"It is said to be one of his finest books, and "one of the most interesting". Selina Hastings in her biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham goes on, "In it he engages with the three topics which always most fascinated him, sexual passion, the mores of society and the nature of goodness, in this case as illustrated by the division between the material and spiritual worlds .... From publication the book made an enormous impact. There were many adulatory reviews - 'sheer delight' said Cyril Connolly, 'Mr. Maugham's best novel since Cakes and Ale' - and sales were immense."
I can see why it got that adulation! I found this book so interesting - elegant, intelligent, what might be seen as a 'difficult' subject handled with respect and balance, and Maugham's own part in the narrative as observer, recorder, confidant, occasionally guide and mentor, was a masterly stroke.
The story travels from America to France, from just after the First World War to many years later, and it concerns a young man, Larry Darrell and his spiritual quest. His wartime experiences have led him to abandon the conventional career path and marriage which were laid before him and which he was expected to take, to seek instead "a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that'll satisfy both his head and his heart." Larry is self-possessed, cordial, charming and serene, and in a journey across continents which takes him from manual labour to mysticism, meditation and contemplation, from study to selfless acts, we follow his progress with interest, and this reader for one cared about the outcome.
As Larry's counterpart in the world of material things we have Elliott Templeton with his outrageous snobbishness and his "absurd affectations", his Charvet underpants monogrammed and coronetted, his 'collected personages' to rival those claimed as intimates by Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate, his great wealth and essentially empty and trivial life. And Maugham weaves in and out between the two men, bumping into them in Paris or the south of France, getting news of them from friends and relatives, charting the undulations of their lives until the end when he deems it "a success story" in that everyone involved got what they wanted.
There were some sharp and lovely lines ("American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers", and a passage on Elliott's vision of heaven), and I thought the book's easy, relaxed pace and composed, urbane style carried the story beautifully.
How did you find it? What did you think?