Friday, March 22, 2013

Merry Go Round - W Somerset Maugham

The best part about reading novels set in the Edwardian period, in England, is that that society resembles the Indian society in many ways. A rigid moral code defying which meant attracting collective social frown; the existence of a strict class division, violating which led to social derision and people going about their lives under these social norms , sometimes digressing but most times conforming. Merry Go Round was my third Maugham novel and it shares many traits in common with the other Maugham novels I read before, like character examination, a slow build up, adultery etc.

But the book is also different from the other two I had read in various ways. Merry Go Round is a commentary on the Edwardian society: how social rules shaped the lives of people, how a rigid class division was maintained, the shallowness of all this etc.

The narrative has several strands. Merry Go Round starts with a house party and then pans out into a novel tracking the lives of the guests at the party. The host of the party, Miss Ley, is a spinster who has inherited a fortune from another spinster and is the moral axis around which the other characters in the novel revolve.

There is Basil Kant an aspiring writer who marries a barmaid because of an unexpected development, overlooking his feelings for Mrs Murray - and the marriage suffers. There is Herbert Field, a clerk and poet, who is suffering from tuberculosis and Bella Langton at 40 double the age of Herbert marries him to tend to him in his last days and sees the poet die. And there is Frank Hurrell, a cynic, who abhors the conventional life. And there are many more to bring about a complete social interplay of characters, some conformists and some rebellious.

Maugham has skillfully pitted the rebellious characters against the conformist ones to throw into sharp relief his voice and views against those of the Edwardian society. The book mainly cocks a snook at the rich the employing class which held people economically dependent on them to the very moral codes that their socials peers and companions violated.

In another review of a Maugham book, I had said that his observations on human character and other things form an important part of Maugham’s narrative. In MGR they are plenty and they leave you feeling edified.

MGR was published in 1902 and is not among Maugham’s famous works. In fact, the novel has been completely forgotten. But you will find Maugham at his best in character development, interplay of plots and a commentary running in the background climaxing in a strong condemnatory message about the society in which the plot is set.

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