The critic I am waiting for is the one who will explain why, with all my faults, I have been read for so many years by so many people. —W. Somerset Maugham

“Four powers govern men: avarice, lust, fear, and snobbishness.” Somerset Maugham didn’t write that; Hilaire Belloc did. But Somerset Maugham, I think it fair to say, believed it. Avarice, lust, fear, and snobbishness are Maugham’s great subjects; they are everywhere in his work, as theme, as motive, as background. Small wonder that they would be, for the same dark quartet—avarice, lust, fear, and snobbishness—were also the four reigning qualities in Somerset Maugham’s own triumphant, lengthy, and finally rather sad life.

Cyril Connolly once called Somerset Maugham the “last of the great professional writers.” He meant it as an honorific. It has not always been taken that...


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