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Book Review: A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham

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At the end of his years Maugham wrote in his journal, “Throughout the ages many have found in the belief in life to come an adequate compensation for the troubles of their brief sojourn in a world of sorrow. They are the lucky ones. Faith, for those who have it, solves difficulties which reason finds insoluble.”

In many ways, Maugham was a tragic figure, for the very reason why he wanted to know the meaning of life – his acute power of reason – prevented him from taking the first step by accepting even the possibility of freedom and enlightenment and God. He suffered in some sense from a failure of the imagination, which he condemned as a refuge of those who could not achieve their desires, those defeated by life's complications. “By imagination man compensates himself for his failure to get a complete satisfaction from life.”

Maugham seeks to find the meaning of life in his early entries and, indeed, through much of his latter ones devoted to philosophical observations of life. What is the right way of living life? He wants to know the standards by which one can make a determination between the possible ways of being in the world. One of his conclusions is that man always seeks that which is pleasurable, even if he claims that he is acting selflessly. He also believes that much of the real cause of human reality being as it is has to do with violence – might makes right.

There are many other aphorisms that Maugham comes up with, the one on hope states, for instance, states that hope is the greatest evil of all those unleashed by Pandora's box, for hope makes men endure cruel twists of fate. About reason Maugham writes, it helps us to do with equanimity what we would rather not do. Suffering for Maugham is an abomination: it does not ennoble and its effect on character – contrary to popular wisdom – is corrosive. Suffering, rather, makes men degenerate and lose their good sense. “The effect of suffering is to make people narrow.”

A Writer's Notebook is many things. It is a record of Maugham's mind and its struggles to understand existence and itself. It is a textbook on the creative process, too, as indeed any writer's notebook is: in the pages of his notebook Maugham records sketches of the places, people and ideas that he has encountered and which have made an impression on him. There are many entries devoted to his travels in Russia, America and the East. Wherever he goes, Maugham records the curious – in an America hotel he records an incident of a woman calling Washington D.C. all night so as to create a serious disturbance. Her object? To tell an former lover, who is apparently in the Army, that she does not want to speak to him.

Maugham's perception picks up the most bizarre in this case. The striking thing about his entries is that they never seem to entertain hope or seem to notice the wonder of existence. The notebook is a window into the soul of a man struggling with himself, and, as such, it is an opportunity to know not only Maugham but oneself, for Maugham struggles with the same doubts and attempts the same solutions to those doubts that many of his readers have doubted and attempted.

Maugham is also obsessed with religion, God and Christianity. He is sometimes petulant in his repeated criticisms of the faith, but he does not seem to really understand it. He is prone, too, to extracting unfounded generalizations as when he concludes that there is nothing to Christianity simply because of the failed Christians that he encounters, whom he often deems to be hypocrites or psychologically conflicted individuals. While on Tonga, he observes The Adventist, a Job-like figure, who has lost all and lives in abject poverty, and concludes that the man has himself alone to blame for his troubles, despite the fact that the man believes himself to be favored by God.

In doing so, Maugham shows that he lacks the ability to see beneath the apparent surface of things. There are deeper possibilities, deeper questions implied at the heart of the question “why do things happen as they do?” But Maugham does not examine any of these at all. He assumes the simplest explanation to be true. Consequently, his world appears harsh, often without any meaning.

Maugham's world view suffers from a lack of the sense of wonder and possibility. It is a drab point of view that creates a problem for Maugham, a problem summed up by the question: what is the meaning, the purpose of life? Maugham does not realize that he asks that question, that it is a problem for him, solely because of how he perceives the world. In the end of the notebook, he seems to come to a standstill and admit of defeat of reason when he writes that those that can believe are the lucky ones.

The notebook is wonderful reading for anyone who is interested in how another person thinks and feels. Rarely do we get the chance to truly know another person. Here is an opportunity. Reading Maugham's Notebook also takes one on a journey into this writer's mind, into this person's soul and its struggle about how to be. It is instructive in our day and age of the quick fix for psychological angst in that it reveals that everyone struggles with uncertainty, doubt, and the weight of feelings that life is responsible for. If anything can be learned from sharing Maugham's inner struggles, it is that here are no quick fixes to psychic pain. Life is too complex.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org