Posted by: saket71 | December 27, 2010

Book Review- The Summing Up- W. Somerset Maugham

Is it not amazing that precisely at the time when you start believing in the childish notion of knowing all there is to know, like a bolt from the sky, awakening descends on you, as you suddenly find yourself, ignorant, devoid of any knowledge. The good part is that this revelation is not particularly embarrassing or demeaning, rather you feel elevated and enlightened with the understanding of your own smallness. Reading “The Summing Up” by W. Somerset Maugham was one such moment of revelation. I am just through with getting my book of philosophical essays published, and while I would take all the praise which would come from friends with a pinch of salt and sincere humility, a little strike of wickedness, allowed me to secretly feel happy with the praise. But that was till I came across this book, which once I picked up and finished reading, left me dwarfed and happy at the same time, in the backdrop of the greatness of the author. The book is autobiographical in nature, although, Maugham in the book itself, waves off any suggestion of auto-biographic nature as he starts the book with the statement “this is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. So there are no controversial chapters, with people casting aspersions on the truthfulness of the accounts, but the author more than makes up for the juicy gossips, with a rare sincerity and razor-sharp honesty as he with disarming simplicity says ” I have no desire to lay bare my heart, and I put limits to the intimacy that I wish the reader to enter upon with me. and says “There are matters on which I am content to maintain my privacy”. Here is a writer who seems to be supremely confident in the quality of his writing to be strong enough to arouse enough interest in the readers, without leaning on the “Juicier chapter and racy content” to bind the interest. Although he does demonstrate a degree of disenchantment as he says “Everything I say is merely an opinion of my own.The reader can take it or leave it” or when he says “I do not much care if people agree with me. Of course I think I am right, Otherwise I should not think as I do, and they are wrong, but it does not offend me that they should be wrong. Nor does it greatly disturb me to discover that my judgement is at variance with that of the majority.” Despite the disclaimers to its autobiographical nature that Maugham has spread through the book, there is no denying that the book is absolutely autobiographical in nature although it stays confined to the limited area of author’s life that is the part which deals with him as a professional writer. Although the book briefly touches upon Maugham’s childhood and ancestry, it essentially examines the impact it might or might not have on his writing skills and style.  The effort that the author makes to keep the book simple and honest are mighty obvious, still the depth of Maugham in terms of literature results in gems entailing profound life truths slipping through fingers, and noticeable all across the book like “There is only one thing about which I am certain, and this is that there is very little about which one can be certain” or ” Perfection has one great defect, it is apt to be dull.” or when he says ” Most people have a furious itch to talk about themselves and are restrained only by discinclination of others to listen.” “You can get a great deal of entertainment out of tedious people if you keep your head. “The Value of culture is its effect on character. It avails nothing unless it ennobles and strengthens.” is one such jewel, towards the last few chapter as he dwells on his interest in writings of philosophers like Kant and Neitzsche, the book moves to a completely different plane as he ponders over intricate and complex subjects like the meaning of life and comes with great statements like “I was taught that we lived in the presence of God and that the chief business of man was to save his soul.” But apart from the profound truths which the author cleverly hides in the fabric of the book, it is his struggles in being a writer which makes the book a great read for anyone who seriously wants to take writing as a profession. As he speaks about multiple iterations he put his work through to get the right word and structure, his efforts to enhance the vocabulary, and his deep interest in reading as a way to enhance and improve on his own writings, is something, which makes me believe, that if I were the person finalizing the curriculum for creative writing, I should seriously make this book a mandatory reading. And above all, summing up, which it opens your eyes to the fact that writing is not a profession of idle men (and women), it needs a great degree of devotion and commitment to be a decent writer, and in the process, as Maugham would do with his novels like “Of Human Bondage” he secretly passes the keys to be better human being in your hands, without your realizing it, unless you are watchful enough.

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