The Facts Of Life by Somerset Maugham, 1939
The magic trick:
Providing a counterpoint to the world of P.G. Wodehouse
This is pleasant, light-hearted comedy; fluff, if you will. Problem is, it’s not really all that funny. I wouldn’t even say it’s all that pleasant, as the father and son at the heart of the story prove fairly unlikeable. Meanwhile, Maugham’s writing never veers far enough in any one direction – sympathetic or satirical – to make any kind of larger point.
So what’s the magic trick? Well, as a longtime fan of P.G. Wodehouse, fiction, such as “The Facts Of Life,” providing a window into the world of early 20th century upper-crust English society, is very helpful. It’s easy to feel like Wodehouse created out of whole cloth an absurdist universe of his own. Look at all these goofy rich people playing Baccarat, obsessively worrying about their reputations. Surely, that can’t be real.
Ah, but it was real. Maugham approaches the same world with a greater sense of reality, albeit still with a comic touch. The story, on its own, doesn’t do much for me. But as a means toward even greater appreciation of Wodehouse’s gentle satirical bite, “The Facts Of Life” works wonders. And that’s quite a trick on Maugham’s part.
The players were protected from the thronging bystanders by a brass rail; they sat round the table, nine on each side, with the dealer in the middle and the croupier facing him. Big money was changing hands. The dealer was a member of the Greek Syndicate. Nicky looked at his impassive face. His eyes were watchful, but his expression never changed whether he won or lost. It was a terrifying, strangely impressive sight. It gave Nicky, who had been thriftily brought up, a peculiar thrill to see someone risk a thousand pounds on the turn of a card and when he lost make a little joke and laugh. It was all terribly exciting.