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SOMERSET MAUGHAM: A Life

Jeffrey Meyers, Author
Jeffrey Meyers, Author . Knopf $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-375-41475-6
Paperback - 411 pages - 978-1-4000-3052-1
Ebook - 316 pages - 978-0-307-49111-4
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The long-lived and highly prolific Maugham (1874–1965) finds a sympathetic biographer in the similarly productive Meyers (George Orwell , etc.). This inveterate traveler was marked as a wanderer by his Parisian birth and early orphanhood—he journeyed from Europe and America to the South Seas and the Far East—and he was a natural for the secret service in civil war Russia. Maugham's largely unhappy existence culminated in unfulfilling luxury in exile, elusive critical approval in England and embittered misanthropy. After becoming a bestselling author and popular playwright, Maugham stayed away from England, as much to avoid its tax code as to conduct his secretive sex life away from draconian laws against homosexuality. Since Maugham preferred basing his work on real events from his travels and real people from his social circle, his biographer must provide plot summaries and decode identities. While this could be cruelly obvious, as in the reputation-wrecking portrait of the novelist Hugh Walpole in Cakes and Ale , Meyers finds a match for Of Human Bondage 's Mildred in Maugham's one-time companion Harry Philips, and, in general, he diligently collates fiction and fact. While Maugham was clearly important in the literary world, Meyers's high estimation of him, compared with his rivals and betters such as Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, is not fully convincing. Maugham's characteristically harsh but accurate verdict on his own position as "in the very first row of the second-raters" trumps Meyers's praise and reassessment, but Meyers does show how Maugham maintained, through determination as much as talent, the longest successful career in English letters. 55 photos. (Feb. 20)

FYI: Vintage's reissue of The Painted Veil coincides with this biography's publication.

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