My guess is that not many people these days read W Somerset Maugham. The English author, critic and playwright (1874-1965) seems to have fallen into that abyss reserved for dead white males of the “writers of Empire” period -- although he was enormously influential in his time (Orwell was a fan) and Of Human Bondage remains a remarkable novel.
Frankly, I don’t read much Maugham either, although the other day I picked up cheap copy The Summing Up in a secondhand bookshop. It has the tone of a conversational memoir by an old man looking back on his life, although he is quick to deny that in the opening line.
Of course it is very rooted in its period and he hails long forgotten writers of his day. But he does have a nice turn of phrase (“perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull”) and as only the gifted can be, he is absurdly self-deprecating: “At 18 I knew French, German and some Italian, but I was extremely uneducated and deeply conscious of my ignorance” he says, before noting that in order to improve himself in a two month period he read three Shakespeare plays, two volumes of Mommsen’s History of Rome, a large part of Lanson’s Litterature Francaise, two or three novels, some of the French classics, a couple of scientific works and a play by Ibsen.
This from a man who also says “there is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields”. (Which sounds alarmingly Maoist, doesn’t it?)
This autobiographical reflection on the dramatic arts, philosophy and religion sometimes sings and/or stings off the pages (“to write good prose is an affair of good manners. It is, unlike poetry, a civil art.”) but he also takes a very interesting skew when he writes of the many politicians and public figures he met. And he met a lot.
This is a year in which many public figures will imply they know better than you, and that their opinion is of more weight and import. That may well be true.
But Maugham has some nice reminders of the kind where a little girl says the Emperor has no clothes.
“I met persons who by their rank, fame or position might well have thought themselves destined to become historical figures. I did not find them as brilliant as my fancy had painted them. The English are a political nation and I was often asked to houses where politics were the ruling interest. I could not discover in the eminent statesmen I met there any marked capacity. I concluded, perhaps rashly, that no great degree of intelligence was needed to rule a nation.
“Since then I have known in various countries a good many politicians who have attained high office. I have continued to be puzzled by what seemed to me the mediocrity of their minds. I have found them ill-informed upon the ordinary affairs of life and I have not discovered in them either subtlety of intellect or liveliness of imagination.
“At one time I was inclined to think that they owed their illustrious position only to their gift of speech, for it must be next door to impossible to rise to power in a democratic community unless you can catch the ears of the public; and the gift of speech, as we know, is not often accompanied by the power of thought.
“But since I have seen statesmen who did not seem to me very clever conduct public affairs with reasonable success I cannot but think I was wrong: it must be to govern a nation you need a specific talent and that this may very well exist without general ability.
“In the same way I have known men of affairs who have made great fortunes and brought vast enterprises to prosperity, but in everything unconcerned with their business appear to be devoid of even common sense.
“Nor was the conversation that I heard then as clever as I had expected. It seldom gave you much to think about . . .”
And all this comes before page five. There is much more like this: waspish, aloof, arrogant, condescending, very funny and perhaps with more than a modicum of truth. Maugham had nothing to gain or lose by being honest, so he was. And snarky.
I love it and commend the book (which is available in paperback for about 30 times what I picked up for -- but is still cheap.)
Finally: Sometimes you wake up in another country, huh?
I read with bewilderment and anger in today’s Herald that some Chinese students at Auckland University had swiped around 800 copies of Craccum because they objected to an advertisement in its pages for the Divine Performing Arts theatre production which opens at the Aotea Centre on April 17.
The students apparently “were upset the advert sold the [show] as entertainment when it was really more of a Falun Gong political rally”, according to the Herald -- attributing the remark to Jim Sun, a representative of the New Zealand Chinese Students’ Group.
Well Jim, I went to the Falun Gong show last year and I’m going again this time. It is a colourful entertainment -- but certainly has a strong and pretty unsubtle political aspect in places. But a Falun Gong rally it ain’t.
And frankly even if it was, by what right do you swipe copies of the magazine to “edit” out an advertisement you object to?
I would politely suggest you and your group might want to look a little more carefully at the cultural context in which you live -- a liberal democracy as it happens -- and consider that Falun Gong (whether you or I or anyone back home in China likes it or not) has a legitimate right to take out advertisements in Craccum. Just as you do.
That’s the kind of country this is, weird though it may seem.
It’s life Jim. But not as you know it, maybe?