The Summing Up, XII

So Maugham talks about simplicity in this chapter. Easily the longest chapter in the book so far. It’s also Maugham being obnoxious. He’s also wrong. Sort of. He starts out ranting against writing so intricately written it “[falls] on the ear like music.” Maugham’s such a snob, he’s given up on the potential of writing. He can’t do it—and can’t acknowledge it from peers in a way to fit his critical belief system—he can’t imagine anyone else can do anything with it. Then he starts ranting about the Bible, which is great. “Its alien imagery,” he writes, “has nothing to do with us.” Now, he starts the rant talking about the King James’ Bible, because it’s English. But Maugham doesn’t mean it like the English language, he means it like… the English. He goes into this amazing British jingoism blather about the best writing is inherently English. And not just any Englishman. “It has been said,” Maugham writes and gives no attribution because he’s being a reprehensible snob, “that good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man. Conversation is only possible when men’s minds are free from pressing anxieties.” See, Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey” isn’t playing anything fantastic, she’s just playing Somerset Maugham when he gets all riled up about England. It’s hilarious. It’s also problematic because Maugham never gets back around to the actual ideas he was talking about. He lost himself in the Bible; he had something with the idea of it not actually relating the story of the human race. “Those hyperboles, those luscious metaphors, are foreign to our genius.” It’s not where creative strength lays. But then he tracks the King James’s effects on English writers and he wants to show off his snobbery. It’s not a serious history of English writing, it’s not a serious discussion of the needs for intricate writing, it’s not a serious argument for having well-bred snobs be writers. It’s not a serious anything. And for all its absurd passion, Maugham’s knowingly yelling at that old man cloud. He almost deserves having Penguin reprint it with the anachronistic portrait on the cover. Not quite, but almost.

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