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  • Christine Cohen Park

Slushpile Odyssey 3 - Three Rules

Updated: Mar 24

‘There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately no one knows what they are,’ Somerset Maugham is credited with saying. Maugham was on my mind last week.

What do other writers do to distract themselves when waiting to hear from an agent? My partner John and I, and some friends of ours, picked up a Black Friday deal for a week in a hotel in Nice. The temperature was on average 16-17 degrees. The sea was that brilliant blue of the Côte d’ Azur, five days out of seven the sun shone – there is nothing like sunshine for boosting one’s endorphins. Maugham must have known that when he settled in nearby Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in the 1920’s and remained there for forty years until his death in 1965.

One day I persuaded the others to join me on an expedition to find Maugham’s famed house, Villa La Mauresque, 52 Rue General de Gaulle. It should have been easy but the road winds round the rugged peninsular that forms Cap Ferrat, and Google was misleading. We did a lot of climbing on unmarked lanes with fabulous houses to left and right. When one of our party flagged, we got her a lift from a passing car whose stylishly dressed female driver claimed to know Maugham’s house. Alli was driven off, waving cheerily, not to be seen and no answer to our texts for the next thirty minutes. Had she been kidnapped? After several wrong turns, eventually we found her waiting at the famed wrought iron gates to Villa La Mauresque with their Moorish ‘Hand of Fatima’ to ward off the evil eye.

Behind the gates there is little to reward these days, not even the narrowest glimpse of the setting of the naked swimming-pool parties, sumptuous hospitality, and risqué life-style that feature in Maugham biographies. The French Riviera is ‘a sunny place for shady people’ he wrote. Villa La Mauresque is presently owned by a Ukrainian oligarch and unlike many of its neighbours is hidden so successfully behind high hedges and railings that not even the slightest glimpse of the front garden or imposing façade is possible. You can’t even make out the view of the coast that the house must have commanded.

After the minor satisfaction of discovering Maugham’s name on the street sign opposite we settled for a coastal walk around the peninsula to Beaulieu, and a lunch of cheese, baguette and apples in the sun on the rocks below. So for other writers on a similar trail, let me tell you; not much will be yielded up.

When I was in my twenties Somerset Maugham was all the rage. I read avidly through the volumes of his short stories, plus his novels, The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, and more. His stories were exceptionally well-crafted, satisfying at the time, with their clear linear drive towards often surprise endings. From Villa La Mauresque he observed human quirks and foibles with a shrewd eye. He sought to entertain rather than shift or trouble. And entertain he did in buckets. Seventy years after his death he is out of fashion, we want different qualities from our writers, and many people who now live or work on Cap Ferrat have never heard of him, it seems. We’d engaged with several, to be met with blank faces before encountering one woman who had. Her eyes had lit up at the mention of Maugham’s name.

As I walked around the Cap that day I wondered whether she might also once have been absorbed in the fate of poor Kitty in The Painted Veil taken by her doctor husband to repent her adultery in a town ravaged by typhoid, or experienced a similar surge of delight, when the woman protagonist in his short story Jane, married to a younger man, defies all the predictions of her gossipy friends that she will be eventually be left, but instead finds her own agency. A word that wouldn’t have been used, then. But goes to show, doesn’t it, how forward-looking in some ways Maugham was.

The week over, we fly back to England to light rain – back to the dull greyness that Maugham was escaping from when he moved to the South of France. Back home where thoughts of agents reading (or not reading) my opening chapters are harder to dispel. And I’d be interested to hear what devices other writers in a similar position employ to distract themselves from the imponderable silences, the waiting game.

Somerset Maugham was right of course about the rules of writing. They are flexible, constantly changing, to reflect the times. We have to find our own, I take him to be saying, maybe in response to some bothersome young writer plying him with questions – don’t come to me for advice. As for me, I think with Bye Bye Apartheid Road I’ve written something strong, something pertinent: that my central protagonist, Vi, is a kind of Kitty, in a more complex, fragmented world, with different fears and different moral values to negotiate it with, but the human heart at its core would recognise some kinship…

They say age is not for the faint-hearted (and this is not a Somerset Maugham quote). I’d add, neither is waiting for submission responses. But it only takes one: to start with. That’s what I’m hanging onto.


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