The first of four volumes of the collected short stories of Somerset Maugham is a glimpse of what is to come. A fine, detached, subtle but always unsparing observer of human nature, Maugham tells us stories about human weakness with a humorous, at the same time cynical and compassionate tone. Maugham expects very little from humans, and so, when they do sublime and even heroic things, it is all the more suprising. Perhaps the contemporary word which can best describe his attitude towards his characters is "cool". We humans are a mix of perversion, weakness, solidarity and real goodness. Maugham knows. So he is always willing to forgive his characters, as long as they know that their actions will have irremediable consequences. Hard but touching, Maugham sees the world from afar, from the internal wisdom which lets him know that nothing is too bad and nothing is too good.
The tales I liked the most are "Rain", about the unlikely relationship between a couple of puritan missionaries and a prostitute, "Before the party", about terrible marital secrets revealed right before an important party, and, above all, "The fall of Edward Barnard", simply a masterpiece of storytelling. First time I read it, I decided to become Edward Barnard myself. Go figure.
Maugham's style is anything but experimental. He is not trying to find a voice: he has one and he's pretty much sure about its value. And he's right. The way he uses words is the exact measure of craftmanship: not one word is missing, not one is futile. Precision, concision, wisdom, irony and humanism: the best mix for a reading. After you finish this, you'll go to the other three volumes, little by little, enjoying every story.