Monday, March 30, 2015

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

It is the way and the Waygoer. It is the eternal road along which walk all beings, but no being made it, for itself is being. It is everything and nothing. From it all things spring, all things conform to it, and to it at last all things return. It is a square without angles, a sound which ears cannot hear, and an image without form. It is a vast net and though its meshes are as wide as the sea it lets nothing through. It is the sanctuary where all things find refuge. It is nowhere, but without looking out of the window you may see it. Desire not to desire, it teaches, and leave all things to take their course. He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be made straight. Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking-place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come? Who strives after tenderness can become even as a little child. Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Mighty is he who conquers himself.

I finally realized the long-held intention to read a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil proved an excellent introduction. It is a novel about a vain young British woman in the 1920s, Kitty, who whimsically marries an intense, introverted physician, Walter. She follows him to Hong Kong, where she becomes embroiled in an affair. After discovering the affair, Walter takes Kitty to the interior of China where he works to defeat a cholera epidemic. The novel focuses on the education of Kitty through her relationships and through her observations of alien worlds.

Maugham is an older contemporary of Graham Greene, with whom he may be compared. Maugham began his writing career before the advent of the First World War and published his most acclaimed work, Of Human Bondage, in 1915. He continued publish well past the Second World War. Thus, The Painted Veil is a mid-career work for him. Like Greene and many British writers of their time, Maugham traveled a great deal and used his travels as settings for his novels (as well as writing travel books). In this work, set in Hong Kong and the Chinese interior, China becomes more of a stage prop than I would hope or expect, at least if written today. No Chinese characters receive any depth of portraiture. But since the story centers on Kitty and placement of her in the Chinese interior serves to isolate and alienate her from the much more Anglicized setting of Hong Kong. Indeed, the significant others for Kitty when she travels to the interior are Walter, a fellow Englishman, Waddington, and a group of French nuns, of whom the Mother Superior becomes an important figure for Kitty.

The novel grabbed my attention because it focused on Kitty, a vain young woman, who undergoes a variety of trials. It amazed me how well Maugham portrayed Kitty in her vanity and her struggles to come to terms with herself and her world. The men in this novel are enigmatic, as is the aloof and challenging Mother Superior of the local convent. But this allows us to share the perspective of Kitty, who must deal with these complicated Others.

I enjoyed this novel a good deal. While I would've liked to of seeing more of the China drawn into the story, that was not Maugham's primary intent, nor was it necessary to tell Kitty's story.

Above, I've included a quote delivered by Kitty's friend, Waddington, about the Tao. I find it an interesting quote, but this is about as deeply as Maugham ventures into Chinese culture.

Maugham once described himself as among the front row of second-tier writers. He's not among the avant-garde of the 20th century, and I think that Graham Greene has a greater, richer body of work. However, Maugham’s work, at least based on this sample, deserves recognition. Based on The Painted Veil, I look forward to reading other works by Maugham.

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