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Posts Tagged ‘W. Somerset Maugham’

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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