Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  About the Book

  ‘One of the finest novelists and dramatists of the twentieth century’ Glasgow Herald

  Maugham’s studies of the lives and masterpieces of ten great novelists are outstanding examples of literary criticism at its finest. Afforded here are some of the formulae of greatness in the genre, as well as the flaws and heresies which enfeeble it. Written by a master of fiction, Ten Novels and Their Authors is a unique and invaluable guide.

  See also: The Vagrant Mood


  Ten Novels and

  Their Authors

  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  Version 1.0

  Epub ISBN 9781409058427


  Published by Vintage 2001

  2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3

  Copyright © The Royal Literary Fund

  W. Somerset Maugham has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

  This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann in 1954


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  London SW1V 2SA


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  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  ISBN 9780099286783



  About the Book



  About the Author

  Other Works by W Somerset Maugham

  1 The Art of Fiction

  2 Henry Fielding and Tom Jones

  3 Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice

  4 Stendhal and Le Rouge et le Noir

  5 Balzac and Le Père Goriot

  6 Charles Dickens and David Copperfield

  7 Flaubert and Madame Bovary

  8 Herman Melville and Moby Dick

  9 Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights

  10 Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov

  11 Tolstoy and War and Peace

  12 In Conclusion


  William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874 and lived in Paris until he was ten. He was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and at Heidelberg University. He spent some time at St. Thomas’ Hospital with the idea of practising medicine, but the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published in 1897, won him over to letters. Of Human Bondage, the first of his masterpieces, came out in 1915, and with the publication in 1919 of The Moon and Sixpence his reputation as a novelist was established. At the same time his fame as a successful playwright and short story writer was being consolidated with acclaimed productions of various plays and the publication of The Trembling of a Leaf, subtitled Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, in 1921, which was followed by seven more collections. His other works include travel books, essays, criticism and the autobiographical The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook.

  In 1927 Somerset Maugham settled in the South of France and lived there until his death in 1965.



  The Moon and Sixpence

  Of Human Bondage

  The Narrow Corner

  The Razor’s Edge

  Cakes and Ale

  The Merry-Go-Round

  The Painted Veil


  Up at the Villa

  Mrs Craddock

  Christmas Holiday

  The Magician


  Liza of Lambeth

  Then and Now

  Collected Short Stories

  Collected Short Stories Vol. 1

  Collected Short Stories Vol. 2

  Collected Short Stories Vol. 3

  Collected Short Stories Vol. 4

  Short Stories


  Far Eastern Tales

  More Far Eastern Tales

  Travel Writing

  The Gentleman in the Parlour

  On a Chinese Screen

  Don Fernando

  Literary Criticism

  Points of View

  The Vagrant Mood


  A Writer’s Notebook

  The Summing Up

  J’ai toujours aimé les correspondances, les

  conversations, les pensées, tous les détails du

  caractère, des mœurs, de la biographie en un

  mot, des grands écrivains …


  La première condition d’un roman est

  d’intéresser. Or, pour cela, il faut illusionner le

  lecteur à tel point qu’il puisse croire que ce

  qu’on lui raconte est réellement arrivé.



  The Art of Fiction


  I should like to tell the reader of this book how the essays in it first came to be written. One day, while I was in the United States, the Editor of Redbook asked me to make a list of what in my opinion were the ten best novels in the world. I did so, and thought no more about it. Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them. If a hundred persons, well read and of adequate culture, were asked to produce such a list, in all probability at least two or three hundred novels would be mentioned, but I think that in all the lists most of those I have chosen would find a place. That there should be a diversity of opinion in this matter is understandable. There are various reasons that make a particular novel so much appeal to a person, even of sound judgment, that he is led to ascribe outstanding merit to it. It may be that he has read it at a time of life when, or in circumstances in which, he was peculiarly liable to be moved by it; or it may be that its theme, or its setting, has a more than ordinary significance for him owing to his own predilections or personal associations. I can imagine that a passionate lover of music might place Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest among the ten best novels, and a native of the Five Towns, delighted with the fidelity with which Arnold Bennett described their character and their inhabitants, might in his list place The Old Wives’ Tale. Both are good novels, but I do not think an unbiased judgment would put either of them among the best ten. The nationality of a reader lends to certain works an interest that inclines him to attribute a greater excellence to them than would generally be admitted. During the eighteenth century, English literature was widely read in France, but since then, till fairly recently, the French have not taken much interest in anything that was written beyond their own frontiers, and I don’t suppose it would occur to a Frenchman to mention Moby Dick in such a list as I myself made, and Pride and Prejudic
e only if he were of quite unusual culture; he would certainly, however, include Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves; and rightly, for it has outstanding merits. It is a novel of sentiment, a psychological novel, perhaps the first that was ever written: the story is touching; the characters are soundly drawn; it is written with distinction, and it is commendably brief. It deals with a state of society which is well known to every schoolboy in France; its moral atmosphere is familiar to him from his reading of Corneille and Racine; it has the glamour of association with the most splendid period of French history, and it is a worthy contribution to the golden age of French literature. But the English reader may think the magnanimity of the protagonists inhuman, their discourse with one another stilted, and their behaviour incredible. I do not say he is right to think this; but, thinking it, he will never class this admirable novel among the ten best in the world.

  In a brief commentary to accompany the list of books I made for Redbook, I wrote: ‘The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping.’ A sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion. He is prepared to interest himself in the characters and is concerned to see how they act in given circumstances, and what happens to them; he sympathises with their troubles and is gladdened by their joys; he puts himself in their place and, to an extent, lives their lives. Their view of life, their attitude to the great subjects of human speculation, whether stated in words or shown in action, call forth in him a reaction of surprise, of pleasure or of indignation. But he knows instinctively where his interest lies and he follows it as surely as a hound follows the scent of a fox. Sometimes, through the author’s failure, he loses the scent. Then he flounders about till he finds it again. He skips.

  Everybody skips, but to skip without loss is not easy. It may be, for all I know, a gift of nature, or it may be something that has to be acquired by experience. Dr. Johnson skipped ferociously, and Boswell tell us that ‘he had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end’. Boswell was doubtless referring to books of information or of edification; if it is a labour to read a novel it is better not to read it at all. Unfortunately, for reasons I shall go into presently, there are few novels which it is possible to read from beginning to end with unfailing interest. Though skipping may be a bad habit, it is one that is forced upon the reader. But when the reader once begins to skip, he finds it hard to stop, and so may miss much that it would have been to his advantage to read.

  Now it so happened that some time after the list I had made for Redbook appeared, an American publisher put before me the suggestion of reissuing the ten novels I had mentioned in an abridged form, with a preface to each one written by me. His idea was to omit everything but what told the story the author had to tell, expose his relevant ideas and display the characters he had created so that readers might read these fine novels, which they would not have done unless what might not unfairly be described as a lot of dead wood had been cut away from them; and thus, since nothing but what was valuable was left in them, enjoy to the full a great intellectual pleasure. I was at first taken aback; but then I reflected that though some of us have acquired the knack of skipping to our profit, most people have not, and it would surely be a good thing if they could have their skipping done for them by a person of tact and discrimination. I welcomed the notion of writing the prefaces to the novels in question, and presently set to work. Some students of literature, some professors and critics, will exclaim that it is a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece, and that it should be read as the author wrote it. That depends on the masterpiece. I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as Pride and Prejudice, or from one so tightly constructed as Madame Bovary; but that very sensible critic George Saintsbury wrote that ‘there is very little fiction that will stand concentration and condensation as well as that of Dickens’. There is nothing reprehensible in cutting. Few plays have ever been produced that were not to their advantage more or less drastically cut in rehearsal. One day, many years ago, when we were lunching together, Bernard Shaw told me that his plays were much more successful in Germany than they were in England. He ascribed this to the stupidity of the British public and to the greater intelligence of the German. He was wrong. In England he insisted that every word he had written should be spoken. I had seen his plays in Germany; there the directors had ruthlessly pruned them of verbiage unnecessary to the dramatic action, and so provided the public with an entertainment that was thoroughly enjoyable. I did not, however, think it well to tell him this. I know no reason why a novel should not be subjected to a similar process.

  Coleridge said of Don Quixote that it is a book to read through once and then only to dip into, by which he may well have meant that parts of it are so tedious, and even absurd, that it is time ill-spent, when you have once discovered this, to read them again. It is a great and important book, and a professed student of literature should certainly read it once through (I have myself read it from cover to cover twice in English and three times in Spanish), yet I cannot but think that the ordinary reader, the reader who reads for delight, would lose nothing if he did not read the dull parts at all. He would surely enjoy all the more the passages in which the narrative is directly concerned with the adventures and conversations, so amusing and so touching, of the gentle knight and his earthy squire. A Spanish publisher has, in point of fact, collected these in a single volume. It makes very good reading. There is another novel, certainly important, but to be called great only with hesitation, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, which is of a length to defeat all but the most obstinate of novel readers. I do not believe I could ever have brought myself to read it if I had not come across a copy in an abridged form. The abridgment had been so well done that I had no feeling that anything was lost.

  I suppose most people would admit that Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is the greatest novel that has been produced in this century. Proust’s fanatical admirers, of whom I am one, can read every word of it with interest; in a moment of extravagance, I stated once that I would sooner be bored by Proust than amused by any other writer; but I am prepared now, after a third reading, to admit that the various parts of his book are of unequal merit. I suspect that the future will cease to be interested in those long sections of desultory reflection which Proust wrote under the influence of ideas current in his day, but now in part discarded and in part commonplace. I think then it will be more evident than it is now that he was a great humorist and that his power to create characters, original, various and lifelike, places him on an equality with Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy. It may be that some day an abridged version of his immense work will be issued from which will be omitted those passages that time had stripped of their value and only those retained which, because they are of the essence of a novel, remain of enduring interest. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu will still be a very long novel, but it will be a superb one. So far as I can make out from the somewhat complicated account in André Maurois’ admirable book, À la Recherche de Marcel Proust, the author’s intention was to publish his novel in three volumes of about four hundred pages each. The second and third volumes were in print when the First World War broke out, and publication was postponed. Proust’s health was too poor to allow him to serve in the war and he used the ample leisure thus at his disposal to add to the third volume an immense amount of material. ‘Many of the additions,’ says Maurois, ‘are psychological and philosophical dissertations, in which the intelligence’ (by which I take him to mean the author in person) ‘comments on the actions of the characters.’ And he adds: ‘One could compile from them a series of essays after the manner of Montaigne: on the role of music, novelty in the arts, beauty of style, on the small number of human types, on flair in medicine, etc.’ That is true, but whether they add to the value of the novel as a novel depends, I suppose, on what opin
ions you hold on the essential function of the form.

  On this, different people have different opinions. H. G. Wells wrote an interesting essay which he called The Contemporary Novel: ‘So far as I can see,’ he says, ‘it is the only medium through which we can discuss the great majority of the problems which are being raised in such a bristling multitude by our contemporary social development.’ The novel of the future ‘is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas.’ ‘We are going to deal with political questions and religious questions and social questions.’ Wells had little patience with the idea that it was merely a means of relaxation, and he stated categorically that he could not bring himself to look upon it as an art-form. Strangely enough, he resented having his own novels described as propaganda, ‘because it seems to me that the word propaganda should be confined to the definite service of some organised party, church or doctrine.’ The word, at all events now, has a larger meaning than that; it indicates the method through which by word of mouth, through the written word, by advertisement, by constant repetition, you seek to persuade others that your views of what is right and proper, good and bad, just and unjust, are the correct views, and should be accepted and acted upon by all and sundry. Wells’s principal novels were designed to diffuse certain doctrines and principles; and that is propaganda.

  What it all comes down to is the question whether the novel is a form of art or not. Is its aim to instruct or to please? If its aim is to instruct, then it is not a form of art. For the aim of art is to please. On this poets, painters and philosophers are agreed. But it is a truth that shocks a good many people, since Christianity has taught them to look upon pleasure with misgiving as a snare to entangle the immortal soul. It seems more reasonable to look upon pleasure as a good, but to remember that certain pleasures have mischievous consequence and so may more wisely be eschewed. There is a general disposition to look upon pleasure as merely sensual, and that is natural since the sensual pleasures are more vivid than the intellectual; but that is surely an error, for there are pleasures of the mind as well as of the body, and if they are not so keen, they are more enduring. The Oxford Dictionary gives as one of the meanings of art: ‘The application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition, and the like.’ That is very well, but then it adds: ‘Especially in modern use skill displaying itself in perfection of workmanship, perfection of execution as an object in itself.’ I suppose that is what every novelist aims at, but, as we know, he never achieves it. I think we may claim that the novel is a form of art, perhaps not a very exalted one, but a form of art nevertheless. It is, however, an essentially imperfect form. Since I have dealt with this subject in lectures which I have delivered here and there, and can put what I have to say now no better than I did in them, I am going to permit myself briefly to quote from them.

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