For many years now – indeed, since my adolescent ken expanded past the usual barrage of books for children and young adults, perhaps around the age of thirteen – I have heard of the alleged talent of this British writer of moralistic tales. And for those same twenty years I have tried, often with a heavy heart, to inculcate myself into his world that seemed to be not so much dated as never properly alive. Take for example a selection from this famous novel about an unusual triptych – betrayal, the goodness of man, and China:
Her happiness, almost more than she could bear, renewed her beauty. Just before she married, beginning to lose her first freshness, she had looked tired and drawn. The uncharitable said she was going off. But there is all the difference between a girl of twenty-five and a married woman of that age. She was like a rosebud that is beginning to turn yellow at the edges of the petals, and then suddenly she was a rose in full bloom. Her starry eyes gained a more significant expression: her skin (that feature which had always been her greatest pride and most anxious care) was dazzling: it could not be compared to the peach or to the flower; it was they that demanded comparison with it. She looked eighteen once more. She was at the height of her glowing loveliness. It was impossible not to remark it and her women friends asked her in little friendly asides if she was going to have a baby. The indifferent who had said she was just a very pretty woman with a long nose admitted that they had misjudged her. She was what Charlie had called her the first time he saw her, a raging beauty.
Without further context, we note that we have learned nothing of detail about the character. These are surely platitudes, but they are also platitudes about something in which the author is no way interested, which should make us even less likely to believe its genuineness (Maugham was not particularly interested in young women and had trouble describing them). The other extreme, all too common in our sullied times, is to depict a character as the sum of his neuroses, ticks, or freakish qualities, the reason for such delineation allegedly being to allow less attentive readers to distinguish among a large cast – a strategy which should tell you all you need to know about their less attentive creators. In between these two oversimplifications lies true art, a tapestry of subtleties, mild contradictions, and occasional flashes of fatidic overlap. We will not say that the most recent cinematic version of the novel quoted above is a perfectly woven rug, but it improves markedly on the plain fabric of the original.
The title is a metaphor for life culled from a sonnet by Shelley, who died young at the height of his powers. To whom it may apply will depend on your knowledge of literary conventions and mores; let's just say that Maugham was not averse to relying on such formulas when bringing a story to its close. But it will also depend on the rest of the poem itself, a point to which I will return. The ostensible protagonists are three: Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts), the type of vapid and materialistic young woman for whom sympathy is not an option; Walter Fane, (Edward Norton) a painfully shy doctor and bacteriologist; and, in due time, Kitty's dashing, politically-connected boyfriend, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Kitty marries Walter mostly owing to parental influence: there is no love evident on her part and only infatuation on his. They travel together to mainland China (before, as it were, such terminology was used) so that Walter might investigate a cholera epidemic in the more provincial regions; initially, however, they take up residence in cosmopolitan Shanghai. What Kitty is supposed to be doing with her time while Walter devotes all of his attention to microbes is not hard to imagine, and she soon falls under the sway of Charles, or Charlie in the above passage, Walter's perfectly scripted foil. While Walter is meek, slight, almost squeaky in his mannerisms, not to mention completely devoted to causes that would make ordinary men shudder, Charles is tall, muscular, macho, and maliciously selfish. Many men are still befuddled as to why women at all times and from all places continue to find the Charles type, looks notwithstanding, irresistible, and it has little to do with blindness (a more masculine trait). No, Kitty, like so many other women, knows what Charles is all about. Charles is married and has no incentive whatsoever to leave his wife, but Kitty thinks she can convince him otherwise because even the most rebellious and unruly of men can be tamed by the right tamer. When Walter learns of their affair, he sadistically suggests that Kitty accompany him to rural China to help battle the epidemic or face a rather ugly divorce. Kitty runs crying to Charles – and, well, you know what effect crying, manipulative mistresses with no other recourse tend to have on their married lovers. The unhappily married couple leave together in silence to parts where few foreigners venture, and there our story, like its characters, starts to snake into more interesting territory.
The melodrama that obtains cannot be called creative or even pleasant, but it is in all ways correct. Norton is superb in his inner strength and outward patheticness, and Watts does embody someone for whom you could give everything up in an impulsive swing of mood. Their characters are cut from rather old stone and could easily be played with less proscription of emotion, yet a certain restraint, even on Kitty's part, evinces the need for human beings – all human beings – to justify what their life has become, whether or not they are mostly responsible for the results. Other figures float in and out adding some local and colonial color (another topic that is beaten past death and into purgatory), but the notes are held when needed and the arias replaced with incisive dialog that reveals much about each side of the argument. And there are arguments. Screams, hysterics, devastating accusations, but all with the placidity of a Sunday morning breakfast. What are they arguing about? Ultimately about morals, of course, in the guise of their own relationship, but also about what we are to find among our fellow men and women, even those from countries we don't really wish to visit. Which brings us perhaps to the end of that same poem and the fate of those same characters who seem to stare down destiny and march on:
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.