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The troubled popularity of Somerset Maugham

He mastered every genre he took up - novels, short stories, plays - but he never felt anyone loved him

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Back in the days when it was still possible for a serious, professional author to earn a decent living by his pen, Somerset Maugham made a fortune from his writing. He was able to buy himself a luxurious villa in the south of France, where he entertained lavishly and amassed an impressive art collection.

He was proficient in a remarkable array of genres, including short stories, novels, plays, spy fiction, essays, and autobiography. Many of his books were bestsellers when they first appeared and continue to be widely read. But when it came to the critics, he didn't get much respect.

Some of that may have been envy. It's also true that when his career flourished so profitably, critical taste was increasingly dominated by the high priests of Modernism, whose austere conception of literary art valued the abstruse and the experimental rather than the kind of clear, plainly written, straightforward storytelling at which Maugham excelled.

Since then, there's been a bit of a counterreaction to the Modernist ethos. Today's best-selling writers are fond of pointing to Dickens to prove that popularity need not preclude artistic merit.

Some, indeed, go further, claiming that popularity is a sign of greatness, an argument as specious as the Modernist notion that to be experimental is tantamount to creating important art. To understand Maugham's achievement, it is necessary to recognize there was more to him than mere popularity. His latest biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, rightly emphasizes the magnitude of Maugham's contribution to 20th-century literature. The indefatigable Meyers - who's written biographies of Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Frost, Poe, Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, and Edmund Wilson, among others - is no slouch when it comes to investigating his subjects' personal lives, and he has some fresh things to say about Maugham's early romances, his troubled marriage, and his work as a spy. And, of course, he also reiterates some of the same gossipy anecdotes about goings-on at the Villa Mauresque that have cropped up in earlier books about Maugham.


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