Writers About Themselves

Despite the sweeping success of the Animal Farm, George Orwell suspected his next book would become a failure. Throughout his life, he thought that each of his new undertakings was bound to fail. But Orwell’s fear was not a bad thing, since it drove him to do more and to continually struggle for success.

I am intrigued with famous writers’ lack of contentment when they describe their own successful lives. At eighty-one, Somerset Maugham said in an interview that he did not want his biography written, for his life was “bound to be dull,” and he did not want “to be associated with dullness.” But he never was. Among the most prolific and successful writers, Maugham had seen his plays simultaneously performed in London theaters; his novels, beginning with his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, were adapted into popular films. He had traveled the world to research his fiction and early on, during the Great War, even did some spying for the British. Throughout his literary career of over six decades Maugham did what he loved, saying that writing was “the most enthralling of human activities.”

Like Charles Strickland in The Moon and the Sixpence, who abruptly changes his career to become an artist, Maugham had left medicine upon discovering his true vocation. But unlike Strickland, who died in oblivion, Maugham enjoyed fame and popular success few serious writers ever achieve. However, it’s not usual for writers to make dismissive remarks about their lives and work. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy did just that. When writing The Idiot, his most original novel, Dostoevsky was continually disappointed with its execution and complained that he was implementing only one-tenth of his poetic idea.

One of the most successful writers of all times, Tolstoy, was perennially dissatisfied with his own character, life, and literary production. Later he made his self-dissatisfaction a virtue. According to Tolstoy’s philosophy, one should perennially strive for perfection––an idea that prevented him from celebrating his achievement at any stage. He was rarely content with his writing since it did not measure up to the ideal.

Tolstoy had said that an artist invests the best of himself into his work, “hence his writing is beautiful and his life is bad.” But upon achieving celebrity, he entirely dismissed his great literature, along with his vocation as a novelist. Among writers who had been critical of their own work Tolstoy’s remarks about his novels stand out as most ruthless. Can this be fathomed? This is the topic of my next post.

This post was inspired by Michael Shelden’s biography of Orwell and by Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.

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