Friday, April 09, 2004

Maugham's The Painted Veil: Some Excitable Notes

The Painted Veil is the first novel I’ve ever read by W. Somerset Maugham, and it’s more than pretty good. It's a tough-minded novel about marriage and middle-class aspirations, the capricious nature of love and how hell is other people. It's a story that covers familar ground -- a woman, stuck in a loveless marriage, in love with a man who's no good for her, and is made to face her own lack of direction -- but there isn't a false note in it, it never seems less than inspired, and it refuses to give the reader easy comfort.

I think I've always unconsciously avoided Maugham for the worst reason: he’s been kind of discredited, his name synonymous with old-fashioned, out-of-date, yesterday; a writer whom I always figured had little to offer but a stable of shopworn effects. A few months ago, in the days following George Plimpton’s death, there was some account by someone in Slate about how Plimpton would dismiss a short story submission for The Paris Review by saying it "sounded like Maugham." So no, I didn’t really expect much from this book, but I not only found that I couldn’t put it down, but that I couldn't resist underlining one little gem of perception after the next. It was old-fashioned in its way, it’s 1925 way; you notice at the beginning the kind of modifiers I tend to associate with another time. But that’s so nothing. What grabbed me was Maugham's insight into being human, and it may just be I was so impressed because I had just read a fairly ambitious and fairly terrible first novel that was full of incident but which had bored me stone-blind, mainly because the characters were all so superficially-drawn, and the more time I spent in their company the more you realized that the writer barely knew them -- he never stopped describing them in great detail, but he never illuminated anything. No light ever went on.

In stark contrast stands Maugham, who takes a superficial young woman and reveals in depth both her and her milieu. Her name is Kitty Fane, the beautiful show wife of Walter, the ardent but perfectly dull bacteriologist she up and married out of desperation when she hit 25 and noticed her market value was dropping. After a hasty marriage at home in England, the couple move to Hong Kong, where Kitty learns that Walter's position doesn't account for much among the English ruling class, and despite his boring affection for her she takes up an affair with the older and comparatively more dashing Charles Townsend. Kitty is not a quick study where any human heart but hers is concerned, and it's only by being in love with Charles that she realizes her husband is in love with her. Gabriel Conroy in Joyce's "The Dead," who didn't know what love was until he saw it in his wife's face for her long-dead boyfriend Michael Furey; Kitty doesn't know what her husband is feeling until she feels the same thing for someone else. The revelation doesn't fill her eyes with generous tears, as it did Gabriel; it makes her cruel.

And now that she knew what love was she felt a sudden sympathy for the love that Walter bore her. She teased him, playfully, and saw that he enjoyed it. She had been perhaps a little afraid of him, but now she had more confidence. She chaffed him and it amused her to see the slow smile with which at first he received her banter. He was surprised and pleased. Someday he would become quite human. Now that she had learnt something of passion it diverted her to play lightly, like a harpist running his fingers across the strings of his harp, on his affections. She laughed when she saw how she bewildered and confused him.

Just as the book opens, the adulterous lovers fear Walter has spotted them. Charles consoles her that maybe it won't be as bad as she fears, that Walter will be concerned enough about his social position to look the other way. Kitty's fears are overwhelmed by hope: maybe she can ditch Walter and marry Charles.

But Walter will not be played so easily. He offers Kitty a bargain: he'll agree to divorce her if Charles agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty within a week; otherwise, she can pack up and move with him to the cholera-ridden Chinese colony ofMei-tan-fu, which Walter has suddenly decided is in need of his skills. What he really wants is far from humanitarian: he wants a murder-suicide by proxy that will wipe out his broken marriage and leave no survivors, as corpses are being hauled out of Mei-tan-fu on a daily basis. Walter, in his calm, controlled, bitter rage, is much smarter than Kitty gave him credit for. There's a hint of this early on, before the axe falls, when Kitty asks him about Charles' skill as a bridge player: "I should describe myself as a very good player in the second class. Townsend thinks he's in the first. He isn't." As Kitty realizes when she makes the marriage proposal to Charles, the game for her is Walter's to lose, not Charles; Charles, to her naive shock, not only is not about to leave his wife but downplays the risk of living in Mei-tan-fu; with false diplomacy, he even sees things rather more from Walter's side than hers. For Charles, there's no contest between her death and his divorce.The confrontation between the two ex-lovers is another fine instance where Kitty realizes several things at once: Charles won't marry her, Walter knew he wouldn't, and he sent her to ask just so she could feel humiliated. The scene is quietly, perfectly searing and, as the best scenes in this book so often are, it's full of knowledge. I think the book has a way of pulling you inside Kitty's skin from the beginning, but scenes like the following remind you that's where you are: you find yourself seeing through her eyes, and you feel her disappointment and defeat:

"Do you want me to go?'
"It's Hobson's choice, isn't it?"
"Is it?"
"It's only fair to tell you that if your husband brought an action for divorce and won it I should not be in a position to marry you."
It must have seemed an age to him before she answered. She rose slowly to her feet.
"I don't think my husband ever thought of bringing an action."
"Then why in God's name have you been frightening me out of my wits?" he asked.
She looked at him coolly.
"He knew that you'd let me down."
She was silent. Vaguely, as when you are studying a foreign language and read a page which at first you can make nothing of, till a word or a sentence gives you a clue; and on a second suspicion, as it were, of the sense flashes across your troubled wits, vaguely she gained an inkling into the workings of Walter's mind. It was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lightning and in a moment hidden again by the night. She shuddered at what she saw.

That last adjective may sound like pure vaudeville when you're reading that scene outside of the book, but oh, dear reader, I shuddered myself -- and not with embarrassment. There are other such moments in the book, when Maugham's acute perception of human behavior, of the way perception arrives, sends some shock of recognition bolting to the surface.

Mei-tan-fu is every bit the hellhole Kitty and Walter expected it to be; it has the dank, choking air of their own marriage, where each has been ditched by each and Kitty has been ditched twice over. Still, Walter goes about his bacteriological business and does great things, Kitty works with a Catholic orphanage. Time for redemption? Kitty, despite what she knows about him -- and she's about to learn even more -- is still in love with Charles; Maugham stays relentlessly true to her character, which is a woman with more passion than common sense, and he refuses either to sentimentalize or condemn her. You sense, over and over, a writer who is fascinated by his own creation and is meticulously devoted to doing her justice.

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