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Somerset Maugham herbesoek

Voorheen het ek oor William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) geskryf deur veral na sy The summing up (1938) te verwys (SêNet, 17.07.2012). In daardie werk het hy sy ses dekades terugskouend betrag. 'n Belangrike aanvulling van hierdie teks is A writer's note-book: memories and thoughts (London: Vintage, 1949/2001), wat 'n dekade later gepubliseer is as terugskouend oor sy sewe dekades. Jules Renard (1864-1910) se joernaal het as vormgewende model of inspirasie gedien. Maugham het sy notas teruggesnoei tot die lengte van 'n roman. Daarin kom die aantekeninge voor wat hy toe nog nie as grondstof vir publikasie gebruik het nie.

Wat opval, is dat Maugham se opvattings in sy sewende dekade nie verander het nie. Hy kom steeds oor as 'n ewewigtige en rasionele mens wat sin in die lewe en in sy lewe en skryfwerk probeer vind. Maar Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) het, soos die vorige keer deur my berig, aangetoon dat Maughan minder voorbeeldig gelewe het as wat uit sy skryfwerk blyk. Maugham se skrywersnotas, van 1892 tot 1944, is ook nie so interessant soos sy 1938-samevatting nie. Byvoorbeeld, Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) se dagboeke (SêNet, 10.09.2012-14.09.2012) is van 'n heeltemal ander aard, meer omvattend en baie interessanter.

Aanvanklik is Maugham se aantekeninge van 'n feitelike aard, bv beskrywings van die plekke wat hy as jong mens besoek het, insluitende die natuur en weer: Suidsee-eilande in die Stille Oseaan, Indonesië, Wes-Indiese eilande en Indië: Wat is die verskil tussen die Bengal Club in Kalkutta en die Yacht Club in Bombaai? "In the Bengal Club ... they don't allow dogs or Indians, but in the Yacht Club ... they don't mind dogs; it's only Indians they don't allow" (Kindle 4496). Later skryf hy vergelykend oor die VSA, Engeland en Frankryk. In sy vroegste notas is daar ellelange beskrywings van mense, veral hulle gesigte en kleredrag, sonder dat die outeur daarin slaag om duidelike beelde by hierdie leser te wek. Later erken hy: "I do not believe that the reader gets any clear impression" (K 3948). Foto's van die plekke en mense sou beter in hierdie doel geslaag het, maar toentertyd was dit natuurlik nie maklik om foto's te neem nie.

In die vroeë inskrywings is daar geen aanduiding dat hier 'n skrywer aan die woord is wat later internasionaal roem sou verwerf nie. Dit het my laat dink aan Henri Matisse (1869-1954) wie se werke aan die begin soos dié van baie ander skilders gelyk het. Maugham beklemtoon tereg dat om sukses te behaal 'n skrywer sy eie stem moet vind. In hierdie sin word kunstenaars nie gebore nie; hulle word kunstenaars deur inspanning. "Self-complacency is the death of the artist" (K 5344).

Maugham het feitelike inligting as boumateriaal vir sy fiksie bymekaar gemaak. Sy notaboek was "a storehouse of materials for future use" (K 226). Hy het van vroeg af geweet dat feite met verbeelding aangevul moet word om geslaagde fiksie te skep. Hy het ook met elementêre lewensvrae, bv etiese kwessies, geworstel. Mettertyd het hy, danksy uitgebreide leeswerk in die wysbegeerte, groter duidelikheid gekry oor wat hy dink en hoe hy die werklikheid verstaan. Nog 'n strategie wat tot sy vorming as skrywer bygedra het, is dat Maugham die werk van ander skrywers ontleed het, bv dié van Matthew Arnold (1822-1888): "It is clear, simple and precise" (K 1191).

Van die natuur en die voorkoms van mense verskuif Maugham se aandag na die waardes (en dus die karakter) van mense: "The most neglected and the most significant of all the arts, the art of life" (K 4169). Met die oog hierop het hy bv gevangenes en mynwerkers besoek. Volgens Maugham kan 'n skrywer nie slaag as hy nie mense en dus die lewe ken nie. Dit is wat met die werk van bv Henry James (1843-1916, SêNet, 15.11.2012) skort: "He did not live, he observed life from a window" (K 4354). "Really to know men you must be interested in them for their own sake rather than for yours, so that you care for what they say just because they say it" (K 3942).

Hier en daar is daar treffende formulerings, veral vergelykings. "Banana leaves. They have a kind of battered beauty like a lovely woman in rags" (K 2003). "He is knotted and gnarled like a very old tree" (K 2055). "The lagoon ... looked like the inside of a Stilton cheese all eaten away except the rind" (K 2109). "You surmise a charming, good-natured fellow, with not an atom of harm in him" (K 2187). "The greatest writers can see through a brick wall" (K 2567). Oor 'n ongeïdentifiseerde werk: "It might have been written at the menopause by the virgin daughter of a clergyman" (K 2721). Oor Turgenev: "To read him is like travelling by river, a calm and steady transit, without adventure or emotion" (K 2788). "On the horizon was a row of white clouds ... They looked like a row of ballet girls dressed in white, waiting at the back of the stage, alert and merry, for the curtain to go up" (K 3242). "He has recently married again, a handsome Belfast girl of the barmaid type" (K 3831). "The areca trees ... had the gaunt beauty of a syllogism" (K 3844). Oor die guillotine: "To make sure that it will work well a banana stem is used for practice because it is of the same thickness as a man's neck" (K 4303).

In die Suidsee, op Haïti, het Maugham in 1916 die huis besoek waarin Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) eens gewoon het. Daar was van sy skilderye op die deure en Maugham het een van hierdie deure vir 200 frank gekoop en die skildery uitgesaag sodat hy dit makliker kon vervoer. Sy boek, The moon and sixpence (1919), is losweg op Gauguin se lewe gebaseer. In 1917 het hy Rusland besoek en tot die gevolgtrekking gekom dat daar net enkele groot Russiese skrywers is: "Pushkin ... Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky ... Chekov" (K 2538). "It is singular that the Russians who occupy themselves so much with questions of man's destiny and the meaning of the world should have so little talent for metaphysical discussion. They have produced no philosopher even of the second rank" (K 2709).

"One fusses about style. One tries to write better. One takes pains to be simple, clear and succinct. One aims at rhythm and balance. One reads a sentence aloud to see that it sounds well. One sweats one's guts out. The fact remains that the four greatest novelists the world has ever known, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky, wrote their respective languages very indifferently. It proves that if you can tell stories, create character, devise incidents, and if you have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write. All the same it's better to write well than ill" (K 5111).

Maugham kom tot dieselfde gevolgtrekking as sy mede-ateïs Christopher Hitchens (SêNet, 18.01.2013): "I have never found that suffering improves the character. Its influence to refine and ennoble is a myth. The first effect of suffering is to make people narrow. They grow self-centred" (K 2641). "Suffering depresses the vitality. It coarsens the moral fibre rather than refines it" (K 2647). Maugham klink ook soos Hitchens as hy oor God skryf: "They ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to him and I don't know what else; it seems to me strange that they never credit him with common-sense or allow him tolerance" (K 5496).

Ten slotte een van Maugham se ongebruikte stories. "The Dying Poet. He was so ill that the friend who was taking care of him felt he should telegraph for his wife. She was a painter of sorts and had gone to London for a one-man show she was giving in a minor gallery. When he told the sick man that he had sent for her, he was angry. 'Why couldn't you let me die in peace?' he cried. Someone had sent him a basket of peaches. 'The first thing she'll do on getting here is to take the best peach in the basket and while she eats it she'll talk of herself and the success she's had in London.' The friend went to fetch her at the station and brought her to the apartment. 'Oh, Francesco, Francesco,' she cried, as she swept into the room. His name was Francis, but she always called him Francesco. 'How terrible! Oh, what beautiful peaches. Who sent you them?' She chose one and dug her teeth into the juicy flesh. 'The private view. Everyone was there that one's ever heard of. An enormous success. Everyone admired the pictures. I was surrounded with people. They all said I had real talent.' She went on and on. At last the friend told her that it was late and she must let her husband go to sleep. 'I'm absolutely exhausted,' she cried. 'Such a journey. I had to sit up all night. It was horrible.' She went to the bedside to kiss the sick man. He turned his face away" (K 4169).

Johannes Comestor


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