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This article is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

To William Somerset Maugham Frederic Raphael
Dear Mr Maugham,
Today’s stylists would say ‘Hi Willie!’ I remain in thrall to what Shelley called ‘antique courtesies’. Am I the last surviving suburban innocent for whom certain writers were distant demi-gods? Are you the last to reply in handwriting to a callow correspondent unknown to you (and who, as you remarked, omitted to date his letter)? Today, the deconstruction of literary fame is a noisy industry. Biographers are as quick to muddy renown as to displace attention onto their own verbiage. Yesterday’s masters totter on pedestals that double for pillories. For all their disparagements, you continue to be more readable than your critics. Literary assayers have rarely rated you highly. I recall that in 1944 Cyril Connolly spoke up, against the current vogue, for The Razor’s Edge. Thirty years before, an earlier pundit had been surprised by the merits of Of Human Bondage after a sight of the proofs you were reading on the way to the Front.

The latter title does not promise that you had conned Spinoza’s work de bout en comble; it does intimate the range of your culture. Has any delving PhD student yet sought out what you read or learned while a student in nineteenth-century Heidelberg? Odd that you never, if I remember rightly, created a German character or parodied a German phrase, as you did par bleu (as ‘by blue’) in a short story? Did your want of Oxbridge provenance have something to do with the Establishment’s reluctance to embrace you? Morgan Forster, neither as prolific nor as varied, never as ...

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