Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mmmm Maugham

Just finished up a double dose of W. Somerset Maugham and once again feel reaffirmed in the thought "Hard to go wrong with classics"! I covered both ends of the spectrum of his work, first reading The Magician, followed up by Theatre (didn't spell that wrong - Maugham was from England). The Magician is the story of Margaret who is engaged to be married when she and her fiance, Arthur, are introduced to Oliver Haddo, a mysterious, morbidly obese man claiming to be a magician. As the story progresses, the dark aura around Haddo grows and people begin to suspect there's more to him than being an average magician. At one gathering, Margaret's fiance gets in a scuffle with Haddo and hits him. While Haddo shakes off the incident at first, claiming he was out of line and deserved the hit, it becomes clear that he wants revenge. Haddo then goes on a mission to claim Margaret for himself through some sort of mind control. Margaret finds Haddo repulsive and yet finds herself unable to keep away from him. Slowly, she begins to lose all of her self will, succumbing to Haddo's bidding. At first it is suspected that Haddo did this only as vengence for being assaulted but it is later revealed he has much darker intentions.

The Magician is a very dark novel, with surprising moments of witty humor to keep it interesting, but with this book Maugham covers such heavy, and usually hush-hush material such as occultism, some possible dabbling with satanism with one character, and soul possession among other things.  It's almost as if Maugham took the story common among women of the guy they lost their head over and how it ruined their life and just amplified it 100 times, almost as if to say "Well at least he wasn't this guy!" In fact, in the foreward of The Magician (which on a sidenote I must say is one of the most entertaining forewards I have ever read), Maugham tells the story of how he met the infamous English occultist Aleister Crowley one night at a party and was so weirded out by him, found him so disagreeable, that he used Crowley as a sort of character study to create the novel's villian, Oliver Haddo. Maugham goes on to further explain that while he did not find the real-life Crowley to be anywhere near as villianous and grotesque as Haddo, the guy was weird enough to give him some ideas to run with. The tough thing with Haddo is that you want to hate him (and in the end you probably will) but while you are being repulsed, he says some things that are so biting and yet so funny that being in the moment you might say "Gotta give ya props on that.. that was good!" I felt sorry for all the characters in one way or another - except for Haddo - because everyone turned out to be the loser in situations at one point or another.  My one complaint with this story is that the ending felt a little too rushed and wrapped up, but then you see that a great deal with dark movies, don't you? It's like once all the gore and evil stops, the audience is suppose to stop caring about the aftermath, but I always wonder - how did they recover from that??

After the darkness of that novel, I thought I was heading into a breezy read with Theatre. While it was no dark thriller, it wasn't quite I would call "breezy". Theatre tells the story of Julia Lambert, a woman revered as one of the greatest stage actresses of her day, but beginning to "feel her age", being in her 40s and suddenly surrounded by up-and-coming talent. She also realizes that while she has a great husband and manager in Michael, she finds him boring. For reasons she never completely understood, she stopped being attracted to her husband after the birth of their son, Roger, often finding excuses to avoid having physical contact with him.  Michael thinks he lucked out, having a devoted wife but never having to worry about being romantic, but fast forward years later and that's exactly what Julia is wanting, just not from Michael. After some hesitation, she decides to start up an affair with a much younger man, who, oddly enough, Michael introduces to her! Julia finds all sorts of ways to get Michael to find work for her new lover, keep him around in a nearby flat, and somehow Michael never suspects anything. That part confused me... can someone be that oblivious or do they just not care enough to have it cross their minds? As you can imagine, Mr. Boy-Toy finds he doesn't quite like being "kept" quite as much as he thought he might and Julia's perfect little "have your cake and eat it too" world begins to crumble.  As she tries to hold one part together, other threads in her life show their frays and of course Julia damn near loses her mind over it all. Once Julia feels that she is being passed over for a younger woman, her behavior is classic "woman scorned" :)

A cover illustration for a 1960s edition of Theatre done by James Avati

The story was fun but Julia struck me as a bit spoiled and in desperate need of someone to remove her rose-colored glasses. Not only that, but she did some of the most absentee, phoned-in parenting I think I have ever seen in a novel. I don't know who raised their son, just seemed like he was born, he was a cute toddler and then he was in college, with no real interaction in between. Understandably, Roger has a few words to say about this towards the end of the story.

If for no other reason, Maugham's works are definitely worth a read just for the English wit factor, particularly because of his fondness for slipping it in when you least expect it. Below is the trailer for Being Julia, the movie adaptation of Theatre. Though the guy playing Roger is a little stiff and one note in his acting, the film is worth seeing mainly for the stunning performances from Annette Bening as Julia and Jeremy Irons as Michael.

Something else I stumbled upon regarding Maugham - check out the Somerset Maugham suite at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand:

Wondering why there is a hotel in Thailand naming a suite after an English author? Turns out that Maugham actually stayed and wrote at this particular hotel for some time, though from what I read, his room was quite a bit more modest, being made primarily of a table, a few wooden chairs and a bed covered in mosquito netting. If he could see the palace-like accommodations he's since inspired!