Well crafted and beautifully descriptive (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Penguin Classics- this edition in 2007
Paperback- 224 pages
I must confess that the beginning of this novel dragged quite a bit. Though the writing style is abundantly lush, almost poetic in its vivid descriptions of Paris where the story abounds, the plot itself was pretty stagnant . This being a Maugham novel though (and a book about the occult at that), I determined to stick with it and in the end was rewarded with a satisfying read that had much more about it than I had anticipated.
The plot of the novel revolves around an English surgeon, Arthur, visiting his fiancée Margaret, who is studying in Paris. Arthur, whilst dining with his own mentor Dr Porhoët and a group of friends, encounters fellow Englishman Oliver Haddo, a self-proclaimed magician who rigidly insinuates himself into the heart of the group and eventually seduces Margaret right from under Arthur’s nose. What nobody realises is that Haddo has sinister plans of his own for Margaret that may endanger her life.
As I’ve said, the scene-setting in this story is wonderful. What begins as a rather languid introduction to the characters in the bohemian district of Paris slowly disintegrates into something sinister and occult, almost gothic horror in a sense. This journey is gradual and the readers are swept along for the ride, absorbing the levels of emotion and poignancy, as well as the dawning frightening aspects and the realisation that all is not what it seems.
The characterisation in this book is fantastic too and is made even better by the fact that self-important and thoroughly unlikeable ‘corpulent’ magician Oliver Haddo is based on a real-life acquaintance of the author, a man that he didn’t care for at all, by all accounts! In terms of the female characters though, I think one of my main issues with Maugham’s writing is something quite common of the time: his treatment of women as protagonists. In every Maugham book I have read so far (though there admittedly haven’t been loads of them) he either has a beautiful-yet-vacuous heroine, or a plain-yet-intelligent one- there seems to be no happy medium with him. It is as possible for a beautiful woman to be intelligent as well as a plain woman to be inordinately stupid, which is a factor he doesn’t seem to consider. Ho hum.
Minor sexist gripes aside, though this isn’t my favourite Maugham novel (that honour most definitely goes to ‘The Painted Veil’), once the pace picked up in this book I enjoyed it a lot. The ending was powerful and creepy, a lot more sinister than I had expected. I also loved the autobiographical notes included at the beginning of the edition, which cast aspersions on Maugham himself as an individual and were most amusing. I will definitely be reading the Maugham biography by Selina Hastings at some point in the future; my interest in Maugham’s life has been decidedly piqued!
If you haven’t read any of Maugham’s work before, then I probably wouldn’t recommend you start here; try The Painted Veil or Up At The Villa, first, just to get used to the authors loquacious writing style and detailed characterisations. I fortunately have some more Maugham books on my to be read pile which I will be picking up soon.