker refugees, because of the severe and crowded conditions and lack of food and water and other amenities, died of malnutrition and thirst."
Following a slight recovery period and short lay over in England Maugham settled in the United States for the duration of the war, first in South Carolina continuing to work on the The Razor's Edge, then in Hollywood, California, working on the screenplay for the movie version of the same novel. In lieu of a cash payment for his screenplay, as a renown and respected art collector, the studio gave him a rather expensive Impressionist painting which immediately went into Maugham's art collection. The studio eventually used another person's screenplay, but they allowed him to keep the painting for services rendered.
Somerset Maugham was the master of the short, concise novel and he could convey relationships, greed and ambition with a startling reality. The remote locations of the quietly magnificent yet decaying British Empire offered him beautiful cavasses on which to write his stories and plays. The real-life inhabitants of these locations were frankly shocked at being portrayed as so trivial, parochial and vacuous creatures. Maugham would enjoy the undying hatred of many a South-East Asian planter and his wife for the rest of his life. Yet, for the rest of us, his realistic depictions of the boredom and drudgery of plantation life, and the desire and trappings of what they would regard as civilisation, can re-evoke what were perhaps the more genuine feelings felt by many of the planters and civil servants in the further flung reaches of the Empire. He disclaims expertise in certain topics such as, for example, American dialect and philosophy. "Slang is the great pitfall" he tells us in The Razor's Edge, then goes on to demonstrate a certain facility with both as he writes about the novel's central character, an American he calls Larry Darrell. Maugham's English is clear and lucid and this makes his books easy to come to terms with. His works are often full of the basest, and yet more interesting, of the human vices but can still evoke the day to day feelings and emotions that allow us to understand and identify with his characters. A complex and interesting character, Somerset Maugham managed to catch much of the darker essence of Empire. He sums up a great deal about himself and his views in Looking Back, a semi-autobiographical essay he penned in his later years.
BESTSELLING NOVELS OF THE 20th CENTURY: The Razor's Edge
WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
WITH THANKS TO:
THE BRITISH EMPIRE
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
- WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Good biography. Lots of Maugham graphics, from early childhood to late adult.
- MAUGHAM IN INDIA
- LITERARY AMBULANCE DRIVERS
Everybody knows Hemingway drove an ambulance during WWI, nobody knows Maugham did.
- THE ART COLLECTION OF W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
SPIRITUAL GUIDES, GURUS, AND TEACHERS INFLUENTIAL IN THE RAZOR'S EDGE:
- BHAGAVAN SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI
- SWAMI RAMDAS
- YASUTANI HAKUUN ROSHI
- FATHER ENSHEIM
Includes a section on the missing years of the Razor's Edge