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William Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965)

Having decided, in describing 20th Century Classics of English Literature, to write about writers whose output as a whole was not very distinguished, but who produced individual works of brilliance, I realize that I should deal with the other side of the coin too. Certainly there come to mind many writers of the inter war period who are memorable for their entire output even though one would be hard pressed to identify any particularly outstanding work.

The best known of these is probably Somerset Maugham, perhaps the most popular writer ever of short stories. And, even though most literary critics look down on his work, as being simplistic and superficial, it could certainly be argued that he deals with life and character in an interesting and illuminating way, instead of just aiming at thrilling or entertaining us. This is evident not only in his novels, of which he produced some that go well beyond being pot boilers, but also in many of his short stories.

I first came across him in one of the compendiums I bought one year for my prize books, in an attempt to get lots of value for the money given. This was a collection of stories of horror and mystery, and included Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, which has I think rightly been described as one of the most chilling of its sort. I believe there was also a Sherlock Holmes story about a snake, but I can remember nothing else about the book except the story by Somerset Maugham.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2010
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