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February 2014 - Voice of the First Person

W. Somerset Maughham

W. Somerset Maugham, William Somerset Maugham, the British doctor-turned-writer, is one of my favorite novelists. He was born in 1874 and died in 1965. He lived within a duration that produced many wars, quite a few revolutions, many changes in travel and in technologies, and many assaults upon languages and literatures. His reputation as a popular, best-selling writer, as well as the highest paid author during the 1930s, led his peers and critics to carp about his lack of style, lack of voice, and lack of whatever it was that made him all of that money. I think that Maugham smiled all the way to the bank, although he did believe that his writing lacked “lyrical quality.” He also admitted to a “failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work,” and he let slip that he had a small vocabulary. Balderdash! This novelist, short-story writer, and playwright expressed brilliant, insightful, even daring, thoughts in a straight-forward, honest style that expressed its own form of lyricism. As for vocabulary, it’s not the size of your thesaurus, but what you do with it that counts. And Maugham’s command of the English language (at times, a largely British English language) deftly ran circles around the more poetic of his contemporaries. Those writers of “experimental literature” were the most recent darlings of “critical acclaim,” such as William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce. The first person voice of W.S. Maugham is solid, pervasive, and persuasive. It is weighty, but it is wielded with such elegance that the reader does not immediately realize the import, the magnificent import, of each sentence as it is gobbled up by his hungry eyes.

I offer an excerpt from the end of Chapter 1 of The Razor’s Edge, as fine a novel as was ever written by any man or any woman: “ . . . For my part, except in a few short stories, I have never attempted to deal with any but my own countrymen, and if I have ventured to do otherwise in short stories it is because in them you can treat your characters more summarily. You give the reader broad indications and leave him to fill in the details. It may be asked why, if I turned Paul Gauguin into an Englishman, I could not do the same with the persons of this book. The answer is simple: I couldn’t. They would not then have been the people they are. I do not pretend that they are Americans as Americans see themselves; they are Americans seen through an English eye. I have not attempted to reproduce the peculiarities of their speech. The mess English writers make when they try to do this is only equalled by the mess American writers make when they try to reproduce English as spoken in England. Slang is the great pitfall. Henry James in his English stories made constant use of it, but never quite as the English do, so that instead of getting the colloquial effect he was after, it too often gives the English reader an uncomfortable jolt.” I daresay that Maugham would find my use of British English, including British English slang, in THE DAWN a touch jolting, but that effect was intended! This long paragraph by Maugham is a superb example of the use of the first person as a means of drawing the reader into the confidence of the writer, the “I” who is speaking to him. Maugham the writer even writes as “Maugham, the writer-narrator”! The voice of this peerless writer succeeds on a level that is neither contemplated nor suspected by the reader. You see, the voice of the “first person” is always risky.

There is the initial and eternal problem of the ego. The “I” somehow can intrude even when it does not mean to, and it is obvious by the mere fact of its being: I. Furthermore, the “I” has its distinct limitations: how can “I” know the thoughts of others? “I” must then guess, or speculate, or claim that So-and-So “seemed to feel,” or “appeared to know.” It all gets so wordy and indirect! When I was doing final edits on THE DAWN, I conducted a special Word search, chapter by chapter, for the words, “seem” and “appear.” (Those words were already written in large letters on an index card as a reminder to avoid them!) Those two words are, in a word, indirect. I was horrified to see too many “appear”s and “seem”s in the beginning of the novel; but, by the middle, the voice became more direct. It was a sign that I was more in command of expressing what was being “seen” by my characters later in the novel, but not in the beginning. Revisions were in order! The reader ought not to have to wait until page 120 for the lens cap to be taken off of the camera! Purposely filtering the “angle” or “view” is one thing; unwittingly diluting or even blocking it is another. I scrupulously banned “seem” and “appear,” unless I meant to be indirect or nebulous. The limitations of the first person, the “I,” are not just in terms of wordiness and the awkwardness of the visual angle. There is the huge problem of the reader being able to identify with “I,” who becomes, in most cases, the narrator, the lens through which the information and views of everything are filtered. Here Maugham is master of the “I.” The above excerpt is composed in a confidential tone that is replete with honesty. His direct, personal “voice” tells the reader that “I,” the self-effacing writer who is calmly observing and graciously offering his observations, that person can be trusted. There is little more then for the novelist to do other than tell his story. And Maugham does so, much in the way of casually but carefully unrolling a spool of yarn across the floor of your mind.

He begins The Razor’s Edge with a confession: “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. . .” This style of writing is deceptively simple. It “feels” familiar, not quite conversational, but in the realm of the writer conducting a formal chat with the reader. And part of the chat is the unspoken response from Reader to Author that he understands and, more importantly, believes what is being imparted to him. The Reader senses that these observations are granted by the Author especially for his benefit, so as to permit him the fullest view of what the Author is observing. Maugham, through the eye of his “I,” thus achieves a relaxed, almost serene, steady, somewhat “objective” voice that is above a whisper but far below an announcement. (I place quotations around the word, objective, because once the pen hits the paper, or finger hits the keyboard, pure objectivity has ended!) With this unruffled, composed (!) voice, Maugham succeeds where many writers cannot even attempt with their most ornate of metaphors and the most dazzling of vocal styles. Maugham is so poised and, at the same time, commanding in his persona as “Maugham, the writer-narrator” in this novel that he even addresses the reader directly! He ends a lengthy dialogue recounted in flashback in Chapter 1 of Part 3. He then begins Chapter 2 as follows: “To give the reader a moment’s rest, I am starting here upon a new section, but I am doing it only for his convenience; the conversation was uninterrupted. I may take this opportunity to say that Larry spoke without haste, often choosing his words with care, and though of course I do not pretend to report them exactly, I have tried to reproduce not only the matter, but the manner of his discourse. . .”

Such courtesy and consideration! Such a polite approach! No problem with a loss of civility here! The reader might take the moment’s rest to grab a drink, go to the bathroom, and turn off that infernal phone. The innovative, creative mind of Maugham cleverly used his years of medical study, training, and practice as a doctor (particularly during World War I) to maximum effect. He saw life in all of its ugly, raw forms; and he acutely perceived the ray of hope that fought fear and dread as skillfully as his scalpel and medicine fought disease. He recalled of his experience in London as a medical student: “I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief . . .” His practical side was as formidable as his creative impetus. When the first printing of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, sold out in a few weeks, Maugham, a qualified doctor, jettisoned that career to begin his career as a best-selling author and man of letters. This journey would be lengthy for Maugham: 65 years. Of this remarkable change, he stated: “I took to it as a duck takes to water.” The narrative voice of Maugham, especially in the first person, is one of masterly detachment yet genteel confidentiality. It is just the sort of tone that a doctor uses when speaking with a colleague, another doctor to whom he can tell the sordid story of Patient X. The technique is technically brilliant. The sensibility of this author in the first person is that he is speaking with a peer, on fairly equal terms, and not talking down to the reader. Maugham is completely at ease with whoever he is “speaking” to while he writes in the manner of an aloof but trustworthy and well-informed confidant. That approach, if done well, is awfully hard to resist! You want to know more. And so you turn the page, again and again and again, to read more. I’m sure that this controlled but breezy voice and its unflappable persona drove his detractors nutz.

Two excerpts from The Razor’s Edge display his “plain” prose: The beginning of Chapter 9: “That evening I went to dine at a great stone house on Lake Shore Drive which looked as though the architect had started to build a medieval castle and then, changing his mind in the middle, had decided to turn it into a Swiss chalet.” Later in the same chapter: “. . . It was a dull landscape, but the sunshine and the glowing tints of the waning year gave it that day an intimate loveliness. There was an exhilaration in the great space that was spread before you. Cold, bleak, and dreary as it must have been in winter, dry, sunbaked, and oppressive as it may have been in the dog days, just then it was strangely exciting, for the vastness of the view invited the soul to adventure.” The literary criticism of W.S. Maugham is as forthright in its truth as it is provoking in its thought: “Reverie is the groundwork of creative imagination; it is the privilege of the artist that with him it is not as with other men an escape from reality, but the means by which he accedes to it.”

His “A Writer’s Notebook” is one of those rare books of ingenious thoughts, inventive ideas, and lucid commentaries that are expressive and yet emblematic of a man of his time who spoke in a timeless voice. The quality of his cogitation and his “gift of expression” are what essentially marked Maugham as an artistic writer. He was prolific but never petty, even to those precious pundits of his time who saw his fame and popularity as reasons to disdain him. I especially enjoy this take on the supposedly scintillating life of the craftsman known as a writer: “People wonder at the romantic lives of poets and artists, but they should rather wonder at their gift of expression. The occurrences which pass unnoticed in the life of the average man in the existence of the writer of talent are profoundly interesting. It is the man they happen to that makes their significance.” And then there is W.S. Maugham, the unannounced poet: “There was a moaning of thunder in the distance and one by one fell the first rain-drops; they were like the tears of God.”


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