Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

  I think one may roughly divide novels into the realistic and the sensational. This is very indefinite, since many a realistic novelist on occasion introduces a sensational incident, and contrariwise, the sensational novelist generally tries by realistic detail to make the events he relates more plausible. The sensational novel has a bad name, but you cannot dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders a method which was practised by Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevsky. It is merely a different genre. The enormous popularity of detective stories shows how great an appeal it has to readers. They wish to be excited, shocked and harrowed. The sensational novelist endeavours, by violent and extravagant events, to rivet your attention, to dazzle and amaze. The danger he runs is that you will not believe him. But, as Balzac said, it is essential that you should believe that what he tells you really happened. He can best manage to do this by creating characters so unusual to common experience that their behaviour is plausible. The sensational novel demands characters a little more than life-size, such characters as Dostoevsky called more real than reality; creatures of uncontrollable passions, excessive in their emotions, impetuous and unprincipled. Melodrama is their legitimate province and to frown on it, as is usual, is as unreasonable as to disparage a cubist picture because it is not representational.

  The realist purports to describe life as it is. He avoids violent incidents because, on the whole, in the lives of the ordinary creatures with whom he deals they do not occur. The occurrences he relates must be not only likely but, so far as may be, inevitable. He does not seek to astound you or make your blood run faster. He appeals to the pleasure of recognition. You know the sort of people in whom he asks you to interest yourself. You are familiar with their ways of life. You enter into their thoughts and feelings because they are very like your own. What happens to them might very well happen to you. But life on the whole is monotonous, and so the realistic novelist is haunted by the fear that he may bore. Then he may be seduced into bringing in a sensational incident. The note is forced, and the reader is disillusioned. Thus, in Le Rouge et le Noir, Stendhal’s manner is realistic till Julien goes to Paris and is brought into contact with Mathilde de la Môle; then it becomes sensational, and you accompany the author with discomfort along the new path he has unaccountably chosen to follow. The danger of being dull was clear to Flaubert when he set about the composition of Madame Bovary and he decided that he could only avoid it by beauty of style. Jane Austen escaped it by her unfailing humour. But there are not many novelists who, like Flaubert and Jane Austen, have managed to conserve to the end, without faltering, the realistic mode. It requires consummate tact.

  I have quoted somewhere or other a remark of Chekhov’s, which, since it is to the point, I venture to quote again. ‘People don’t go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs,’ he said, ‘they go to the office, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.’ That is unduly to narrow the scope of the realistic novel. People do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall off icebergs, they undergo adventures as formidable. They go to Africa, Asia and the South Seas. Not the same things happen in those parts as in the squares of Bloomsbury, or the seaside resorts of the South Coast. They may be sensational, but if they are the sort of things that are usual, there is no reason why the realistic novelist should hesitate to describe them. It is true that the ordinary person goes to the office, quarrels with his wife and eats cabbage soup; but it is the realist’s business to bring out what is not ordinary in the ordinary person. Then to eat cabbage soup may be of as great moment as falling of an iceberg.

  But even the realist does not copy life. He arranges it to suit his purpose. To the best of his ability he avoids improbability, but some improbabilities are so necessary and so general that readers accept them without demur. For instance, if the hero of a novel urgently needs to meet a certain person without delay, he will run across him while walking along the crowded pavement of Piccadilly. ‘Hulloa,’ he says, ‘fancy meeting you! The very person I want to see.’ The occurrence is as unlikely as for a bridge-player to be dealt thirteen spades, but the reader will take it in his stride. Probability changes with the sophistication of readers: a coincidence which at one time passed unnoticed will cause in the reader of to-day a jolt of unbelief. I do not suppose the contemporary readers of Mansfield Park thought it odd that Sir Thomas Bertram should arrive from the West Indies on the very day his family were having private theatricals. A novelist to-day would feel obliged to make his arrival at so awkward a juncture more likely. I make this point merely to indicate that the realistic novel is in fact, though more subtly, less blatantly, no more true to life than the sensational one.


  The novels I have dealt with in these pages are very different from one another; but one thing they have in common: they tell good stories, and their authors have told them in a very straightforward way. They have narrated events and delved into motives without recourse to any of the tiresome literary tricks, such as the stream of thought, the throw-back, which make so many modern novels tedious. They have told the reader what they wished him to know, and not, as is the present fashion, left him to guess who the characters were, what their calling was and what their circumstances: in fact, they have done all they could to make things easy for him. It does not appear that they sought to impress by their subtlety, or startle by their originality. As men, they are complicated enough; as writers, they are astonishingly simple. They are subtle and original, as naturally as Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose. They tried to tell the truth, but inevitably saw it through the distorting lens of their own idiosyncrasies. With a sure instinct, they eschewed topics of temporary interest, which with the passage of time lose their import; they dealt with the subjects of enduring concern to mankind: God, love and hate, death, money, ambition, envy, pride, good and evil; in short, with the passions and instincts common to all from the beginning of time, and it is on that account that from generation to generation men have found in these books something to their purpose. It is because these writers saw life, judged and described it as their unusual personalities revealed it to them, that their works have the tang, the individuality, which continues so powerfully to attract us. In the final analysis, all the author has to give is himself, and it is because these several authors were creatures of peculiar force and great singularity that their novels, notwithstanding the passage of time, bringing with it different habits and life and new ways of thought, retain their fascination.

  One odd thing about them is that, though they wrote and re-wrote, and for the most part endlessly corrected, they were not great stylists. Flaubert alone seems to have made efforts to write well. It is an irony that Madame Bovary, on which he spent such enormous pains, should now, just on account of its style, be less appreciated by the French intelligentsia than the carelessly written letters. Years ago, Prince Kropotkin, talking to me about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, told me that Tolstoy wrote like a gentleman and Dostoevsky like Eugène Sue. If he meant that Tolstoy wrote in the conversational style of a well-bred and cultivated man, that, it seems to me, is a very good one for a novelist to adopt. I should say that Miss Austen wrote very much as we may suppose a gentlewoman in her day talked, and it is a style that admirably suits her novels. A novel is not a scientific treatise. Every novel demands its own particular style, as Flaubert very well knew, and so the style of Madame Bovary differs from that of Salammbô and that of Salammbô from that of Bouvard et Pécuchet. No one, so far as I know, has ever claimed that Balzac, Dickens and Emily Brontë wrote with distinction. Flaubert said it was impossible for him to read Stendhal, because his style was so bad. Even in translations it is obvious that Dostoevsky’s style was slovenly. It looks as though to write well were not an essential part of the novelist’s equipment; but that vigour and vitality, imagination, creative force, keenness of observation, knowledge of human nature, with an interest in it and a sympathy with it, fertility and intelligence are more important. All the same, it is better to write well than indifferently.

; But strange as it may be that these distinguished authors did not write their respective languages better than they did, what is stranger still is that they wrote at all. There is nothing in their heredity to account for their talent. Their families, more or less respectable, and perfectly commonplace, were neither particularly intelligent nor particularly cultivated. They themselves were not in youth thrown in contact with persons interested in arts and letters. They knew no authors. They were not inordinately studious. They joined in the amusements and occupations of the girls and boys of their age and station. There was nothing to show that they had unusual capacity. With the exception of Tolstoy, who was an aristocrat, they belonged to the middle class. With their environment and upbringing one would have expected them to become doctors or lawyers, government officials or business men. They took to writing as the new fledged bird takes to the air. Surely it is very strange that of two members of a family, Cassandra and Jane Austen, Fyodor and Michael Dostoevsky, for example, brought up in the same way, leading very much the same sort of lives, exposed to the same circumstances and bound together by mutual affection, one, and not the other, should be endowed with a supreme gift. I think I have shown that the great novelist needs a variety of parts, not only creativeness, but quickness of perception, an attentive eye, the power to profit by experience, and above all an absorbing interest in human nature, by the happy conjunction of which to become just the sort of novelist he is. But why these faculties should be meted out to one person rather than to another; why, against all likelihood, they should be possessed by the daughter of a country parson, the son of an obscure doctor, the son of a pettifogging attorney or of a shifty government clerk, is a mystery which, so far as I know, is insoluble. How these novelists came by their rare gifts, none can tell. It seems to depend on the personality, and the personality, with few exceptions, seems compounded of estimable qualities and sinister defects.

  The artist’s special gift, his talent or, if you wish, his genius, is like the seed of the orchid that comes to rest, at haphazard it would seem, upon a tree in the tropical jungle, there to burgeon, deriving no nourishment from it, but from the air, and then to bring forth a strange and beautiful flower; but the tree is cut down to be made into logs or floated down the river to a sawmill, and the wood on which grew the rich, fantastic flower is no different from a thousand other trees in the primeval forest.


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  W. Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors

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