Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Discovering W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham was, until this last week, another mysterious classic-ish author of whom I knew nothing.  A spur-of-the-moment jaunt into my local bookstore changed all that, however, when I picked up The Painted Veil.  I was a lost cause from the very first words: She gave a startled cry.  Not the most complex writing, but it sure sucked me in.  I adored every bit of this book.

(Actually, my interest was piqued before that bookstore trip...I was at a book club meeting and two of the girls were talking about MOM, except they weren't...they were talking about MAUGHAM which apparently has a nice handful of silent letters similar to the name VAUGHAN.  Who knew?  Everyone but me, of course.  Welcome to my universe.)

So then, who is this Maugham fellow?  According to the Wiki:
  - Reputedly the highest paid author of the 1930s (wow!)
  - His mother had tuberculosis, for which her doctor prescribed childbirth (sheesh.)
  - He developed a stammer after his parents died when he was 8 (aww...)
  - He was a British spy during WWI and went on special mission in Russia (exciting!)
  - He didn't lead a very happy life, esp. regarding family/loved ones (poor guy)

From the get-go The Painted Veil felt like a Guilty Pleasure.  You know...so wonderfully delicious that it must not be very healthy somehow.  In a time of literary giants such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf, Maugham once described himself as being "in the very first row of the second-raters".  Sad, right?  But in a way I can see how he may have come to that conclusion.   His writing was fairly simple compared to the experimental modernist fare, though fun to read and not unintelligent.  The story was rather quickly paced and a bit racy, exploring the boundaries of social/emotional rules rather than the boundaries of fictional composition.   The Painted Veil was the definition of accessible, no secret-decoder-ring required, and published in the hey-day of symbolic obscurity.

The two things that fascinated me the most about this particular title both happened to be related to the times.  First, the peek at life in Colonial Era Hong Kong and the cholera epidemic (not that I'm so familiar with non-Colonial HK, but still, it was an interesting perspective) and second, the social expectations on marriage at the time.  Having so many limitations on socially acceptable behavior, and so few viable options for women regardless of the circumstance, certainly adds a dynamic to a story that  is absent (or difficult to recreate) in modern fiction.

Now, I can't say that I loved any of the characters, or even that I truly sympathized with any of the characters.  They all had faults, and most had made bad choices, but I was truly absorbed in their thoughts and actions.  There were so many different personalities.  Kitty journeyed from an extremely shallow existence to some actual thought, while her husband was a much more intelligent, complex person that ended up finding that he'd made a very silly choice.  This was a book that I actually didn't want to put down until I'd finished it.  More Maugham is definitely in my future.

(By the way, is there a female word equivalent for cuckold?  ...Do we have a word that defines a woman whose husband commits adultery?  I'm not one to usually be all up in arms about women's rights, but this word has always bugged me for that very reason.)

World English Dictionary
cuckold (ˈkʌkəld)
— n   

   1. a man whose wife has committed adultery, often regarded as an object of scorn

— vb   

   2. ( tr ) to make a cuckold of 

[cukeweld, from Old French cucuault, from cucu cuckoo; perhaps an allusion to the parasitic cuckoos that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds]


  1. I love W. Somerset Maugham! I haven't read the Painted Veil yet but really enjoyed Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge. It was interesting to learn more about his life.

  2. I agree this is a 5 star book. And what did you think about the reference to Goldsmith's "Elegy?" "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." I've copied that poem into my poetry journal after reading this book. I had to read the ending multiple times.

    Oh, the movie is actually worth watching, too. It has beautiful photography and is rather artsy. (Not for little eyes, either.) But, they do change the plot a bit. It is still beautiful.

    I think I'll use this as my reread for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

  3. I watched the movie with Naomi Watts and I fell in love with Kitty. For me she was one of those female characters escaping from the 19th century "angel in the house" (or good wife) and asking for a life and a voice of her own. Simply inspiring.

  4. {sigh} i've not read MOM either. and it makes me kind of sad to know that he thought of himself as a second-tier writer, but hey--maybe that's not such a bad thing.

    i did love the visual pleasures of watching this film adaptation, and maybe one day I'll actually read it.

  5. The Painted Veil was one of my favorites the year I read it, and the very first book I reviewed on my blog. I've read a couple of Maugham's short stories, but still haven't gotten around to another novel.Oh Human Bondage is waiting on my shelf...

  6. Um, I didn't know that about his name, either! Fortunately, I don't think I've ever said it out loud :-)

    I did like both the book and the movie, although as Heidi'sBooks said, the plot is a bit different.

  7. I'm in the middle "Of Human Bondage" & really enjoying it. It makes sense that he claims to have lived somewhat of a sad life - it is evident he saw himself in the main character, Philip, or as it purported, based the character on himself.


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