W. Somerset Maugham. A Candid Portrait

Pfeiffer, Karl G. W. Somerset Maugham. A Candid Portrait. London: Gollancz, 1959.

Pfeiffer was a personal friend of Maugham. After the disappointment of Maugham changing his mind about authorising him to write his biography, Pfeiffer gathered anecdotes and some brief analysis of Maugham as a person and a writer in this informal book, published during Maugham's life time. He did sound very proud to have been Maugham's friend which, to be honest, I would have been too.

For those who are familiar with Maugham's autobiographical works, this book is repetitive in its long summary of what Maugham has already revealed to his readers. Certainly it constitutes a more interesting reading coming from Maugham's own pen than from any other's. A piece of heartwarming information is that Maugham read all his fans' letters and replied to every one of them. Pfeiffer's conclusion repeats Maugham's opinion of himself that he is "a good writer of the second rank" (p. 210).

Of course the malicious may retort that while the academics laughed at Maugham's attempt at serious literary criticism, the reverse would also be true; that academics should focus on formal criticism instead of a haphazard amateur portrait that looks blankly back at you, an argument with which, naturally, I could not disagree more.

The most enjoyable part for me is the introduction by Jerome Weidman, in which he describes his first meeting with Pfeiffer and how Maugham is the subject that enables them to relate to each other.


  1. A fellow Maugham admirer and I are trying to find the origin of this phrase "a good writer of the second rank" that Maugham is supposed to have said "more than once" (as reported by Selina). Can you recall any place in Maugham's own writings where he says exactly these words? Or anything similar, for instance "the first among the second-rate"? (Although "second rank" and "second-rate", as my friend has observed, have very different in meaning.)

    All sources we have been able to find so far are pure gossip. Pfeiffer is one, Louis Marlow is another (the one quoted by Selina). Some online rumours attribute the phrase to "The Summing Up". I am positive no such thing occurs in the editions I have read. Have you found something like that in the First edition? My earliest edition is the 1954 one in "The Partial View". I intend to re-read and check it as soon as possible. I doubt I'll find the phrase, but, as we have discussed elsewhere, at least one 1954 edition of "The Summing Up" does show at least one variance at sentence level compared to both modern editions (as confirmed by me) and the First edition (as confirmed by you).

    1. Hi Alexander,
      Off hand I would have said it was in The Summing Up, but so far I can't find it. I can almost swear that I have read it in one of Maugham's writings, but then memory can be so tricky. Will keep looking and now I can't rest till I find it! Do let me know if you have any luck.

    2. I also found, to my dismay, that I had referred to this famous phrase in one of my reviews, but unfortunately I didn't source it. Four of every five reviews of Maugham's books online, it seems, mention it in one form or another. Yet I am inclined to believe it is apocryphal, probably coming originally from the gossipy memories of the guests at the Mauresque. Significantly, no two versions are quite the same.

      Of course I'll let you know if something interesting comes up. Meanwhile I started re-reading "The Summing Up". What a pleasure this book is! It flows like Mozart. Like Wagner even. Anyway, I found an interesting variation that I would like to ask you to check with the First edition. Chapter 12, second paragraph, a stab through the heart of KJV:

      "To my mind King James's Bible has been a very harmful influence on English prose. I am not so stupid as to deny its great beauty. It is majestical. But the Bible is an oriental book."

      This is from "The Partial View", Heinemann, 1954. Modern paperbacks (Pan 1976; Vintage 2001) have this:

      "To my mind King James’s Bible has had a harmful influence on English prose. I am not so stupid as to deny its great beauty, and it is obvious that there are passages in it of a simplicity which is deeply moving. But it is an oriental book."

      The version in "Mr Maugham Himself", Doubleday, 1954, is a hybrid:

      "To my mind King James's Bible has been a very harmful influence on English prose. I am not so stupid as to deny its great beauty, and it is obvious that there are passages in it of a simplicity which is deeply moving. But the Bible is an oriental book."

      What do you have in the First edition?

    3. It is exactly like the Heinemann, 1954 version.

      I have been checking here and there too in The Summing Up and often I get distracted by passages and keep reading instead. I am very tempted to read it again; I will do that once I finish the project I have on hand. I am really excited about it but I am going to bite my tongue at the moment.

  2. I may have asked you this before, but if so, I don't remember. I'm also trying to find out where Maugham calls the writer of fiction "a natural propagandist". Any ideas? I'm sure I have read it somewhere in his works, but I can't for the life of me find it. Some time ago I re-read all of his prefaces and all else I can think of that is dedicated to the art of fiction, but the phrase still eludes me. I am beginning to think I made it up. Right you are: memory can be so tricky.

  3. No, you haven't, Alexander. I don't recall that phrase, but that doesn't mean anything. What I can find about propagandist is what he says about artist: "I am not speaking now of those who practise an art to teach; they are propagandists and with them art is a side issue" (chapter 49, 3rd paragraph); and in another place when he writes that "I have never been a propagandist" when he talks about the fact that he is not very popular with critics (chapter 58, paragraph 1). But these are not what you are talking about.

    By the way, I have searchable versions of some of his works (any that is in pdf or an image file that can be converted into pdf; or I should say most of the time it works fine). If you want, let me know. What it is is I have Adobe Pro and I can render images into recognizable texts for searches.

    1. Trying to find "the first in the second rank" (or any other version of it), I incidentally found the "natural propagandist". I really don't know I missed it on my previous search through his writings. It's in "Of Human Bondage, With a Digression on the Art of Fiction", p. 8 in the 1946 pamphlet published by the Library of Congress (my copy is 2nd printing, presumably a reprint of the 1st), also p. 130 in "A Traveller in Romance", Clarkson N. Potter, 1984.

      Searchable versions are very helpful indeed! I have collected what I have found online, and some pdf files, most notably "Mr Maugham Himself" and "The Collected Short Stories", are used quite often. If you come across "The Gentleman in the Parlour", "Don Fernando" (especially the early version) or "A Writer's Notebook", please share.

    2. I do covet Of Human Bondage with a Digression on the Art of Fiction. I have my eye on a particular copy but can't decide if I want to spend so much money on it...

      I have A Writer's Notebook. Some day I plan to scan all the ones I have, but that will be some day...

  4. I read a most intriguing comment today: "Bond went on to add that he didn't enjoy reading writers' autobiographies either. "I read Somerset Maugham's autobiography. He is a writer whom I greatly admire. But at the end of reading the book, I couldn't help but conclude that he was a horrible, nasty man," he said."

    This is from somebody called Russell Bond; afraid haven't heard of him. I presume he is talking about The Summing Up, but for the life of me I can't understand how he gets that impression upon finishing the book.

    1. I can well understand how somebody may find Maugham's candid self-portrait horrible and nasty, but I certainly find it strange that this same somebody should describe himself as a Maugham admirer, and a great one at that. Have no idea who Russell Bond is, either. After the first paragraph I thought you meant James Bond. :-)

      I have reached the philosophical conclusion of "The Summing Up" and still no trace of the "second-rate/rank/tier/whatever". Here are several other (minor) differences between the version in "The Partial View" and modern paperbacks which you may or may not enjoy comparing to the first edition. None is as substantial as the case of KJV, but all seem interesting to me.

      - Chapter 49, third paragraph, one "not" missing: "To the artist the communication he offers is a by-product. I am [not] speaking now of those who practise an art to teach; they are propagandists and with them art is a side-issue."

      - Chapter 45, last paragraph, two dashes instead of commas: "For myself I can say that, having had every good thing that money can buy – an experience like another – I could part without a pang with every possession I have." It would be amusing if this change originated with Maugham himself, considering his contempt for dashes (now this I can source right away: "The Gentleman in the Parlour", end of chapter 2).

      - Chapter 52, somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph that occupies nearly the whole chapter, a very amusing typo that changes the meaning: "It seemed a necessary motif in the pattern of life that I had designed, and to my ingenious [sic] fancy (for though no longer young and thinking myself so worldly wise, I was still in many ways incredibly naive) it offered peace..." All other editions of course have "ingenuous".

      Finally, one little change that occurs only in "Mr Maugham Himself", but not in modern paperbacks or "The Partial View".

      - Chapter 46, first paragraph, last sentence: "...he will soon sink back into the obscurity from which he with difficulty emerged." Other editions have "he difficultly emerged".

    2. Ha ha, it did occur to me about James Bond when quoting the passage...

      Chapter 49: I have the "not".

      Chapter 45: I have commas.

      Ch. 52: yeah, "ingenuous"

      Ch. 46: "he difficultly emerged"

      Wow, do you have eagle eye? Infinite patience certainly!

    3. Nice to see that at least the first edition has all the right things. I wonder if Maugham was responsible for the changes in "The Partial View". In the preface he does mention that he had re-read the book because friends had told him a number of misprints had crept in, but that 1954 edition is hardly typo-free. I am still amazed when I look at the dedication to "A Writer's Notebook": "In / Loving Memory of My Friend / Frederick Gerald Maxton / 1892-1944".

      I must admit I am not that sharp-eyed. In the old days, when there were no searchable pdfs, I had to extract quotes by typing them word by word. I just remembered some of the words. I must also admit that, in addition to these changes, I checked between two and three dozen suspicious passages more, but they all turned out to be absolutely the same in all four editions. So, not especially great memory, either.


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