The Summing Up, I

Again with the roman numerals. Maugham opens The Summing Up with the following sentence, “This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections.” Upon reading that sentence, some weeks ago, I decided to do Summing-Up as a new writing project. I talk about that decision in detail elsewhere. On to Maugham. On to The Summing Up. The first chapter of the memoir is about the British Empire, post-Boer War, and how the aristocrats didn’t realize their time had ended. Maugham does not tell it in scene and he does not promise historical accuracy. Expect a lot of quotes in these Summing Up posts; from the start, the book is full of them. Here’s his disclaimer: “Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now [Maugham published Summing Up in 1938, almost thirty years before his death and over thirty years after his first published novel], looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” Maugham was an extremely popular author at the time of Summing Up, he’s informing his general reading audience he’s unreliable right off. The second half of the chapter is about how unimpressive he found the aristocracy, whom he started meeting after he became successful as a playwright (roughly thirty years before Summing Up was published). It’s all very British, these chaps sitting around deciding who’s going to run this office or another—Maugham’s take? “I have continued to be puzzled by what seemed to me the mediocrity of their minds.” The eminent statesmen did not impress him with their conversation. They avoided serious subjects and rarely even discussed their true interests. “One might have thought that the only use of culture was to enable one to talk nonsense with distinction.” He also talks about how, even though people have forgotten by the late thirties, most stage plays in the late 1800s featured titled characters, which gave way to the middle class being the characters. The lower classes still didn’t get stage time. They weren’t playgoers anyway. It’s a bold, strong opening; bold in how Maugham confronts expectations and dismisses them. He’s preparing the reader, not coddling. The Summing Up has to be worth Maugham’s time as well.

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