Friday, February 14, 2020

'His Wisdom, His Sense, His Pathos, His Indignation'

“I think there are few writers who write well by nature.”

There’s a voice and sentiment that grab your attention and hold on to it. The only way the sentence could be improved is to drop “I think.” Before we proceed to the next one we pause and tally those few exceptions the author grants us. Shakespeare? Of course. Tolstoy? Proust? That may exhaust the list. How many writers have been born with the gift but lost it to fickleness or vodka? We’ll never know. And how many – surely a much larger category – were born without it but through reading and disciplined application learned to write well? A substantial minority. Good writing is rare and there are shelvesful of it only because it has been incrementally produced for such a long time.     

Coming to W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) late in the game has been a revelation. I bought the conventional wisdom that he was a lightweight, a Conrad wannabe, an earlier generation’s “beach reading,” whatever that means. I still haven’t read much of his fiction but his essays and assorted nonfiction are – well, well-written. If he was a journeyman, he was a first-class, highly industrious journeyman.

The sentence at the top is drawn from “After Reading Burke” in The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays, published in 1953. Maugham begins by celebrating another writer he admires, William Hazlitt – “amusing, bitter, keen-witted, violent, sympathetic, unjust, generous” – who in turn admired Edmund Burke. Hazlitt’s praise moves Maugham to read Burke for the first time since he was young, as he explains:

“English is a difficult language to write, and few authors have written it consistently with accuracy and distinction. The best way of learning to do this is to study the great masters of the past.”

And this:

“The language of literature maintains its vitality by absorbing the current speech of the people; this gives it colour, vividness and actuality; but if it is to avoid shapelessness and incoherence it must be founded on, and determined by, the standards of the period when English prose attained the highest degree of perfection of which it seems capable.”

For Maugham, that largely means the eighteenth century – Dryden, Addison, Johnson, Gibbon and Burke. He listens to prose with rare concentration. He hears the careful and rousing musicality of Burke’s sentences, and attributes it to his close reading of Johnson, his fellow member of The Club:

“[T]he special character of Burke’s settled manner must be ascribed to the robust and irresistible example of Dr. Johnson. I think it was from him that Burke learnt the value of a long intricate sentence, the potent force of polysyllabic words, the rhetorical effect of balance and the epigrammatic elegance of antithesis. He avoided Johnson’s faults
(small faults to those who like myself have a peculiar fondness for Johnson’s style) by virtue of his affluent and impetuous fancy and his practice of public speaking.”

Remember that Johnson praised “the affluence of [Burke’s] conversation.” Maugham goes on in his thirty-three-page essay to review Burke’s career and offers a fairly technical analysis of his language, with an emphasis on Burke’s deft deployment of antithesis: “Its purpose is by the balance of words to accentuate the balance of thought, and when it serves merely to tickle the ear it is tiresome.” And his use of long sentences: “It gives you room to develop your meaning, opportunity to constitute your cadence and material to achieve your climax. Its disadvantages are that it may be diffuse, flaccid, crabbed or inapprehensible.” In his conclusion, Maugham suggests we read Burke’s “Letter to a Noble Lord” (1796), and says of it:

“It is the finest piece of invective in the English language and so short that it can be read in an hour. It offers in its brief compass a survey of all Burke’s dazzling gifts, his formal as well as his conversational style, his gift for epigram and for irony, his wisdom, his sense, his pathos, his indignation and his nobility.”


mike said...

At a used book sale last week I bought a slipcased edition of Maugham’s collected short stories for $3. What a bargain! Like you, I’ve avoided him for years, and now I’m finding out how wrong I was.

Barry Cusack said...

Like mike, I recommend his short stories. Also A Writer’s Notebook. A stunning swatch of his work, where his writing can be appreciated as he hones it. One distinctive feature of his prose, which is seen in two of your quotations – on Hazlitt, and on the disadvantages of Burke’s long sentences - is that piling of adjectives: a list, all carefully chosen we conclude, jarring meaningfully one against another. The writer has to get this right, I think, to avoid the appearance of a random prolixity, a rubbish dump of vocabulary. Not a trap that WSM falls into.

D. I. Dalrymple said...

I haven't read any of Maugham non-fiction but I plan to. Of his novels, I've very much enjoyed The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale.