Sunday 8 April 2018

Ten Novels and Their Authors by Somerset Maugham

I'm an admirer of the writing of Somerset Maugham, as I've mentioned before. Plus I'm always a sucker for top-ten type lists. But what really clinched this book for me was the cover art — it's part of the Penguin series with ravishing still-life photographs by the great Harri Peccinotti.

Once I'd finished admiring the cover, though, I got down to considering Maugham's list of "the ten best novels in the world". Here they are:

Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace.

Okay, so what do I think of this list? Well, I've only read Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice. Tom Jones is a bit vague, I admit. In fact, am I thinking of Joseph Andrews instead of Tom Jones?

All right — let's say I've definitely read three out of ten. And Madame Bovary is an absolute masterpiece. I was stunned by how modern and vivid and gripping it was. It read like a 20th Century noir novel — something by James M. Cain perhaps, with its character in the grip of a ruinous passion. But far better written than Cain.

Pride and Prejudice I regard with a sort of mild fondness. I remember being impressed that Austen's prose sometimes recalled Raymond Chandler's in its succinctly evocative descriptions.

Moby Dick was an experience I don't want to repeat. I got through it, but it was a long, hard slog.

Of the ones on Somerset Maugham's list that I haven't read, I'm in no hurry to get to David Copperfield. Hard Times made me wary of Dickens. Wuthering Heights I took a crack at once, and maybe I'll try again...

The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace are unlikely because I've got this thing about Russian novels... the characters have too many god-damned names, which are used indiscriminately and interchangeably. I can never keep track of who they're talking about.

But War and Peace has the Napoleonic wars going for it. So maybe...

That leaves the French novels. I'm such a chump I thought The Red and the Black was by Zola. But it's by Stendahl. And Le Père Goriot? What the hell is that? Ah, it's Balzac.

I might give that one a spin. I think of Balzac as being in the same school as Zola, and de Maupassant, whom I revere.

But what of Maugham's own book, about these ten novels? In his characteristically lucid introduction, he addresses  the obvious arguments about how any such list must be arbitrary and partial (in both senses of the word — incomplete and biased).

Then he says this astonishing thing:

"The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping"

Now, I suppose this explains why Moby Dick could make Maugham's list. Because for the all the brilliance of parts of that book, it's way too long and way too meandering.

But let me emphatically say two things here. 

If a book requires that you skip chunks of it to enjoy it — or worse yet, simply to manage to get through it — then it has no place on any list of the ten best. The books which do qualify are those which can be read, and enjoyed, in their entirety without skipping.

And, equally important, if you have skipped parts of a book you haven't read it. And you can't claim to have read it. You've only read a book if you've read every word.

I think both of these assertions are perfectly fair. 

But, to get back to Maugham and his introduction... 

It gets worse. Much worse. He goes on to say how, after reading his comments about skipping, an American publisher approached him with a proposal. Why not reissue the ten books on his list, with the cuts done already, by Maugham? In other words, abridge them, and give each one an introduction by Maugham. The old word butcher himself.

And, horrifyingly, Maugham didn't tell the guy to get lost. He thought it was a perfectly valid idea. "There is nothing reprehensible in cutting," he says.

Though he does at least concede,"I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as Pride and Prejudice, or from one so tightly constructed as Madam Bovary." 

"Some... will exclaim that it's a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece," he concludes.

Well I have to confess that I'm shocked, for that very reason. 

And I think considerably less of Maugham after reading that introduction.

(Image credits: The Penguin with beautiful Harri Peccinotti cover photo is scanned from my own copy. The Pan edition is from ABE. The green Heinemann hardcover is from My Maugham Collection, an interesting site which is well worth exploring. The other covers are from Good Reads.)


  1. Ahh. That reminds me of something that was fairly popular in America before and during my childhood: Reader's Digest Condensed Books. (Kinda like condensed soup or condensed milk - incomplete but it gives you the idea.) I guess abridgement was fairly widespread back then. I remember seeing some of them around my aunt's apartment when we went to visit her and wondering why someone would read an abridged book. Still they were inexpensive (4 or 5 books for the price of 1) and very popular, and having a known modern author be the one doing the abridging must've seemed like a great marketing ploy. Given his times, I think you can cut him a little slack on the abridged books front.

    Of that list, I've read only Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Pride and Prejudice.

    WH was assigned in high school but I did go back and read it on my own later, mostly because of Kate Bush's song. Having that as a touchstone in my mind got me thorugh the slower bits of the novel.

    DC was assigned in 7th grade and made me hate the works of Charles Dickens on principle. It almost killed my love of reading. Immediately afterward, though, our English teacher assigned a perfectly bad little science fiction novel (Deep Freeze, by H. Walter Whyte) with the purpose of showing us how inferior SF was ... and I rediscovered a love of reading and a new love: SF. (Not exactly what he intended, but it made me a lifelong reader, so I don't hold it against him.)

    Pride and Prejudice, I read after seeing a half dozen TV and movie adaptations, and it wasn't until I read it that I finally understood why so many women were swooning over Darcy. Nearly every filmed adaptation ignores his inner turmoil and assumes the viewer understands it. NOW, I get it.

    Since Madame Bovary was written in French and I can't read French, do you have a preferred English translation?

  2. First of all, apologies for a late reply. I know how annoying that is! Unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to get Blogger to alert me when someone adds a comment, so I end up catching these when I do my new post each week.

    The translation of Madame Bovary I read was a Penguin Modern Classics version by Alan Russell. Despite dating back to 1950, it was terrific.

    As for the Readers Digest condensed books, I remember them well — as I remember my aversion to them. A bit like having your food chewed for you, eh?

    I like your story about Kate Bush inspiring you to get through Wuthering Heights and I sympathise with your deep Dickens dislike!

    That was great about your English teacher's snobbery concerning science fiction backfiring. Poetic justice, I say.

    Many thanks indeed for reading, and commenting. And, again, sorry for the slow response.

  3. I find it interesting that Maugham abridged so many great novels and I'm curious to read them to see what he cut. I love Maugham and if anybody is going to abridge it should be him. Imagine if Hemingway had been approached instead. There would be have so much more cutting. I agree with Maugham that not all novels are good all the way through unless they're a very short novel. Certainly, "War and Peace" needs to be condensed. No question about that. However, I do have to say that I'm not interested in reading a condensed version of "Wuthering Heights".