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May 14, 2007

Maugham Moment

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Without intending to, I've stumbled into a Somerset Maugham phase over the last few months. I read Maugham's novella "Up at the Villa," I saw the movie that was based on it, and just yesterday I watched the film of Maugham's novel "The Painted Veil." Two out of three ain't bad.


The dud of the bunch was the movie of "Up at the Villa." Its dudness came as a surprise partly because the novella was so darned good. Maugham's insight and command are extraordinary in the book, which is set in pre-WWII Italy and which concerns a young English widow in need of both a husband and some love. Although Maugham tells the story with nary a wasted motion, and using a calm and controlled surface, he generates tons of charged emotional drama.

The other reason the dudness of the movie came as a surprise was that its makers Philip Haas and his wife Belinda Haas had made a very stylish splash with the 1995 "Angels and Insects." I didn't enjoy "Angels and Insects" much -- I don't care for conceptual / intellectual entertainments generally. But it certainly wasn't short on snazz or brio.

"Up at the Villa," by contrast, has zero style and brio. It's conventional and unremarkable, a movie for the least adventurous of the arthouse / foreign-movie crowd. The Haas's open up the novella's story with some unncessary plot complications and with a lot of emphasis given over to the era's looming fascism. Were they imagining that they were saying something, or perhaps making some kind of statement? Or were they run roughshod-over by producers or moneypeople? In any case, the film (which features one of Sean Penn's more flagrantly bad performances, and that's saying a lot) doesn't come off at all, The only real reason to see it is for Kristin Scott Thomas, who's miraculous: womanly, daring, elegant, impassioned. That woman can veer back and forth between poised and desperate like no one else.

Besides the novella, I also loved the film "The Painted Veil." Produced by and starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, and written by Ron Nyswaner, it's brilliant. Or perhaps I should just say that I found it involving, moving, and surprisingly intense. It's a romantic melodrama, centered on a spoiled upper-class brat (Watts) who lets herself be won and married by a middle-class doctor who's working in China. Once there, her egocentricity starts to find itself challenged in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Let me list some of what's remarkable about the film:

  • Its sense of scale. Though it's a period costume drama and was filmed in China, and though it certainly has its share of sets, landscapes, hairdos, and even a few crowd scenes, it's one of the least "sweeping" romantic costume movies ever. (It was directed by John Curran, who previously directed Watts in a movie I didn't care for, "We Don't Live Here Any More.") It's focused almost entirely on the psychologies and inner lives of its two main characters.

  • Ron Nyswaner's scriptwriting, which is staggeringly good. You know how many people are quick to judge "the writing" of a movie on the basis of whether it has some clever lines of dialogue? Nyswaner's work here (using the Maugham material, of course) is a textbook demonstration -- in a good way -- of how much of the work of a writer happens before the surface prose is troweled on. For example, the imparting of information. A good screenwriter will convey information in ways that are motivated, preferably visual, that are integrated with something that's of dramatic interest, and will set it in the narrative in such a way that it surprises, satisfies, and gets you wanting more.

    The narrative engineering: the creation of suspense, and contending with such questions as, are the characters working through what they're working through when and where it wants to be worked through? Does the moment portrayed bring to a head what we've seen so far, and does it set up what we'll want to see in the future? The subtext, or "what's really happening betwen the characters." A simple example might be: Character A says "Good morning" to Character B. "Good morning" is the text. But if the film has a dramatic structure, we in the audience might gasp and think, "Holy shit, she really nailed him good, didn't she?" The back-and-forth, unspoken drama that made us exclaim "Holy shit!" is the subtext. The placing and timing of character revelations. Does what's being shown us about the character right now enhance our understanding of him? Is now the moment for it? As for the dialogue ... Well, with some writers, dialogue comes last. It's a coat of paint on the skin of a car. 99% of the "writing" went into building the car.

  • The performances. The smaller roles in the film are filled out with skill and commitment. Diana Rigg is a dignified and worldly Mother Superior, for instance. And the two main supporting performances are first-class. Liev Schreiber seems at first like an odd choice to play a suave cad -- he's hardly the usual physical type. But he steers the performance through with a lot of likable / despicable conviction, and without being at all pushy about it. As a local official who has gone a bit native, Toby Jones brings more and more sides to the surface. If his character at first seems like a bit of an easy joke, he quickly grows surprisingly substantial.

    In the main roles, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are both superb. Norton's doctor starts out anxious and uncertain, grateful to have landed such a high-class beauty; he's OK with being a lovable loser. When complications arise, he finds his guts, his anger, and his pride. As the pressures increase, his fury takes on a scary, even insane quality. Finally, his emotions burn with a kind of serene purity. Norton fleshes out the guy's combination of humility, strength, and bitterness in direct and unshowy ways. It's a terrific job of movie acting.

    It's really Watts' movie, though. And what a performance she delivers. I thought her work here was on a par with her acting in "Mulholland Drive": inhabited completely from the inside out; full of surprises, shadings, and complexities yet also pinpoint-precise ... Whew. It's amazing that such a blandly pretty woman should command such a lot of gumption and acting power. Naomi Watts makes me think of what Sharon Stone might have become if she'd gone on developing as an actress instead of turning into a camp caricature of herself.

There's a kind of split that we're all too used to in some of our art. One kind of entertainment delivers story but no character depth; another kind delivers psychological intensity but forgoes story. "The Painted Veil" delivers both. It's amazingly harsh. In fact, it has some of the penetration of "Hedda Gabler" and "Miss Julie," or more recently the films of Catherine Breillat, such as "Romance" and "Fat Girl." Yet it isn't as near-abstract as those works. It also delivers lots of satisfying and startling story turns -- yet the narrative engineering doesn't drive the characters; it plays a service role, helping to show off the characters' inner lives.

One modernist line was that modernist lit and dramatic techniques were developed in order to reveal or set free this kind depth psychology -- that modernist techniques were in fact needed to attain this kind of penetration. But here's Maugham doing some pitiless psychologizing without violating traditional storytelling. This is fun, by the way, at least for those who enjoy tweaking the usual modernist account of literature, because Maugham was anything but a modernist. Hey, world: There's a lot more to reading-and-writing pleasure than the usual profs and critics tell you about! Come to think of it, I wonder what anyone thinks of my most recent theory, which is that many lit profs and lit critics don't really like fiction. What they really like is ideas, theories, and debate. Fiction? It's just grist for their over-intellectual mill.

Anyway, Maugham, like Chesterton, could be easily dismissed by those prone to doing such things as an artistic reactionary, perhaps even -- god, no -- a middlebrow. Yet, like Chesterton, he was also an awe-inspiring technician and talent. A giant, in fact. Some of his gifts: He was a great spinner of yarns; a great creator of complex female characters; brilliant at using the machinery of narrative to bring out his character's psychological predicaments; and beyond-brilliant at tightening the suspense-screws.

For all his many virtues, though, I think the one that has struck me most is that he's an amazing judge of how to scale a narrative. This isn't a minor thing to wrestle with when you sit down to write a story. How many characters does your tale require? How much plot do you have the energy for? How many climaxes? How many revelations? How long, in fact, does your story want to be?

In that way he's like a genius tailor with a flawless feel for proportion and line. The payoffs in the novella "Up at the Villa" and in the film "The Painted Veil" are pretty spectacular. There's a moment in the film, for instance, that consists of nothing more than Watts biting into some uncooked food. But the crunch of that food between her teeth conveys more oomph than any Dolbyized, CGI fireball that I've ever seen.

I should be more wary than I'm being of making confident claims, though, because I'm anything but a Maugham scholar or even buff. I've only read a couple of the novels, the one novella, and several collections of his short stories. Maugham was an inspired short story writer, by the way. His stories are nothing like the wan little tone-poem exercises that fiction workshops and The New Yorker have gotten us used to. Maugham's stories are robust and substantial things. They in fact deliver a lot of the heft, insight, and dramatic kapow of good novels. I enthusiastically recommend three volumes of his stories on audiobook as produced and read by Charlton Griffin. (Go here and type "Maugham" into the Search box.) They're some of the most satisfying audiobooks this audiobook lover has ever gone through.

So I'm curious to hear from those who know Maugham better than I do. Which titles can you recommend? Which can be skipped?

Merle Rubin reviews a recent biography of Maugham here. (Link thanks to Arts and Letters Daily.)



UDPATE: In the comments on this posting, Rick Darby reminds me that the recent film "Being Julia" was also based on a Somerset Maugham novel. How forgetful of me: "Being Julia" was also a movie I enjoyed very much. Rick himself is just back to blogging after contending with some no doubt scary heart challenges. Go wish him the best -- then stick around to enjoy his inspired blogging.

posted by Michael at May 14, 2007


I have this notion that any author who 1) sells well after half-a-century and 2) is not staple fodder for "English" courses...such an author has to be worth a read. The good thing with Maugham is that you can't go looking for stuff that's not there, nor can you idly extrapolate from what actually is there, because the story urges you rudely along. No layers, no myths, no symbols, no neo-post-deconstruction of androgynous short, unless you really strain, no lit-crit!

I rather like "Then and Now", a road-novel about Machiavelli, of all things. No big deal, it's hit and miss, but it leaves you wishing Maugham had done a Maurice Druon and taken the historical genre seriously.

What I really liked was "Quartet", the 1948 movie where he introduced four of his own yarns. An English production that was solid in the best possible sense of the word. It was followed by the worthy "Trio."

Posted by: Robert Townshend on May 14, 2007 7:08 AM

Here, here. Maugham is a terrific writer. I have two recommendations:

"Moon and Sixpence" - a novel about a Gaughin-like character who abandons his middle-class existence in Paris to pursue his avocation of painting in Tahiti. Interesting and absorbing.

"Cakes and Ale" - a novel/fictional account/memoir? about a writer's friendship with a Thomas Hardy-like late Victorian writer. But the story is upstaged by Hardy's not-quite-respectable second wife. This is a great book which I just loved. The final scene is about as boffo an ending as I can remember.

I'll look for "Up at the Villa" - hadn't even heard of it. I haven't read "Of Human Bondage" by the way - that's on my reading list.

Also, I completely concur with Robert T's first paragraph above.

Posted by: jult52 on May 14, 2007 9:38 AM

Michael, Maugham's best novel was "Of Human Bondage", which you can also find at Audible. From there we go to "The Moon and Sixpence" (also at Audible), then "The Razer's Edge", "Cakes and Ale" and "Liza of Lambeth" (at Audible, too). "The Painted Veil" has been recorded by a female and is available at Audible, as well. I read "Up at the Villa" some years ago, but I did not find it up to his usual standards. He was in his seventies when he wrote it, and you can feel a loss of vitality as compared to the bristling prose in "Of Human Bondage", his masterpiece.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 14, 2007 9:44 AM

I've only read Of Human Bondage, a very worthwhile novel indeed. One thing that struck me about it (apart from the perfect pacing and wonderful character depictions)was its image of wholesome fecundity as depicted by the Athelnys. It's certainly not impossible to find happy families in modern literature, or even big happy families. But most of the time they aren't really families per se, but adults of different age levels.
Athelny is remarkable in his attitude towards reproduction as a good and wholesome thing in itself and the novel rather seems to condone that view.

What a relief! Novels of the modern period never seem to tire of showing their dusgust and the souless reproduction of 'vile bodies.'

Posted by: Peter on May 14, 2007 9:47 AM

You didn't mention Being Julia, made into a film three years ago. It's well acted by a cast that includes Annette Bening, Michael Gambon (has there been a richer voice since Gielgud?), Jeremy Irons, and Juliet Stevenson, has a few good scenes and some good atmosphere of the 1930s London theater world. Somehow, it didn't add up to much for me, though. You may well feel different. (I've read Maugham's novel on which it was based -- not one of his best.)

The Razor's Edge, which is one of his superior novels despite a central character who's too saintly to be credible, has been filmed twice: in the 1940s with Tyrone Power and in the '80s with Bill Murray. The thought of either in the leading role has not induced me to see the films, but perhaps that's prejudice on my part.

I vaguely remember seeing the 1964 screen version of Of Human Bondage, which I recall enjoying, but I was young and impressionable then. It's time for a well-cast remake of Bondage by a talented director -- Anthony Minghella, maybe?

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 14, 2007 2:48 PM

I forgot to mention one of my favorite literary quotes, from Maugham: "I never stoop to symbolism."

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 14, 2007 2:51 PM

Of Human Bondage held miserable characters--miserable people who have no intellectual thankfulness. I never recommend it, I think the book makes one low even, apologies for Peter.

Posted by: Brian Hadd on May 14, 2007 6:32 PM

I was totally queer for Maugham back in college. I think I read a good chunk of the canon (he was a prolific mofo, and as an English major, I didn't have a lot of time for discretionary reading.

Charlton Griffin calls the hits, although I'll admit to an obsessive affinity for The Razor's Edge (which has yet to be made into a good movie, BTW--y'all can skip 'em, esp. Bill Murray, who wants so BADLY to be taken seriously in that movie it pains.)

Thanks for the reminder of such a grand, old favorite. I've been thinking of Maugham a lot, for whatever reason (probably all those DVD trailers for "The Painted Veil"), and summer is a perfect time to bust out the old faves.

Posted by: communicatrix on May 14, 2007 7:17 PM

Naomi Watts makes me think of what Sharon Stone might have become if she'd gone on developing as an actress instead of turning into a camp caricature of herself.

Oh, and as usual, your comments re: acting are scarily spot on. Especially for a civilian.

Posted by: communicatrix on May 14, 2007 7:18 PM

"The Painted Veil" is one of my most favourite books, and I liked the movie also.

I would recommend "The Razor's Edge" and "The Moon and Sixpence." I love Somerset Maugham, but for some reason didn't take much to "Of Human Bondage." Maybe I was too young; do-over.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on May 14, 2007 9:45 PM

Check out 1934's "Of Human Bondage". Bette Davis is a force of nature!

Posted by: Bradamante on May 14, 2007 9:57 PM

Maugham is one of the best writers around. I recommend 'Razor's Edge'.

Posted by: Sylvia on May 15, 2007 5:16 AM

THE RAZOR'S EDGE is one of my top-ten favorite novels of all time. I read it because it was recommended in a book on fiction-writing as a great example of successfully telling a story in the first person when the narrator is only a supporting character and isn't present when some of the pivotal turning-points in the story take place. Maugham violates one of the most common rules of novel-writing ("No flashbacks") in a key chapter that is all flashback, in which the protagonist fills the narrator (Maugham himself, writing himself in as a supporting character) in on his "missing years" and reveals the spiritual quest that has transformed him. Maugham begins this section with by saying to the reader something like, "I should advise the reader that you may skip this section and most miss anything in the story I am telling. However, I should point out that without this section, I would never have bothered to write this book at all." Genius! Who's going to skip this flashback after reading a teaser such as that?

Neither movie version does the book justice, although the earlier version is more faithful. I thought Tyrone Power was convincing in the lead role of Larry Darrell; he just wasn't what I imagined Larry to be like. Actually, by the time I got around to reading, the Bill Murray version was about to be released, and I read a movie-tie-in edition with Murray on the cover. Murray, I thought, was well-suited to the role; Larry, although "saintly" (if you wish to see it that way) is not stuffy, and often exhibits an appealling wryness and light-heartedness. Murray could have played the role just as Maugham conceived it and done a very good job. Unfortunately at the time people (maybe even Murray himself) had not discovered what a good actor he can be, and the character was altered to be more in line with the goofier persona Murray had in the early Eighties.

Posted by: Bilwick on May 15, 2007 9:16 AM

Maugham is in the first rank of writers of English literature. His prose is so transparent that anyone can understand it. His characters are a marvel. His grasp of the world and its bitter dilemmas is unparalleled. I have never fathomed why he has been ignored by academics and critics.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on May 15, 2007 11:11 AM

Although now out of print, you can find another great biography of Maugham by Ted Morgan here...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 15, 2007 2:23 PM

Loved The Painted Veil. Eerily enough, I also found myself thinking of Breillat while watching the movie, although the film of hers that came to mind for me was Brief Crossing, perhaps because it has some of the classical structuring which Michael cites Romance and Fat Girl as lacking, and thus seems closer in spirit to something like The Painted Veil.

I don't think there was ever a moment during The Painted Veil where I felt outside of the characters' inner lives. There's a charged, on-the-verge-of-spilling-over quality about the movie, which causes you to feel like you're constantly playing catch-up with the characters' emotions

It's a trim, tight piece of work too, which may be part of what Michael means when he praises its relatively intimate scale. With the possible exceptions of the ending and the scene with the Chinese warlord, I found there to be little fat on the movie. And the editing serves it very well: fairly complex feelings, chunks of plot, and even emotions are conveyed with cuts and transitions rather than with windy or laborious exposition. The entire thing feels planned out, but not in an obvious or school-roomy way.

Also liked Michael's bit about lit critics liking intellectual game playing more than actual literature. I think that's true of a lot of academics and highbrows, unfortunately. It often seems to me that these folks judge works, first and foremost, on their ability to yield viable essay topics--almost as though the critics were still back in college and trying to impress their professors. The problem is, it's often easiest to write about, and to project theories onto, works that are uneven or artificially/accidentally problematized. A movie like Spielberg's A.I. (which I hated) can yield all sorts of "interesting" theories in part because it's so all over the place and on-the-surface mind-fucky.

What all of this means, I guess, is that many intellectual types are more interested in their own capacities for idea-crunching than they are in the qualities we traditionally respond to in art.

Posted by: Ron on May 16, 2007 8:51 AM

Ron -- That's a great series of observations! I was struck the same way you were by the economy of the storytelling -- the movie is full of amazingly eloquent and efficient cuts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2007 10:09 AM

Maugham is one of my most favourite writers. You have inspired me to re-read Up at the Villa, and I can't wait to watch The Painted Veil. I read The Razor's Edge when I was about 20, but it was lost on me. I read it again about 6 months ago and really enjoyed it. I admire the main character Larry. I can understand, though, why some find his character unrealistic in this "harsh, acquisitive" modern world (Evelyn Waugh's words. Sorry, I have been reading/watching Brideshead Revisited).
After TRE, I had to read Of Human Bondage, which I liked even more.
Best of all, though, I like the short stories. There are few of them which fail to offer insight into some aspect of humanity, even after many readings, and so beautifully written - economical, yet eloquent. And they are so evocative, I think I would rather read one of these stories than watch just about any movie I can think of. My favourite short story is the one in which the irishman in the pub tells the story of the laughing ghost in the Spanish olive orchard - mainly because I love the description of the "breathlessly" still summer nights in the moonlit olive orchard.

Posted by: peter2 on May 16, 2007 9:55 PM

Maugham is one of my loves, too. Thank you for this post; you reminded me how to cure vague dissatisfaction with my reading of late - of course, there must be something of Maugham I didn't read!

So i took out from the library a copy of "Painted veil". I was afraid M's prose got a bit stale on me - after rereading past favorites, the "Pool" and "Letter". Too much drama and sentimentality, and the latter is way too long. The novel, however, is very good, right there with my expectations after reading your review. So far..haven't finished yet.


Posted by: Tat on May 20, 2007 8:49 PM

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