“Theatre” by W. Somerset Maugham

A couple of years ago my father mentioned “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham as one of his favourite books. His recommendation was, of course, good — I’m quite taken by that book. Well, since I liked that one so, time to get another. I picked up a bunch of Maugham books in hardcover at a secondhand bookstore and just finished the first of those last night.

“Theatre” is an odd book. Most of the way through, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly enamoured by it. It lacked the style and gravitas of Razor’s Edge that I so enjoyed; indeed, three paragraphs into the novel comes the phrase:

With the experienced actress’s instinct to fit the gesture to the word, by a movement of her neat hand she indicated the room through which she had just passed.

This is the kind of writing I abhor; not because of the old-fashioned wordy style (which does take a little getting used to — Maugham wrote many many books back in the early–mid 1900s). Rather, it’s the explicitness of the description that gets my goat. It’s probably the easiest way to spot the terrible writing in books like “Di Vinci Code” — everything is spelled out in excruciatingly unnecessary detail. (Note it's the ‘unnecessary’ there that's key word; I do like books that have lots of words.)

But Maugham isn’t a bad writer. As the novel progressed, it turned out that these passages reflected an inner dialogue of the main character, an ‘actress’ (that word’s not politically correct these days) who is self-centred and shallow; while we do empathise with her emotions, the writing style is almost a parody of her self-view and re-inforces her vapid interpretation of the world.

As the book progresses, we are slowly treated to some outside interpretation of who this woman is, and their points of view jars or even contradicts with what we’ve learnt through her eyes. So to dismiss this book early would be a mistake, because it’s only over time that the writing style reveals itself as a device to give insight on the character followed by the story. By the very end, her own plot lines (in her world) have been satisfactorily resolved while the insight on her character has completed its descent from grace to emptiness. Or is it us all who are empty and meaningless?