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Posts Tagged ‘20th Century British Literature’

While discussing books recently, one of my friends highly recommended Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil‘. I haven’t read a Maugham book in years and I wanted to read ‘The Painted Veil‘ when the movie came out, but couldn’t at that time. Now after my friend gushed about it, I thought I will read it now.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Kitty is married to Walter, a bacteriologist, who is stationed in Hong Kong. They are very different – Walter is the bookish, nerdy type who likes being left alone while Kitty is the social butterfly and likes being with people. Before long Kitty starts having an affair with Charlie, who is the one of the top ranked diplomats there, and is like Walter’s boss. But one day Walter discovers this. Kitty knows he knows. And there is a deathly silence at home. Before long, Walter tells Kitty that he has to go deep inside mainland China to help out, as there is a cholera epidemic there. He hopes Kitty will come with him. When she refuses, he tells her that he knows about her affair and if she doesn’t come with him he will file a case against Charlie. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter and she wants a divorce as she and Charlie are planning to get married. Walter says that he will agree to the divorce if Charlie’s wife agrees to the divorce with Charlie and Charlie promises to marry Kitty within a week of the divorce. Kitty thinks that should be easy. But when she talks to Charlie, she realizes that that is not what Charlie wants. All the sweet nothings he had whispered in her ear were just that – nothings. Now Kitty is caught between the devil and the deep sea – Charlie has abandoned her and Walter is punishing her. She opts for the punishment and goes with Walter to the place deep inside China. And there she meets some fascinating people has some interesting experiences and she undergoes a deep awakening which hasn’t happened to her before. You should read the book to find out what happens to her.

I liked ‘The Painted Veil’ very much. Kitty Fane was not a very likeable character in the beginning, but to be fair to her, in the era she lived, it was hard for a woman to do what she wanted, and Kitty did what she had to, to find love and happiness. She made me think of Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary and Kristin Lavransdatter. I liked the transformation Kitty undergoes in the second part of the book – it is beautifully depicted and we can’t resist falling in love with her. She is still imperfect and flawed as evidenced towards the end of the book, but she knows that now, and it is hard not to love her. In one place she says –

“I think you do me an injustice. It’s not fair to blame me because I was silly and frivolous and vulgar. I was brought up like that. All the girls I know are like that…It’s like reproaching someone who has no ear for music because he’s bored at a symphony concert. Is it fair to blame me because you ascribed to me qualities that I hadn’t got? I never tried to deceive you by pretending I was anything I wasn’t. I was just pretty and gay. You don’t ask for a pearl necklace or a sable coat at a booth in a fair; you ask for a tin trumpet and a toy balloon.”

Such powerful, thought-provoking lines.

I loved many of the other characters too – Walter and the Mother Superior, Sister St Joseph and Waddington who come in the second part of the book. Even Charlie, who is not exactly likeable, has his part to play.

I was expecting a Victorian type happy ending – Kitty and her husband will get back together and live happily ever after – but that was not to be. The actual ending is complex. I won’t tell you what it is – you should read the book to find out. The blurb says that the book was published to a storm of protest and it is not hard to see why. It was published in 1925, and it feels very contemporary today, with respect to the themes it addresses and the way it describes the relationship between women and men. If something feels contemporary today, it must have been in the banned books list or close to that during its time 🙂 Maugham was famous for talking to people, taking detailed notes and fictionalizing actual events and developing them into a novel. He seems to have done that here too and that might be another reason for the storm of protest. Maugham himself says in the preface to the book that he and the publishers were sued when the story was first published and they had to settle and change some of the names to keep the story in print. I wonder what happened to the real world Kitty Fane – I hope she found happiness.

I have read four Maugham novels before – Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Six Pence, The Razor’s Edge and Cakes and Ale. The Painted Veil is my fifth one. I loved all of them. That is 5-0 for Maugham. He must be doing something right.

If you love Maugham’s work and you haven’t read this one, you should. If you have never read a Maugham book or even heard of him, but you don’t mind dipping your toes into the water, you can start with ‘The Painted Veil‘.

Here are some of my favourite passages to give you a feel of the book.

“Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that other possess it for our pleasure.”

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

“But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in the river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.”

Have you read ‘The Painted Veil‘? What do you think about it?

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I read my first Angela Carter book last year – ‘The Bloody Chamber’. I enjoyed Carter’s unconventional take on popular fairytales (the retelling of fairytales seems to be the rage today, but when Carter did that, she was probably a pioneer) and so was hoping to read one of her novels sometime. So, when Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Delia from ‘Postcards from Asia’ announced that they were going to host Angela Carter week, I was quite thrilled (You can find more about it, here and here.). It was time to read my second Carter book. While deciding on which book to pick, I thought of three of her novels – ‘The Magic Toyshop’, ‘Nights at the Circus’ and ‘Love’. I opted to read ‘The Magic Toyshop’ because it was one of her earlier books and also the plot looked quite straightforward (I can hear you saying – “Yeah, keep thinking that. Angela Carter and straightforward simplicity – that is a total illusion. Carter’s books are always layered and complex and reveal themselves more on multiple readings.” Well, I can see that now 🙂 ) I finished reading ‘The Magic Toyshop’ yesterday. Here is what I think.

Angela Carter Week 1

Angela Carter Week 2

‘The Magic Toyshop’ is about a fifteen year old girl, Melanie. In the first scene of the story, Melanie discovers one day that she is a woman. She explores her body and her sexuality and she takes her mother’s wedding dress and puts it on while doing that. Unfortunately, after a while, when she is walking around in the garden, she discovers that she is locked out of her house wearing her mother’s wedding dress. She is too embarrassed to ring the bell and ask the housekeeper to open the door. She climbs the tree next to her window and gets into her room. In the process her mother’s wedding dress gets destroyed. When she gets up the next morning, she receives a telegram. Without even reading the contents, she knows what is in it – that her parents are dead. Melanie’s parents are away in America where her father is on a lecture tour, while she and her brother and sister are being taken care of by the housekeeper. The telegram says that her parents have died in a plane crash. Now their situation becomes difficult – the house is sold, the housekeeper finds a new job and they are sent away to live with their uncle and his family, an uncle who was always avoided by her parents. Melanie finds her uncle’s house quite old-fashioned with fewer facilities. Her aunt is dumb – she has lost her speech after she got married – and her aunt’s two younger brothers also live with her. The elder of the two is a musician and plays the violin. The younger of the two helps out her uncle in his work. Melanie’s uncle makes toys of all kinds and is very good at it. We can even say that he is an artist who loves his art. He also holds a puppet show in his studio a couple of times a year and only the family is invited to watch it. But Melanie’s uncle has a dark side – he is mean and is a bully and doesn’t care much about his family. He refuses to speak to Melanie and her siblings for a long time. In contrast, Melanie’s aunt is a very kind person and soon Melanie grows to love her. Melanie also grows to like her aunt’s brothers and the younger of the two, Finn, is attracted towards her. Melanie is uncomfortable with it in the beginning, but gets used to it after a while. The rest of the book charts the relationships between these characters, the beautiful moments they have (one of my favourite scenes in the book is the one in which Melanie spies her aunt playing the flute, her aunt’s brother Francie playing the violin and Finn dancing to the tune. The scene ends with the sentence – “And this was how the red people passed their time and amused themselves when they thought nobody was watching.”), the pall of gloom that hangs around the house when the uncle is around and the free spirit which reigns when he is not, and the surprises which get revealed at unlikely times.

The Magic Toyshop By Angela Carter

‘The Magic Toyshop’ is first and foremost a coming of age story of Melanie when she first discovers herself and grows up to become a young woman. Within this framework, Carter has also woven her own versions of fairytales. There are frequent references to Bluebeard which makes one think that the book might be Carter’s own long take on the original Bluebeard story with Melanie’s uncle being the potential Bluebeard here. There are also lots of literary and cultural references in the story which I liked very much. Some of my favourites were the references to Ronald Coleman (if you like old classic black-and-white movies you have probably seen ‘Random Harvest’ or ‘Lost Horizon’, both starring Ronald Coleman – both are wonderful), the Doric column (“She was wearing her straight grey dress and looked like a Doric column” – it made me think of the days when I read my first book on art and discovered Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns and how the Doric was the plainest of the three and so seeing Carter talking about Doric columns made me nostalgic), Coleridge’s poem on the Ancient Mariner and the Biggles books.

 

Angela Carter’s prose is beautiful. She doesn’t write long passages and pages filled with beauty but sprinkles beautiful sentences across the book. Some of my favourite sentences were these.

 

Photographs are chunks of time you can hold in your hand.

His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.

The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved.

The moment was eternity, trembling like a dewdrop on a rose, endlessly about to fall.

She splashed the shreds of the absurd night out of her eyes with cold water.

The tune was finished. It did not so much reach a conclusion as slow down and dribble into silence, as though the players had got bored with the melody and let it slip through their fingers carelessly.

 

I enjoyed reading my first Angela Carter novel. I hope to read ‘Nights at the Circus’ and ‘Love’ someday. I will leave you with links to other reviews of the book.

Caroline (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’)

Bina (from ‘If You Can Read This’)

Violet (from ‘Still Life With Books’)

Have you read ‘The Magic Toyshop’? What do you think about it?

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