Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Vagrant Mood – Somerset Maugham

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 18, 2011

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life – Somerset Maugham

 Somerset Maugham has remained one of my favourite writers. While I’ve read his novels “Cakes and Ale“, “Up at the Villa“, “Moon and Six Pence“, “Razor’s Edge” and “Summing Up” with relish, I’ve always remained partial in my liking to his short stories. I would not hesitate to include his short story “The Rain” as one of the greatest ever penned by any author – living or dead. I remember bargaining like hell with a tired, hassled and exasperated Parsee gentleman in Mumbai (the building had a wonderful name – “Smoker’s Corner”), to buy a complete collection of Maugham‘s works – a glossy set of paperbacks which I retain with me till date. This collection of mine is special to me for two reasons. Firstly, it marked a serious initiation into book collection and the liberating habit of reading. Secondly, I bought this set with my first income and it in a way set the tone for my spending habits till the end of my bachelor days. Despite the passage of two decades and a wider exposure to a variety of writers and writing, he is one author whose books I can pick up for reading at any point in time without qualms. It is with a sense of nostalgia that I chose his book “The Vagrant Mood” for reading recently.

The Vagrant Mood” is a delectable collection of six essays written in a luxuriously ruminative mood. Maugham brings his extraordinary powers of observation, rich experience of life in letters, original views on art and aesthetics and wonderful narrative powers to bear fruit in these essays which are full of insight, information, erudition and entertainment. The essays are Augustus, Zurbaran, The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story, After Reading Burke, Reflections on a Certain Aspects of a Book and Some Novelists I Have Known.

Even among these Augustus was a little out of context for me and Reflections on Certain Aspects of a Book, was a little difficult to understand. However, I will hasten to add that this does not diminish even an iota of the artistic merit of this wonderful essay. It deserves to be reread at a different point in time and with an enhanced awareness of aesthetics

In the essay Zurbaran, Maugham outlines the life, time and work of the now forgotten Spanish painter Zurbaran. It is a well-balanced and delightful account. Maugham tells the reader why he thinks that the artistic apotheosis in Zurbaran’s work lies in his much lesser known paintings where he reached a state of rapture transcending his innate limitations which he did not in his otherwise well-known commissioned paintings with religious motives and themes. What makes this essay an engaging read are Maugham’s view on a variety of aspects of the art of painting. Consider for example his views on beauty:

Beauty is a grave word. It is a word of high import. It is used lightly now – of the weather, of a smile, of a frock or the fit of a shoe, of a bracelet, of a garden, of a syllogism; beautiful serves as a synonym for good or pretty or pleasing or nice or engaging or interesting. But beauty is none of these. It is much more. It is very rare. It is a force. It is an enravishment. It is not a figure of speech when people say it takes their breath away; in some cases it may give you the same suffocating shock as when you dive into ice-cold water….. the impact of beauty is to make you feel greater than you are, so that for a moment you seem to walk on air; and the exhilarating and release are such that nothing in the world matters anymore.

Maugham believed that every artist has a right to be evaluated by his best work and not every output of his and this thought is wonderfully articulated when he opines that:

The artist has no need to carry heavy baggage to find his way to posterity. A few pictures, a book or two, suffice. The artist’s function is to create beauty, though not, I believe, the mainspring of his productiveness, and not, as some think, to reveal truth: if it were, a syllogism would be more significant than a sonnet

In doing so Maugham also throws light on some aspects of the relationship between a painter and his model which I found quite interesting

Portraiture, and Zurbaran was pre-eminently a painter of portraits, is to some extent a collaboration between a painter and his sitter; the sitter must give something; there is something in him which excites the painter’s sensibilities sufficiently to enable him to portray somewhat more than his model’s outward seeming. The painter must have a faculty resembling the novelist’s by virtue of which he can slip into the skin of the character he creates and think their thoughts and feel their feelings….

At the beginning of the essay, I was not sure where the reader was being led . However, as I progressed, I was enthralled with the quality of elucidation which is comprehensive and masterly

Maugham was an unabashed admirer of detective fiction. His deep admiration resulted in a voluminous consumption of this genre of fiction. In a classy essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story“, Maugham lays down the landscape of detective fiction and explains the transition of this genre from clue driven, inference based fiction to the current hard boiled variety. Maugham refers extensively to the classic essay by Raymond Chandler titled “The Simple Art Of Murder” where Chandler defends the genre of detective fiction and the argues for its place in the world of fiction. Like Chandler, Maugham also has very original views on this genre. He at one place makes an interesting observation that:

Murder is a horrible thing and the murderer takes a great risk. It is hard to make your reader believe that he will take it because the girl he loves has given her affection to somebody else or because a colleague in a bank has been promoted over his head. The stakes he plays for must be high. The author’s business is to persuade you that they are worth playing for

He then goes onto the lay the landscape of a detective story in detail and analyses threadbare each element involved including the plot, the motive, the murder, the tools, the detective, the setting and the ending. Given his admiration, Maugham at one place says:

In short, detective writers are read because of their merits notwithstanding their often obvious defects: the ‘serious’ novelists remain in comparison little read because of their defects notwithstanding their often conspicuous merits

Sherlock Holmes is not admirably mentioned while Chandler and Dashiell Hammet get high praise. He concludes this informative analysis wryly when he mentions:

I cannot see who can succeed Raymond Chandler. I believe the detective story, both the story of pure deduction and the hard-boiled story, is dead. But that will not prevent a multitude of authors from continuing to write such stories, nor will it prevent me from continuing to read them

It is one of the finest essays I read ever and is a role model for any efforts in literary criticism. While Maugham stops at Chandler and Hammet, I am certain there has been innovation in this genre for the environment has changed quite a lot over the last three decades and consequently the writers have newer contexts, tools, motives to use as raw material for story telling

The essay “After Reading Burke” is a comprehensive set of views on the literary quality of Burke’s writing, his personality, life and times.

“Reflections on a Certain Book” is an essay covering the subject of aesthetics in Kant’s seminal work “The Critique of the Power of Judgment”. While discussing Kant’s views on beauty and the communicability of the concept of beauty as portrayed in the book, Maugham offers his own views on the creative process of an artist and the limitations of a fiction writer which I found very original and profound

.. I know from experience something of the process of creation and as a writer of fiction can look upon the question of beauty, which is of course the subject matter of aesthetics, with impartiality. Fiction is an art, but an imperfect one. The great novels of the world may deal with all the passions to which man is subject, discover the depths of his variable and disconsolate soul, analyze human relations, describe a civilization or create immortal characters; it is only by the misuse of the word that beauty can be ascribed to them. We writers of fiction must leave beauty to the poets 

As I mentioned earlier, I found this essay a little intractable and look forward to revisiting this at a different point in time in future with a different frame of mind.

In the essay “Some Novelists I Have Known“, Maugham covers the life, work, personalities, curious tid-bits and lesser known traits of Henry James, H.G.Wells, Arnold Bennet, Elizabeth Russell and Edith Wharton. All of these novelists get fulsome and heartfelt praise but where unavoidable, they get a tough stick on their life’s work and their approach to writing. In bringing this balance, Maugham displays endearing objectivity and an independent mind fearless of speaking straight supported by a deep insight into the craft of writing. HG Wells and Henry James are considered iconic in English literature, however, that does not deter Maugham – for he mauls their inability to breathe life into the characters they create without flinching or getting carried away by their established reputation. Consider what he has to say about Henry James as a writer:

But you cannot describe life convincingly unless you have partaken of it; nor, should your object be different, can you fantasticate upon it (as Balzac and Dickens did) unless you know it first. Something escapes you unless you have been an actor in the tragi-comedy…….Henry James’s fictions are like the cobwebs which a spider may spin in the attic of some old house, intricate, delicate and even beautiful, but which at any moment the housemaid’s boom with brutal common sense may sweep away…………

Yet Maugham had a deep admiration for the writing of Henry James and as a conclusion on James he says the following:

The fact remains that those last novels of his, notwithstanding their unreality, make all other novels, except the very best unreadable

(I once tried reading James’s “What Maise Knew” and left it in between because of the lengthy sentences which appeared eternally winding and never ending. Colm Toibin had a written a biography of sorts on Henry James called “The Master” which was nominated for Booker)

My father was a fan of H.G.Wells and we had a boxed set of key works of Wells at home. I remember reading “The Invisible Man” (After we grew up a little, our physics teacher talking about this book told us why Invisible man had to be mandatorily blind to be invisible) and “First Men on Moon” with varying degrees of joy. Maugham although was a close friend of Wells and an admirer of his work does not hesitate to point the weaknesses in Well’s writing especially about his inability to portray characters who sound realistic for he says:

……..I think that is why his novels are less satisfactory than one would have liked them to be. The people he puts before you are not individuals, but lively and talkative marionettes whose function is to express what he was out to attack or to defend. They do not develop according to their dispositions, but change for the purposes of the theme. It is as though a tadpole did not become a frog, but a squirrel – because you had a cage that you wanted to pop him into

Arnold Bennett’s “Old Wives Tales” comes in for high praise. The novelist Elizabeth Russell comes in for positive acknowledgment while his interaction with Edith Wharton especially her views on detective fiction leave Maugham flummoxed

Reading this book was a joy of sorts for this is the kind of writing that does not tire me at all. I could read it for life-time and still ask for more. Quintessential Maugham!  

An extremely joyous and satisfying read!!

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2 Responses to “The Vagrant Mood – Somerset Maugham”

  1. Shripriya Ragunathan said

    i am a great fan of Maugham too. and have four volumes of his short stories, read and read again.. i just love the way he writes. he just brings you all the characters into life by the way he portrays them.. a unique style of writing.. and yeah Rain is one of the most beautiful stories too.. and Razor’s edge was one amazing story as well.

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