Buggers can be choosers

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When Ted Morgan produced what is widely considered the definitive biography of Somerset Maugham in 1980, Beverly Nichols complained that it neglected literary appraisal in favour of titillating gossip about "Willie" and his homosexual circle. The same criticism could be made in spades about the present volume. Although Bryan Connon includes material about Maugham's barrister brother Freddie, who became Lord Chancellor, and his four children (one of them, Robin Maugham, was author of The Servant), much of this book is a half-ironical, half-malicious look at pre-Wolfenden gay life in elite circles in the first half of the century. Buggery, sodomy and what the Sun calls "sex romps" abound.

Connon declares that no heterosexual can understand Somerset Maugham. He may be right, but I wonder how important it is to know the canting language of the homosexual community to be able to appraise Maugham's work. To pin down one's subject's sexuality is certainly a necessary condition for a good biography, but Connon seems to think it a sufficient one. So much of his book is given over to homosexual encounters, he omits to tell us what first drove Willie to write, how he got started, how his oeuvre developed. Is it true that Maugham's famous sympathy for the adulterous woman was a transmogrified self-pity, as he viewed both women and homosexual males as victims of a pitiless patriarchy? How important was Maugham's medical training, and can we learn anything about the doctor- as-novelist from a study of his work alongside that of Conan Doyle, A J Cronin and others? On these matters Connon is silent.

With Maugham there are no subtexts: what you see is what you get. The obvious problem is that this takes us close to John Cate's "I have nothing to say and I am saying it." The disguised portrait of Thomas Hardy in Cakes and Ale seems actuated mainly by envy for a greater talent, while even The Razor's Edge, Maugham's finest novel, is a farrago of cod-Oriental mysticism. James Hilton's Lost Horizon, from roughly the same era, is a much more successful foray into the fantasy of Westerner-confronts-inscrutable- East.

The portrait of Willie painted here, taken in conjunction with Morgan's life, presents us with an unpleasant, devious, snobbish, money-loving humbug, who did not have the courage of his homosexual convictions (it is odd, incidentally, that in 42 photographic plates, there is not a single close-up image of Willie as an adult). In some ways it is a relief to turn to the career of Robin Maugham, also homosexual but openly so; less talented than his uncle, he was more recognisable as a human being, especially in his insane jealousy of the far more gifted Joe Orton. Schizoid rather than schizophrenic, Robin drank, drugged and copulated his way to an early death at 64, and for those who like black farce piled high, Connon's account is entertaining enough. But again one objects that the really interesting thing about the Maughams is their role as best-selling authors. What precisely is it about these clusters of banalities and cliches that makes people buy them by the million? The conventional answer is "story- telling ability" but this usually turns out to be a tautology: certain authors sell well because the public buys their books. There is a fascinating subject here which John Sutherland and others have touched on, but Connon does not think it worth discussing. His concern is with sexual gossip: who did what, when and to whom?

From time to time, Connon tries to enlist our sympathies for scribbling Uncle Willie and nephew Robin. But the only Maughams who emerge with much credit from this saga are Freddie, Robin's three sisters and Syrie, Willie's wife and victim of his desire to pull the wool over his readers' eyes. After he had used her as cover so as not to have to "come out", Syrie was tossed aside. Willie then had the gall to enter snobbish objections when Syrie turned out to have natural business acumen and became a successful interior designer. Her best-selling husband falsely denounced her as a larcenist, a philistine, a nag and a social failure. Despite their canting (in both senses) rhetoric, neither Willie nor Robin ever suffered because of the much-vaunted "bourgeois hypocrisy" and always had the best of everything. Contrary to the old joke, buggers can indeed be choosers.