Posts Tagged ‘Somerset Maugham’

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

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On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.

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I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…

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One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Growing up or outgrowing?

March 4, 2014

As I look at my bookshelves, I’m struck by the number of books that have been sitting there for many years, often since my student days, aging, crumbling, unopened. And yet they are books that were read and re-read, and loved, all those years ago. Now they do not call to me, and yet, despite needing to clear out and reclaim space, they have not been disposed of. I wondered what was going on…

I have a lot of Herman Hesse‘s novels; my friends and I devoured them at university. I even have a critical work on Hesse that I bought all those years ago, but haven’t read. Steppenwolf we particularly enjoyed, and the complexity of The Glass Bead Game, but it was Narziss and Goldmund that I returned to recently, and re-read (there’s a post about it in the archive); the story of two friends whose lives develop and play out in two totally different ways, narrow yet fulfilling, much wider and perhaps forever incomplete, still tugs at my heart all those years after I first loved it, when I suppose I could see my life all before me and wondered how it would play out. Well, I know now. I know I’ll never part with the book, but as I grow older, reading it is more painful: truly, there is not enough time in one lifetime to experience everything, as Goldmund discovered. Similarly, the story of Siddartha‘s search for the meaning of life speaks to my condition as I look back over time and what I have accomplished.

I still have several of Jack Kerouac‘s books. again leftovers from my student days. I can’t imagine ever re-reading them, as they will also remind me of days I cannot have back. But Kerouac was one of the writers who inspired my friends and me in our explorations of states of consciousness, freedom, and the urge to travel; it’s this last that has stayed with me the longest. I travelled a lot on my own in my younger days and loved it, and in my retirement I have rediscovered this; long may it continue.

Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, which I recently re-read, is another of those books about the need to travel physically and mentally in order to discover one’s true self; it spoke to me years ago, but I wonder if anyone reads it now? Similarly, Sartre‘s The Roads to Freedom trilogy showed me how one needs to create one’s life and existence and meaning, and how hard that is, even though ultimately fulfilling. I suspect I will return to it sometime soon. I only wish I could track down the ancient BBC dramatisation of it, too. Richard Brautigan was froth about sex and drugs and freedom – those hippy days – children’s books for grownup children, but good fun. They should have gone years ago, but haven’t. And D H Lawrence…? His novels were powerful, fascinating explorations of relationships between men and women, women and women, men and men, arguments for sexual freedom without constraints that spoke powerfully when one’s experience of those things was limited; now they seem positively toe-curling, and I cannot ever imagine picking any of them up, except perhaps Sons and Lovers.

This hasn’t been an exhaustive list of writers and books; what has become rather clearer as I’ve thought about them is the way that writers can have a powerful influence on one’s formative years and how one lives one’s life, in a similar way to one’s friends and acquaintances, especially when one’s life is still immature, unshaped. Friends move on and disappear from our lives: the books can stay on our shelves, loved and not forgotten, reminding us of who we were just as effectively as fading photographs.

The Razor’s Edge: Somerset Maugham

March 23, 2013

My copy tells me it’s nearly forty years since I last read this novel. As I began re-reading, I found it a little superficial, although I was hooked as soon as a small detail, which either I’d forgotten, or never really taken on board all those years ago, loomed larger: the hero, Larry, was deeply affected by his experiences during the First World War, and this explained the quest and the entire direction his subsequent life took.

Another bildungsroman, which I suppose is why I felt it had such a great influence on me in my teenage years – someone going out to explore life, seek meaning and understanding, and, more importantly, finding contentment. Larry turns his back on conventional American paths, and drifts or travels, ultimately ending up in India and finding his understanding of the world through Hindu philosophy, before returning to the US to live his life as an ordinary person.

In a lot of ways, it’s a run-of-the-mill novel of its time, though the characters are well-drawn and the sense of yearning for understanding powerfully conveyed. But will anyone read it in fifty years’ time? The quest for meaning and understanding will surely still happen, but the contexts and the places will change…

And serendipity… the time and the travels reminded me of the life and journey of my favourite travel writer, Ella Maillart, who travelled the world in the nineteen-thirties and forties, realising she was seeking something, and ultimately also ended up in India, finding spiritual rest there.

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