Hastings_Maugham“In 1955 Somerset Maugham at the age of 81 was asked in a newspaper interview if he liked the idea of having his biography written.  No, he did not.  It would be a pointless exercise, in his view.  “The lives of modern writers are not interesting in themselves,” he said dismissively.  “A life of myself is bound to be dull… [and] I don’t want to be associated with dullness.”  In truth there was little danger of that.  Disingenuous, as in this statement, maybe; dull, never.  For much of his long life — he lived to be over 90 — Somerset Maugham was the most famous writer in the world, known everywhere for his superb short stories and for his novels, the best known, Of Human Bondage, becoming one of the most widely read works of fiction of the 20th century.  His books were translated into almost every known tongue, sold in their millions and brought him celebrity and enormous wealth.

For nearly 40 years Maugham in his luxurious villa in the south of France was filmed and photographed and written about, until it seemed there was little the public were not at liberty to know about this legendary figure.  And yet since his early youth there had always been other, secret facets to Maugham, important aspects of himself, of his career, that he had no intention whatever of revealing.  In a very true sense he lived much of his life undercover: he was a homosexual when homosexual practice was against the law; in both world wars he worked for British intelligence, sometimes at considerable risk to his personal safety; and as a writer of fiction he spent much of his day in a private world of the imagination, peopled by characters often more real to him than men and women in the world outside.

He was further distanced by developing in childhood a stammer that made him agonisingly self-conscious; it inhibited him, and as an adult he formed the habit of having by his side an interpreter, a sociable, outgoing chap, usually also his lover, who would act as intermediary, make the initial contact and enable Maugham himself to keep more or less in the background.  Yet with all his elaborate defences Maugham remained intensely vulnerable; he was a passionate, difficult man, capable of cruelty as well as of great kindness and charm, and despite all his worldly success he never found what he wanted.  A wretchedly unhappy marriage wrecked years of his existence and the great love of his life remained unrequited.…”



"A fascinating narrative ... full of public incident and accomplishment, shadowed by privately known and whispered secrets...The sordid details, fully disclosed for the first time, reveal the tragic ending to a life that had produced great wealth, exotic travel, and public acclaim...Hastings is a stylish and sensitive writer who addresses her subject's double life with insight and compassion."

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

"The more we know about Somerset Maugham, the more admirable he becomes--the more, in short, he seems the witty, cynical, eminently sensible fellow that comes across in his writing.  And here, at last, Maugham has gotten the magnificent biography he deserves.  Marshaling all the known evidence, Selena Hastings shows us the man in the round: she is generous but shrewd in her assessment of Maugham's work, and resolutely unshocked by the 'scandalous' details of his private life.  Indeed, much of Hastings' book reads like an almost incredible success story, were it not for the rather crucial fact that Maugham attached himself, haplessly, to worthless characters who didn't love him.  The ramifications are everywhere (but subtly) present in these pages, and lead inexorably to the final tragedy.  Count no man happy until he dies."

--Blake Bailey, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Cheever: A Life


"Monumentally engaging... All of the drama, intrigue, heartbreak and joy that marked Maugham's life is reconstructed by the author in enthralling, novelistic prose.  A powerful, revealing and authoritative depiction of one the 20th century's most notorious literary figures." Kirkus, (starred review)