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The Publisher interviews W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham greeted him in the blue robe, which he claims he wears all day if he has no appointments outside his home.

The act of writing a novel--the act of writing itself--involves a certain presumption that things need to change, does it not?

I suppose one wouldn't bother if things had turned out the way one thought they would in one's own life.

You seem to have a soft spot for the student of art that you don't necessarily have for other walks of life?

I'm disposed too toward those who practice medicine; medicine seems the highest use of science, if medicine is to mean healing people and making suffering as pleasing as possible. I value the spirit of the young beginning artist--the artist to whom the possibilities of making something ennobling if not practical is the first thought when waking in the morning--more highly than the art product which, in all but a few cases, misses the mark of the artist's intention and becomes something entirely else, a mere product. You may note too a certain sympathy I have for the clergy.

You've created two characters in your novel Of Human Bondage, one of whom may be among the most noble in all of English literature and one who is perhaps the most monstrous, a real grotesque. Are you one or the other?

I am an admixture, I suppose. Most people are innocents, swept away either by the force of their innocence or corrupted by the guilt of losing what they believe to be their innocence. Philip, the character to whom you refer as "noble" simply drops the notion that one's identity is something one makes. Of course it took many pages for him to reach that point. Mildred, who I suspect is the character you call 'monstrous', never suffers from the illusion of goodness as being constituted in a soul or a spirit. There is nothing ineffable about her; her being is contained, and solely expressed, in her physical body and its pleasures and pains.

Toward the end of the novel, Philip has what might be called an epiphany: "He could not reconcile himself to the belief that life had no meaning and yet everything he saw, all his thoughts, added to the force of his conviction. But though fury seized him it was a joyful fury. Life was not so horrible if it was meaningless, and he faced it with a strange sense of power."

I was terribly influenced by certain eastern concepts. Buddha for instance said that our job as humans is to be awake. This was extremely liberating to me at a certain time in my life, though it can be taken to an extreme.

Are you surprised that people are still reading your work?

I can no more answer that question than I can write another book. I can say that once written, my fiction always feels to me as if written by someone else.

In the greater context of 20th century literature, your work seems oddly programmatic, even quaint in contrast to a writer like Samuel Beckett, whose experiments in narrative composition are still being championed and imitated by adherents today...?

I suppose you've asked me a question here...I never felt compelled to carry out the modernist ethic of 'making it new' at almost any cost. Not that Mr. Beckett, whose work I find fantastically funny, can be accused of this. Charles Dickens is more my metier and the French writer Zola. Proust too, who I was coming around to toward the end of my own life. A writer is no different than any other man: he might try living many other lives, but finally he lives the life he lives because he cannot imagine any other.

If I said that your book is an affront to western civilization, would you be offended?

Not at all. I'd be honored.


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