Saturday, June 19, 2010


I am currently reading The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, one of the great writers of the last century. My first awareness of Maugham was in 1964 when our family moved to Bridgewater, New Jersey, in Somerset County. One day while I was in the car with my mom in Somerville, we drove very slowly down a street with a row of old houses with porches. She slowed to a near stop in front of one, and said, "Somerset Maugham used to sit on that porch." She said it in that tone of which even though I was but eleven I knew meant something significant.

Maugham was 91 when he passed away the following year at his home in France.

There's no question that Maugham was a gifted writer. Reading The Painted Veil, one becomes intensely aware of his ability to describe in microscopic detail the inner workings of the human heart. I also think he is gifted at putting into words many of the thoughts and feelings we often conceal because we're too considerate. The seamless manner in which inner workings of the heart intersect with plot in this story is impressive.

Maugham was one of the highest paid -- if not the highest paid -- writers of the 1930's. In that pre-television era he was able to connect with readers who agonized while waiting for the next segment in his serialized novels and short stories.

His father and grandfather were lawyers, and as an uncertain youth he spent some time studying for a medical career. This Wikipedia note helps one to not only understand Maugham's ability to portray the cholera epidemic in The Painted Veil, but perhaps gives insight into why the Anton Chekov, himself a doctor, was such a master story teller:

Some critics have assumed that the years Maugham spent studying medicine were a creative dead end, but Maugham himself felt quite the contrary. He was able to live in the lively city of London, to meet people of a "low" sort that he would never have met in one of the other professions, and to see them in a time of heightened anxiety and meaning in their lives. In maturity, he recalled the literary value of what he saw as a medical student: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief ..."

Maugham carried the burden of being a homosexual at a time when it was less acceptable, a factor that complicated his life. He was not known to be a cheerful man. On one occasion while among the literati in Mexico City he departed for some other destination with his young partner. D.H. Lawrence famously remarked, "He wasn't happy here and he won't be happy there."

My two favorite Maugham short stories are The Verger and Mr. Know-All. Each has a payoff worth pursuing. The latter can be found in Volume I of The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham. The Verger will be discovered in Volume IV.


M. Denise C. said...

I want to read The Painted Veil. I enjoyed the movie with Edward Norton.

ENNYMAN said...

I, too, saw the movie first. I like Ed Norton. (This weekend I watched him in The Illusionist. Fight Club really put him on the map.)

re: The opening anecdote here where I mention driving slowly past a house in Somerville NJ... I spoke with my Mom about it yesterday after writing this and she doesn't recall it, and thinks it was some other writer. So it may not have happened as I remember it, though she is as muddleheaded as I when it comes to certain details... so who knows. It would make sense for Maugham to have a place in NJ since he was a playwright and Somerville is within striking distance of The City.