Expressing esteem for Maugham is inadmissible in polite company

Floc'h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

At the former home of the chaplain to Leopold II of Belgium: Floc’h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

Admitting to an admiration for W. Somerset Maugham is a bit like announcing how much one enjoys pornography, Dalrymple suggests. To an intellectual, it is

what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.

It is like

expressing a preference for Offenbach to Bach.

Why?

Maugham’s insistence on clarity and economy is a factor, Dalrymple explains.

The demand for clarity makes intellectuals uneasy, for it renders originality so much more difficult to achieve. Clarity comes to be identified with superficiality and obscurity with profundity.

Superficiality is one of the charges laid against Maugham by his fierce critics, says Dalrymple.

Among the many others are

  • cynicism
  • misanthropy
  • callousness
  • snobbery
With catamite: 1941, George Platt Lynes photo

With catamite: 1941 George Platt Lynes photo

Dalrymple believes that people

have tended to confuse Maugham’s character in real life — or what was reportedly his character in real life — with what he wrote. If he was a sour, prune-faced man who was unreasonably outraged by the smallest breach of etiquette, and who was excessively worldly into the bargain, it must follow that his writing partook of the same or cognate qualities. But this is wide of the mark.

Maugham clearly favours

common human pleasure against the demands of a too rigid morality, or moralism. His dry condemnation of the suppression of native dancing — a suppression that really did take place — means that he did not share the sense of providential cultural and moral superiority that fuelled colonialism.

The short story Rain

is anti-colonial, though not stridently so. Colonialism harms the natives by depriving them of their culture and traps the colonialist in the amber of self-importance and priggishness. These were not views that were universal in 1916 when Maugham voyaged, or even in 1920 when he wrote the story. And there are plenty of Mrs Davidsons among us today, though they direct their moral enthusiasms in other directions than the suppression of dancing.

Resolutely anti-sentimental and realistic, Maugham

nevertheless demands of his readers that they extend their emotional range, the very opposite of cynicism and misanthropy.

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

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