If there is a novelist working in the English language who can hold a candle to Somerset Maugham I sure as heck haven't encountered him or her. Nobody tells a story quite like the master. Whoosh! A hundred pages simply fly by. And that style, so simple yet so fluid. How the heck does he do it?
Theatre is Maugham at his very best. The story of fading actress Julia Lambert and all her insecurities has the author drawing upon all his considerable talent. As England's greatest actress embarks on an affair with a young man half her age a riveting drama develops whereby Maugham delights in teasing the reader: when exactly is the consummate actress being herself or one of the many characters she brings to life on the stage?
Marriage to actor-manager Michael, 'the most handsomest man in London' is not nearly enough for Julia; nor is professional success and acclaim. Soon enough the awkward Tom arrives on the scene, flattering the ego of the older diva. As ever, Maugham effortlessly weaves his magic to create a harrowing tale of human fragility and desire.
At the centre of the novel is the portrayal of a staid marriage. Julia and Michael are opposite in just about every conceivable way, especially in terms of temperament. Julia's romantic, energetic, flirty nature contrasts sharply with her husband's pragmatism. The result is a lacklustre relationship. Deft as ever Maugham paints his canvas with exquisite brush strokes.
Like any great artist, the author injects laughter at just the right moments. Evie, Julia's cockney personal assistant provides plenty of light relief when bantering with her sometimes haughty mistress.
But it is Julia's propensity for self-destruction where this novel proves particularly addictive. Not above a quick fumble with strangers, Maugham revels in creating a woman who may be sexually liberated but who is most certainly emotionally repressed. Indeed, Julia Lambert is arguably one of English literature's most enigmatic characters.
Her affair with the ardent Tom goes through several stages from initial encounter through to obsession, despair and finally indifference. Ever the actress Julia retains her equanimity throughout. This allows Maugham to dwell on the psychological aspect of her character, to present her innermost thoughts and feelings - a literary tour de force of characterisation.
Getting into Julia's mind is a privilege. The reader is able to fully empathise with her; we understand her boredom with Michael and the thrill of her liaison with Tom. It makes for a fascinating journey of discovery.
Is Maugham's heroine a cold-hearted bitch or just a woman searching for her own identity in a world in which she plays multitude roles on and off the stage? Maugham doesn't say. Having escorted us to our ringside seat with impeccable manners, the author leaves us there to make up our own mind.
Incredible as it seems, nowadays Somerset Maugham is barely read which means modern readers may never enjoy classics such as Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale, The Magician, Up at the Villa, The Razor’s Edge and others. Certainly, in my days of teaching English Literature I don’t recall seeing a single title of his on the syllabus yet in his day Maugham was the most widely-read novelist in the world.
If you haven’t ever read Willie Somerset Maugham then I envy you: pleasure awaits. For those of us who have read the Maugham canon we can at least console ourselves with re-reading the master over and over again.