The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been reading about English “fish out of water.” I’d seen the movie “The Painted Veil” with Edward Norton a number of years ago, and it had made a deep impression on me. I’d made a mental note that someday I wanted to read the original book, which turns out to be absolutely magnificent, and far, far more problematic:

“The way that had seemed to stretch before her straight and easy and now she saw that it was a tortuous way and that pitfalls awaited her.”

In the introduction, Maugham writes that the story was inspired by a few lines in Dante, about a man who discovers his wife is adulterous and takes his revenge by transporting her to an unwholesome place where the miasma will kill her. Maugham updates the story to his own time (1920s) and sets it in rural China in a cholera epidemic, but he takes what might be sort of Jacobean “pot-boiler” stuff and makes it complex, because Kitty, though presented as shallow, is not your average heroine, and Walter, a sympathetic/unsympathetic character is less sure of his own vindicating rightness. And it doesn’t work the way Walter had planned.

It also doesn’t work the way the movie suggests, which was a bit of a stunner to me, although I eventually came around to thinking that was the right choice—they could not have stayed true to the book—while simultaneously being glad the book avoids easy answers. There is something here about the difference in the media. We could not have seen and understood Kitty if we had watched her from a distance. You have to be inside her subjective experience in order to hold on when the path is not straight and the victories are small and slippery. But it is a victory, I think, and I was grateful that Maugham didn’t gloss over the difficulties of trying to change. It made me think about addiction and what a disservice it is if we tell stories that suggest is it easy to overcome. Progress is not always a straight arrow.

Where Maugham gets minus points is his sentimental gloss (in my view) of the sisters of the convent and his careless treatment of the Chinese, who, with one exception, have no individual personalty and are casually described as in a way that suggests they are alien or even less than fully human. Not entirely unexpected for a writer of his time period, but it still makes me cringe as a modern reader.

If you can put a big asterisk by that short-coming, the book is still worth reading, because it’s a profound book, at least in the way he handles the English characters, and avoids the kind of easy answers that promise reformation through a single act of will or that romantic love will always flourish and provide salvation.