Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Some years ago I read that Somerset Maugham was a “difficult” writer, so I’ve avoided his books until last summer when The Painted Veil was assigned for my local book discussion group. It was a pleasant surprise! The “difficult” reputation is most assuredly unearned.
The story, set (and published) in the mid-1920’s, is about Walter, a quiet, intellectual doctor who marries Kitty, a frivolous rich girl and moves them both to Hong Kong to pursue his medical career. Why do stick-in-the-mud guys insist on getting involved with party girls? It never works out. Though Walter turns out to be quite passionate, it’s not enough and the bored Kitty soon begins an affair with a married diplomat colleague of Walter’s. When her husband discovers the affair, he volunteers his medical services to a remote village struck by cholera, despite only having worked in a lab until then. But he’s not going off & leaving Kitty to her amusements, oh no, he is taking her with him.
Once there, Walter throws himself into working at the hospital or researching the disease. Kitty is again bored, even more so in the middle of nowhere & decides to volunteer at the nearby convent orphanage out of desperation. Once she overcomes her revulsion at the place and the children, she finds great fulfillment. Surprisingly, shallow Kitty needs to be needed. She finally realizes that she is not the center of the universe. One gets so caught up in Kitty’s growth as a person that we almost forget the epidemic’s danger until tragedy intervenes. The book stays true to the characters & doesn’t flinch from despair, but never turns melodramatic.
One of the fascinating things about this novel is how Maugham gets inside of the heads of his characters, even when they’re polar opposites. He presents them in an objective way, where you completely understand why they are that way, even if you don’t like them. It’s a testament to the author’s talent that he is able to do that so convincingly. It also allowed him to make several feminist statements that are still quite bold today. It was also startling to find so many bedroom references in a work from that era. Between the two, I wonder if this book caused any controversy at the time?
He is also full of poetic descriptions, whether about the Chinese landscape or a person’s thoughts. For instance, Kitty, in a rare moment of insight after her affair is revealed, realizes Walter’s jealous mental state “was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lighting and in a moment hidden again by the night.” The poetic prose & melodic metaphors are a large part of what made this book a joy to read.
The cinematic version of 2006 was hugely disappointing, despite being well cast (except for Naomi Watts, who displayed more emotion in “King Kong”) and stunning authentic scenery (filmed in China). In fact, knowing Edward Norton was in it, I pictured him as Walter as I read the book. Forty five minutes into the film, however, it veered from the novel into a completely new story, not only tacking on a “woman in jeopardy” incident, but also politics & a soap opera. Often a different character would say lines from the novel, giving it a contradictory meaning. It was very frustrating when it had started out so well. But it is less so to those who see the movie first, and are better able to take it on it’s own terms, instead of referring to the novel. Though to me, if a book is used as a source, a certain amount of loyalty is called for.
The Painted Veil was an excellent introduction to Somerset Maugham and I am quite eager to read more of his work, in hope that they are as splendidly satisfying as this one.
Vintage Books film tie-in 2006 (orig. 1925) 224 pp. ISBN-10 0307277771