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Not suitable for children: Somerset Maugham and me

December 5, 2017

 

EVEN THEN, it was an antique view.

I wasn't yet ten, I know that, so it was before 1972.

It was also before the appearance of Noël Coward in a TV screening of The Italian Job, not quite a technicolour reworking of the original epiphany, because the old genius was not playing himself, as such, but the character ‘Mr Bridger’ which was to migrate a few years later into ‘Grouty’ in Porridge.

And it might have been someone else in any case. Edgar Lustgarten, perhaps, who had hosted a TV series on crime stories in the late ‘50s, and whose broadcaster’s ‘elbows on the table’ manner became much parodied in the 1980s.

But it wasn't. And in any case that was TV, not the movies.

Instead, it was a lifelong companion, a kind of spirit guide; not unlike that figure Shackleton spoke of on his journey and which Eliot referenced in ‘The Waste Land’ as the cause of that “constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted”.

It was W Somerset Maugham in Trio (1950). After an interminable list of credits - three studios, in fact, had their obeisances to pay to producers, banks, artists and crew. The MGM lion, promising full colour, gave way to the giant J Arthur Rank gong (which, it emerges, was actually made of cardboard) and then, finally, to the elegant monochrome Georgian Gainsborough lady, bowing graciously from her oil-painting frame.

It was ever-decreasing circles of magnificence - I could tell that even as a boy, well used to reading the runes of high-grade HMV Red Label tenors versus the understudies from Columbia or Parlophone.

Still, there was sufficient interest in the British-made movie to shift it up the line for US distribution. Quite rightly, too, as Maugham intimates, because it had been the success of an earlier ‘portmanteau’ movie based on his work - Quartet (1948) - which had encouraged this second instalment.

I hadn't seen Quartet then. Nor is it strictly true that Maugham was ‘in’ Trio. After the business on screen at the outset, a mellifluous male voice-over intones an introduction to “the great writer” who, meanwhile, is ‘discovered’ - sensationally - perched at an open window in an elegant apartment, with a view which promises the Riviera (coastline, sand, sea) but might possibly have been Cornwall. But don't be an ass - it’s the Riviera, because this is Somerset Maugham.

As the camera moves slowly towards him, he takes a cigarette case from his suit jacket pocket, extracts a squib, then lights it with a lighter. He smokes.

As the camera reaches him, he turns three-quarters on, and begins to address the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ directly, in his writerly grammar: “If you hadn't liked the four stories we showed you in Quartet, we shouldn't have been encouraged to show you three more.”

Sensational.

He returns in the movie - which is, in fact, excellent in every way and well worth its own sequel, Encore (1951) - to preface each story. The image of that bona fide writer, in a suit in an apartment on what seemed an island, with a visage which, in the kindest light, was eccentric, with northern and southern faces, both of them formidable and difficult to scale, burned itself into my memory instantly, as with a phosphorescent blast.

It was himself, the writer, in a film, introducing his own characters, in a medium which depended entirely on credibility, just as his own stories did - not ‘as if’ they were real, but ‘in fact’ real.

And he himself was fictionalising himself. He might have met his own creations in their celluloid being - Anne Crawford, Michael Hordern and John Laurie, Shelagh Fraser, Kathleen Harrison, Felix Aylmer … but himself, like them, transfigured into something like them, becoming his own filmic self.

Of course, the frontier between story and observation, fact and play, fiction and documentary, was one Maugham moved back and forth across as easily in his stories as his WWI spy, Ashenden, traversed Lake Geneva in his brilliant fictions based on his own career as a (very serious) gentleman spy in St Petersburg, when his codename, as the only westerner left, was ‘Friend of Mr King in New York’.

His prolific output worked against him critically. Certainly, I know now that by the time I saw his personality on screen, his stock was low, consigned to a dustbin that contained Terence Rattigan, JB Priestley, even Coward himself. In fact, Maugham was already dead when I saw him as a living man on screen, which deposits an extra film of fiction across those opening sequences.

But niceties of taste were as irrelevant to me then as they are now. Trio gave a living writer, and I went after him - not the stories, oddly, but The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, which the local library kept, aptly, in English Street. Thrillingly, Maugham presents the narrative of The Razor’s Edge as a true account and includes himself - a fiction of himself - in a walk-on role, as a witness to his own ingenuity.

These were of course tough reads for a boy; but my habit was to read such books until they broke. The fact they were redolent of exotic ideas, heated feelings, stressed lives abandoned and vexed, and oddly sensual in unclear but exciting ways, was a persistent incentive.

Maugham entered easily, though, into a boyish context of imaginations populated by crime and western novels, pre-eminently then and now Shane by Jack Schaefer; detective stories; only a little later, Shaw, Scott, Wells, Dubliners and Ulysses, O’Casey’s spectacular Autobiographies, Conrad, Dostoevsky’s The Double; Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Tunc; and those handbooks of a revolution even then fifty years ended but a version of which was playing out around me in Ulster: Guerrilla Days in Ireland by Tom Barry, The Singing Flame by Ernie O’Malley, The Knife by Peadar O’Donnell and My Fight for Irish Freedom by Dan Breen.

All men. All more or less aggressive, more or less of an intemperate aesthetic attitude; all more or less of a temperament in fact, in spite of the seeming divergence of cultural and political pressures; all of these indispensable in fashioning both an ‘England’ and an ‘Ireland’ out of ironies, conflicts, tensions, contrasts, identities.

Still other versions of a life came a little later. But Maugham was supremely visible. He had broken cover.

By the time his dissolving facial features had become, with the aged Auden’s, the most breathtaking visible landscape of the masculine century, I was already lost. The intervening decades have only confirmed regard; the distressing account of his very later years in Selina Hastings’s biography, forces one to witness aspects of ageing intellect and physique which it would do well for all of us to study while we can observe even these behaviours with something of Maugham’s own disinterested eye, before their realities simply engulf us and our loved ones. “The fact is,” as he paraphrases De Musset, “we storytellers have come too late into a world too old.”

But always, there is his demeanour at that window, turning his shoulder to the bright seascape and the people more beautiful than he in the boulevards below, facing in to the darkness of his own room and beyond that, to the ordinary lives raising expectant faces from the cheap seats; beyond that, even, to the boy on a stool peering up at a tiny TV set.

Of course, Maugham’s achievement was and remains global. As with all of the writers we call ‘great’, they cannot be ‘gone past’, they have to be ‘navigated around’. His work goes beyond even readerships. It is ‘there’, like a geographical feature.

But for a moment, as a boy, I saw it move and speak and everything around me changed.

 

 

 

This piece first appeared in issue 97 of Iota magazine, The Outsider 2018

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