Aspiring young writers of fiction wish to be stylish. For many of them style is more essential than content, perhaps more important than sincerity. They want their prose to be inimitable, like Conrad’s or Hemingway’s, so that readers might identify their authorship from a single paragraph. As a young man, I was certainly like that, even though fiction didn’t turn out to be my thing. And of course I preferred to read novels by writers who themselves had a pronounced style.
More than forty years ago, when reading Orwell’s collected essays, I came across an autobiographical note that the author had written in 1940. After listing his favourite modern writers – Joyce, Eliot and D. H. Lawrence – he declared that the one who had influenced him most was Somerset Maugham, whom he admired immensely ‘for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills’. Despite my respect for Orwell’s judgement, I was suspicious of that phrase about ‘frills’ – it suggested he was dismissing style – but I dutifully read some of Maugham’s novels and stories.
What disillusionment I felt! How could Orwell have admired a writer who described people in such banal language, how one man was ‘large and stoutish’ while another was big ‘but fat, with grey hair’; or a woman who was ‘shortish and stout’ and another who was ‘tallish . . . with a good deal of pale brown hair’? How did an author help convey a scene in the Tropics with the phrase ‘the sun beat fiercely’ or tell us much about China with the clichéd and portentous statement, ‘Here was the East, immemorial, dark and inscrutable.’ When I later read Maugham’s own assessment that he had ‘no lyrical quality’, ‘little gift of metaphor’ and ‘small power of imagination’, I felt that at least he possessed some self-awareness.
Some decades later I stayed a few days in Singapore. I was travelling from Perth, Scotland to Perth, Australia (rather a long way t
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