W. Somerset Maugham  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

William Somerset Maugham, (January 25 1874 – December 16 1965) was a British writer. He was one of the most popular authors of his era, and reputedly the highest paid of his profession during the 1930s. He is known for works such as The Razor's Edge, the banned The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage.

Maugham's short fable "An Appointment in Samarra" (1933) is based on an ancient Babylonian myth: Death is both the narrator and a central character. The American writer John O'Hara credited Maugham's tale as the inspiration for the title of his novel Appointment in Samarra.


Commercial success with high book sales, successful theatre productions and a string of film adaptations, backed by astute stock market investments, allowed Maugham to live a very comfortable life. Small and weak as a boy, Maugham had been proud even then of his stamina, and as an adult he kept churning out the books, proud that he could. Yet, despite his triumphs, he never attracted the highest respect from the critics or his peers. Maugham himself attributed this to his lack of "lyrical quality", his small vocabulary and failure to make expert use of metaphor in his work.

Maugham wrote in a time when experimental modernist literature such as that of William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was gaining increasing popularity and winning critical acclaim. In this context, his plain prose style was criticized as "such a tissue of clichés that one's wonder is finally aroused at the writer's ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way". (Edmund Wilson, quoted in Vidal, 1990)

Maugham's homosexual leanings also shaped his fiction, in two ways. Since, in life, he tended to see attractive women as sexual rivals, he often gave the women of his fiction sexual needs and appetites, in a way quite unusual for authors of his time. Liza of Lambeth, Cakes and Ale and The Razor's Edge all featured women determined to service their strong sexual appetites, heedless of the result. Also, the fact that Maugham's own sexual appetites were highly disapproved of, or even criminal, in nearly all of the countries in which he travelled, made Maugham unusually tolerant of the vices of others. Readers and critics often complained that Maugham did not clearly enough condemn what was bad in the villains of his fiction and plays. Maugham replied in 1938: "It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me."

Maugham's public view of his abilities remained modest; towards the end of his career he described himself as "in the very first row of the second-raters". In 1954, he was made a Companion of Honour.

Maugham had begun collecting theatrical paintings before the First World War and continued to the point where his collection was second only to that of the Garrick Club. In 1948 he announced that he would bequeath this collection to the Trustees of the National Theatre, and from 1951, some 14 years before his death, his paintings began their exhibition life. In 1994 they were placed on loan to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden.

Film adaptations

See also

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