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The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

1938, William Heinemann

Maugham talks about reading, writing, theatre, and philosophy while reflecting on his life as a writer.

Found in a neighborhood book exchange box, this volume was in much better shape than the version of the same book I read almost 30 years ago, and luckily, the print was bigger.  I was very happy to rediscover the author’s assertion I've never forgotten nor ceased to believe: "There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields.»

Maugham also asserts that “love doesn’t last”, which I stubbornly refuse to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. To read more about it go to chapter 77. (Yes, there are 77 chapters, but they’re all very short!)

Maugham's writing is sharp, cynical, to the point, and insightful; in short, British.  For me this memoir is a page turner, and I loved every minute of it.  It’s a short book, a summing up of the author’s ideas rather than of his life. He analyzes writers such as Shakespeare with a clear vision and unflinching honesty, and takes down cultural snobs while admitting he is one. However, judging from book reviews I’ve read, not all readers appreciate the fact that there is no real autobiographical information about Maugham’s life, nor do they agree with my page-turner assessment.

Here are a few quotes:

On reading:

“…the only important thing in a book is the meaning it has for you; it may have other and much more profound meanings for the critic, but at second-hand they can be of small service to you. I do not read a book for the book’s sake, but for my own. It is not my business to judge it, but to absorb what I can of it, as the amoeba absorbs a particle of a foreign body, and what I cannot assimilate has nothing to do with me.”

« I find it difficult to leave a book, however bad and however much it bores me, unfinished. I could count on my fingers the number of books that I have not read from cover to cover. »

Note: Writer Doris Lessing has the opposite opinion on reading and recommends to stop reading as soon as you lose interest. More on that another time in another post!

On young writers:

“Young persons, who are anxious to write, sometimes pay me the compliment of asking me to tell them of certain books necessary for them to read. I do. They seldom read them, for they seem to have little curiosity. They do not care what their predecessors have done. They think they know everything that it is necessary to know of the art of fiction when they have read two or three novels by Virginia Woolf, one by E.M. Forster, several by D.H. Lawrence and, oddly enough, the Forsyte Saga. It is true that contemporary literature has a vividness of appeal that classical literature can never have, and it is well for a young writer to know what his contemporaries are writing about and how. But there are fashions in literature and it is not easy to tell what intrinsic value there is in a style of writing that happens to be the vogue at the moment. An acquaintance with the great works of the past serves as a very good standard of comparison. I have sometimes wondered whether it is due to their ignorance that many young writers, notwithstanding their facility and cleverness, their skillful technique, so frequently fizzle out.”

On amateur writers:

“…there is a notion that anyone can write well enough to write a book. Writing seems now the favourite relaxation of the human race. Whole families will take to it as in happier times they entered religious houses. Women will write novels to while away their pregnancies; bored noblemen, axed officers, retired civil servants, fly to the pen as one might fly to the bottle. There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false. It is true that the amateur may sometimes produce a work of merit. By a lucky chance he may have a natural facility for writing well, he may have had experiences that are in themselves, interesting or he may have a charming or quaint personality that his very inexpertness helps him to get down on the printed page. But let him remember that the saying asserts only that everyone has it in him to write one book; it says nothing about a second. The amateur is wise not to try his luck again. His next book is pretty sure to be worthless.”

On the writer’s work vs. his/her personal life:

“…men have been outraged on discovering, as they so often have, the discrepancy between the artist’s life and his work. They have not been able to reconcile Beethoven’s idealism with his meanness of spirit, Wagner’s heavenly rapture with his selfishness and dishonesty, Cervantes’ moral obliquity with his tenderness and magnanimity. Sometimes, in their indignation, they have sought to persuade themselves that the work of such men could not possess the value they thought. When it has been brought to their knowledge that great and pure poets had left behind them a large body of obscene verse they have been horrified. They have had an uneasy feeling that the whole thing was a sham…But the point of the writer is that he is not one man but many. It is because he is many that he can create many, and the measure of his greatness is the number of selves that he comprises. When he fashions a character that does not carry conviction it is because there is in himself nothing of that person; he has had to fall back on observation, and so has only described, not begotten. The writer does not feel with; he feels in. It is not sympathy that he has, that too often results in sentimentality; he has what the psychologists call empathy. It is because Shakespeare had this to so great a degree that he was at once the most living and the least sentimental of authors.”

On the usefulness (or not) of philosophy:

“…the plain man’s interest in philosophy is practical. He wants to know what is the value of life, how he should live and what sense he can ascribe to the universe. When philosophers stand back and refuse to give even tentative answers to these questions they shirk their responsibilities. Now, the most urgent problem that confronts the plain man is the problem of evil.

It is curious to notice that when they speak of evil, philosophers so often use toothache as their example. They point out with justice that you cannot feel my toothache. In their sheltered, easy lives it looks as though this were the only pain that had much afflicted them, and one might almost conclude that with the improvement of American dentistry the whole problem could be conveniently shelved. I have sometimes thought that it would be a very good thing if before philosophers were granted the degrees that will enable them to impart their wisdom to the young, they had to spend a year in social service in the slums of a great city or earn their living by manual labour. If they had ever seen a child die of meningitis they would face some of the problems that concern them with other eyes.

On human nature:

“Human folly, alas, will continue to devastate the nations with war. Men will continue to be born who are not fitted for life, and life will be a burden to them. So long as some are strong and some are weak, the weak will be driven to the wall. So long as men are cursed with the sense of possession, and that I presume is as long as they exist, they will wrest what they can from those who are powerless to hold it. So long as they have the instinct of self-assertion, they will exercise it at the expense of others’ happiness. In short, so long as man is man he must be prepared to face all the woes that he can bear.

On the value of art:

“…art, if it is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action..."

“An art is only great and significant if it is one that all may enjoy.”

(see chapter 76 for more on this)

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