Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Painted Veil – A study in Human foibles

The Painted Veil – A study in Human foibles
Among all the novels and short stories of Somerset Maugham, none reflects the pathos of human relationship, its pettiness and its greatness with as much poignancy as “The painted veil”. Maugham wrote prolifically. His plays, short stories and novels run into more than couple of dozens. And in all of them, there is an underlying current of Human fallibility that strikes the reader with great force. Whether it be “Of Human Bondage” or the “the razor’s edge” or his beautiful evocation of South Pacific seas in “Moon and sixpence” or his numerous collections of peerless crafted short stories – Maugham unfailingly depicted the simmering tension between Husband and wife, Man and his lover, rationality and instinct with an eye that few contemporaries of his age could master. His characters also displayed hostility and a certain of sense of introspection that made them look cruel and unapproachable. Perhaps, his misplaced childhood, a life long lingering stammer, inability to engage in meaningful relationships, caught between the pull of sexual preferences gave Maugham a dark view of Human life and morals. But to compensate for that gloomy outlook, ,usually his characters finally triumph and rise over their circumstances transporting the reader from apathy and suspicion to sympathy and forgiveness.. Maugham once said “ I first form a character in my mind and then weave a story…”, not the other way round.
Another important distinction Maugham’s works have is that almost all of his novels and many of themes have lent themselves admirably to Cinema. A causal search yields at least forty adaptions of his stories for screen. And some them like “on Human bondage” have been remade couple of times. To me , this is not surprising at all, considering his novels are rich, multilayered, pliable to numerous interpretations and heavily character dependent and rich. Talented actors love to play Maugham’s protagonist willingly with joy and pride, simply because his characterization is strong , and is often the pivot of his stories. Actors love the bloated feeling of carrying a story on their shoulders- A test of their ability, and of course, an inducement for fame and possible acclaim.
Talking of “The painted veil”, I cannot but compare the setting of this brilliant psychological novel with another great story of modern times – “Love in the time of Cholera” by Gabriel Marquez. In both, The ominous presence of Cholera looms large in the background and forms a fit metaphor for the kind of internal rage and turmoil that fills the story. To have a choleric disposition means to be filled with unfulfilled passion, irritation or a bilious condition (in Middle Ages, imbalance in bile was considered to be the cause of Human emotions). While Marquez captured the cool and methodical doctor in Urbino who clinically subdues the throbbing passion of his wife , Maugham created his most powerful heroine Kitty Gartsin, whose recklessness and lust for life is tamed by her Bacteriologist husband and channeled for greater purpose in a remote village of China , raging with Cholera epidemic. In both cases, Husbands are the trigger and both are doctors. It is said that Maugham lifted the title of his book from the pages of Poet Shelley who wrote “ Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life…”. It is pretty apt for what followed. Kitty marries Dr Walter Fane for pure convenience to get away as far as possible from her nagging mother who wants her to marry against her will. Unfortunately Walter loves her deeply. Both of them look at life through their own veils of expectations, passion and purpose. Kitty finds herself bored by Dr Fane’s brooding introspection and study, While he struggles to live up to the demanding involvement she expects of him. Kitty, not surprisingly , decides to commit adultery to overcome boredom and sexual gratification.. When her husband finds out, he punishes her in his own tormented way. He gives up a respectable researcher’s job in Hong Kong and volunteers to serve in poverty stricken, decaying and a Cholera infested village of South China, and forces, threatens his wife to accompany him – which she reluctantly does for fear of divorce and resulting opprobrium. What happens to their lives in the sweltering heat, death and chaos of forsaken village, and how new meaning and dimensions emerge and flower under the most adverse condition forms the rest of this remarkable narrative.
This was fit tale for Cinema, and since 1925, when the book was published , there have been three complete adaptions (one featuring the mercurial and enigmatic Greta Garbo), and at least a dozen mini series and movies that have borrowed heavily from this book. In 2006, Edward Norton (as Dr Lane) and Naomi watts ( as Kitty) featured in the lush production directed by John curran. Shot almost entirely in China, it captures the essence of the tale without diluting it for cinematic reasons. Naomi watts presents a brilliant portrayal of Kitty. Her sparkling blue eyes, naughty smirk and feminine nonchalance steals the show for the first one hour, and then comes the slow transformation of her personality into a larger, more embracing human being finding love and solace where none was existent earlier. Ms watts reflects that change with great sensitivity and depth. Norton is true to the book. Known for his serious roles, His plays Dr Fane with all the subdued passion and rage with effortless ease. The entire film dances with the prose and intent of Somerset Maugham .
Maugham would be very happy and satisfied, I should say, to see his work renewed over and over again in various forms of art. He was, during his lifetime, one of the most commercially successful writers. He wrote beautifully, but also with an eye to securing himself properly. With the result that some of works would seem a bit repetitive to an astute reader. But that is secondary. His easy prose, vivid descriptions and study of basic human passion resonates with truth and vitality even today. In my opinion , the movie form is not yet finished with Maugham. As long as adultery, infidelity and weakness of Human will are themes and aspects of daily life, his work will endure and many more interpretations of his novels will emerge. The line that distinguishes average novels from a classic lies in the ability to reinvent itself in the readers mind. And Maugham’s writings have been doing that for a century now. He may not have received all the great critical accolades and covetous awards the writing business offers, but it is undeniable that he was and is still one of the most widely printed, read and enjoyed authors in the last 100 years.
God bless…
Yours in mortality ,

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