Review of W. Somerset Maugham & The Quest for Freedom by Robert Lorin Calder

Cover of Robert Calder's W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom
The Quest for Freedom

Calder, Robert Lorin. W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1973.

This post reviews Robert Lorin Calder's W. Somerset Maugham & the Quest for Freedom, a book length criticism on Maugham's novels, short stories, drama, travel books, and essays.

The Quest for Freedom

The title of this book is telling of Calder's main thesis. Through the examination of Maugham's life and work, the author argues that for Maugham, freedom, both physical and spiritual, is most important and it can only be achieved through isolation and detachment from others.

The critic begins by going over Maugham's biography, highlighting instances in which the latter expresses the concept of freedom. It is necessary, especially for those who are not familiar with Maugham's life, for establishing a stronger basis for his later analysis of different works. For those who are familiar with Maugham's biography, however, it drags on a bit too much before one gets to the meat.

The chapters discuss Maugham's work chronologically, but the analysis is by no means restricted by the timeline. Relevant works with similar themes are compared and contrasted. The first few chapters are heavy on the concept of freedom in Maugham; the argument is the same —and it is convincing—, but when more and more examples are cited one finds oneself reading the same point again and again.

The later chapters, when the author focusses more on other points that he wants to make, reads smoother. The chapter "Cakes and Ale" is delightful, with a lot of background information about the immediate havoc that the publication created.

Calder makes the point that, different from other protagonists in Maugham's work, Rosie is the only one who is able to possess freedom and not be tortured by "self-doubts and continual introspection" (196); however, I doubt if Rosie can be called a protagonist in the novel. She remains enigmatic throughout and the narrator only begins to understand her better when he grows older and wiser. She is more an object of the narrator's introspection than being a subject of the novel.

Evaluating Maugham

Calder has pointed out that Maugham reiterates often in his work that he does not judge his characters and their actions; unfortunately, he does not get the same treatment from his critics.

It has drawn my attention for some time when I read analysis on Maugham that his work is continually evaluated, often than not in a patronizing manner. For example, in this book that we are concerned: "The Razor's Edge is a considerable achievement for a writer approaching seventy years of age" (249). I guess at thirty-one, the seventy-year-olds are old fogeys who drool and fall asleep in the middle of dinner.

In a considerable amount of criticisms that I have read throughout my study and research on different authors in different periods, the critics concentrate on drawing conclusions in a series of texts being examined, analysing an author's specific concerns and style, establishing arguments about a period or a group or literary influence, and so on; evaluative judgements about whether a book has succeeded or failed, one finds it more becoming in book reviews.

When one reads through Calder's analysis, one denotes a certain standard being applied to Maugham, but it is not clear what the details are. It is namely the criteria for great literature, which Maugham has not been able to produce. From what I can gather from some of Calder's objections, to name a few—which is a tall order; I confess I cannot add more before I read the book a second time, which I am not sure if I will—: to be able to encompass all human perspectives, to show changes of one's viewpoints when one ages, to cut open one's chest and expose one's bloody throbbing heart for public consumption.

If we agree with Calder's analysis that freedom and independece is what Maugham cherishes most, and he believes that the only way to be able to guarantee its acheivement is by having no ties to another human being, then it is acting out of character to ask him to lay his soul bare.

Another misgiving is that Maugham was quiet about his homosexuality. Considering the time he was living in, maybe it was not so surprising; and besides, it is a personal choice whether to reveal one's private life in such a way. I rather felt being imposed upon by the knowledge of Henry Miller's sexual congress (as Maugham would say) and his hemorrhoid bleeding in his canonical Tropic of Cancer.

Another criticism is that Maugham does not describe a perfect couple. If marriage is a bondage as Calder has made clear in one of the chapters, then it is not difficult to see that Maugham has his doubts about the holy matrimony; he would have been accused of insincerity if he writes about a wholesome couple who succeed in forgetting the self and merge into one.

Evaluating The Quest for Freedom

Calder provides a lot of information in this book and has done very diligent research on previous criticisms on Maugham. It contains a lot of references that are very useful. However, it is a pity that instead of including at the end of the book a bibliography of all the articles and books that he has mentioned, he refers the readers to Sanders' bibliography and the others are hidden in the relevant footnotes.

The conclusion is well written, giving an overall view of the whole book. Many of Calder's analyses are thoughtful and thorough; unfortunately, they are marred on several occasions, in my opinion, by the criticisms which contradict what he has established before, such as Maugham's view on marriage.

At the end, Calder makes a plead that Maugham should be studied more and written about. To be made a canon is to get into school syllabuses and university curricula. I wonder if Maugham would be better off to be out. With all the texts that literature students have to plough through word by word and write about, few are really enjoyed. Some of the books I only come to love years later, when I am not forced to read them.

Quite recently Maugham's books are being reprinted again. His reading public is more loyal. Certainly Maugham has achieved one of the most basic functions of literature: to delight.

This book is also available for purchase in these two places: W. Somerset Maugham & The Quest For Freedom and W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom

There is an interesting talk by Calder on Maugham in 2013, which is highly enjoyable.


  1. The rumour has it - or at least had it some time ago - that Mr Calder is writing a new book about the movie adaptations of Maugham's works. Do you know anything about that?

  2. Yes, I do! He mentioned it in the talk he gave in a bookshop. You can watch the video here:

    By the way, I wonder if you have read this:

    I think you would love the chapter! ;-}

    I watched a trailer of Curtis's play. I have the impression that it is basically a caricature of Maugham. From the fragments I saw, Maugham looked like a nincompoop. Know anyone who has seen the play?

  3. Yes, thank you for reminding me about Mr Calder's talk. I've just seen it complete, something I've meant to do for quite some time. Not entirely without interesting points, especially about his meeting Alan Searle in Monte Carlo and competing with Ted Morgan.

    I have not read this masterful anatomical analysis of "Of Human Bondage". It looks just like the type I would fall in love with. It seems a pity that I have passed the point of no return as far as Maugham criticsm is concerned. I don't read it anymore. Even the very few critics I admire - really Anthony Curtis and Desmond MacCarthy only, to a far lesser degree Glenway Wescott and John Whitehead - I seldom re-read. The rest, from what I read in "The Critical Heritage", the books compiled by Klaus Jonas and several others by various authors, are intensely repetitive. We have a rude idiom in my native language that fits their authors very well; I don't know if there is a similar one in English. It would be something like "they spit in one another's mouths". I am reminded of this lovely article from the Daily Mail a few year back:

    It is very much like the biographies and the criticism: full of ridiculous factual errors (died in 1967, had 4 plays running in West End before he was 30) and obscenely obsessed with his sexual life. What can one comment after such an article? I only want to say that it was included in the author's page on LT. I've removed it from there and I'm proud of myself.

    No, I don't know anybody who has seen Mr Curtis's play. Too bad if it's just a caricature; he could so much better than that. On the other hand, maybe he couldn't. This year is 40 years since "The Pattern of Maugham" was first published. I wonder if with the years Mr Curtis didn't come to agree with his critics that in his first book he had overpraised Maugham. His 1982 pamphlet is noticeably cooler, although his later introductions to the short stories and the plays are somewhat warmer.

  4. Yes, I think I saw the Daily Mail when Hastings' book came out, but I only browsed a few paragraphs and didn't bother to read it. I always think that if one tries to be sarcastic the first thing is to get the facts right. But what do you expect? It's the Daily Mail. The photos are great though.

    And I like the "daughters of joy;" it's unbeatable!

    It's funny that it mentions Harry Philips. I am rereading The Bishop's Apron and it's dedicated to him.

    How's Hastings' biography? The disastrous title and all these sensational newspaper articles sort of put me off, but Calder said in the talk that it was the definitive one so far. I started reading it but I am never comfortable with the merging of facts and personal opinions, which is what I have found from the little I read. Besides, quotes don't seem to be rigorously documented. From what she says in Revealing Mr. Maugham she appears to "hate" Alan Searle, or perhaps a better phrase: morally indignant, as if he has stepped on her toes. Maybe it's a good sign, since she seems to take it so personally, which shows that she is passionately involved with her subject.

    There are two articles on The Moon and Sixpence that I like and another on "The Ant and the Grasshopper" that I think is well-written. Maybe you have read them already, but if not, let me know.

    There is another book of criticism by Philip Holden: Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation. I don't think it's your cup of tea, but at least it's written in a more academic tone. It's Holden's thesis, which is available online. I haven't compared the book with it, but he must have made some revisions. There is a misprint on the very book cover though; the subtitle reads: W. Somerset Maughan's Exotic Fiction. They can't even get his name right!

    1. Oh, and in one of the photos in DM it looks like a Parker Duofold that he was holding.

  5. I agree about the photos in DM: delightful, all of them.

    How lucky you are to be re-reading "The Bishop's Apron". It's the only one I'm still missing. Could never find it reasonably priced. I was not impressed with "Loaves and Fishes", but I expect the novel is better (unlike "The Explorer" where I like the play more).

    Selina's biography is detailed and dull, a work of great industry and little insight. I suppose it's "the definitive" so far. It's more sympathetic than any previous attempt, including Calder's (and it doesn't have his odious preoccupation with homosexuality), but for the most part it is either pedestrian and superficial or far-fetched and misguided. Alan does get it in his neck, but I remain unconvinced that he deserves it. If not the best biography, it is the least worst of the four full-scale attempts.

    There are many quotes from letters I don't remember to have read before (in Morgan's bio that is, for he is only other biographer who was allowed to use them), but though they corroborate a lot, they say nothing new. And it's funny to see how sometimes Selina uses this valuable material misleadingly. At two places, at least, she quotes extracts that can be found in Stott, but she gives her source as the Berg Collection in the NYPL. No doubt this is correct, but it looks to me as an unnecessary attempt to improve the status of her primary research. Relatively often she quotes statements from Maugham's letters that are inferior paraphrases of what he expressed much better in his books, for example the controversial claim that during the five years in St Thomas he learnt "pretty well everything I know about human nature". This is beautifully explained and qualified in "The Summing Up", and the real situation, as you well know, is a great deal more complex.

    The rest of the quotes are indeed not always sourced. A particularly annoying example, which I have included in the endnotes of my "Chronology", is Maugham's "hate" for "Up at the Villa" that he is supposed to have developed in "later years". "I don’t want to hear a word about it! I’m ashamed ever to have done it!”, he "angrily exclaimed". Not even a third-hand rumour for this is given. The only place I know of where Maugham said something about this "novelette" (his word) is the preface to vol. 3 of "The Selected Novels" (1953) and it doesn't sound hateful at all. I have discovered at least half a dozen similar examples of unsourced material. Heaven knows how many more there are. Besides, what is quoted and sourced, especially the wildly speculative claims of other people, is seldom discussed critically.

    In short, useful book for newcomers to Maugham who are too lazy, or don't like him enough, to read a sizeable portion of his works. I don't think it would be of much use to a student of Maugham with your knowledge and experience.

    My idea of the ideal biography is Alan Walker's three-volume "Franz Liszt": meticulously documented, shamelessly readable, and profoundly insightful about the man. I wish somebody would do the same for Maugham, but I doubt that's possible. Maugham's case, of course, is way more difficult, as the cases of professional writers always are. "The Summing Up" alone has made ordinary biographies virtually useless. They may fill a few blanks, about the historical background or about people Maugham knew for instance, but about Maugham himself they say next to nothing essential. What's worse, they invariably start with the pernicious preconceptions that Maugham's life was ruled by: 1) hidden homosexuality; 2) tortured marriage; 3) craving for critical acclaim; and 4) craving for money. The more I study Maugham the more I'm convinced in the supreme unimportance of all four points.

  6. I have finally decided to read this book carefully and complete. The Preface and the "Biographical Introduction" are not promising. Mr Calder and I, it seems, are going to engage in all sorts of heated arguments...

  7. I have come back to it from time to time only to check things. I think you are going to be boiling when you reach the end of the book!

    It's "ripping" to chat about different things. It's a fun word. Can't help seeing Philip's face whenever I see the word, though I don't really have a mental image of him.

  8. I had so far read only a few bits of it, mostly from the appendices. I had a sort of sneaky admiration for Calder as the only one among Maugham's biographers who has actually attempted a study of his works (though not all of his works, apparently). This deserves respect. I doubt Morgan, Meyers and Selina read even once Maugham's complete works, let alone studied them.

    Calder is no Maugham detractor, I am pleased to say, but this doesn't make many, if not all, of his points less open to serious debate, to say the least. Is it so hard to admit that Maugham is, after all, a great writer? Yes, he would have been embarrassed, but so would every other great writer, Shakespeare included I'm pretty sure. Both Will and Willie, rather than embarrassed, would have been amused, I think.

    And the saddest thing of all is that things haven't improved a bit in those more than 40 years since this book was published.

    1. I often wonder about the objection to Maugham. Is it because he was "too" popular? Too rich? People give the thumbs-up when you study an obscure author that no one has heard of; it's a contribution to knowledge like a true scholar. But then you have to justify to ad nausea if you want to work on Maugham. Is he still worth studying? Which book? Why? Besides getting a strange look like you are some freaks.

    2. How long since Shakespeare was recognized as a genius? Cervantes wasn't until early 19th century. Well, I guess we still have to wait. I am going to get eggs and tomatoes thrown at me for bring Maugham's name so close to the word "genius"!

    3. I have often been accused of "bad taste" in musical quarters, so I'm getting used to it. No eggs and tomatoes so far, but I hope I can survive them should they come.

      I make no apologies for putting Maugham right up there with anybody, Shakespeare included. It goes without saying that this is merely a personal opinion. If it must bring personal attacks as well, so be it. I don't see why difference of opinion on purely subjective matters should breed quarrels and even contempt, but to some people these things apparently come naturally.

      Interesting question about Shakespeare's ultimate recognition. I should think it didn't really happen before the Romantics, Hazlitt and Coleridge in particular. I don't detect much Bardolatry in Pope and Dryden; there is certainly none in Dr Johnson. So it's miserable two centuries ago, and another two or so after his death.

      The objections to Maugham were - are - many and complex, I think. The popularity and the wealth must be among them, their major consequence - artistic freedom - even more so. The critic, as Maugham remarked, was often hurried and always ill-paid, forced to read and review countless tomes he didn't care for. How can he not hate a writer who writes whatever, whenever and however he likes? And is filthy rich at that!

      Some of Maugham's colleagues in the field of creative writing (and "critics" by the way) were struck with mighty incomprehension. Graham Greene didn't have the least idea what Maugham tried to do in his books. Evelyn Waugh missed completely the point of "Christmas Holiday". Gore Vidal grossly underestimated the deleterious consequences of Maugham's childhood (then again, Calder seems to be doing the opposite).

      In any case, I am inclined to view the reading public, crowd as it is, as the best judge of all, especially for extended periods of time. I am glad we will be able to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Maugham's death with so many of his books easily available.

    4. I've read some of your posts on music and musicians. What is there to object? I have in my head Wagner's Große Sonate A-dur, which I used for the video and which I don't seem to be able to get off my head. It's ringing there night and day. I guess I just have to be patient.

      Another personal question: do you like Tom Waits by any chance?

      Interesting to read about other writers' opinions on Maugham. I haven't read much written on him by other authors. Why don't you have that in queue too?

      Which day do you consider as Maugham's death? 15 or 16 Dec.?

    5. Oh, there is quite a lot to object, if one has nothing better to do. It is truly shameful, for instance, to admire so much the music of Franz Liszt, the greatest charlatan of the 19th century. It's only a little less shameful to be moved by so thoroughly second-rate a composer as Tchaikovsky. And I have the temerity to find Bach, Bruckner and Mahler boring. Ardent fans of some singers (Hotter, Callas, Pavarotti, Alagna) or pianists (Lang Lang, Pollini) may also have been outraged at some of my reviews. Karajan, too, still has his detractors, some of them quite vocal.

      All this is the same as if, in your case, you hail a youthful work like the Grosse Sonate as superior to Wagner's mature music dramas. This will certainly be idiosyncratic, but on purely personal level, and that's only level that matters, perfectly valid. All the same, the Wagnerites will attempt to murder you.

      I'm afraid I've never even heard of Tom Waits. Who is he?

      As for other writers' opinions on Maugham, I've read what you've read, "The Critical Heritage". Outside of this, two character assassinations are notable. One is Christopher Hitchens' "Poor Old Willie", one of the nastiest diatribes even penned on Maugham, including the far from complimentary opinion of P. G. Wodehouse that it contains. The other is Gore Vidal's inexplicably famous "Maugham's Half and Half" (which Modern Library reprinted as an Introduction to "Of Human Bondage"). This is a harsh review of Calder's bio actually, but it goes into some (thoroughly superficial) detail about Maugham's life and works. I never expected that a man like Vidal, a man who wrote some outstanding historical fiction, would underestimate the value of personal history, but he sure does. The only bit I like in this essay/review/ranting is his take on Maugham's misogyny:

      "Also, before D. H. Lawrence, Dr. Maugham (obstetrician) knew that women, given a fraction of a chance, liked sex as much as men did. When he said so, he was called a misogynist."

      Maugham's death must be on 16 December. Otherwise it doesn't fit with Clarke's birthday. We can't allow this, can we?

  9. As for music, I am able to enjoy it with the bliss of the ignorant. I smile because I never dared confess that Mahler bores me...

    I am going to have a look at the Critical Heritage. I only read it here and there when I search for something specific.

    Well, 16 it is. You have any idea how to commemorate it?

  10. Ignorance is indeed a musical bliss. I am happy to be able to enjoy it, too.

    You won't miss anything special if you don't look at The Critical Heritage. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun. As a research tool, it's a five star book. But why one should want to study Maugham's critical reception instead Maugham's own works, this I don't know. As a source of insight into Maugham's oeuvre, it is a one star book. I added a second star because I was so much amused by many of the reviews, particularly the more vicious ones, and because I respect Tony and John as editors.

    For my part, I hope to commemorate the anniversary by finishing the two projects I started - I don't know exactly when - more than a year ago. One is the abridged and updated version of Stott (which is nearly finished) and the other is the Chronology of Maugham's Life (which is nowhere near finished).


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