A Writer's Notebook

A Writer's Notebook



The Pequod Review:

W. Somerset Maugham kept a journal throughout his life (from age 19 through his mid-70s) that recorded his social observations, travel adventures, literary enthusiasms, and writing methods. Published in 1949, A Writer's Notebook brings together selections from across these journals. The earlier entries from his young adulthood are of lesser quality:

A woman may be as wicked as she likes, but if she isn't pretty it won't do her much good.


People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.


I’m glad I don’t believe in God. When I look at the misery of the world and its bitterness I think no belief can be more ignoble.

But his later journals have some very good literary observations:

In Chekov... I discovered a spirit vastly to my liking. Here was a writer of real character, not a wild force like Dostoievsky, who amazes, inspires, terrifies and perplexes; but one with whom you could get on terms of intimacy. I felt that from him as from no other could be learned the secret of Russia. His range was great and his knowledge of life direct. He has been compared with Guy de Maupassant, but one would presume only by persons who have read neither. Guy de Maupassant is a clever story-teller, effective at his best — by which, of course, every writer has the right to be judged — but without much real relation to life. His better known stories interest you while you read them, but they are artificial so that they do not bear thinking of. The people are figures of the stage, and their tragedy exists only because they behave like puppets rather than like human beings. The outlook upon life which is their background is dull and vulgar. Guy de Maupassant had the soul of a well-fed bagman; his tears and his laughter smack of the commercial room in a provincial hotel. He is the son of Monsieur Homais. But with Chekov you do not seem to be reading stories at all. There is no obvious cleverness in them and you might think that anyone could write them, but for the fact that nobody does. The author has had an emotion and he is able so to put it into words that you receive it in your turn. You become his collaborator. You cannot use of Chekov’s stories the hackneyed expression of the slice of life, for a slice is a piece cut off and that is exactly the impression you do not get when you read them; it is a scene seen through the fingers which you know continues this way and that though you only see a part of it.


The poverty of types in Russian fiction is rather surprising. You meet the same people, under a variety of names, not only in the works of the same author but in the works of others. Alyosha and Stavrogin are the two prominent and marked types. They seem to haunt the imagination of Russian writers, and it may be supposed that they represent the two sides of Russian character, the two persons whom every Russian feels more or less in himself. And it may be that it is the presence in him of these two irreconcilable selves which makes the Russian so unbalanced and so contradictory.

It is humour which discerns the infinite diversity of human beings, and if Russian novels offer only a restricted variety of types it is perhaps because they are singularly lacking in humour. In Russian fiction you will look in vain for wit and repartee, badinage, the rapier thrust of sarcasm, the intellectual refreshment of the epigram, or the lighthearted jest. Its irony is coarse and obvious. When a Russian laughs he laughs at people and not with them; and so the objects of his humour are the vapours of hysterical women, the outrageous clothes of the provincial, the antics of the inebriated. You cannot laugh with him for his laughter is a little ill-mannered. The humour of Dostoievsky is the humour of a bar loafer who ties a kettle to a dog’s tail.