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This article is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.

The Alien Maugham Frederic Raphael

The selectors generally agree that Somerset Maugham is not among the important authors of this century. The mark of the 'deep' writer, they say is the subtlety not only of his language but also of his implications, whereas Maugham was famously stigmatised by Edmund Wilson as incapable of saying anything in an original way. Who can deny that his work is often awkward with banality? His platitudes may be devices for making the common reader feel at home, but their regularity makes it seem that the author too is an unsubtle man who, by attention to gossip, has heard, and will supply any number of amusing, but unsubtle, anecdotes.

The magician reveals the emptiness of his sleeve the better to conceal the aces which he has secreted elsewhere; distracted by his patter, the audience fails to notice his cunning. In that entertaining tradition, Maugham passed himself off as a pedestrian craftsman with tricks as unremarkable as his vocabulary. To have been taken at what seemed to be his own modest valuation has not prevented him from being undersold. Anthony Burgess's droog-like treatment of his Maughamiam butt, in Earthly Powers, seemed intended to yank Willie out of the closet, quite as if his self-portraits had been so dishonest that he deserved to be dragged through the literary world on a hurdle.

Maugham's absit omen depiction of camp characters (most obviously of Elliot Templeton in The Razor's Edge) has indeed excited accusations of dissimulating his own sexual ...


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