Monday, August 19, 2013

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

I've been living in cities for too long, and I've gone soft.  The plain in this novel's title refers to the flatlands in eastern Colorado, where people raise livestock and crops, not high-rise buildings and investment schemes. When I was very young, my father was a large-animal vet in a very small dairy-farming village. A different topology from Haruf's fictional town of Holt, but with the same sort of earthy, mostly very decent people.

Haruf's scenes of cattle ranchers pulling a contorted calf from a cow's prolapsed uterus using a heavy calving chain made me want to wail and scream, as did his description of a horse going down and dying from an intestinal torsion.  The details of the vet's on-the-spot autopsy were... vivid.  As I was blanching and cringing, though, I could hear my late father's snorts of derision. Life in the big city?  This is life in the big country. And it's often bloody and rough. Oddly enough, though, ranchers and farmers -- unlike urbanites -- tend to develop callouses on their hands rather than their hearts and minds.

Mr. Haruf has pulled off a mean feat with the characters in Plainsong:  They are deeply lovable without being saccharine sweet and memorable despite having no pronounced character quirks. They are ordinary people writ large and splendidly drawn.

Victoria Roubideaux is 17 and pregnant, locked out of her home by her mother, who is still bitter about her alcoholic husband's abandonment. Victoria seeks shelter with one of her schoolteachers, Maggie Jones. Maggie shares a house with her elderly, senile father and can't shelter the girl for long. In what is either a stroke of genius or a moment of lunacy, she decides to ask a pair of gruff old cattlemen -- the McPheron brothers, who never married and live together on a ranch well outside of town -- if they might be able to give shelter to the pregnant teen. Raymond and Harold McPheron politely listen to her proposition, assure her they'll consider it, and proceed through the day's chores without another word about it. As evening falls, Harold is stunned to realise that his brother is actually thinking of taking the girl in.
...why hell, look at us. Old men alone. Decrepit old bachelors out here in the country seventeen miles from the closest town which don't amount to much of a good goddamn even when you get there. Think of us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome. Independent. Set in all our ways. How you going to change now at this age of life?
I can't say, Raymond said. But I'm going to. That's what I know.
And what do you mean? How come she wouldn't be no trouble?
I never said she wouldn't be no trouble. I said maybe she wouldn't be as much trouble.
Why wouldn't she be as much trouble? As much trouble as what? You ever had a girl living with you before?
You know I ain't, Raymond said.
Well, I ain't either. But let me tell you. A girl is different. They want things. They need things on a regular schedule. Why, a girl's got purposes you and me can't even imagine. They got ideas in their heads you and me can't even suppose. And goddamn it, there's the baby too. What do you know about babies?
Nothing. I don't even know the first thing about em, Raymond said...
...You're getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That's all I'll say. Raymond, you're my brother. But you're getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I'll say one thing more.
This ain't going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.
No, it ain't, Raymond said. But I don't recall you ever attending Sunday school either. 
Another Holt family consists of Tom Guthrie, also a teacher at the high school, his sons Ike and Bobby (9 and 10 years old and inseparable), and his estranged wife, a shadowy figure whose emotional stability seems to increase in direct proportion to the distance she can put between herself and them.  When the novel opens, she has withdrawn to the darkened guest room bed and can barely manage to get out of it. She progresses to a small rented house in Holt, and then to her domineering older sister's apartment in Denver, with her husband and sons doing their best to understand and carry on.

Bobby and Ike have daily paper routes, so they set out early each morning on their bicycles to collect the papers from the train station and then pedal around the town to deliver them. On Saturday mornings, they go to the doors to collect payment for the week's papers. They approach Iva Stearns' place with dread. An overweight, cranky woman who shuffles around her cluttered apartment with the aid of two canes, always wearing the same house dress and apron, Iva peppers them with seemingly random questions. They are too young to understand that, despite her grouchy demeanour, she is truly lonely and starved for company, even that of two little boys. Ostensibly to save herself the effort of getting out of her chair to answer the door, she gives them a key to her apartment and tells them to come in whenever they'd like to. When their mother leaves town for Denver, Bobby and Ike find themselves dropping in to visit old Mrs. Stearns. She sends them to the grocer to buy a few ingredients for oatmeal cookies. As the crotchety old woman talks them through the recipe, it becomes evident that her intentions go beyond giving the boys a treat to console them on that afternoon. She's teaching them some survival skills for a life without mother.
All right, she said. You understand? If you can read you can cook. You can always feed yourselves. You remember that. I'm not just talking about here. When you go home too. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Meanwhile, the McPheron brothers report to Maggie Jones that Victoria goes straight into her room after washing the supper dishes every evening. Maggie wonders if they talk to her. They look at Maggie and each other with soup-plate eyes. Talk to her? About what?!  That evening, Harold summons his courage to initiate a conversation by asking Victoria for her opinion on buying or selling soybeans, based on the day's commodities report. To her eternal credit, Victoria asks him for more information on the subject, and both brothers eagerly set out to discuss with her the business of farming.
Now you want to sell some of it off. So you call up the elevator and tell him to sell off five thousand bushel, say. So he sells it at today's prices and then the big grain trucks, those tractors and trailers you see out on the highway, they haul it away.
Who does he sell it to? the girl said.
Any number of places. Most likely to the milling company. Mostly it goes for your baking flour. Then when do you get your money? He writes you out a check today. Who does that? The elevator manager. Except if there's a storage charge, Harold said, taking his turn again. He takes that out. Plus your drying charge, if there is one. Only, since it's wheat we're talking about, there's never much drying charge with wheat. Mostly that's with your corn.
They stopped again and studied the girl once more. They had begun to feel better, a little satisfied with themselves. They knew they were not out of the woods yet, but they had begun to allow themselves to believe that what they saw ahead was at least a faint track leading to a kind of promising clearing. They watched the girl and waited...
And so the two McPheron brothers went on to discuss slaughter cattle and choice steers, heifers and feeder calves, explaining these too, and between the three of them they discussed these matters thoroughly, late into the evening. Talking. Conversing. Venturing out into various other matters a little too. The two old men and the seventeen-year-old girl sitting at the dining room table out in the country after supper was over and after the table was cleared, while outside, beyond the house walls and the curtainless windows, a cold blue norther began to blow up one more high plains midwinter storm.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by William Maxwell

A few months ago, I shipped an antique Bhutanese dressing gown from Kuala Lumpur back to its owner in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  By way of thanks, he sent me three books by Sylvia Townsend Warner, including this collection of her letters.  Not only did Professor Davidson hit my literary tastes right on the nose, the gift card offered an example of his exquisite penmanship.  The combination of these two items makes me realise that both are on the cusp of oblivion:  so few of us write anything by hand any more that our collective penmanship has gone to the dogs. Moreover, the advent of e-mail has made letters seem more archaic than Peter's dressing gown. My generation is the last to have corresponded by post on a regular basis, and I've always loved reading collections of letters, a genre that is now extinct.  I suppose publishers could collect authors' e-mail messages, but I doubt they'll be of the calibre that writers previously committed to paper.

My dear, bookish friend Mark introduced me to STW. I was reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King at the time and was raving about it over cocktails. Mark mentioned that STW had written a remarkable biography of White, and had I read it?  I hadn't, and I immediately added it to my 'must read' list.  In early August, I came across a copy of Lolly Willowes so read that instead.  Shortly after that, the parcel arrived from Aberdeenshire with this collection of letters, The Kingdoms of Elfin (a collection of short stories published late in her life), and a book about Somerset.

Because collected letters are to a number of different recipients, they illuminate multiple facets of their writer, and these show STW to be a polymath, a polyglot, a generally erudite individual.  Her letters to Paul Nordoff, a composer, indicate her own knowledge of musical history and composition. To other writers and editors, she reveals the depth and breadth of her reading. Her passion for nature bubbles up in nearly every letter she wrote, and her unshakeable love for Valentine Ackland is as constant in her correspondence as it was in her life.

Sylvia met Valentine, a poet, in 1930.  Except for a short hiatus (when Valentine carried on with a younger American woman), they lived together until Valentine's death from cancer in 1969.  As I read the letters, it struck me how openly Sylvia discussed their relationship, making clear in her letters that they not only shared a house and a life but also a bed -- all the more remarkable when contrasted with Alan Turing's prosecution for homosexuality in 1952.  Although certainly never solemnised in a church, Sylvia and Valentine's partnership was a marriage, and the letters Sylvia wrote at the time of Valentine's death reduced me to aching tears.

To Paul Nordoff (composer), 5 January 1946.  Rest assured she read "the whole of Balzac" in the original French.
Last winter I read the whole of Balzac -- except Seraphita; and was left with my mouth as open as the Queen of Sheba's... Have you ever thought of making an opera from Balzac? La Duchesse de Langeais, for instance, or Ferragus, any of the impassioned social ones, ought to work up into a grand opera like eggs into a sauce Bernaise, the duchesses so shrillingly soprano, the villains so profoundly basso, the situations floating in moonlight and limelight, and Balzac's genius roaring through it all like a quartet of saxophones. A total absence of refinement... I suppose that is his secret. All I know for certain is that the works of Balzac kept me from death last winter.  
Again to Paul Nordoff dated 1 December 1946 she writes about her Somerset book project. (A copy of the result is now on my bookshelf, and at first glimpse, I would say she did in fact "manage to do better".)
... a commission to write a small book about Somerset. Just now I am in the midst of reading the many books about Somerset which have already been written. I am consoled for the numerousness by not finding one among them that I can enjoy. They all hurry like anxious Satans over the face of the earth, and never once do these breathless authors stop in a wood and smell the smell of the country. I hope I shall manage to do better.  
 Editor William Maxwell (who, as editor of the New Yorker also published many of STW's short stories) labels one letter as "To a friend who had inconveniently fallen in love", dated 11 May 1951.  Sylvia and Valentine had just recently reunited after the latter's dalliance.
...say no more, think no more, about perhaps losing [    ] to someone else. To think of losing is to lose already. To consider a rival fattens an insubstantial into a real being. Since you are in the river, darling, SWIM! And if that hypothetical younger person comes into your mind, think of me. Here I am, grey as a badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand -- except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.  
As a woman who lived outside the social norms, STW was sympathetic to others who did the same, especially women. This is a letter to Dorothy Hoskins on 30 July 1954.
...I find drinkers very congenial. There is a generosity in their recklessness. We had a drinking old lady as a neighbour for many years, and I had the greatest esteem for her because she knew what she wanted (not many women do), and was so grandly ready to hazard her health, her last thirty shillings (she was very poor), her peace of mind (for, pious pressure being what it is, she was always exposed to waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, I've done for myself, I shall fall into the oilstove or get cancer), for what she really wanted. As for respectability, and all that, she had thrown it away long ago. In the upshot, she was very well thought of by all the village boys, who ran her errands and ate her apples, and died as tidily as you could wish of heart failure. If there is a heaven, I am sure she went there like a cork from a champagne bottle.   
The letters that STW wrote at the time of Valentine's death are truly remarkable. Her grief takes on a beautiful form, and her love just radiates from them, undiminished. She wrote to William Maxwell on 11 November 1969, two days after Valentine died in their home.
...This evening her coffin was carried out of the house and put in a forget-me-not blue van -- which would have surprised her. I heard her spirit laughing beside me.
I am passionately thankful that she is out and away, and that in a fashion we are back where we were, able to love freely and uncompromised by anxiety and doubtful hopes and miseries of frustration. One thinks one has foreseen every detail of heart-break. I hadn't. I had not allowed for the anguished compassion and shock of hearing her viola voice changed to a pretty, childish treble, the voice of a sick child.
Death transfigured her. In a matter of minutes I saw the beauty of her young days reassert itself on her blurred careworn face. It was like something in music, the re-establishment of the original key, the return of the theme.
Don't think I am unhappy and alone, dear William. I am not. I am in a new country and she is the compass I travel by.  
And on 27 November 1969, she wrote to two sisters and long-time friends, Marchette and Joy Chute.
My dear Darlings,
Your kind hearts will want to know how I am getting on.
Well, not too badly for a one-winged partridge (did you know the partridge is the emblem of fidelity?). There is a great deal to do, which I am thankful for, but as I slog on doing it I am revived by coming on fragments by her, letters, passages copied from everyone you can think of, feathers (she loved all small feathers) deposits in pockets, always including a pencil & a pocket comb, but also including lumps of sugar in case of a deserving horse, chocolate drops for dogs, interesting pebbles, small notes from me on the lines of 'Remember to have coffee' 'Keep warm' 'Come back soon'.
Her love is everywhere. It follows me as I go about the house, meets me in the garden, sends swans into my dreams. In a strange, underwater or above-earth way I am very nearly happy. 
This is a book that one can (and I will) pull off the shelf, open to a random page and be sure of finding something delightful. Given the prodigious numbers of letters that STW wrote, William Maxwell did an outstanding job of editing this collection, both in terms of selecting letters and passages and leaving the original text intact. STW once groused, "USA publishers have a habit of what they call 'editing in accordance with American procedure'. This means they rearrange one's paragraphs, alter one's punctuation, and generally bedevil the text."  Mr. Maxwell, her long-time editor and friend, humbly remarked, "I have tried not to bedevil the text."

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham

A few years ago, I read what is probably Maugham's best-known book, Of Human Bondage and was less than thrilled with it. I seem to remember flipping through somewhat impatiently, wishing that the narrator would pull himself together and take charge of his life rather than tormenting us readers with his gloomy and miserable introspection for several hundred pages.

Since then, I've resolved to give each book a fair chance, and if it hasn't convinced me that I should spend more time with it after, say, the first 100 pages, I'm going to set it aside. There are two drawbacks to this plan. First, e-books have no page numbers, so it's a matter of guesswork when I have reached the 100-page mark, and second, setting a book aside unfinished leaves me feeling not resolute but defeated. I just enforced this new policy on Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, and especially after being so enthusiastic about The Heart of the Matter, I felt sure this was my failure, not Mr. Greene's.

The Razor's Edge was on Anthony Burgess' trusty list of 99 best novels, and this list has served me well, so I gave it a go. I loved it. It was a timely reminder that we rarely respond consistently to an author's various works. I've given unbroken thumbs up to Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell, and equally persistent thumbs down to Saul Bellow, but most authors have elicited a wider range of reactions, and Maugham is one of those.

The Razor's Edge opens with an epigraph, a passage from the Katha-Upanishad:  "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over ; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard."  This immediately captured my attention, because it struck me as incongruous, a bit esoteric for an English novel of this period (pub date 1944). Moreover, the book doesn't have the typical structure of a novel -- it reads more like an extended series of journal entries, a pastiche of character sketches with the narrator, Maugham himself, relaying his conversations with them over a period of decades. Blessedly, Maugham has a brilliant eye for characters, and although his observations might fall into the category of highbrow gossip, they are enough to draw readers in and keep them curious.

First he introduces us to Elliott Templeton, an American who has wheedled his way into the uppermost reaches of European society in the early 1900s. Elliott's place in the best salons and dinner parties is his crowning achievement, the proof of his success after many years of ingratiating himself with the right people.
Believe me, my dear fellow, the average American can get into the kingdom of heaven much more easily that he can get into the Boulevard St. Germain.
When he travels to Chicago to visit family, Elliott invites Maugham to come along. Here he meets Isabel Bradley, Elliott's effervescent niece. She comments upon his "power of observation", the acuity of which will send her into tantrums later in the book.
"Uncle Elliott says he's often been surprised at your power of observation. He says nothing much escapes you, but that your great asset as a writer is your common sense."
"I can think of a quality that would be more valuable," I answered dryly. "Talent, for instance."
It is at this same dinner party that Maugham meets Larry Darrell, Isabel's fiance and the central character around whom the story revolves. Larry returned from WWI seemingly a bit shell-shocked, but now, a year later, he still seems disinclined to align himself with a profession. Adrift is the word, and Elliott insists that Isabel not marry the young man until he has settled down in a suitable line of work. Everyone adores Larry -- he is very congenial -- but they all agree that he's marching to an unconventional drummer. In a conversation with two of Larry's friends, Maugham gets confirmation of his own sense that Larry is on a spiritual quest, and even a life in the arts is unlikely to get him where he wants to go.
"A degree would be of no use to him. I have an inkling that he had a definite idea of what he wanted and felt he couldn't get it at a university. You know, in learning there's the lone wolf as well as the wolf who runs in the pack. I think Larry is one of those persons who can go no other way than their own."
"I remember once asking him if he wanted to write. He laughed and said he had nothing to write about."
"That's the most inconclusive reason for not writing that I've ever heard," I smiled.
Long before the Beats and the Beatles made their eastward pilgrimages, Larry journeys to India and is mesmerised by the holy men that he meets there. He follows one guru for some months and then, after an ecstatic vision during a mountain retreat, he thanks his teacher and returns to Europe. He tells Maugham, who listens politely, about this experience and about the yogi.
"And what had he got that particularly attracted you?" Larry looked at me for a full minute before answering. His eyes in their deep sockets seemed as though they were trying to pierce to the depths of my soul. "Saintliness." I was slightly disconcerted by his reply. In that room, with its fine furniture, with those lovely drawings on the walls, the word fell like a plop of water that has seeped through the ceiling from an overflowing bath.
Meanwhile, since Larry had not responded favourably to her ultimatum, Isabel married a mutual friend of theirs, Gray, a young and wealthy financier who adores her and can afford the lifestyle she craves. As Maugham runs into them here and there, in Europe and the US, when their fortune was intact and in tatters after the Crash, he realises that Isabel has never stopped loving Larry, impractical though it is.
Gray was driving and Larry was sitting beside him; Isabel and I were at the back. We were tired after the long day. Larry sat with his arm stretched out along the top of the front seat. His shirt-cuff was pulled back by his position and displayed his slim, strong wrist and the lower part of his brown arm lightly covered with fine hairs. The sun shone goldenly upon them. Something in Isabel's immobility attracted my attention, and I glanced at her. She was so still you might have thought her hypnotized. Her breath was hurried. Her eyes were fixed on the sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate, but powerful hand, and I have never seen on a human countenance such a hungry concupiscence as I saw then on hers. It was a mask of lust. I should never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such un-bridled sensuality. It was animal rather than human. The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made her hideous and frightening. It horribly suggested the bitch in heat and I felt rather sick. She was unconscious of my presence; she was conscious of nothing but the hand, lying along the rim so negligently, that filled her with frantic desire. Then as it were a spasm twitched across her face, she gave a shudder and shutting her eyes sank into the comer of the car. "Give me a cigarette," she said in a voice I hardly recognized, it was so raucous. I got one out of my case and lit it for her. She smoked it greedily. For the rest of the drive she looked out of the window and never said a word.
Now Maugham's keenly observant eye is something that Isabel resents, and his bluntness in conversation aggravates her further. The writer asks her if she regrets her decision to marry Gray, and indeed, if she ever thinks of divorcing him.
"I've got no reason for divorcing him."
"That doesn't prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to."
She laughed. "Why d'you suppose they do it?"
"Don't you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers."
Meanwhile, Elliott is aging and times are changing in Europe. The old aristocracy is slowly giving way to the nouveau riche. As with every other profession, the senior socialite must keep a chary eye on those who would supplant him.
Paul Barton was the young American whom Elliott had introduced into London society and who had aroused his hatred by dropping him when he no longer had any use for him. He had been somewhat in the public eye of late, first because he had adopted British nationality and then because he had married the daughter of a newspaper magnate who had been raised to the peerage. With this influence behind him and with his own adroitness it was evident that he would go far. Elliott was very bitter.
"Whenever I wake up in the night and hear a mouse scratching away in the wainscoat I say, 'That's Paul Barton climbing.'"
In one of the most insightful passages about Elliott's demise, Maugham describes a Princess who declines to invite Elliott to a party at her chateau on the Riviera. Maugham tries to console his friend by reassuring him that the hostess is not worth the heartbreak.
She was not a bad sort, generous and hospitable, and her only grave fault was her malicious tongue. She could not help saying beastly things about even her intimate friends, but she did this because she was a stupid woman and knew no other way to make herself interesting. Since her slanders were repeated she was often not on speaking terms with the objects of her venom, but she gave good parties and most of them found it convenient after a while to forgive her.
Elliott, however, sees this snub as the end of an era, the end of his era.
Elliott, sitting up in bed, rocked to and fro like a woman distraught. "Oh, it's so unkind," he said. "I hate them, I hate them all. They were glad enough to make a fuss of me when I could entertain them, but now I'm old and sick they have no use for me. Not ten people have called to inquire since I've been laid up, and all this week only one miserable bunch of flowers. I've done everything for them. They've eaten my food and drunk my wine. I've run their errands for them. I've made their parties for them. I've turned myself inside out to do them favours. And what have I got out of it? Nothing, nothing, nothing. There's not one of them who cares if I live or die. Oh, it's so cruel." He began to cry. Great heavy tears trickled down his withered cheeks. "I wish to God I'd never left America."
Ever the loyal friend, Maugham contrives to speak with Miss Keith, the Princess' dour Scottish secretary in an attempt to finagle an invitation for Elliott. Miss Keith, however, is no soft touch. She's been working for the wealthy for too long.
"You know what she is. She's got a down on him. She crossed his name out on the list herself."
"He's dying, you know. He'll never leave his bed again. He's awfully hurt at being left out."
"If he wanted to keep in with the Princess he'd have been wiser not to tell everyone that she goes to bed with her chauffeur. And him with a wife and three children."
"And does she?"
Miss Keith looked at me over her pince-nez. "I've been a secretary for twenty-one years, my dear sir, and I've made it a rule to believe all my employers as pure as the driven snow. I'll admit that when one of my ladies found herself three months gone in the family way when his lordship had been shooting lions in Africa for six, my faith was sorely tried, but she took a little trip to Paris, a very expensive little trip it was too, and all was well. Her ladyship and I shared a deep sigh of relief."
When Elliott at last leaves this vale of tears (without having attended the party in question), Maugham imagines what sort of heaven might await him. It would necessarily be exclusive.
I suspected that Elliott saw the celestial habitations in the guise of the chateaux of a Baron de Rothschild with eighteenth-century panelling on the walls, Buhl tables, marquetry cabinets and Louis Quinze suites covered with their original petit-point. "Believe me, my dear fellow," he went on after a pause, "there'll be none of this damned equality in heaven."
Maugham begins the final chapter of the novel on an odd note:
I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.
And in this last chapter, Larry reveals his own journey, which, although peripatetic, feels like the most solidly grounded aspect of the whole story.  At one point, distraught as he tries to comprehend the evils he witnessed during the war, Larry speaks with a priest, Father Ensheim, who offers some advice.
"'Then you've been reading for four years? Where have you got?' " 'Nowhere,' I said. "He looked at me with an air of such radiant benignity that I was confused. I didn't know what I'd done to arouse so much feeling in him. He softly drummed his fingers on the table as though he were turning a notion over in his mind. " 'Our wise old Church,' he said then, 'has discovered that if you will act as if you believed belief will be granted to you; if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience of the ages, peace will descend upon you.'"
Larry spent his life following the advice of a wide assortment of spiritual guides, both in person and in print, and in the end, by Maugham's estimation, did arrive in a state of relative grace. Wondering how to conclude the story, Maugham finally decided that it was a story of success for everyone involved:  Elliott achieved social success, Isabel also lived a life of comfortable security and social status, and Larry consistently developed his spiritual enlightenment. I couldn't help but feel that Larry's life was ultimately the one of greatest contentment, but I don't know if that's what Maugham intended to suggest, or my own preferences at work.

Not too long ago, I downloaded an ebook, The Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland.  I find it useful as a reference book rather than a volume to read cover to cover. Sutherland's chapter on Maugham rang especially true after reading The Razor's Edge. It made me realise that the author put much more of himself into the character of Elliott than into the character of Larry. And that wickedly keen sense of observation, impressive though it was, earned him some enemies.
The eye that looked on was cold and, in later life, was everywhere seen as reptilian: "The Lizard of Oz," Noel Coward called him.
Maugham once wrote that he was 1/4 homosexual and 3/4 heterosexual and only later admitted that he'd got the numbers backward. He married a wealthy divorcee, Syrie Wellcome, when she became pregnant, but it was a short and unhappy marriage. Thereafter he stayed with men, including his secretary, Alan Searle (whom Sutherland classifies as rough trade). These relationships may have been more authentic, but they scarcely seem happier, and his end sounds every bit as fraught and tragic as Elliott Templeton's.
He visited England regularly until the publication of a late-life memoir, Looking Back, in 1962. It was judged ungentlemanly in its attack on the recently dead Syrie, and led to his being ostracised by fellow members of the Garrick. It devastated him. Alone with Alan, he wept and wept -- the two of them returned to the Mauresque -- and Maugham never came to England again. Three years later he died, aged ninety, mad, raving and wretched.