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W. Somerset Maugham

November 30, 2012

I do not write as I want to; I write as  can.

That’s W. Somerset Maugham describing his limitations as a writer in “The Summing Up,” a book every writer should read. Maugham, who wrote his first novel in 1897 and died in 1965, was the most popular novelist of his time. But he wasn’t a darling of the critics. His masterpiece, “Of Human Bondage,” received some very harsh criticism. As did “The Razor’s Edge.” Those two are the novels for which he’s mostly known. One of my favorites is “Cakes and Ale.”

Maugham isn’t widely read today. His writing is clear, crisp and lucid, devoid of ornamental scrollwork. Hard to believe, but he considered that a drawback. He began to lose favor with the critics as stream-of-consciouness novels, like those of Faulkner, became the literary rage.

I love Faulkner, but I enjoyed more hours of pleasure reading Maugham. Here’s the opening sentence to “Cakes and Ale”:

I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.

Your opinion might differ from mine, but I think that’s one of the best opening lines to a novel ever written. Maugham might disagree, too, since he once classified himself not as a major writer but as one sitting in the front row of the second tier of writers.

I’m rereading “The Summing Up,” a little bit every night, and tomorrow will start rereading “Christmas Holiday,” which takes place in Paris just before the start of World War II. It’s not considered one of Maugham’s best, but I haven’t dipped into it for almost 20 years, and since Christmas is coming up I thought the book would be apropos of the season.

If you’ve never read Maugham start with “Of Human Bondage” or “The Razor’s Edge.” And if you’re a writer, also try his “A Writer’s Notebook.”

(The photo of Maugham above was taken in 1934 by Carl Van Vechten).

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