I discovered Somerset Maugham in my early twenties when I borrowed a copy Of Human Bondage from a friend. (Which, to my shame, I never returned and for which I belatedly apologise.)
The novel captivated me with its beautifully crafted tale of thwarted artistic ambition and unrequited love. (Perhaps it struck a chord?) And it sent me on a journey to read more of Maugham’s works, including volumes of his short stories, during my time-poor twenties.
It was hard for this wannabe-writer to comprehend an imagination such as Maugham’s. And his writing skill, with characters, dialogue and narrative, was incredible. I was soon proclaiming Maugham to be my favourite author.
Somerset and all the Maughams
Then I read a biography of Somerset by his nephew, Robin Maugham, Somerset and all the Maughams, which revealed how Of Human Bondage was semi-autobiographical. The protagonist was a medical student who had a club foot and a limp — Somerset had studied medicine and suffered from a stutter.
And his short stories, many of which he set in British Malaya, were also explained. Somerset had spent time at the rubber plantations in the colony. He based the stories on real people and real conversations. Suddenly, I felt cheated. It seemed my favourite author’s skill as a writer was not his imagination but “reportage”!
Perhaps that’s what it takes to be a writer? The skill to record and reflect everyday conversations and behaviour. And spin it into a fictional context that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and engage in the characters and story.
After Somerset Maugham, I fell deeply in love with the writing of Graham Greene. (Again, starting with a book I borrowed, but this time returned.) And, as with Maugham, after consuming many of Greene’s novels, I read his biography. And I recognised Greene’s life in his writing!
Oh well, as Maugham said:
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Perhaps it’s to have a keen eye and ear and a notebook and pen handy. And to have no shame in jotting down and repurposing everyday life!
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another blog post about an Australian author whose work I love, Tim Winton Wows Again.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.