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Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset

story writer stories short

(British, 1874–1965)

A very prolific writer over a career that spanned fifty years, Maugham achieved prominence as a playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and critic. His simple aim was to tell a good story in a straightforward manner and uncluttered style. He liked a beginning, a middle, and an end. His short stories (collected in four volumes) are the best introduction. Maugham travelled widely, reflected in his stories’ wide-ranging locations, from the boulevards of Paris to the South Seas to a Scottish sanatorium. His gallery of characters, from titled toffs to prostitutes, are drawn vividly and with economy. Too often, though, there is a peevish strain of condescension towards them that at times comes uneasily close to sneering.

The Razor's Edge (1944) tells of a young American's rejection of material values and his search for spiritual fulfilment; an ambitious novel, and remarkably modern for a man of 70 to produce. Cakes and Ale (1930), about a self-important man of letters and his ex-barmaid wife, is satire disguised as comedy. Maugham squeezed every drop of his varied life experience into his fiction. In Ashenden (1928) he recounts his adventures as a secret agent in the First World War, while his early training as a doctor was the basis for Of Human Bondage (1915), in which the young hero, handicapped with a clubfoot (Maugham himself had a terrible stammer), suffers pangs of unrequited love for a callous waitress. Maugham's gift for story-telling meant that his novels and stories were snapped up for the big and little screen.

O. Henry, V. S. Pritchett, Barbara Pym. See SPY  TH

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