This is the my choice as the best travel movie of all time - Andy Graham
Tue, 20 Apr 2010 15:40:15
Maugham begins by characterizing his story as not really a novel but a thinly veiled true account. He includes himself as a minor character, a writer who drifts in and out of the lives of the major players. Larry Darrell’s lifestyle is contrasted throughout the book with that of his fiancée’s uncle, Elliott Templeton, an American expatriate living in Paris and a shallow and unrepentant yet generous snob. For example, while Templeton's Catholicism embraces the hierarchical trappings of the Church, Larry's proclivities tend towards the 13th century Flemish mystic and saint John of Ruysbroeck.
Wounded and traumatized by the death of a comrade in the War, Larry returns to Lake Forest, Illinois and his fiancée, Isabel Bradley, only to announce that he does not plan to work and instead will "loaf" on his small inheritance. He wants to delay their marriage and refuses to take up a job as a stockbroker offered to him by the father of his friend Gray, Henry Maturin. Meanwhile, Larry’s childhood friend, Sophie, settles into a happy marriage, only later tragically losing her husband and baby in a car accident.
Larry moves to Paris and immerses himself in study and bohemian life. After two years of this "loafing," Isabel visits and Larry asks her to join his life of wandering and searching, living in Paris and traveling with little money. She cannot accept his vision of life and breaks their engagement to go back to Chicago. There she marries the millionaire Gray, who provides her a rich family life. Meanwhile, Larry begins a sojourn through Europe, taking a job at a coal mine in Lens, France, where he befriends a former Polish army officer named Kosti. Kosti's influence encourages Larry to look toward things spiritual for his answers rather than in books. Larry and Kosti leave the coal mine and travel together for a time before parting ways. Larry then meets a Benedictine monk named Father Ensheim in Bonn, Germany while Father Ensheim is on leave from his monastery doing academic research. After spending several months with the Benedictines and being unable to reconcile their conception of God with his own reason, Larry takes a job on an ocean liner and finds himself in Bombay.
Larry has significant spiritual adventures in India and comes back to Paris. What he actually found in India and what he finally concluded are held back from the reader for a considerable time until, in a scene late in the book, Maugham discusses India and spirituality with Larry in a café long into the evening.
The 1929 stock market crash has ruined Gray, and he and Isabel are invited to live in her uncle Elliott Templeton’s grand Parisian house. Gray is often incapacitated with agonizing migraines due to a general nervous collapse. Larry is able to help him using an Indian form of hypnotic suggestion. Sophie has also drifted to the French capital, where her friends find her reduced to alcohol, opium, and promiscuity — empty and dangerous liaisons that seem to help her to bury her pain. Larry first sets out to save her and then decides to marry her, a plan that displeases Isabel, who is still in love with him.
Isabel tempts Sophie off the wagon with a bottle of ¯ubrówka, and she disappears from Paris. Maugham deduces this after seeing Sophie in Toulon, where she has returned to smoking opium and promiscuity. He is drawn back into the tale when police interrogate him after Sophie has been found murdered with an inscribed book from him in her room (along with volumes by Baudelaire and Rimbaud).
Meanwhile in Antibes, Elliott Templeton, who has compulsively throughout his life sought out aristocratic society, is on his deathbed. None of his titled friends come to see him, which makes him alternately morose and irate, though his outlook on death is somewhat positive: "I have always moved in the best society in Europe, and I have no doubt that I shall move in the best society in heaven."
Isabel inherits his fortune, but genuinely grieves for her uncle. Maugham confronts her about Sophie, having figured out Isabel’s role in Sophie’s downfall. Isabel’s only punishment will be that she will never get Larry, who has decided to return to America and live as a common working man. He is uninterested in the rich and glamorous world that Isabel will move in. Maugham ends his narrative by suggesting that all the characters got what they wanted in the end: "Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position; ... Sophie death; and Larry happiness."