Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vulpes Libris’ All Time Greats: The Top Ten – Number 8.

At Number 8, from October 2007, one of our very earliest pieces – Leena’s review of W Somerset Maugham’s ‘Theatre’.

I saw István Szabó’s film Being Julia (2004) some time ago, but didn’t get round to reading the novel it was based on, Theatre (1937), until now. To be honest, the details of the film are a bit of a blur to me by now; but I did remember the main points of the plot well, and it didn’t diminish the pleasure of reading at all. Julia Lambert is an actress in her late forties, a grand diva of the stage, aging perhaps but still at the height of her powers. Unlike most actresses, she has always been very respectable; but for a long time now she and her husband have only been the best of friends. Enter a fan, a youth called Tom Fennell, young enough to be her son. He seduces her; she falls in love. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a scheming little git, but she can’t let her disappointment get the better of her – ‘being Julia’ is a twenty-four-hour bravura performance that allows for no lapses of concentration.

By contrast, the book is just as much about becoming Julia: in typical Maugham fashion, it opens in the ‘present’ moment, jumps back to the past, and works its way back to the present moment where the real story begins. The back story covers about a third of the novel, and is essential to a full understanding of Julia’s character; and yet as far as I can remember, it wasn’t (understandably?) referred to in the film at all.

So what is Julia Lambert? She is shrewd, vain, frivolous, not overly concerned with the difference between truth and lies, and rather vulgar on the inside; but even though we can see all her faults, there is a warmth and frankness about her character that makes her irresistible. Strangely enough, Maugham manages to bring her acting talent to life on the pages of the book. Julia beguiles us with her charm and vivacity as we see her beguile the people around her, and we can guess how beguiling she must be on stage.

In Tom, she doesn’t seem to seek her lost youth (‘If she were given the chance to go back again would she take it? No. . . . it was the power she felt in herself, her mastery over the medium, that thrilled her’) so much as the lost passion of youth. One gets the idea that Julia Lambert the actress may be stuck in a rut needs to be shaken up a bit; but will the feelings of Julia Lambert the woman do more harm than good? And so, the central relationship in the book turns out to be the one between art and life, a perennial Maugham theme. The real emotions take Julia by surprise, but at the same she is curiously detached from them. There is always something chilly about the heart of any true artist, as her teenaged son points out:

‘But where are you? If one stripped you of your exhibitionism, if one took your technique away from you, if one peeled you as one peels an onion of skin after skin of pretence and insincerity, of tags of old parts and shreds of faked emotions, would one come upon a soul at last?’

In the film, this mingling of reality and acting is obviously more heavy-handed and the comedy more broad. What in the book can only be called a shimmering cloud of irony is here reduced to a more black-and-white revenge comedy of a woman scorned. Similarly, the characters are all far more ambiguous in the novel, and far more interesting and alive for their ambiguity; Tom especially, a full-blown calculating social climber in the film, is more of a cypher in the book: he may be snobbish and impertinent, but ultimately little more than a rather foolish young man, and his true feelings for Julia remain a mystery till the end. The plot of the film (with one exception: I can’t for the life of me understand why Tom had become an American) is remarkably faithful to the last two thirds of the novel, but the tone is different, and the marvellous lightness of touch – which makes the book what it is – rather eludes it.

Final Verdict: A bit like the heroine: perhaps not perfect, quite ambiguous, but most charming, with some surprising depths. I’d say it’s my favourite Maugham thus far.

(The film is enjoyable too, but pales in comparison with the book – with the exception of Annette Bening, whose performance is almost as beguiling as that of the great Julia Lambert herself.)

Vintage, new ed.  2001  256 pp.  paperback  ISBN: 0099286831

2 comments on “Vulpes Libris’ All Time Greats: The Top Ten – Number 8.

  1. Jackie
    July 23, 2012

    This has been a film I’ve long intended to see, but haven’t so far. But reading this, I think it might be better to read the book first. I do like Maugham, especially because of his flawed characters & I’d like to see how all of this ends. You’ve done a great job of piquing my interest & suggesting things to keep an eye out for. Thanks for a good review of an overlooked book!

  2. Kate
    July 24, 2012

    I find Maugham difficult, I do struggle to finish his books, though I liked Liza of Lambeth a lot. Trouble is, I liked that because it was part of the ‘London slum fiction’ group, which are honestly a lot better read as a group than as single wqorks. And I think Theatre mkight be the same, part of the ‘London interwar theatre angst’ group I seem to be collecting, along with Noel Coward’s The Vortex and books by Noel Langley. Luvvies get all philosophical …

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This entry was posted on July 23, 2012 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: literary and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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