THE GUILLOTINE: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 27: SOMERSET MAUGHAM

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Still a household name (in middle-class households, at least), Somerset Maugham was famous for very much longer than the now statutory 15 minutes. As a novelist and short-story writer, he was so ubiquitous throughout the century that it's hard to imagine a single reader of these lines who hasn't also read one of his innumerable contes cruels about the English going to seed in the tropics or one of his several best-selling novels - Of Human Bondage, perhaps, or The Razor's Edge - or seen one of the film versions of Rain. Until recently, no literary logo was more familiar to the British bibliophile than the Moorish symbol (a replica of that which adorned the gates of Maugham's own Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat), to be found on all hardback editions of his work.

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 ADAIR

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