Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Lotus Eater

How do you get over the fact that an artist doesn’t like his own work? How do you read When We Were Orphans when Kazuo Ishiguro himself thinks it was not particularly good? In view of this, it is actually irrelevant that you consider The Unconsoled a modern masterpiece and both The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go among the most affecting books ever written. But perhaps an artist should never judge his own work – after all, Martin Amis may still be in love with Yellow Dog.

Likewise, I could never take Somerset Maugham seriously. His humble admission that he is an average writer is as inexplicable as it is ridiculous. So much so that every time I began reading his books I felt them to be exactly that – agonizingly average. Whether it was his own statement or the actual quality of his writing that had this effect, I don't know. And does it really matter?.. 

And yet there’s always the small issue of “The Lotus Eater”, Maugham’s short story from 1935. In the middle of a decisively ‘good, not great’ set of his best fiction, this was something else. The writing was all the same. The setup was hardly a hoot. But when the story takes turn for the darker halfway through, it suddenly becomes one of the scariest things ever written. Maybe it was the age, my age, how can you ever tell, but the psychological blow was devastating. If ever Somerset Maugham proved himself wrong…