• U.S.

Books: Old Craftsman

4 minute read

CATALINA (275 pp.) — W. Somerset Maugham—Doubleday ($3).

This is Somerset Maugham’s 22nd novel. He has announced that it is also to be his last. If he sticks to that, 74-year-old Author Maugham, England’s most popular contemporary novelist, will have brought to an end a career that has included such lasting favorites as Of Human Bondage, Cakes & Ale, and The Moon and Sixpence, as well as 57 volumes of short stories, essays, travel books and plays.

His last novel is as simple and unpretentious as anything he has ever written. Catalina is no masterpiece; it is merely a disarming little story laid in Spain during the Inquisition and written in a grave and effortless style modeled on the old chronicles, and sometimes edging over into a bland and amusing parody of them. The story concerns an extraordinary occurrence in the town of Castel Rodriguez: a girl named Catalina Perez, comely, virtuous and 16 years old, who has been trampled by a bull and crippled so that she can walk only with a crutch, reports that the Virgin Mary appeared to her and told her that to be healed she must go to “the son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God.”

Ironic Tale. Juan Suarez de Valero has three sons, one a great bishop, one a great soldier, and the third a baker. The concern of the churchman, his fear that his vanity is being appealed to, the confidence of the soldier, and his subsequent humiliation, the embarrassment of the baker at his unexpected prominence, and the emotion of the town at the thought of a genuine miracle occurring in its midst, are artfully handled. Once the miracle has happened, Maugham’s imagination appears to have failed him; false notes become a little too frequent, and the introduction of Don Quixote in person is a little too much.

Catalina is not to be taken seriously; every chapter asserts this, and the last scenes, with Catalina having become a famous actress, make it more than plain. The book is a suave and ironic rewriting of the classic morality tales of English literature, its lesson as plain as the moral of A Christmas Carol or The Great Stone Face. Since it is written by a craftsman, Catalina has enough interest and enough humor to keep it going, and not too much of anything—not too much of the supernatural to be unbelievable, not too much wit to tax the reader’s attention, not too much irony to make it too involved, not too much skepticism or too much belief.

Portrait of Humility. Unexpectedly, however, this shrewd and seasoned work is very nearly a first-rate novel. It becomes so, not by virtue of Maugham’s mastery of form, great as it is, or his humor, of which too much has been made, nor his skepticism, which sometimes grows wearisome. It is distinguished for its portrait of Bishop Blasco de Valero. The devout prelate, self-sacrificing, presiding with terrible humility and conscientiousness over the trials of heretics, is a masterly portrait, equal to Maugham’s best, and belonging well up in the gallery of modern fiction.

In an age when the imagination has been darkened by the horrors of the concentration camps, this simple, scrupulous man is an imaginative achievement. His genuine anguish when he fails to work the miracle very nearly wrecks the novel; his concentrated and intelligent fanaticism certainly spoils the aloof ironic tone that Maugham otherwise sustains throughout the book. But it may be that his earnestness will, in the long run, make Maugham’s last novel, almost in spite of himself, be judged among his best.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com