Friday, April 29, 2011

The Painted Veil

"I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art."

English playwright, novelist, and short-story writer W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era and reported to be the highest paid author during the 1930s. 15 years separate his two most celebrated works, Of Human Bondage (1915) and Cakes and Ale (1930). Wedged between these novels, are his two "exotic" novels, one of which is set in the mysterious and foreign land of 1920s China. The Painted Veil is a story of love, betrayal, revenge, personal growth, and sacrifice.

The Plot:

Kitty is a shallow, vain young woman living in London in the 1920s. She meets Dr. Walter Fane, a bacteriologist on leave from Hong Kong. He falls madly in love with her and though she feels nothing for him (except contempt), she agrees to marry him in order to escape her family, especially her overbearing and overachieving mother. Once in Hong Kong, Kitty finds the social life (and her life with Walter) very boring. She falls in love with the married Assistant Colonial Secretary Charles Townsend and begins an affair with him. When a devastated Walter discovers their affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum- either she must accompany him to work in a remote cholera-stricken village, or he will divorce her, causing a great scandal, unless Townsend agrees to marry her.

After betrayal by Townsend, Kitty agrees to travel to the village with Walter. At first, she is very bitter and distressed regarding her situation. Then, she meets the cynical Waddington, a British government worker living in the village, as well as a small convent of French nuns who run the orphanage and hospital. Through her interaction with them, Kitty's eyes begin to open to the purpose that has been missing from her life, and to realize just what kind of man she has married, and scorned.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is my second Maugham work, the first being his short story collection Ashenden: or The British Agent. Like that work, Maugham is not really concerned about the setting of The Painted Veil, but rather the human nature of the characters that populate it. One would think that 1920s China would provide ample material for reflection on cultural differences, uprising against British rule , and the true poverty of colonial Chinese life. But while each of these receives a nod, this is really Kitty's story.

Kitty is not an easy character to like. In fact, I'm going to say that it is impossible. She is brought up by her mother with only one goal, to get married and move up the social ladder. Consequently, Kitty grows into a flippant, vacuous, self-satisfied young woman. The funny thing is that Walter knows all this, and loves her anyway. There is a great quote in the book where he lays this out for her. Perhaps what makes this story so maddening is Kitty's feelings towards Walter. At first, she can only feel contempt for his love, and then pity for his sorrow. It was so difficult to see Kitty despise him when I was beginning to fall for the passionate man with the calm and cool exterior.

None of this is to say that Kitty does not grow in the book, because she does. Not that she suddenly becomes this selfless and wise woman, but she does recognize her own failings and sets a course for reconnecting with another man whose provision and protection she had once despised, her father. She also recognizes how much of her own character stemmed from the fact that her life lacked purpose. Yes, she had married as her mother wished, but that had not fulfilled her in and of itself. It is neat to see her interaction with the French nuns. Here are a group of women who have never married, and if anything have gone down the social ladder, and yet their life is full and complete. Their work, not their status, gives them fulfillment. It is clear that her resolve to raise her child in a better atmosphere stems more from her friendship with the nuns than from any other area.

The Painted Veil is a well-written, approachable, and at times heart-wrenching look at the human life. The title of the book comes from a sonnet by Shelley that says
"Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life", and yet that is exactly what Maugham does. He removes the veils and masks that cover us and forces to stare at our own natures, and to realize our own shortcomings. It is a call for each of us to focus, not on what we perceive our own happiness to be, but to achieve that "beautiful life" that can bring so much happiness and pleasure to those around us. I highly recommend it.

The Movie:

There are 2 main versions of this film. The first is the 1934 version starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall. I have not seen this version, but from what I have read it seems that names and plot suffer quite a bit.

The other is the 2006 version starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Diana Rigg. This is the version that got me interested in the story. It's a fairly decent movie, and it follows the book for the most part. The important thing to remember is that though the book and the film have the same plot, they are not telling the same story. Whereas the book is focused on Kitty's personal growth, the film concerns itself with the complications of Kitty and Walter's relationship. Thus you will probably find the film to be more romantic and the ending to be more "satisfying" than the book. Worth a watch, just don't expect the book to have the same feel.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Weekly Geeks 2011-14: Authors A to Z

You know how when someone asks you who your favorite author is? And you feel a bit crazy coming up with just one? Now is your chance to come up with 26 (at least) favorite authors by making a list of them ABC style.

This was a fun Weekly Geeks, even if it was hard for me to narrow down some of the names. Here's the list of my favorite authors from A-Z:

A) Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott
B) Charlotte Bronte
C) Wilkie Collins
D) Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle
E) Lief Enger
F) Gustave Flaubert, William Faulkner
G) Elizabeth Gaskell, Robert Graves
H) Victor Hugo
I) Kazuo Ishiguro
J) Brian Jacques
K) Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling
L) C. S. Lewis
M) L. M. Montgomery, Daphne du Maurier
N) E. Nesbit
O) Flannery O'Connor
P) Howard Pyle
Q) N/A
R) Marilynn Robinson
S) William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson
T) J. R. R. Tolkien
U) Unknown (like the author of Beowulf)
V) Jules Verne
W) Laura Ingalls Wilder, Evelyn Waugh
X) N/A
Y) N/A
Z) N/A

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Birthday To:

Today is the day the world remembers one who is considered by most to be the greatest writer in the English language...William Shakespeare. Born in 1564, Shakespeare would rise from obscurity to cement himself in literary history, and write many works that remain very popular today. I am a big Shakespeare fan myself, and while I adore his plays, his sonnets have a particular place in my heart. Below are some of my favorites. Let's celebrate the Bard today!

Sonnet 116 as seen in Sense and Sensibility

Sonnet 129 performed by Matthew MacFadyen in Essential Poems

Sonnet 18 read by David Tennant (Dr. Who)

Sonnet 130 read by Alan Rickman (Harry Potter)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Little Dorrit

She forgot to be shy at the moment, in honestly warning him away from the sunken wreck he had a dream of raising; and looked at him with eyes which assuredly, in association with her patient face, her fragile figure, her spare dress, and the wind and rain, did not turn him from his purpose of helping her.

There are few authors who can create characters that truly touch our hearts. Charles Dickens was a master of it. In his 11th novel, Dickens introduces us to many characters who, despite their overwhelming poverty, gain our utmost admiration and love. But this novel is more than just interesting characters. It is a critique of British bureaucracy, of a society separated by class, and a debt system that breaks the spirits of men.

The Plot:

After living in China for many years, Arthur Clennam has returned to England following his father's death. His father's dying words have led him to question his family's past and wonder if there is a wrong that he must undo. At the home of his invalid mother, Arthur meets Amy Dorrit, whom he soon discovers is the daughter of the "Father of the Marshalsea". Born and raised in the large debtor's prison, Amy spends her days working and caring for her proud father, her snobby sister, Fanny, and her idle brother, Tip. The more Arthur sees of the sweet and devoted Amy, the more he is determined to help lighten her cares any way he can.

As time goes on, more and more mystery begins to surround Amy and Arthur. What is the secret to the Dorrit family's past? What is the cold and harsh Mrs. Clennam keeping from her son? What part does the mysterious and dangerous Frenchman Rigaud play in it all? It soon becomes apparent that Amy and Arthur's stories are connected on a much deeper level than anyone could have ever imagined.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

That is a very basic plot summary, but as with any Dickens novel, it is impossible to sum up every single sub-plot. Just take my word that there are plenty of things happening in this novel. It could make your head swim at times. This is my seventh Dickens novel, and the more I read of him the more I love him. It takes a special person to tackle so many issues in a novel, and to put a human face on the problems of his (and our) times.

It is, of course, the human faces that remain with us long after the book is closed. Dickens does nothing better than create characters who will remain with you forever. Even the most minor character is distinct and complex. Though Arthur and Amy are like just about every other Dickens hero & heroine, the surrounding characters are as odd and flamboyant as one could wish. There's Flora Finching whose maturity didn't keep pace with her age. There's Pancks, whose rough exterior hides a heart of gold. There's John Chivery who is never more endearing as when he composes his own epithets. There's Mr. & Mrs. Meagles who are so simple and kind that you wish they were your own family. And there's Mr. F.'s Aunt who gets THE best lines in the book. Good or bad, frustrating or endearing, every character is a treasure.

Beyond the characters, it wouldn't be a Dickens without a commentary on life. Even though these stories are over 150 years old, they are often as relevant today as the day they were written. I love how in almost every one of his novels there is an unseen and intangible character that is a driving force behind the motives of most of the characters. In Little Dorrit, that unseen power is Society. Many of the characters live (and die) by the demands of Society. Nothing is done without Society's permission, nothing is deemed of worth if Society does not deem it so, and true praise can come from nowhere but from Society's lips. Over and over again we see characters sacrifice themselves and others in order to gain or keep Society's approval. Even those who do not worship Society themselves are often subject to its problems. That is definitely a theme that resonates with us today.

The other story line that we see played out even today is the story of Mr. Merdle. He is a man who is worshiped by all, simply because of his wealth. Though he is a self-made man, he lives in splendor, dines in the best homes, and is granted every favor. While simple men with great ideas (like Mr. Doyce) are left to flounder in red tape, every door is opened with Merdle's touch. Then the truth comes out...and Society pays for her blunder. Everything that was Merdle is revealed to be a lie. The splendor and the richness was nothing but a smoke screen with no real substance. The blinded public awakes to find themselves poorer or even ruined in some cases. And yet no one (except Arthur) ever thinks of blaming themselves, only the man who "did them wrong". Fast forward to today's economic situation and see if you can't find some similarities.

Though it took me awhile to get through its 800+ pages, Little Dorrit is still a worthwhile read. Its definitely up there with Dickens' other masterpieces like Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. If you haven't experienced a great Dickens novel, this is a wonderful place to start.

The Movie:

This particular Dickens novel has been adapted five times. The two most famous include the 1988 version starring Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, and Sarah Pickering. I have not seen this version.

The other popular adaptation is the 2008 version starring
Matthew MacFadyen, Claire Foy, Tom Courtenay, and Andy Serkis. This is a wonderful adaptation which I can't recommend highly enough. The sprawling story is streamlined without losing much, and the characters are played to perfection by some of Britain's finest actors. See my full review here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Great Literature on the Telly

I love when great works of literature get screen time on today's television shows. On a recent episode of NCIS, the team comes face to face with literary history when they investigate something hidden in a desk the belonged to William Faulkner. Fun for all literature buffs (and fans of classic film as well)!