The Painted Veil

  by: Somerset Maugham
Audio book version

How does a man live like a demon and write like an angel?

Somerset Maugham's has always confounded me. I remember my introduction to him, which, oddly enough, was due to the movie version of The Razor's Edge. With Bill Murray, of all people, cast as the trouble, soul-searching WWI war veteran who finally reaches the stunning - in fact, tear-producing - understanding that there are no guarantees in life, and that the good you do must be done for its own sake - the movie could easily have been laughable. But somehow, and I believe it is because of the sheer strength of Maugham's writing, the film was splendid, and even Murray came across as believable and real.

Not too long after that, a friend presented me with a stage script which he had written, proposing that I play the much-abused wife of the troubled Somerset in his stage bio of the writer. As it happens, the play never was produced, but I was to learn that Maugham was an intriguing, disturbing, and evidently disturbed character.

Gay, or at least bisexual at a time when admitting such a thing was social suicide, Maugham was orphaned at a relatively early age (about 10), and by then the boy was already traumatized by the 2-years-earlier death of his mother. Whether this event influenced his later life, he was clearly a bisexual who some believed enjoyed both giving - and getting - beatings to/from his lovers.

He had an early homosexual relationship with an older man, yet some years later an adulterous affair with a woman with whom he had a child. Some claim this woman, Syrie, was a venal, nasty, gold-digging shrew; others that he treated her with merciless coldness and threw his affair with the much younger - and by all accounts somewhat low-rent Gerald Haxton - in her face, humiliating and hurting her.

There is also some debate as to whether he enjoyed the thrashings Haxton is said to have delivered, yet they remained a pair until Haxton's death - in an alcoholic ward, whereupon Maugham took up with yet another male lover with whom he remained until his death.

While some of the details of his life might not, in this day and age, have been so sordid - he could have openly enjoyed his bisexuality, for example - it still seems apparent that Maugham was a troubled, and troubling, man.

Intended to follow in the family practice of law, he instead tried a number of things, finally settling on a medical career, which he never really practiced, but which did inform much of his writing. He himself credits a great deal of the insight he had into the human heart with being present at the bedside of those in the throes of life's most powerful moments.

While I became, and remained, a fan of The Razor's Edge, I had never read The Painted Veil. Again, I saw the movie, and, with powerful performances from the always-amazing Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, I was an immediate fan.

Now that I have listened to the book, I realize that, once again, they probably could have cast Tina Fey and George Burns in the lead roles and still have ended up with a stunning movie.

Maugham is that good.


Because he has an uncanny understanding of the human heart.

And this seems so contradictory to me. Here is a man who lived, as near as one can tell, against all the conventions of his era; who at the very least was involved in some shady relationships in which some harm was done - if to no one else than his illegitimate daughter - yet he sees into the depths of the souls of men and women alike, and finds the pearls at the heart of each individual.

In this story, our heroine, the silly, flighty and self-indulgent Kitty has waited too long to take her pick of suitors in her debut years of the early 20s, and ends up in danger of dying on the vine. In haste and even spite, she marries the not-very-interesting Walter Fane, a young microbiologist, of whom she rapidly bores.

She embarks upon an affair with the older, more urbane but nevertheless worthless Charles Townsend, and when she nastily informs her husband that she intends to leave him for her paramour, said paramour chides her, and, almost chucking her under the chin tells her there is no way he's leaving his wife for her (or any of his little chicks).

In shock and horror, Kitty agrees to go on a suicide mission to China where Walter has signed up to help slow and possibly stop a horror of cholera that has broken out among the poor of that country. Broken, Kitty doesn't care if she lives or dies, and follows her husband, in a daze of misery, to what is likely to be the last months of her life.

Instead, she flourishes. Quickly tiring of her ennui and pain, she casts about for something to do, and finds work among the orphans at a convent of French nuns. In this work, Kitty finds salvation, meaning, purpose, and ultimately, admiration for her husband, whose generous impulses but strange nature she finally begins to accept, if not totally understand.

Yes, Walter tosses the dice with both of their lives; cholera is rampant and unforgiving. He does, in fact, play the fates with both of them: either he, or she, or both might contract the disease and die. In Walter's world of black and white, this will be proper retribution or escape. Kitty is more essential in her nature - just as she was able to mistake sexual attraction for lasting passion, she cannot understand why Walter would subject either of them to such a risk - on as complex a plane as Walter has done so. For her, it is punishment, pure and simple. For Walter, it is a more exotic justice, one which he sets in motion and then, Deus ex Machina, exits.

Philip Carey, protagonist of Of Human Bondage, may very well be the literary analog of Somerset, I do not believe Walter is, nor do I believe that Somerset saw his own personal and moral crimes with quite the fine tuned morality that Walter brings to bear upon his life, or Kitty's.

But as I listened, more and more wrapt in the simple poetry of Maugham's beautiful writing, to the deep and profound understanding he displays of the human heart and its idiosyncrasies, I realized that whatever his personal peccadilloes, however he may have strayed for the norms of his day - or any day - Maugham's was a gift of a power far beyond anything "earthly," or pedestrian. He did, indeed, write as part of some celestial choir, and give us insights into those deep and hidden regions of our natures as humans so rarely seen - and even more rarely reported so eloquently by those with the courage to make the visit in the first place.

As he himself might put it, "First rate."


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