Summing Up - W. Somerset Maugham

The Summing Up (International Collectors Library, Garden City, New York; 1st edition 1938)


I must write as though I were a person of importance; and indeed, I am- to myself.
-W. Somerset Maugham(1874-1965)


The Summing Up is an introspective attempt at bringing together Maugham's thoughts on subjects that had primarily interested him through the course of his life- ideas on literature, art, religion, ethics, and philosophy- in a conclusive, coherent manner.
Maugham began by stating that this book was neither intended as an autobiography nor a book of recollections. In fact, he clearly noted that certain aspects of his life would remain unmentioned, private; and provided no license for any biographies in his lifetime. He felt that to give them weight would detract from the important life points upon which he wished to focus.


He was always bothered by setting down his thoughts in the first person, considering that he was more comfortable speaking through the characters in his novels.

"Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."

Mixing fact and fiction, Maugham's characters and themes were "created" from many of his acquaintances and experiences. Not one to be enamored of celebrity or fashionably co-mingling with the famous, he felt that "the prestige you require by being able to tell your friends that you know famous people proves only that you are yourself of small account." Maugham was more interested in the socially obscure, "since they have never been in the public eye, it has never occurred to them that they have anything to conceal. They display their oddities because it has never struck them that they are odd."  To him, the less distinctive group proved a writer's more fertile ground.


Maugham shared his memories of his childhood with brevity (much more of it was written in Of Human Bondage), his natural writing instinct and developing flair for writing easy dialogue. He acknowledged strong literary influences by writers such as De Maupassant, Dryden, Voltaire, Swift, among others.


Of particular interest to me, and which left an indelible impression, was the attention he gave to explaining his philosophy, for this was the backbone of all Maugham's works. Of the worthiness of his writing (or writing in general), he contemplated that "it is hard not to ask oneself whether it is anything but futility to write plays and stories and novels..when men in millions all living on the border-line of starvation, when freedom in great parts of the inhabited globe is dying or dead, when a terrible war has been succeeded by years during which happiness has been out of the reach of the great mass of the human race, when men are distraught because they can see no value in life and the hopes that had enabled them for so many centuries to support its misery seem illusory." He would later reflect that he felt born to such a purpose: "some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must."


With confidence in his moral standards, religious and agnostic views, of human behavior- humanity's bad vs good attributes, of purpose in life, Maugham's words ran fluent with clear meaning, in spite of the obvious constraints he exercised to ink the personal convictions he strongly held.
"It may be that in goodness we may see , not a reason for life nor an explanation of it, but an extenuation. In this indifferent universe, with its inevitable evils that surround us from the cradle to the grave, it may serve not as a challenge or a reply, but as an affirmation of our own independence."


The Summing Up is a marvelous (albeit miniature) self-portrait , colored boldly with feelings and opinions. I felt it was too short to do justice to an author successfully accomplished in so many literary forms (novel, short story, personal narrative, literary and art criticism, drama, book travel, essay). Maugham ended the book with a quote by Fray Luis de Leon: "the beauty of life is nothing but this, that each should act in conformity with his nature and his business."


As a Maugham fan, I do feel that he might have undeservedly sold himself short in The Summing Up of his life. It is, however, a great starting point to gain insight into the philosophy that shaped such novels as the Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence.

Extensive biographies have been published without Maugham's stylized eloquent input( Maugham by Ted Morgan, 1980 ; and The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings, 2010) - posthumously, and authorized through his estate, after some legal foot-work.