The problem with Maugham, where posterity is concerned, is simply stated: he couldn't write. He had, to be sure, a flair for (overly) neat narrative ironies but, to anyone offended by cliches, their startling abundance in his prose has rendered even the more ingeniously constructed of his stories all but unreadable. Though he himself seemed becomingly aware of his shortcomings, prepared as he was to acknowledge that he didn't belong in the first rank, he spoilt the effect of this apparent humility by then going on to compare himself with Stendhal. In your dreams, Somerset!
Maugham is doubtless still fairly widely read but, like the Sunday Express, by a readership that isn't getting any younger. His books were originally purchased in hardback, not just to be read but to be prominently displayed beside the Hugh Walpoles and Charles Morgans. Then they were purchased in paperback and tended to be abandoned in train compartments, along with crisp packets and sandwich wrappers, at Euston or Victoria. Now they're borrowed from public libraries - the penultimate stage of a book's life, alas, before total darkness descends. In the phrase's figurative rather than its literal sense, his work is on the shelf.
He was of course also a successful dramatist and, even if the creaking of his dramaturgy makes it difficult to hear their dialogue, the plays are still occasionally given an airing. There's one that has never been revived, however, his very first; and though I know nothing about it except its title, it does sound as though now, if ever, is the time to put it on. It's called Jack Straw. GILBERT ADAIRReuse content