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Authors: W. Somerset Maugham

Ten Novels And Their Authors

BOOK: Ten Novels And Their Authors
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About the Book

‘One of the finest novelists and dramatists of the twentieth century’
Glasgow Herald

Maugham’s studies of the lives and masterpieces of ten great novelists are outstanding examples of literary criticism at its finest. Afforded here are some of the formulae of greatness in the genre, as well as the flaws and heresies which enfeeble it. Written by a master of fiction,
Ten Novels and Their Authors
is a unique and invaluable guide.

See also:
The Vagrant Mood


Ten Novels and
Their Authors

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781409058427

Published by Vintage 2001

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3

Copyright © The Royal Literary Fund

W. Somerset Maugham has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann in 1954

Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780099286783



About the Book



About the Author

Other Works by W Somerset Maugham

1 The Art of Fiction

2 Henry Fielding and
Tom Jones

3 Jane Austen and
Pride and Prejudice

4 Stendhal and
Le Rouge et le Noir

5 Balzac and
Le Père Goriot

6 Charles Dickens and
David Copperfield

7 Flaubert and
Madame Bovary

8 Herman Melville and
Moby Dick

9 Emily Brontë and
Wuthering Heights

10 Dostoevsky and
The Brothers Karamazov

11 Tolstoy and
War and Peace

12 In Conclusion


William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874 and lived in Paris until he was ten. He was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and at Heidelberg University. He spent some time at St. Thomas’ Hospital with the idea of practising medicine, but the success of his first novel,
Liza of Lambeth
, published in 1897, won him over to letters.
Of Human Bondage
, the first of his masterpieces, came out in 1915, and with the publication in 1919 of
The Moon and Sixpence
his reputation as a novelist was established. At the same time his fame as a successful playwright and short story writer was being consolidated with acclaimed productions of various plays and the publication of
The Trembling of a Leaf
, subtitled
Little Stories of the South Sea Islands
, in 1921, which was followed by seven more collections. His other works include travel books, essays, criticism and the autobiographical
The Summing Up
A Writer’s Notebook

In 1927 Somerset Maugham settled in the South of France and lived there until his death in 1965.



The Moon and Sixpence

Of Human Bondage

The Narrow Corner

The Razor’s Edge

Cakes and Ale

The Merry-Go-Round

The Painted Veil


Up at the Villa

Mrs Craddock

Christmas Holiday

The Magician


Liza of Lambeth

Then and Now

Collected Short Stories

Collected Short Stories Vol. 1

Collected Short Stories Vol. 2

Collected Short Stories Vol. 3

Collected Short Stories Vol. 4

Short Stories


Far Eastern Tales

More Far Eastern Tales

Travel Writing

The Gentleman in the Parlour

On a Chinese Screen

Don Fernando

Literary Criticism

Points of View

The Vagrant Mood


A Writer’s Notebook

The Summing Up

J’ai toujours aimé les correspondances, les
conversations, les pensées, tous les détails du
caractère, des mœurs, de la biographie en un
mot, des grands écrivains


La première condition d’un roman est
d’intéresser. Or, pour cela, il faut illusionner le
lecteur à tel point qu’il puisse croire que ce
qu’on lui raconte est réellement arrivé


The Art of Fiction


I should like to tell the reader of this book how the essays in it first came to be written. One day, while I was in the United States, the Editor of
asked me to make a list of what in my opinion were the ten best novels in the world. I did so, and thought no more about it. Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them. If a hundred persons, well read and of adequate culture, were asked to produce such a list, in all probability at least two or three hundred novels would be mentioned, but I think that in all the lists most of those I have chosen would find a place. That there should be a diversity of opinion in this matter is understandable. There are various reasons that make a particular novel so much appeal to a person, even of sound judgment, that he is led to ascribe outstanding merit to it. It may be that he has read it at a time of life when, or in circumstances in which, he was peculiarly liable to be moved by it; or it may be that its theme, or its setting, has a more than ordinary significance for him owing to his own predilections or personal associations. I can imagine that a passionate lover of music might place Henry Handel Richardson’s
Maurice Guest
among the ten best novels, and a native of the Five Towns, delighted with the fidelity with which Arnold Bennett described their character and their inhabitants, might in his list place
The Old Wives’ Tale
Both are good novels, but I do not think an unbiased judgment would put either of them among the best ten. The nationality of a reader lends to certain works an interest that inclines him to attribute a greater excellence to them than would generally be admitted. During the eighteenth century, English literature was widely read in France, but since then, till fairly recently, the French have not taken much interest in anything that was written beyond their own frontiers, and I don’t suppose it would occur to a Frenchman to mention
Moby Dick
in such a list as I myself made, and
Pride and Prejudice
only if he were of quite unusual culture; he would certainly, however, include Madame de Lafayette’s
La Princesse de Clèves
; and rightly, for it has outstanding merits. It is a novel of sentiment, a psychological novel, perhaps the first that was ever written: the story is touching; the characters are soundly drawn; it is written with distinction, and it is commendably brief. It deals with a state of society which is well known to every schoolboy in France; its moral atmosphere is familiar to him from his reading of Corneille and Racine; it has the glamour of association with the most splendid period of French history, and it is a worthy contribution to the golden age of French literature. But the English reader may think the magnanimity of the protagonists inhuman, their discourse with one another stilted, and their behaviour incredible. I do not say he is right to think this; but, thinking it, he will never class this admirable novel among the ten best in the world.

In a brief commentary to accompany the list of books I made for
, I wrote: ‘The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping.’ A sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion. He is prepared to interest himself in the characters and is concerned to see how they act in given circumstances, and what happens to them; he sympathises with their
troubles and is gladdened by their joys; he puts himself in their place and, to an extent, lives their lives. Their view of life, their attitude to the great subjects of human speculation, whether stated in words or shown in action, call forth in him a reaction of surprise, of pleasure or of indignation. But he knows instinctively where his interest lies and he follows it as surely as a hound follows the scent of a fox. Sometimes, through the author’s failure, he loses the scent. Then he flounders about till he finds it again. He skips.

Everybody skips, but to skip without loss is not easy. It may be, for all I know, a gift of nature, or it may be something that has to be acquired by experience. Dr. Johnson skipped ferociously, and Boswell tell us that ‘he had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end’. Boswell was doubtless referring to books of information or of edification; if it is a labour to read a novel it is better not to read it at all. Unfortunately, for reasons I shall go into presently, there are few novels which it is possible to read from beginning to end with unfailing interest. Though skipping may be a bad habit, it is one that is forced upon the reader. But when the reader once begins to skip, he finds it hard to stop, and so may miss much that it would have been to his advantage to read.

Now it so happened that some time after the list I had made for
appeared, an American publisher put before me the suggestion of reissuing the ten novels I had mentioned in an abridged form, with a preface to each one written by me. His idea was to omit everything but what told the story the author had to tell, expose his relevant ideas and display the characters he had created so that readers might read these fine novels, which they would not have done unless what might not unfairly be described as a lot of dead wood had been cut away from them; and thus, since nothing but what was valuable was
left in them, enjoy to the full a great intellectual pleasure. I was at first taken aback; but then I reflected that though some of us have acquired the knack of skipping to our profit, most people have not, and it would surely be a good thing if they could have their skipping done for them by a person of tact and discrimination. I welcomed the notion of writing the prefaces to the novels in question, and presently set to work. Some students of literature, some professors and critics, will exclaim that it is a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece, and that it should be read as the author wrote it. That depends on the masterpiece. I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as
Pride and Prejudice
, or from one so tightly constructed as
Madame Bovary
; but that very sensible critic George Saintsbury wrote that ‘there is very little fiction that will stand concentration and condensation as well as that of Dickens’. There is nothing reprehensible in cutting. Few plays have ever been produced that were not to their advantage more or less drastically cut in rehearsal. One day, many years ago, when we were lunching together, Bernard Shaw told me that his plays were much more successful in Germany than they were in England. He ascribed this to the stupidity of the British public and to the greater intelligence of the German. He was wrong. In England he insisted that every word he had written should be spoken. I had seen his plays in Germany; there the directors had ruthlessly pruned them of verbiage unnecessary to the dramatic action, and so provided the public with an entertainment that was thoroughly enjoyable. I did not, however, think it well to tell him this. I know no reason why a novel should not be subjected to a similar process.

BOOK: Ten Novels And Their Authors
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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