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February 21, 2004

TT: From yon to hither

Without exception, my friends are puzzled by my more than occasional practice of reading biographies from back to front. It puzzles me, too, even though I've been doing it for years, and I can't offer any explanation, however theoretical, for a habit that at first, second, and third glances makes no sense. All I can tell you is that for some reason not yet accessible to introspection, I often prefer to read about a person's life in reverse chronological order, starting with his death and working backwards to his birth.

That's strange enough, I suppose, but here's something even stranger: I read Jeffrey Meyers' Somerset Maugham: A Life starting with the source notes, after which I read the book itself from last page to first. Once finished, I re-read it in the normal fashion. All this took two days, and now I'm ready for another book.

My guess is that two passes through Somerset Maugham: A Life will be quite enough, not because Maugham's life wasn't interesting but because Jeffrey Meyers' biography is of the sort typically described by tactful critics as "workmanlike." The same thing could have been said of his previous biographies of (pause for deep breath) Orwell, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and Robert Frost. Those are just the ones I've read, but there are plenty of others, Meyers being a full-time professional biographer, and here as before, his writing is unfussy but unstylish, his criticism not very insightful. If a great biography is the literary equivalent of a ten-course dinner prepared by a master chef, then Somerset Maugham: A Life is more like one of those freeze-dried meals dished up to astronauts: perfectly edible, even tasty if you're hungry enough, but more functional than enjoyable. Meyers' book-reportish summing-up of Maugham's career will show you what I mean:

Maugham's current reputation has eclipsed that of his old rivals: Shaw, Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy. More versatile than any modern writer, he wrote outstanding works in every genre: plays, stories and novels, essays, travel books and autobiographies. His exotic settings, engaging characters and riveting plots, his clear style, skillful technique and sardonic narrator, his dramatic flair and grasp of irony continue to attract a wide audience.

Oh, dear.

It occurs to me that reading such a book backwards might be my subconscious way of making it more aesthetically appealing. It definitely adds a touch of suspense, since you keep running into mysterious characters along the way who aren't fully identified until much later on. But if that's why I do it, why on earth did I start with the footnotes this time around? Perhaps that's simply a deformation professionelle of a practicing biographer. I happen to like footnotes, so much so that I made a point of tucking a few choice anecdotes into the notes for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken in order to ensure that those who shared my taste would be pleasantly surprised by their perseverance.

For this reason, I was amused to find this testy paragraph in the source notes for Somerset Maugham: A Life:

In his will Maugham specified that none of his unpublished writings should be printed after his death and that no assistance should be given to his biographer. Though the Royal Literary Fund has received all his royalties, they felt no moral or legal obligation to follow the terms of his bequest, and contravened his will by authorizing a biography and by granting permission to publish his letters. Donors who leave money to the fund should be warned that the explicit terms of their will may be completely ignored.

Now that's my idea of a really superior footnote, well worth digging out of the back matter of a biography. Here's another:

In a presentation copy of a 1948 reprint of Ashenden, Maugham wrote: "To Raymond Chandler, who has given the author of this book both in sickness and in health, many hours of undiluted happiness."

Meyers even throws in a bit of dish. This note, for instance, refers to a now-forgotten writer by the name of David Posner who as a young man seduced the elderly Maugham:

Posner--who later married, published some poetry and died in 1985--was drawn to elderly homosexual writers. He once told me that he had courted Thomas Mann in Princeton.

Max Beerbohm could have spun a whole essay out of those two sentences.

As that last note suggests, Maugham led a life generously seasoned with scandal, but he's not the sort of semi-obscure author who deserves to be remembered only for his sex life. Though I wouldn't call him a Great Writer by any means, he did turn out a dozen or so first-class short stories whose astringent disillusion and plain, direct prose are as satisfying as a salty snack (I especially like "The Outstation" and "The Alien Corn"), as well as one of the very best comic novels of the twentieth century, Cakes and Ale, whose first sentence can be found in the "Opening Lines, Great" section of my electronic commonplace book: "I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, and it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you." How could you not keep on reading after that?

Such a minor master surely deserves to be memorialized in a decent biography, and Somerset Maugham: A Life, if less than scintillating, fills the bill with just enough room to spare. Meyers even manages to find room for a charming Maugham anecdote that I'd never heard. Fittingly, it's about Cakes and Ale:

He liked it the best of all his books and, when looking for something good to read one evening, remarked: "What a pity that I wrote Cakes and Ale. It would be the very thing."

Yes, there's a footnote.

Posted February 21, 2004 10:52 AM

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