The Right Coast

February 07, 2005
Somerset Maugham As Seen by Another No-Nonsense Medic
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Anthony Daniels reviews Jeffrey Meyers' new(ish) biography of Somerset Maugham in the New Criterion, and gets it right about Maugham, I think.

(If you haven't read Maugham, you have something good to look forward to: of the short stories, my favourites are "The Alien Corn", "The Vessel of Wrath", and any of the Ashenden stories. The novels? "The Moon and Sixpence", more or less about Gauguin, or "Cakes and Ale"...)

Daniels is a medical doctor, which is what Maugham was trained to be as well. As Daniels puts it -- in tones that come close to parody of Maugham --:
In order to be able to continue to practice, doctors have quickly to learn a kind of detached involvement in the lives of their patients... A doctor who fails to discipline his emotions is unlikely to be of much use to his patients; therefore the learning of such discipline, until it becomes second nature, is as much a part of medical training as pathology and therapeutics. It might appal sentimentalists to know that nothing I have seen in thirty years as a doctor, from epidemic and civil war to accident, murder and suicide, has ever caused me a moment’s sleeplessness, and that a man could cut his throat in front of me without it affecting my appetite for dinner in the slightest.
Daniels sums up Maugham:
Appearance and reality were forever at war in Maugham. He was both respectable and bohemian; he was ironically detached from humanity and passionately involved in it; he was a social snob and an intellectual democrat; he craved emotional independence and unconditional love (which he never received). In the little communities of colonial expatriates of the South Seas and East Indies he found his perfect subject matter. Here were people torn between duty and inclination, monogamy and the promptings of instinct, convention and freedom. On the whole, they were very ordinary, neither cultured nor clever, but average specimens of their class and upbringing: but, as Maugham said, he would rather talk to a dentist than to a Prime Minister (at least from the point of view of gathering material for stories, life at [Maugham's Riviera] Villa Mauresque being another thing entirely).
Read the whole thing.