Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Reflections: The Summing Up

It's a bit of a challenge to categorize this book with an overarching label. Many might argue (including Maugham himself) if I called it a memoir. Simply put, the book is Somerset Maugham's wise reflections and thoughts on what he calls as - the pattern of his life. He sums up 60 years of his professional life with interesting interludes on his insights on life, the art of writing, philosophy, religion and human psychology.

I really looked forward to Maugham's revelations about himself for it's always interesting to learn about the person behind the creative mind. And I wasn't disappointed. While some critics might be disappointed at the absence of entertaining or controversial anecdotal personal details about Maugham, I readily welcomed this approach. I'm not exactly curious about overly personal details about anybody, and this is one of the first books that steps away from baring out one's personal life through sensational revelations, which somehow create the impression of more emotional connection with the reader (and ends up as a best seller). Instead Maugham bares out his entire mind, every nook and cranny of it, and to me that is far more of a revealing endeavor than through dramatic secrets from one's personal life. But that is not to say that he completely shies away from his personal life. Personal experiences do shape thoughts, and Maugham does divulge a few details, if only to further buttress his arguments.

Having lost his mother at a very early age and being in the custody of his rather unkind uncle, Maugham struggled through childhood. Added to this grim atmosphere, his severe stammering worsened his self-esteem. He entered medical school, for that was the most honorary educational pursuit for a young English gentleman at that time. With his keen observational perspicacity, his experience as a medical student and later as a doctor, helped him immensely in being a part of and in understanding the whole range of emotions humans are capable of. It was like peering into a kaleidoscope straight into the human psyche/soul. Having witnessed intense rejoice and love at the beginning of life, and finally the sheer despair, helplessness, suffering, fortitude, fear, pain and peace when life ends, Maugham sharpened his ability to understand human psychology and give life to his characters. In essence, he says that a writer can never create a character anywhere close to reality, unless the writer himself realizes those emotions and translates them into words. It's reasonable to say that the characters developed by a writer are just collages pasted from fragments of the writer's own personality, sometimes magnified in their dimension. He does acknowledge that his popular work, Of Human Bondage, is semi-autobiographical, for the exercise of writing was therapeutic in venting out his pain, resolving his haunting issues and moving on with his life.

Maugham calls his passion to write and read to be almost compulsive. He alludes to himself as an introvert, always restless to get to his books rather than be encumbered by the company of people. He wrote with an unstoppable force; yet he humbly shares the frustration and relentless rigor that he went through to perfect his skill. It's hard to imagine that a revered writer like him could ever go through such a period of meticulous learning and revision. One of the marks of a great man is this simple humility. He goes on to define the art of writing, drawing in examples of good writers, and the criteria that define stellar writing. In his sardonic manner, Maugham distinguishes good writing from pompous writing, wherein the writer merely tries to obscure their writing through convoluted sentences and fails at communicating. This discourse was extremely enlightening to me. He later shares his professional journey as a writer, starting from his simple plays to his major works. In all honesty, his opinions and dissecting arguments about the art of play-writing and the intricacies of the theater went right above my head. Still, I was able to gather a few interesting tid-bits.

Finally towards the end, Maugham sheds his insights on the philosophical and spiritual questions that he grappled with all through his life. Having been a doctor and seen so much pain and suffering, especially in the eyes of young children, Maugham resigned his faith in an all-merciful God who helps us move mountains just through our faith. He makes a balanced argument on faith, determinism, free-will, immortality, and Karma, and as the reader waits for his final concluding remarks, he makes a characteristic cynical statement to dismiss each argument as being unconvincing to him. Perhaps another mark of a wizened mind is knowing that we know very little about the mystic universe. He attributes our beliefs and quest to find meaning in our lives, to our ego. We humans engage in a search for understanding three basic elements in our lives - Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Maugham analytically puts forth his arguments on the intrinsic value (if at all) of these basic elements. He concludes that the beauty of life is that -"each should act according to his nature and his business". Very simple words, yet this was his philosophy in setting a pattern to his life.

Needless to say, Maugham's writing shines with his mastery over the language. His writing does get tedious and verbose at times, but perhaps I'm just a philistine coping with his superior writing style. The book is a huge learning experience on the art of writing, on how to craft expert sentences to convey one's thoughts, aside all the wonderful wisdom it holds.

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