W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

For much of his long life – he lived to be over ninety – Somerset Maugham was the most famous writer in the world. He was known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the immensely acclaimed, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the twentieth century. His books were translated into almost every known tongue, filmed, dramatized, and sold in their millions, bringing him celebrity and enormous wealth. He seemed to know everyone, from Henry James to Winston Churchill, from D.H. Parker to T.E. Lawrence. He lived in a magnificent villa in the south of France.

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After losing both his parents by the age of 10, Maugham was raised by a paternal uncle who was emotionally cold. Not wanting to become a lawyer like other men in his family, Maugham eventually trained and qualified as a physician. The initial run of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) , sold out so rapidly that Maugham gave up medicine to write full-time.

During the First World War, he served with the Red Cross and in the ambulance corps, before being recruited in 1916 into the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which he worked in Switzerland and Russia before the October Revolution of 1917. During and after the war, he travelled in India and Southeast Asia; all of these experiences were reflected in later short stories and novels.

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Even though he was hugely successful and constantly in the public eye, he took great pains to guard his privacy.

It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and then they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved; they do not understand that what interests you is the way in which you have created the illusion. Anthony Trollope ceased to be read for 30 years because he confessed that he wrote at regular hours and took care to get the best price he could for his work.

In Maugham’s outwardly respectable life there was a great deal he was determined to keep hidden, and in old age, when he was besieged by would-be biographers, he did his utmost to make sure his privacy would remain intact. Evening after evening at the Villa Mauresque, Maugham, assisted by his secretary, went systematically through his papers, throwing every last scrap of personal correspondence onto the fire. He also wrote to his friends asking them to destroy any letters of his in their possession; and he issued strict instructions to his literary executors that no biography should be authorized, no access to his papers be allowed, and all requests for information be firmly refused.

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He was practically addicted to his writing and published seventy-eight books during his lifetime. He wrote for three to four hours every morning, setting himself a daily requirement of 1000-1500 words. He would get a start on the day’s work before he even sat down at his desk, thinking of the first two sentences he wanted to write while soaking in the bath. Once at work, Maugham believed that it was impossible to write while looking at a view, so his desk always faced a blank wall. When he wrapped up his morning’s work at about noon, he often felt impatient to begin again.

“When you’re writing, when you’re creating a character, it’s with you constantly, you’re preoccupied with it, it’s alive.”

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2 responses to “W. Somerset Maugham

  1. What a fascinating chap. Super name, too.

  2. Hi Lucy. Yes, a very interesting fellow. I have read a few of his short stories.
    Well worth a look. How’s the book going. Almost there ?

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