Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Somerset Maugham dips his nib in the witch's hat


When penmanship was taught via the medium of steel nibs and ceramic ink wells like witches hats set into the oak desks bound each to their seats with cast iron brackets, the boy behind if wanting to annoy would jab your arse with a pen. I have been from time to time been discussing such literary jabs given by Hemingway to Ford and Anderson. I believe that the more famous writer can affect the reputation of the other. It has the effect of a scorn barrier which our admiration for the jabber creates about the jabee. I felt that about Ford and also I must admit about George Moore who quarrelled with W.B . Yeats.

Somerset Maugham similarly had barefaced innocent sport with Hugh Walpole in his novel Cakes and Ale and it is said ruined the man’s reputation in the process. Seeing as I had never heard of Walpole my ignorance could be accounted for by this pasquinade which turned a successful writer into a footnote. The parsimonious explanation is merely ignorance. Alroy dit Roy Kear is the assiduous networker, a type which anyone with the slightest acquaintance with literary circles will recognise. There may and probably should be many more such characters in fiction, Lady Carbury in Trollope’s The Way we are Now is one. However it is only those established authors who feel their reputation is secure dip their nib in the witches hat.

The portrait of Roy Kear is etched with acid on the elegant burnished copper of Maugham’s prose.

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

That is the beginning of so many ink laden jabs that a tattoo is drawn on the Knight’s posterior. Cakes and Ale was published in 1930 and only in 1942 in the posthumous The Killer and the Slain does Walpole reply. Of that curious work of macabre genius more anon.

Addendum 7/9/13: Selena Hastings has a post about the Kear/Walpole slag:alroy maugham


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