W. Somerset Maugham by M.K. Naik - A Review

cover of W. Somerset Maugham by M.K. Naik
W. Somerset Maugham by M.K. Naik

Naik, M.K. W. Somerset Maugham. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

In this post, we are going to look at a book of criticism on W. Somerset Maugham's works as a whole, which, I am very sorry to say, adds nothing to contribute to an analysis of Maugham's endeavours.

The Readable Maugham

Upon finishing the book, an inevitable question forces itself on the reader: why Naik writes the book at all? His opinion of Maugham's oeuvre is very low, and it is inconceivable that he wastes several years of his life to devote to a task like this. Why not write about D.H. Lawrence (perhaps he had, but I didn't check; and I am assuming it's a he, I didn't check that either), who is the "prophet and philosopher of sex"? I am not kidding, this is a direct quote on p. 143. Why not write about anyone else for that matter, any of the authors he uses to compare Maugham with. I myself, personally, would not have spent my energy on writing about someone, whom in my opinion is only "readable," which is the farthest concession that Naik would grant Maugham. This is basically the conclusion of his study: "With all these advantages, Maugham developed merely into a very readable author, and little more. If tragedy is waste due to unrealized potentialities, Maugham's career may be given that name" (188).

I enjoy reading many books; many of them are more than "readable," but I wouldn't be motivated at all to do a full scale study of the author.

Don't mistake me. I set out with scepticism. A book on Maugham in the sixties, just after he died. When I opened the book, I was pleasantly surprised. The first chapter is all that a more busy reader should only read. It talks about cynicism and humanitarianism. The examination of these two concepts is interesting and one can see where the argument is going, meaning that one can identify certain traits in Maugham's works under these two categories, but then don't get too excited. That's all you are going to get. The rest of the book is to put Maugham's productions in their "rightful" slots, along the spectrum from cynicism (bad boy) to humanitarianism (well done). Oops, I am at the bad end...

One can almost feel the angel and the devil jumping out of the pages; think of the episode in which Milu has to undergo the moral conflict of whether to take the huge gigantic juicy bone or to save Tintin.

Naik has made up his mind before he sets out his examination of Maugham's oeuvre as a whole, from his rugged angles to gradual mellowness in his last phase. Any proof of the contrary is inconvenient. It is not until in the '90s that The Moon and Sixpence is probably analysed and appreciated. I hope soon I'll have time to talk about a couple of articles that are certainly worth reading.

Many of Naik's comments are borrowed comments from John Brophy, who doesn't paint a very complimentary picture of Maugham. The amount of quotes and blind adherence would even suggest, to the cynical, naturally, that Naik is a student of Brophy.

The overall impression is that Naik has his mould in hand, and whatever that doesn't fit is bad. There is no room for difference. Omniscient story-telling is the right way, and the first-person narrative that Maugham has developed to perfection is just not right. Or if Maugham decides to adopt the point of view of his protagonist to illustrate her world view (in the approved third-person), for example, like in the case of The Painted Veil, it is a proof of Maugham's insufficiency and inability to sympathize with Walter (65).

Naik's objection to the negativism in Of Human Bondage as an irrecoverable flaw can be answered by Cordell's comment in A Writer For All Seasons:
Yet the book is not actually depressing, any more than Antigone, Hamlet, or Anna Karenina, for in art only stupidity and banality are depressing. For all the loneliness, suffering, and unhappiness, the book is not negative in essence, for it traces the hero's evolution from painful uncertainty and bewilderment to maturity and spiritual freedom. Eventually he achieves adjustment and a reasonably satisfying philosophy of life. Although Philip's (and Maugham's) exultant discovery that life has no meaning may seem grimly existential, it is for Philip a positive and liberating discovery that enables him to come to terms with life. (87)

As a closing comment, I regret to say that the book has left me the same feeling as Maugham's works have in Naik's: "Moreover, as already noted, the stories in which cynicism dominates leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth" (127).

As in my opening comment, one thing I can say is that if I feel the same about any author as Naik feels about Maugham, I would never have written a book on him or her. And once again, Naik's crystal ball fails him, Theatre, The Painted Veil, and The Razor's Edge are still being read today.

However, my question still begs for an answer. It would seem that Maugham has moved Naik in a way that he is afraid to admit (because it's beneath him to show delight and admiration for someone he despises), and that Maugham has got into his bones, whose works wouldn't leave him in peace. Either he is incapable to analyse why it is so, or he simples denies to admit it. Otherwise, like I say, why bother? "Alors," La Rochefaucauld would have said, "to take full advantage of the Old Party's decease."

W.Somerset Maugham by M.K. Naik at Amazon.com
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This book can also be borrowed from the Open Library, please visit Criticism of W. Somerset Maugham