Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Satiated on Somerset Maugham

When I was about 15 I read The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. In it a shallow and selfish English woman marries - for all the wrong reasons - a timid man, who is devoted to her happiness. They move to Shanghai where he works as a microbiologist and she starts an affair with a handsome, married man. Her husband finds out and - timidity fading - gives her an ultimatum: if her lover promises to divorce his wife and marry her, he'll let her go, otherwise she has to travel with her husband into the interior which is rife with cholera. Well, it goes from bad to worse; not only is she terrified at the prospect of getting ill and dying, but her husband, meek and gentle no more, is the more terrifying for his newly developed spine and subtle emotional torture, something no-one could have forseen.

I read it many times over the next few years and I always found it very filmic. I could see every scene in my head so clearly. I knew there was an old Greta Garbo movie version of the story but I never got to see it and so I was very excited when the new version of the movie came out last year. I finally saw it last week with Barbara (on her recommendation) and even though it was not the way I had imagined it, it was so much better than I thought it was going to be. The film stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and the stunning Chinese landscape. There are some minor sways from the story, but it stands alone as a really watchable film.

Later in the week Turner Classic Movies showed three productions made in England in the 1940s/50s. Quartet (1948) dramatizes four Maugham short stories: The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel's Lady. Trio (1950) portrays three more: The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium. And finally Encore (1951) with The Ant and the Grasshopper, Winter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette. I had seen these films years ago and I taped them all and Ange and I watched Trio and Encore this weekend. I especially love The Verger and Sanatorium, which inspired one of our rare, unfinished tandem tales, called The Patient of Wildhaven. We wrote 34,000 words dammit - we should have finished it!

Then last Thursday, by crazy coincidence, TCM showed the original Painted Veil from 1934 with Garbo. I only managed to catch the last half hour. What a laugh! Garbo, in full magnificent makeup and nurse's veil, her low, accented voice so completely inappropriate to Maugham's shallow, selfish heroine. AND... *SPOILER ALERT*... it has a happy ending! ARGH!!!! Unreally awful and very missable apart from seeing the incomparable Garbo looking beautifully sad. What a face!

Ange is reading all the short stories this year and I think I shall do the same.

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