Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  ‘And I’m sure it did you no harm, Madam,’ he said.

  ‘None whatever,’ she answered. ‘Nor do I believe that it would ever do so to any young woman of sound principles and good sense.’

  Then Mr. Fielding, with a smile in which there was something of gallantry, asked Miss Austen how it happened that, with her charm, wit and grace, she had never married.

  ‘How could I, Mr. Fielding?’ she answered gaily. ‘The only man I could ever have brought myself to marry was Darcy, and he was married to my dear Elizabeth.’

  Charles Dickens had joined the group of the three eminent novelists, Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert, but he did not feel quite at ease. Though they were cordial enough, he could not but see that they looked upon him as an amiable barbarian. They were quite plainly of opinion that nothing of literary importance could be produced out of France. That an Englishman should write novels was an amusing performance, like the antics of trained dogs in a circus, but, of course, without any pretension to artistic merit. Stendhal admitted that England had Shakespeare, and was fond of saying every now and then: ‘To be or not to be’; and once, when Flaubert was more than usually vociferous, he gave Dickens a quizzical look and murmured: ‘The rest is silence.’ Dickens, generally the life and soul of a party, tried his best to seem amused at the conversation of those great talkers, but his laughter was forced. He was frankly shocked at the bawdy freedom with which they related their sexual adventures. Sex was not a matter that he cared to hear spoken of. When they asked him if it was not true that English women were frigid, he did not know what to answer, and he listened in pained silence to Balzac’s ribald account of his affair with the Countess Guidoboni, a member of the highest English aristocracy. They chaffed him about the English prudishness; ‘improper’ was the commonest word in the English vocabulary; this was improper, that was improper; and Stendhal stated as a fact that in England they put the legs of pianos into trousers so that the young girls who were learning to play should not be distracted from their five-finger exercises by lascivious thoughts. Dickens bore their banter with his usual good humour; but he smiled within himself when he thought how little they knew of the larks he and Wilkie Collins had when they went on their jaunts to Paris. On the last one, as they sighted the white cliffs of Dover, Wilkie had turned to him with a solemnity unusual to him: ‘Charles,’ he had said, ‘the respectability of England, thank God, is firmly established on the immorality of France.’ For a moment, Dickens was speechless, and then, as he realised the profound significance of the remark, his eyes filled with patriotic tears. ‘God save the Queen,’ he muttered in a husky voice. Wilkie, always the gentleman, gravely raised his top-hat. A memorable moment!

  (2)

  It is evident that these novelists were persons of marked and unusual individuality. They had the creative instinct strongly developed, and they had a passion for writing. If they are anything to go by, one may safely say that it is not much of a writer who hates writing. That is not to say that they found it easy. It is difficult to write well. But still, to write was their passion. It was not only the business of their lives, but a need as urgent as hunger or thirst. There is probably in everyone something of the creative instinct. It is natural for a child to play about with coloured pencils and paint little pictures in water-colour, and then, often enough, when it learns to read and write, to write little verses and little stories. I believe that the creative instinct reaches its height during the twenties and then, sometimes because it was merely a product of adolescence, sometimes because the affairs of life, the necessity of earning a living, leave no time for its exercise, it languishes and dies. But in many persons, in more than most of us know, it continues to burden and enchant them. They become writers because of the compulsion within them. Unfortunately, the creative instinct may be powerful and yet the capacity to create anything of merit may be lacking.

  What is it that must be combined with the creative instinct to make it possible for a writer to produce a work of value? Well, I suppose it is personality. It may be a pleasant or an unpleasant one; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by some idiosyncrasy of nature, the writer is enabled to see in a manner peculiar to himself. It doesn’t matter if he sees in a way that common opinion regards as neither just nor true. You may not like the world he sees, the world, for instance, that Stendhal, Dostoevsky or Flaubert saw, and then his world will be distasteful to you; but you can hardly fail to be impressed by the power with which he has presented it; or you may like his world, as you like the world of Fielding and Jane Austen, and then you will take the author to your heart. That depends on your own disposition. It has nothing to do with the merits of the work.

  I have been curious to discover, if I could, what precisely were the characteristics of these novelists I have been discussing which made them able to produce books to which the consensus of qualified opinion has agreed to ascribe greatness. Little is known of Fielding, Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, but as regards the others, the material for such an enquiry is over-whelming. Stendhal and Tolstoy wrote volume after volume about themselves; Flaubert’s revealing correspondence is enormous; and of the rest, friends and relations have written reminiscences and biographers elaborate lives. Strangely enough, they do not seem to have been highly cultured. Flaubert and Tolstoy were great readers, but chiefly to obtain material for what they wanted to write; the others were no more widely read than the average persons of the class they belonged to. They appear to have taken little interest in any art other than their own. Jane Austen confessed that concerts bored her. Tolstoy was fond of music and played the piano. Stendhal had a predilection for opera, which is the form of musical entertainment which affords pleasure to people who don’t like music. he went to the Scala every night when he was in Milan to gossip with his friends, have supper and play cards, and, like them, gave his attention to what was happening on the stage only when a famous singer sang a well-known aria. he had an equal admiration for Mozart, Cimarosa and Rossini. I have not discovered that music meant anything to the rest. Nor did the plastic arts. Such references as you find in their books to painting or sculpture indicate that their taste was distressingly conventional. Tolstoy, as everyone knows, discarded all painting as worthless unless the subject provided a moral lesson. Stendhal deplored the fact that Leonardo had not had the advantage of Guido Reni’s guidance and example, and he claimed that Canova was a greater sculptor than Michael Angelo because he had produced thirty masterpieces, whereas Michael Angelo had produced but one.

  Of course, it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers were intelligent; but they were not strikingly intellectual. Their naïveté, when they deal with general ideas, is often startling. They accept the commonplaces of the philosophy current in their day, and when they put them in use in their fiction, the result is seldom happy. The fact is, ideas are not their affair, and their concern with them, when they are concerned with them, is emotional. They have little gift for conceptual thought. They are not interested in the proposition, but in the example; for it is the concrete that interests them. But if intellect is not their strong point, they make up for it with gifts that are more useful to them. They feel strongly, even passionately; they have imagination, keen observation and an ability to put themselves in the shoes of the characters of their invention, to rejoice in their joys and suffer with their pains; and, finally, they have a faculty for giving with force and distinctness body and shape to what they have seen, felt and imagined.

  These are great gifts, and an author is fortunate to possess them, but they will not suffice unless he has something else besides. Gavarni said of Balzac that in general information on all subjects he was completely ignare. One’s first impulse is to translate that by ‘ignorant’, but that is a French word too, and ignare means more than that. It suggests the crass ignorance of a moron. But when Balzac began to write, Gavarni went on, he had an intuition of things, so that he see
med to know everything about everything. I take intuition to be a judgment one makes on grounds which are, or which one thinks are, legitimate, but which are not present to consciousness. But this, apparently, was not the case with Balzac. There were no grounds for the knowledge he displayed. I think Gavarni used the wrong word; I think a better one would have been inspiration. Inspiration is that something else the author needs in order to write greatly. But what is inspiration? I possess a number of books on psychology, and I have looked through them in vain to find something that would enlighten me. The only piece of writing I have come across that attempts to deal with the subject is an essay by Edmond Jaloux entitled L’Inspiration Poétique et l’Aridité. Edmond Jaloux was a Frenchman, and he wrote of his fellow-countrymen. It may be that their response to a spiritual state is more intense than that of the sober Anglo-Saxons. He describes, as follows, the aspect of the French poet when he is under the spell of his inspiration. He is transfigured. His countenance is calm and at the same time radiant; his features are relaxed, his eyes shine with a singular clearness, with a sort of strange desire that reaches out to nothing real. It is an indubitable physical presence. But inspiration, Edmond Jaloux goes on to say, is not permanent. It is followed by aridity, which may last a little while or may last for years. Then the author, feeling himself only half alive, is ill-humoured, afflicted with a bitterness that not only depresses him but makes him aggressive, spiteful, misanthropic and jealous, both of the works of his fellow-writers and of the power to work which he has lost. I find it curious, and even rather alarming, to perceive how like these states are to those of the mystics when, in moments of illumination, they feel themselves at one with the Infinite, and when, in those periods which they call the Dark Night of the Soul, they feel dry, empty and abandoned of God.

  Edmond Jaloux wrote as though only poets had inspiration, and it is perhaps true that it is more necessary to them than to the writers of prose. Certainly the difference between the poet’s verse when he writes because he is a poet, and the verse he writes when he is inspired, is more obvious; but the writer of prose, the novelist, has his inspiration too. It would be only prejudice that could deny that certain brief passages in Wuthering Heights, in Moby Dick, in Anna Karenina, are as inspired as any poem of Keats or Shelley. The novelist may consciously depend on this mysterious entity. Dostoevsky, in letters to his publisher, frequently outlined some scene he had in mind to write and said it would be masterly if, when he sat down to it, inspiration came. Inspiration pertains to youth. It seldom persists to old age, and then only sporadically. No effort of will can evoke it, but authors have found that it can often be coaxed into activity. Schiller, when he went into his study to work, smelt the rotten apples he kept in a drawer so as to awaken it. Dickens had to have certain objects on his desk, without which he could not write a line. For some reason, it was the presence of those objects that brought his inspiration into play. But it is terribly unreliable. The writer may be seized by an inspiration as genuine as that which seized Keats when he wrote his greatest ode, and yet produce something that is worthless. To this again the mystics offer a parallel: St. Theresa attached no value to the ecstasies, the visions, of her nuns unless they resulted in works. I am well aware that I have not told the reader, as I should have done, just what inspiration is. I wish I could. I do not know. It is a mysterious something that enables the author to write things that he had no idea he knew, so that, looking back, he asks himself: ‘Where on earth did I get that from?’ We know that Charlotte Brontë was puzzled by the fact that her sister Emily could write of things and people that, to her knowledge, she had no acquaintance with. When the author is seized by this welcome power, ideas, images, comparisons, even solid facts, crowd upon him and he feels himself merely an instrument, a stenographer, as it were, taking down what is dictated to him. But I have said enough on this obscure subject. I have spoken of it only to make the point that whatever gifts an author may have, without the influence, or the power, of this mysterious something, none of them will avail.

  (3)

  It is an abnormal thing for the creative instinct to possess a person after the age of thirty, and with the exception of Jane Austen, who seems to have had all the virtues that a woman can have, without being a paragon that no one could put up with, in some respects all these writers were abnormal. Dostoevsky was an epileptic; so was Flaubert, and the drugs prescribed to him are generally believed to have affected his production. This brings me to a notion which has been put forward that a physical disability, or an unhappy experience in childhood, is the determining force of the creative instinct. Thus, Byron would never have become a poet if he had not had a club-foot, and Dickens would never have become a novelist if he had not spent a few weeks in a blacking factory. This seems to me nonsensical. Innumerable men have been born with a malformed foot, innumerable children have been put to work they found ignominious, without ever writing ten lines of verse or prose. The creative instinct, common to all, in a privileged number is vigorous and persistent; neither Byron, with his club-foot, Dostoevsky with his epilepsy, nor Dickens with his unfortunate experience at Hungerford Stairs, would have become a writer at all unless he had had the urge from the composition of his nature. It is the same urge as possessed the healthy Henry Fielding, the healthy Jane Austen and the healthy Tolstoy. I have no doubt that a physical or spiritual disability affects the character of an author’s work. To some extent it sets him apart from his fellows, makes him self-conscious, prejudices him, so that he sees the world, life and his fellow-creatures from a standpoint, often unduly jejune, which is not the usual one; and more than all, it adds introversion to the extroversion with which the creative instinct is inexorably associated. I do not doubt that Dostoevsky would not have written the sort of books he did if he had not been an epileptic, but neither do I doubt that, in that case, he would still have been the voluminous writer he was.

  On the whole, these great writers, with the exception of Emily Brontë and Dostoevsky, must have been very pleasant to meet. They had vitality. They were good company and great talkers, and their charm impressed everyone who came in contact with them. They had a prodigious power of enjoyment, and loved the good things of life. It is a mistake to suppose that the creative artist likes to live in a garret. He does not. There is an exuberance in his nature that leads him to display. He relishes luxury. Remember Fielding with his prodigality, Stendhal with his fine clothes, his cabriolet and his groom, Balzac with his senseless ostentation, Dickens with his grand dinner parties, his fine house and his carriage and pair. There was nothing of the ascetic about them. They wanted money, not to hoard it, but to squander it, and they were not always scrupulous in the way they got it. Extravagance was natural to their buoyant temper, and if it is a fault, it is one with which most of us can sympathise. But, again with one or two exceptions, they cannot have been easy to live with. They had traits which can hardly fail to disconcert even the most tolerant. They were self-centred. Nothing really mattered to them but their work, and to this they were prepared to sacrifice, without a qualm, everyone connected with them. They were vain, inconsiderate, selfish and pigheaded. They had little self-control, and it never occurred to them not to gratify a whim because it might bring distress to others. They do not seem to have been much inclined to marry, and when they did, either on account of their natural irritability or on account of their inconstancy, they brought their wives scant happiness. I think they married to escape from the hurly-burly of their agitating instincts: to settle down seemed to offer them peace and rest, and they imagined that marriage was an anchorage where they could live safe from the stormy waves of the tempestuous world. But escape, peace and rest, safety, were the last things to suit their temperaments. Marriage is an affair of perpetual compromise, and how could they be expected to compromise when a stubborn egoism was of the essence of their natures? They had love affairs, but they do not appear to have been very satisfactory either to themselves or to the objects of their affections. And that
is understandable: real love surrenders, real love is selfless, real love is tender; but tenderness, selflessness and self-surrender were not virtues of which they were capable. With the exception of the eminently normal Fielding, and the lecherous Tolstoy, they do not seem to have been highly sexed. One suspects that when they had love affairs it was more to gratify their vanity, or to prove to themselves their own virility, than because they were carried off their feet by an irresistible attraction. I venture the suggestion that when they had achieved these objects, they returned to their work with a sigh of relief.

  These, of course, are generalisations, and generalisations, as we know, are only more or less true. I have chosen a few persons about whom I have learnt something and made statements about them which, in one case or another, might easily be shown to be exaggerated. I have left out of consideration the environment and the climate of opinion (an expression now sadly shop-soiled, but convenient) in which my authors passed their lives, though, evidently, their influence on them was far from negligible. With the exception of Tom Jones, the novels with which I have dealt appeared in the nineteenth century. This was a period of revolution, social, industrial and political; men abandoned ways of life and ways of thought which had prevailed with little change for generations. It may be that such a period, when old beliefs are no longer unquestionably accepted, when there is a great ferment in the air and life is a new and exciting adventure, is conducive to the production of exceptional characters and of exceptional works. The fact remains that during the nineteenth century, if you are prepared to hold that it did not end till 1914, greater novels were written than had ever been written before, or have been written since.

 
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