On this latest trip to Thailand I brought light reading with me—light in content and light in weight. My baggage allowance, the minimum on a budget airline, did not allow for more books. (Or more anything.) So I brought only my Kindle and a friend’s copy of The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham. I thought these would do for a couple of weeks, most of which I knew anyway would be spent not reading.
Anyway, there’s a very interesting interview with Maugham at the end of this book, edited by the late Peter Burton, which my friend recommended I check out. So I did. I have not yet actually read any of the stories—I have been reading at the pace of someone in a deck chair on the shores of west coast Phuket (very lazily and distractedly, that is to say)—but the interview, I found, is worth missing eye candy at the beach for. Maugham talks about his renowned uncle, W. Somerset, whose writerly footsteps he followed, and in whose shadows, whether he liked it or not, the younger Maugham grew up. On when he first became aware that “Willie” was gay, he says, “I went to Vienna to study the piano, in between leaving Eton and going up to Cambridge, and there I suddenly found that Willie was famous. Then of course his secretary and beloved friend Gerald Haxton came out and tried to seduce me. So long before I went to Cambridge I knew all about it. I mean...about them.”
Meanwhile, asked by Burton on whether his own relationships have been easy or difficult, Maugham says, “You see, a writer is in an awfully difficult position, because he’s got to work alone, except in very rare cases of book collaboration, and loneliness is occupational—is the occupational disease—sorry, disadvantage, of a writer. A writer’s...yes, occupational disadvantage is loneliness, and if you take Willie, for instance, he built himself a writing room on the top of the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat—a kind of ivory tower you might say.... You couldn’t get to it except up a small passage and by walking across the roof. He would withdraw there. He’d even blocked out the view across Villefranche Bay, blocked it out so that nothing should disturb his concentration.... He’d come down for a cocktail before lunch. But when he was in the middle of a book he admitted that the characters which he was describing were more real than the characters of real life around him. And this, of course, didn’t make for a happy life with his companion and lover Gerald Haxton, who couldn’t help resenting the fact that he played only a peripheral part in Willie’s life. The essential part was Willie’s writing and although in his way he loved Gerald desperately, he couldn’t give all of himself to Gerald because he had to reserve the most important part for his work.”
I wouldn’t say I believe this to be true—that writers are, or could be, bad lovers—or at least I wouldn’t admit so readily that I believe this to be true. It can’t be! But I know that it could be. My own relationships have so far been difficult. That’s why I remain open that writing may not be for me—that this loneliness, this occupational disadvantage, is not permanent, after all—although I frankly cannot imagine doing anything else but write, if only because I am worse at everything else.
Anyway, the one other thing I just finished reading is a poem: Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It is a strange thing to be reading a—well, a “prison poem” on an island with beautiful views of sea and infinite sky. But there you go. Below you’ll find a passage that I have since been trying to memorize. Though the context is different, it’s reminiscent, I think, of the line, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing...” See what I mean:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.