I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.
The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.
I’ve yet to meet a Maugham novel I haven’t liked; I probably enjoyed this one the least of the four I’ve read so far and I still found it overall excellent.
The Razor’s Edge is somewhat similar to The Moon and Sixpence, the previous novel on my Maugham reading list. It also features a first-person narrator – in this case, Maugham rather bizarrely inserts himself into the story – who observes the people drifting in and out of his life over the span of years. At the heart of the story, there’s yet another character who chooses an uncompromising and unorthodox life path. Here, it’s Larry Darrell, a young American who, at the start of the book, has returned a changed man after serving as an aviator in World War I. People around him, including his fiancée Isabel, are sympathetic, but they still expect him to engage in life and find a steady job that would support Isabel in a comfortable lifestyle she’s accustomed to. Larry however makes it clear that he has no interest in making money; his harrowing war experiences made him want to seek out the spiritual life and answers to the questions of God, life and death.
I’ve read three novels by Maugham so far and this one, which I believe is one of his best-known books, was my favourite. Based on the life of Paul Gaugin, The Moon and Sixpence is a study of an artist named Charles Strickland as seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who comes in contact with Strickland at various times in his life. When first introduced, Strickland, a banker in his forties with a wife, two kids and a comfortable life, doesn’t strike him as anything more than a conventional, decent middle-class bore. That changes when, out of a blue, Strickland abandons his family and leaves for Paris (then later Tahiti) – not for another woman, as his wife initially believes, but to be an artist.
Hornby novels for me are like pizza: when they’re good they’re great and when they’re not they’re still enjoyable and immensely readable. Luckily, in addition to being readable Funny Girl is really good. It starts off in 1960s, in the North West England town of Blackpool, where our heroine, Barbara, wins a beauty contest. She doesn’t remain crowned for long, however, as her life ambitions are rather much higher, and she relocates to London where she pursues a career in television. Barbara looks like a blond pin-up goddess, but what she really wants to do is make people laugh and be Britain’s answer to her hero, Lucille Ball. With talent and luck on her side, she changes her name to Sophie and lands the lead role in a domestic sitcom, which she comes to dominate so completely that the show adopts the name Barbara (and Jim). Needless to say, the sitcom is a huge hit. Even though Barbara/Sophie is set up to be the heroine of the book, it devotes almost as much attention to the team behind the show, particularly the writing duo of Bill and Tony, and the different ways they deal with the success of their sitcom and their own sexuality (the novel takes place before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK). How long can Barbara (and Jim) stay on top, before the inevitable decline sets in?