Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)

An audio book is a different animal than a book. While plots and settings remain (mostly) the same in the hands of a narrator - or rather, in his or her voice  - characters become whoever the narrator wants them to be.  The narrator can use her voice, inflections, pauses, accents, subtly or otherwise, to create the character.  This is her job.  They must have an understanding of what the author was intending; but even then, I imagine there lies a bit of danger:  the character in your head may sound and act differently than the character in the voice of a storyteller, even though the words are the same.

I’ve never read The Painted Veil before, knew nothing about it actually.  So I don’t know what Maugham intended for Kitty Fane.  Looking at the variety of covers over the years, artists and publishers seem to have that same trouble.  She’s a sinner, that much is obvious.  But how guilty is she?  How guilty should she be?  Should she be punished?  Is she the lady in red?  A madonna to be, or always a whore?  Maugham calls her a slut at one point, slut shames her towards the end.  Does she deserve to be shamed?

The reader, Kate Reading, makes Kitty a sympathetic character.   And sad, so very, very sad.  It’s a sad story anyway; she’s a victim of her time and place (this story doesn’t work quite as well in a modern setting,  and although relationships can still trap people in various ways, I imagine the Fanes would have quickly divorced, as would have the Townsend, if Maugham were writing this today; of course, that doesn’t make nearly as interesting a story.).  How does Maugham want us to feel about Kitty Fane?  She is never particularly likable - but no one in the entire book is likable (except, for perhaps, Mrs. Charlie Townsend, at the end).   But Kate Reading at least makes us feel for Kitty Fane; we don’t necessarily understand her all the time, but we feel her loneliness, the inevitabilities of her life, her shame and agony.


"I'm looking for something and I don't quite know what it is. But I know that it's very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I'm with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me."  


Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Percy Bysshe Shelley


These covers from previous editions of The Painted Veil are everything wonderful about books.

First U.K. edition.  There isn't one evil Chinese person in the entire book, so what this sinister looking Chinese woman is up to hiding behind - I don't even know what, a blanket? a flag?  a bolt of cloth?  Kitty Fane looks right though.  I think she's probably just found out she's pregnant.  She didn't cry when Walter died.

First edition, U.S.  What the hell is even going here?  Kitty very elegant.  I love her dress.

This is a 1949 paperback and it's wonderful.  It's deliciously pulpy.  It slut shames Kitty Fane as only the covers of pulp fiction could do, back in the day.  She looks like she's a late 1940s pin up rather than the 1920s rather vulgar, almost but not quite flapper that she is.  The whole cover, including that Buddha, smacks of Exotic.

The copy I listened too.  It's boring, but her face certainly captures Kitty's hopelessness.  Not sure where she is in this picture, but the wraught iron looks like the porch of a 1970s mobile home.

I adore this cover, from 2009.  Kitty looks like a dream girl, and also looks like she feels like shit.  The mountains are vaguely Chinese.  Are those feathers or a fur?  The dress is everything.

This looks like Jane Austen time traveled to the 1930s.  Or Mia Farrow, circa 1962.

A German edition.  The two sides of Kitty Fane?  The woman in red again, slut shamed.  The other looks like Cruella deVil.

This Italian edition is weird as shit.  Kitty Fane looks way to 1930s film actress here, film actress at a 1930s health spa.

This Arabic version is so wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong.  I assume that man is Charlie Townsend, only he looks like a character from a 1970s soap opera (like Dallas only cancelled after one season).  Kitty looks like a poor man's Brigitte Bardot or maybe Julie Christie.  Or maybe the older daughter from Lost in Space.

The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If it weren't for the audio narration of Kate Reading, I'm not sure I would have liked this book as much as I did. Reading brings some sympathy to the agonized and ashamed main character, Kitty Fane; I think if I were merely reading this, I would have felt that Kitty was a bit melodramatically written, and maybe slut-shamed at that. Certainly, regardless of the format, Kitty's sexuality is on trial here; she's being punished for being a sexual being - but that's a standard thing in many novels: the trials and tribulations of desire and acting upon it.

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