I picked up a copy of The Painted Veil to fill the gap in my reading schedule between finishing Death in the Andes (great!) and waiting for my copy of American Rust to show its face (also great!…I hope). It was my intention to go with something “lighter.” I was curious about Maugham because he holds this kind of odd place in the canon whereby he’s regarded with some respect, but he’s rarely considered as a participant in the strictly regimented ranks of Literature. I decided to check it out.
First, let’s talk about the novel’s strengths: Maugham’s truest talent is a sense for character, and that predilection is on full display in this novel. The Painted Veil is the story of one Kitty Fane (originally “Kitty Lane,” but the Lane family threatened to sue Maugham unless he changed the moniker). The book is centered on her relationship with her husband—a taciturn, government bacteriologist.
The novel opens with Kitty en-media-res in her affair with a dashing, colonial Sub Prefect. The setting is Hong Kong in the 1920s, and Kitty, bored with her husband, disdainful of his lack of social pluck, has embarked on the affair out of a petulant desire to live the life to which her moneyed London upbringing has made her feel entitled. Her husband (name of Walter) finds out—naturally. However, due to the dynamics of Walter and Kitty’s relationship, this discovery leads them in some interesting directions.
Rather than making a scene, or allowing the affair to pass comfortably under the rug, Walter undertakes the miraculously passive-aggressive move of volunteering to administer to a cholera outbreak in a remote Chinese city. He presents Kitty with a decision: follow him into almost certain death, or face ruin by divorce and scandal. Kitty follows him and, in the dying wilds of China, undergoes a transformation, pulling slowly away from the narcissistic trappings of her life as a society girl.
Maugham treats this story with what can best be described as “efficiency.” We’re thrown into the action as quickly as possible and things progress mechanically to their higher pitch. There is lots of dialogue, which makes sense, as dialogue is far and away Maugham’s strong suit. When he’s relegated to rendering passages of narrative, his writing becomes clunky. The problem isn’t just that it lacks flair. There is a sense for the music of words that has nothing to do with overwrought vocabulary (see John Fante), but nonetheless makes prose, on a very fundamental level, “click.” Maugham never slaughters his narrative passages outright, but he shows none of this ear for rhythm. He forges his narrative like a man building a tract home. The structure is without fault, but, at the same time, it’s almost embarrassingly deliberate.
For all its literary-ness and nineteenth century trappings, The Painted Veil reads surprisingly like a screenplay. Dialogue is given priority and the forward momentum of plot is addressed before all other considerations. There are even a couple scenes where you can almost see Maugham’s “camera” panning over the Chinese landscape.
She looked in the direction she pointed and there, on the top of the hill, saw an archway; she knew by now that it was a memorial in compliment of a fortunate scholar or a virtuous widow, she had passed many of them since they left the river; but this one, silhouetted against the westering sun, was more fantastic and beautiful than any she had seen…She was passing a grove of bamboos and they leaned over the causeway strangely as if they would detain her; though the summer evening was windless their narrow green leaves shivered a little.
I’ve just quoted what is probably the most lyrical passage in the book. The rest is taken up with the forward momentum of the plot; a plot that is rendered competently, without ever going astray, and works with the dispassion of a machine. This isn’t, however, to say that the novel is completely devoid of emotion. Though its structure smacks of pre-engineering, its characters are tender, complex and, for the most part, likable.
Walter Fane especially is an excellently rounded character. He’s shy, withdrawn and melancholic, but he is also incredibly smart and, in his way, brave. It is revealed at one point that he married the somewhat vacuous Kitty in spite of her society trappings, not because of them. Walter’s love for his wife is genuine, and when he finds out about her affair he is so stung that he feels himself compelled to act. Being a man whose every action is over-thought, Walter does not throw a tantrum or create a very public divorce, but instead sentences himself and his wife to death by dragging them like martyrs into a remote and cholera-ridden village. He’s a talented man, but lacks the ambition and bluster needed to achieve Great Things. Kitty, at first, was unable to see these subterranean virtues that her husband possessed, and the most interesting of the novel’s plots is her gradual awakening to the fact that her dull, society-averse husband is in fact a man of great complexity and courage. It’s a very human story and makes a fascinating study of what is otherwise a fairly routine exercise in storytelling.
Though I enjoyed The Painted Veil, it was hard for me to become excited about it. The novels that I most appreciate take some kind of a leap into the unknown and with Maugham, there are no leaps. Carefully trod tightropes, perhaps, but certainly no courageous dives. He has a formula, he knows it works, and his project is the perfection of that routine. The Painted Veil isn’t offensive, but it isn’t a novel in which you can become lost.
It seems that Maugham is almost the prototypical “bourgeoisie” novelist. His work is what William Gass groused about when he remarked that the novels of the past two centuries were, “much too enamored with the middle class.” In The Painted Veil, we’re shown more than a few of those noxious stereotypes that tend to seduce casual book clubs and softly left-leaning readers.
There is the middle-class housewife protagonist, the “travelogue” feel of exposure to new climates, the belief in the purity of the religious life, the prototypical moral journey, the forced “exoticness” of the Chinese people in comparison with their European observers.
I don’t think Maugham was so cynical as to deploy these clichés maliciously, nor do I think his work is rendered useless because of them. No matter what else is sacrificed in service of plot, the characters that he renders are nearly unimpeachable. But the problem with Maugham, and why his novels haven’t quite entered the canon, is that his work doesn’t leave enough room for exploration. There’s no mystery in it. You can spend a lifetime with Shakespeare or Kafka or Flaubert, or even Dickens, and still have the text reveal to you new insights on a daily basis. The Painted Veil does not have that depth.
Oddly enough, what The Painted Veil feels most closely akin to is a screenplay. With its focus on dialogue and plot, and its ample opportunities for employing cinematic vista, the novel would function well on the screen. Yep, sure would.