The time bomb went off at last. Decades of wary plotting and carefully keeping the world at arm's length exploded. As Gore Vidal has noted, Maugham built his own monument — and then blew it up. He published "Looking Back," a vicious, ill-advised memoir, and slid into Alzheimer's. Nothing grates like hate, and by the time Maugham died soon thereafter, in 1965 at age 91, the world had changed its view of the grandest of grand, old literary men. The man who had known "everyone, from Henry James to Winston Churchill, from Dorothy Parker to D.H. Lawrence" came to his sad end, raving like King Lear.
Hastings (unlike Ted Morgan in his 1980 hatchet job) doesn't gloat over the decline, even while smacking the reader with its full horror. She's also good on the happier era of Maugham's ascent, and she places due emphasis on the genesis of Maugham's masterpieces, the bildungsroman "Of Human Bondage" and "Cakes and Ale," in which Maugham perpetrated an act of betrayal that would have shocked even James, and, as the critic Logan Pearsall Smith said, thrust in "the red hot poker that killed Hugh Walpole."
Walpole, a minor English novelist, had been Maugham's friend, but that cut no ice. Maugham was ruthless with himself and others when it came to writing. Great stylist he wasn't, but his devotion to craft and mastery of narrative cunning were complete. The best of his work lasts, and new generations of readers go on to discover it — even the deliriously daft "The Razor's Edge," a story about the quest for ultimate meaning (Maugham believed there was none), still has a romantic appeal.
Another great English writer, Christopher Isherwood, described Maugham as "an old Gladstone bag, covered with labels. God knows what's inside." Hastings may not have unlocked all of Maugham's secrets, and she can't always make us like him, but she offers the most intimate, persuasive glimpse inside the old bag thus far.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age."