A Writer’s Notebook
by Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook was first published in 1949, and though his work may have fallen out of fashion since then, in his time he was a literary light, outselling contemporaries like Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson. The Guardian called Maugham “the first superstar novelist.” At the age of twenty, his plays were hits on the West End and later on, the novels were bestsellers, including The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. This popular success seemed to raise doubts in the author, as Maugham once observed his gifts may have been a result of what he considered a talent for “the colloquial note.”
And yet, the entries in his Notebook are filled with keenly observed details. In the volume’s introduction, Maugham writes, “I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it.” Daily note-making, he goes on to say, is essential for distinguishing the striking impressions from the “incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye.” A practice that sharpens the eye, and the prose:
“When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place reality.”
The entries range widely, from proverb-like determinations, to authoritative pronouncements on the contemporaneous—on people, places, and things. There are longer entries too, meditations on ideas and events, such as Maugham’s refusal upon being asked to write on France for the French press, or his observation that American males have “acquaintances but few friends.”
There are longer entries, often a few pages in length—scenes realized in and of themselves, such as the one that begins, “The Secret Agent. He was a man of scarcely middle height, but very broad and sturdy…” Or a two page entry on Maugham’s experience of early reading, which includes the novels Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and the stories of Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov.
There are brief entries too. Maugham would have been right at home on Twitter, enlivening the feed the way Alain de Botton, Teju Cole and Joyce Carol Oates do. Fragments, ideas, observations, the Notebook has plenty, such as these stand-alone entries:
Radiant with health, like the persons of Venetian pictures in which the glory of living seems so comfortable a fact.
Each youth is like a child born in the night who sees the sun rise and thinks that yesterday never existed.
If it were possible decently to dissolve marriage during the first year not one in fifty couples would remain united.
Many of the entries are passages written to clarify the process of writing, with observations on inspiration, craft, and in Maugham’s case, the vagaries of success:
Readers do not know that the passage which they read in half an hour, in five minutes, has been evolved out of the heart’s blood of the author. The emotion which strikes them as “so true” he has lived through with nights of bitter tears.
At times, the language contains a certain mustiness of early-twentieth century British upper classes, but all the same, A Writer’s Notebook has advice, and entertainment, to offer. Randomly opening the book to any page is a virtual guarantee you’ll soon be immersed in the writer’s stream of thought:
…with Chekhov you do not seem to be reading stories at all…you might think that anyone could write them, but for the fact that nobody does.
The entries in this edition date from 1892, during the period Maugham trained as a medic in London, and run through 1944, the year his companion Gerald Haxton died, and to whom the book is dedicated.