Twenty-five years after Ted Morgan's definitive 1980 biography, and in three hundred fewer pages, literary biographer Jeffrey Meyers has retold the story of W. Somerset Maugham's life. Meyers, whose Somerset Maugham: A Life is his forty-third book, told Publishers Weekly in 1995 that, “Speed is a big thing for me because it lets me keep up a tremendous interest. I never get tired of what I do. I try to communicate this excitement to the reader. I write every day. I keep the pace up and never let it drop.” What one can anticipate in Meyers's work is exhaustive research, a readable style, and sound critical scholarship. Legions of readers have helped keep Maugham's best books in print in the decades since his death; some, however, may be displeased at how Meyers handles his subject in this work.
“Maugham's homosexuality was well known but excited little comment in the tolerant literary world of London.” So wrote Drew Middleton, veteran New York Times writer, in a prominent sidebar to the paper's obituary of Maugham. So well did Maugham guard the details of his sex life that an American academic, Richard Cordell, who wrote the first book on Maugham in 1937 after the two had become well enough acquainted to swap transatlantic visits, admitted he had known nothing of his subject's sexual orientation.
Once the word was out, Sanche de Gramont, an esteemed French journalist who changed his nationality to British and his name to Ted Morgan, became fascinated by the famous writer who had been born in Paris of English parents and spoke French as his first language until he was twelve. Morgan began unremitting research for the first full-scale biography with access to vital materials withheld on Maugham's orders by his literary executor. Morgan's 711-page volume was published in 1980 to acclaim that was, in part, prurient.
It is impossible to write of Meyers's book without referencing Morgan's. Meyers mentions his predecessor by name only once, although he lists fifty citations in endnotes. In three hundred fewer pages, Meyers follows Morgan's leads but, understandably, can add nothing significant. Although his admiration is as fervent, Meyers comes nowhere near as close to Maugham, the man whom novelist-biographer Victoria Glendinning, in her admiring review of Morgan's work, calls the Great Untouchable.
Morgan introduces his theme straightforwardly in his second chapter, while discussing Maugham's trials in school. “[Maugham's] homosexual inclinations had begun to show themselves at the King's School when his avoidance of participation in competitive games isolated him from his peer group…. He formed strong passions for boys who had the qualities he lacked.”
Meyers concludes his opening chapter by trying to link Willie Maugham's schoolboy intimations of bisexuality with the overriding themes of duality, the problems of identity and selfhood. Scant evidence becomes no evidence when, in chapter 2, describing Maugham's medical training in London, Meyers egregiously comments that the young trainee “took every opportunity to practice giving enemas to his fellow students.”
So dominant is homosexuality as his book's cohering theme that Meyers deploys it to summarize five of his first eight chapters. Chapter 2 dutifully records not only the five years at St. Thomas Hospital but also two earlier years of study in Germany, where at age seventeen Maugham came under the influence of his first lover, John Ellington Brooks, a brilliant dilettante ten years his senior. Meyers concludes with overconfident concision:
“[Maugham's] medical training destroyed his religious belief; but it …taught him to …adopt a cool, objective and clinical point of view. His emergent homosexuality …forced him to become reticent and secretive.” However, Meyers earlier, and in similar buzzwords, cites Maugham's stammer as the force that “intensified his introspection, turned him away from people and toward his artistic vocation.”
As is the case with many so afflicted, the stammer disappeared when Maugham was at ease. As for Maugham's homosexuality, there was apparently no rest. In chapter...
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