17.9.14

W. Somerset Maugham - The Painted Veil

Rating 7.6

It was a pleasure reading my very first book by W. Somerset Maugham. This guy knew how to write and - what's more - didn't show off. There's not a single superfluous word in 'The Painted Veil' and every character here speaks with a very distinct and entirely believable voice.

For what is particularly masterful and consistent through this novel is the high quality of dialogues which are just pitch perfect.

Given this as well as the flawless sobriety of his writing style, I find fascinating that Mr. Maugham's mother tongue was actually French, as he grew up in Paris. Furthermore, during his school years in Canterbury young William was teased by his schoolmates due to his shaky English later developing a stammer that stayed with him til the rest of his life.

You might reckon how it's hard to picture someone with such issues in using spoken English writing as well as Maugham did.
In the introduction to the edition of this book I own, the author states that he got his 'mastery of technique and ease in writing dialogue' by translating Ibsen. Now, I had no idea that W. Somerset Maugham knew Norwegian and, in fact, I couldn't find any proof that he actually did, but whatever the reason, he certainly became a master himself.

The bygone demi-decadent colonial atmosphere of 'The Painted Veil' brought other British novelists to my mind: first and foremost Graham Greene, but E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling as well. Even though the latter two were almost peers of Mr Maugham, I'd daresay that he was well ahead of his time as this work reads as something Mr Greene could have written thirty years later.

'The Painted Veil' was published in 1925. At first the novel meant a lot of trouble for W. Somerset Maugham due to its setting - Honk Kong - some random but unfortunate choice in naming the characters and, last but not least, the plot itself. The author was forced to replace Hong Kong with a fictional Tching-Yen and even had to change the surname of the protagonist from Lane into Fane because of some people bearing that surname in HK who wanted to sue him.
In my copy of the book Hong Kong has been reinstated as the main setting of the novel, but - oddly enough - Mr and Mrs Fane were not rechristened Lane. I bet the grandchildren of those angry Lanes in Hong Kong are happy.

Anyway, so here we have a woman, Kitty Fane , who is certainly not a likeable character being, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, coquettish, capricious and rather shallow. No point in hiding that Kitty's affair is with some top-notch guy in Hong Kong as Maugham himself makes that crystal clear from the very first chapter.

But it's what happens later that I won't reveal and that is an excellent plot indeed.
As Monty Python would put it, Kitty Fane will eventually find out that her charming lover is so effing pompous and hasn't got any balls. But it will take some unexpected twists and turns in the story for Kitty to gain that awareness as well as the strength she needs to leave behind the airhead she used to be.

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