Maugham's ''Top 6 of faultless writers in English''?
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In the long history of our literature it would be difficult to find more than six persons who have written it faultlessly.
''It'' is of course the English language.
Now, Maugham would never have made such a statement, with an exact number, if he hadn't had six names in his mind; not untypically, he never mentions them.
I should love to hear suggestions from other members who these six writers who wrote faultless English might be. Or suggest your own such Top 6. Is it the same with your favourite authors Top 6? Should it be the same?
I surmise by ''our literature'' Maugham meant English literature only. No need to restrict us in this way, so American literature, or any other you may think of, is welcome as a source of faultless/favourite authors.
As somebody who is neither a native speaker in English, nor widely read at all, I would suspend my opinion, but would be most curious to read yours.
Pears, you certainly may. I assume this is your, not Maugham's, choice.
I should like to hear as many choices as possible, Maugham's or anybody else's. But it's good to make a difference between them.
Yes, for what it is worth, that is my suggestion.
I also doubt that Maugham would have thought of authors like Shakespeare, Pepys, and others of that ilk. To me, he (Maugham) have always struck me as very much "of his time" and so, for my own account, I can also suggest:
Indeed, in prima vista, I can't think of many writers of his time for whom Maugham had great respect; only Kipling and Proust come to mind. On the other hand, rarely if ever was he entirely dismissive of an author, even in the case of Henry James who is probably the one who got more black points from Maugham than anybody else.
I don't know about Pepys, but Maugham thought well enough of Shakespeare to flatly say once that everybody has to read his great plays; the latter of course non-specified.
I do not like Henry James either, so high five, William?
Pears, I ask you for several reasons. To begin with, I should have thought it obvious that the two lists - ''Ten Greatest Novels'' and ''Top 6 Faultless Writers in English - are completely different. Not to mention that such lists are nothing but a starting point. I could easily compile this Top 6 from what Maugham wrote in The Summing Up but it would be much better (hopefully) if this is done by somebody for whom Dryden, Hazlitt, Thackeray, Swift, Fielding, Trollope, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Jeremy Taylor, to name but a very few, are not just names but have been experienced intimately; it is no big deal if that one is not familiar with Maugham's opinions. But I ask you most of all because I hope to stimulate a beneficial discussion with intelligent people who have read much more than I have. Perhaps I am asking too much.
danielx, your comment raises one very interesting point, even though I don't remember Kipling among the Top Ten (but Maugham compiled a whole anthology of his short stories with a magnificent introduction so it is clear that he had the greatest respect for him). The aforementioned point is Maugham's controversial statement that the four greatest novelists the world has ever seen - which he incidentally names and only one of them (Dickens) wrote in English - actually wrote their respective languages pretty indifferently; I am doubtful that Maugham could judge adequately Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, for he apparently never read them in original, but that's another story.
I have never read Henry Fielding or Emily Bronte (two members of Top Ten), but from what Maugham tells me about them, I should think he wouldn't put them in the category of those with faultless English; nor, certainly, would he put there Dickens; probably, not Jane Austen either.
tros, I don't know that Maugham ever mentioned Graham Greene in any of his writings. But the fact that he didn't include a single piece of him in any of his anthologies strongly suggests that he most probably didn't think much of him. This is quite undestandable considering the several ridiculously superficial reviews Greene wrote of Maugham's books; some of them are rerpinted in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage and the Modern library 1999 edition of Of Human Bondage.
In case you're interested in the other two mammoth anthologies Maugham compiled (either of which is way bigger than Great Modern Reading), I have listed their contents on LibraryThing (with the vague intention to write reviews some day):
Traveller's Library (1933)
Tellers of Tales (1939)
Speaking of likes and dislikes, I was amused to read Maugham's comments in Great Modern Reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited," which is included in the anthology, and surprised somewhat to read his evaluation of Hemingway, which speaks directly to the subject matter of this thread as a whole:
"Here are some stories," Maugham begins one section of the collection, "by writers most of whom were born toward the end of the nineteenth century. Several were in the last war. I do not know how much their work was touched by it . . . but I think they were all, as is only natural, greatly affected by the period, generally described as hectic, that followed it and that was brought to an inglorious end by the great depression. Take Scott Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited' for example. I do not think it a very good story, for it is carelessly written and not quite convincing, but it offers a vivid picture of the time when young Americans, tempted by the favorable exchange and looking for something they thought they could not find at home, flocked to Paris and the Riviera. Not many of them profited by the experience. 'Babylon Revisited' shows very well what they sought in the capital of France and what they found there, and it is perhaps significant that of the two simple French phrases Fitzgerald used in his story he managed in one of them to make two gross mistakes.
"But it was not only literally that they looked upon the wine when it was red, these young men who went abroad; not few of them imbibed also of the strong wine of French culture, and its effects were perhaps not less harmful. They accepted the French at their own very absurd valuation of themselves, which was that outside France nothing of artistic value existed or could exist, and humbly put themselves to school at the feet of a number of very mediocre writers. Some went to pieces. The most talented bartered their native energy for a mannered stylization and a symbolism foreign to their temper. The only writer I can think of who benefited by contact with Europe is Ernest Hemingway. I have a notion that without it he would not have acquired the breadth of outlook and the sensitiveness to beauty that make him to my mind the most versatile and powerful writer of fiction in the English-speaking countries. I have a notion that except for that he might never have learned how to see and how to describe nature so precisely and so exquisitely that, though it must be fifteen years since I read The Sun Also Rises, I still remember with ravishment his pictures, so concise and apparently so causal, of the Spanish landscape."
Emphasis added by me.
I've always been dubious and uncertain where Fitzgerald and Hemingway are concerned (although I do like many of the former's short stories) so it is enlightening to hear the opinion of one whose judgement I regard very highly.
It's interesting how Maugham's views of some writers changed - or indeed didn't - in the ten years between 1933 and 1943. He still thought Aldous Huxley better as an essayist than as a novelist, for instance. Since Maugham never was especially keen on commenting about his contemporaries, such notes are priceless, including the repetitions about Henry James and Arnold Bennett.
As far as Fitzgerald and Hemingway are concerned, having read nothing of the latter, Maugham's praise is an excellent stimulus to change that, but having read only The Great Gatsby by the former, I have no burning desire to read more of him.
Some of Maugham's notes I have found especially memorable were those dedicated to poetry for which he obviously had a great passion. His tribute to T. S. Eliot makes me truly sorry that my knowledge of the language is far from good enough to read poetry - and probably it never will be. Here is one unforgettable, powerfully evocative paragraph:
I have a notion that there is a poetry that appeals rather to the head than to the heart, the poetry of Dryden, for instance, and a poetry that appeals to the heart rather than to the head, Verlaine, say; and I have no doubt that the greatest poetry of all appeals to both, and here, I suppose, the classic example would be the great speeches that Shakespeare put into the mouths of Hamlet and Othello. But to my mind there is another sort of poetry, one that appeals to what, knowing no other word to express what I mean, I must call the subconscious. There is a poetry that gives you the same sort of thrill, a strange primeval feeling, that you get when on a river in Borneo you hear the drums beating in a distant vilage, when you walk alone in those silent stealthy woods of South Carolina, or when in the jungle of Indo-China you come upon those vast, those colossal heads of Brahma that form the towers of a ruined temple.
Probably one of Maugham's harshest critical judgements was the one of D. H. Lawrence, yet it was not nearly as spiteful as the latter's review of Ashenden:
I have never thought Lawrence's stories very good. I find them formless and verbose. He also, it seems, needed elbow room to express that view of life that fascinated so many of his readers and that to others, myself included, seemed distorted. To my mind it was the view of a sick man of abnormal irritability, whose nature was warped by poverty and cankered with a rankling envy. He may have had a streak of genius; I don't know; I have a notion that he was a better than prose writer. He had a wonderful felicity for stringing words together, and you can go through his works and find sentence after sentence of ravishing beauty, but the general effect, to me at least, is lush and airless.
...a restless, nimble-witted philosopher, he writes with a lucidity that makes it easy to follow him even at his most abstruse. He is a proof that, however abstract your thought, if you know exactly what you mean you can say in such a way that every intelligent person can understand you. Methaphysics is a subject that I can always read with pleasure, but I wish modern philosophers would take a leaf out of Lord Russell's book and learn to express themselves with distinction.
Now I think I will edit my table of contents of Great Modern Reading here on LibraryThing to include these notes that, inexplicably, are omitted in the book's own table of contents.
(the tortoise) Oh yes---I certainly agree with your personal choice of an author (underrated) that writes beautifully and creates a riviting plot. Anne Bronte was not afraid to write about spousal and child abuse at a time in history when women were legally powerless with virtually no options in bad situations other than run and hope to survive by their own wits. Anne caught the full wrath of the critics of the day calling Tenant "coarse, morbid, brutal, gross, profligate", terms hardly applicaple today. The Tenant of Wilfeld Hall is a timely book completely overshadowed by Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre.
I doubt if Maugham read Tenant since I assume it drifted into obscurity until now.
My guess as to Maugham's (possible) choice for the 6 persons who have written faultlessly) based mainly on who, like Maugham, can tell a great tale with twists, turns, surprises and though-provoking situations are:
Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Cervantes, Fielding and Defoe.
My own personal 6 (similarly based) are: Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon (really!), Jane Austen, H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and E.M. Forster.
Waldstein's original question is quiet interesting. As I read the posts I am aware of how everyone's opinion of "faultless" writing (including my own) is so involved with personal taste.
Hooray for the critic in us all! s4sando
Meanwhile, if I had to make a list, I'd include Thomas Hardy, E.M. Forster, and Jane Austen (based on the one novel that I've read), and what the heck, Willie Maugham as well.
But . . . gulp, Donne is the only writer whom I think meets the criteria as I have interpreted it.
urania vanishes softly and suddenly away after her snarky evaluation.
1. John Updike (due to the timing of his death and the dementia leading up to it, I would imagine Maugham had little knowledge of this brilliant prose stylist)
2. Charlotte Bronte: I have regrettably not read the other Brontes (though s4sando's excellent opinion of Anne makes me want to sample her work) but I find myself mightily impressed by my current reading of JANE EYRE
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald (again, brilliant in his novels, but often frothy and superficial in his stories)
4. James Hilton: Though the author of LOST HORIZON and GOOD-BYE, MR. CHIPS did write his fair share of mediocre novels, when he was at his best, he was very good, indeed.
5. William Faulkner: this is probably the most controversial selection because Faulkner's prose, unlike the others listed, was anything but ordered and clear; his writing spoke to every part of consciousness, not just the intellect--and for his use of English to accomplish this, I must list him here.
6. W. Somerset Maugham: last, but certainly not least!
As for what I imagine Maugham's personal list to contain, I must, like the others, rely heavily on his ten best novels list (though a few, like Melville and Kipling, I don't think he admired primarily for their use of English).
1. Emily Bronte: if she wrote anything like her sister, she's a shoe-in.
2. Thomas Hardy
3. Henry Fielding
4. Jeremy Taylor: if I recall, the lesser known but much admired English cleric was well-regarded by a character in MERRY-GO-ROUND (Herbert or Basil, I think).
5. Jane Austen
6. W. Somerset Maugham: oddly, the controversial choice this time--but I feel that while Maugham was quite humble about his position among authors overall, he did value his skills as a prose stylist. No writer who doesn't would be this meticulous.
I have not yet found a case where he clearly praises a English writer's prose, although he is generous in praising such masters of the short story as Maupassant and Chekhov
I also think Urania's remark about the essayists (#25 again) a rather perceptive one. It is well known that Maugham greatly admired Hazlitt, and though his admiration for Charles Lamb was quite qualified, at his best he admired him too. In the same category as Mr Lamb fall also Dr Johnson and edward Gibbon, though here, I suspect, Maugham's attitude was more positive. Certainly, writers like Quincey, Carlyle, Meredith and Walter Pater would never find place in Maugham's Top 6. It's just a guess of mine, but I think Maugham didn't think any of his contemporaries worthy of this list; I am not even sure there were many nineteenth century writers in it.
In the essay Prose and Dr Tillotson from Points of View (1958), Maugham mentions that ''no one has written better English than these three distinguished authors, Dryden, Swift and Addison''. In the category ''ornate prose'' Maugham obviously admired a lot Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor, but only about the latter does he write more in the essay. These remarks are largely confirmed by The Summing Up where, interestingly, Maugham adds that even Sir Thomas Browne (except that he was a ''poet who lost his way'', as other writers of that epoch) did not always escape the most common pitfall of the ornate style, namely writing in it of inconsiderate things. Also in The Summing Up, Maugham expressed admiration for the style of Matthew Arnold. It might also be interesting to note that Maugham called the last chapter of Browne's Hydriotaphia ''a piece of prose that has never been surpassed in our literature.''
Needless to say, the above is based entirely on Maugham's writings, as my experience with all these writers is virtually nonexistent: I have read one essay by Hazlitt (somewhat mediocre stuff) and few chapters from Gibbon's Decline and Fall (perfectly enchanting). I wouldn't dare make a putative Top 6, but I'd love to read opinions about any of these writers by members who has some experience with them. It is hoped that the above might also be helpful for members with wider experience of English literature some insight into Maugham's mind.
Maugham's praise of Hemingway, for which I am grateful to Rocketjk, came as a great surprise to me as I had never read any opinion of Maugham on Hemingway before. I have read but one very short story by the latter and am willing to believe that it was a most unfortunate choice for the anthology in which I read it. Before reading this, I thought that the greatest praise Maugham ever conferred on a colleague is that of Kipling as pointed by Daniel (#28). Certainly the writer who was most criticised by Maugham was Henry James; Willie has repeatedly said things about him that I guess his fans would find rather nasty; but, then again, neither the fans of Henry James nor his scholars seem to care much about Maugham's opinions anyway.
sholofsky, thank you very much for your lists. It's a most fascinating experience to read your opinions of these writers.
2. John Dryden (for his immaculate diction and clarity)
3. Jonathan Swift (for his formidable satirical skill and ironic bite)
4. William Makepeace Thackeray (for his brilliantly sustained irony)
5. Jane Austen (for her beautifully structured syntax)
6. Robert Louis Stevenson (for his exquisite diction and impeccable syntax)
Other great stylists to Maugham's taste seem to be:
Poetry: 1. John Milton 2. Alexander Pope
Prose: Henry James 2. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Among his contempraries: 1. Vladimir Nabokov 2. Evelyn Waugh
He could never have liked these masters of prose and verse:
1. Mark Twain: who cared less for diction and more for humour and irony.
2. Joseph Conrad: who cared more for linguistic elaborateness and less for clarity.
3: Herman Melville: who was too serious and passionate for Maugham's liking.
4: John Ruskin: whose highly stylized prose occasionally marred the effectiveness of his profound insights by making them heavy and affected.
5: Bertrand Russell: because he was primarily a philosopher.
6: Henry Miller: because he was too explicit in his treatment of sex, and too cereberal in his dealing with mysticism.
7: Ernest Hemingway: whose understated and economical style occasionally made sentences creep.
8: James Joyce: whose love for experimentation with the language sometimes exceeded all boundaries of measure and sanity.
Note: Graham Greene was no prose stylist. He was either a moralist or a sensationalist. He seems to me an extension of joseph conrad. I greatly admire his art of description, but it is not the selection of the words, but the profundity of perception and keenness of observation that enabled him to describe so admirably.
Note: There have been few who have surpassed Thomas De Quincey's passionate prose style.
Note: To my humble understanding, William Shakespeare, the tranlators of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, and John Dryden are the greatest stylists of our English literary heritage.
Note: If Henry Fielding was a prose stylist than Laurence Sterne was as good a prose stylist as he. It is not diction that rendered aesthetic value to Mr. Fielding; it is sensuality and humor of the narrative than gave his prose such supreme delectability.
Note: Charles dickens' syntax was not without fault. He was indeed the greatest caricaturist of our language, but it is neither his diction nor his syntax that makes him supreme among the Victorian novelists. It is his immense powers of description, characterization, and plot construction that enabled him to exert so much influence.
Note: John Donne's vague diction and complex conceits make him difficult to fully comprehend and enjoy. Once you have become familiar with his style of versification, you are bound to consider him one of the greatest literary stylists of English language.