A great writer, a truly great writer, takes the ordinary and transforms it into a compelling tale. He is able to weave a beautiful tapestry from the most commonplace of materials; things that we all find laying cluttered around our lives. Betrayal, depression, frustration, lust. Not epic betrayal that destroys nations, but personal acts of inconsistency that end in suffering. Not great depression, like Sylvia Plath, which was channeled by an enormous spirit into an indomitable art, but a petty personal depression made of up self-pity and envy. Not frustration against the great plans of men gone awry, but simple frustration brought from boredom. And lust – not a great lust like Helen of Troy or Tristan and Isolde, but an average lust stemming from all these things.
In W. Somerset Maugham’s simple story “The Painted Vail” he does just this. Set against the backdrop of colonial Hong Kong, the tale is of a colonial housewife of a lower level civil servant, who settled for a man she really didn’t love out of fear of missing her moment and ended up embarking upon a lackluster tryst which ends in folly.
There are no great morals to take from this story, no epic moments of significance, no grand gestures or powerful monologues that seek to assure the reader that there is an underlying idea that the author is trying to convey. It’s just a story, simple and honest – and for that it is great.
Of course Maugham wrote in a different time. I suspect that his Victorian era “classical” style would not be well received in a time when the public hankers for long car chases and grand gun battles against the backdrop of world-altering geo-political struggles – and plenty of flesh in between. He was able to simply tell the stories of normal people and their unremarkable interactions. I envy him for this – I would like to write the literary fiction that Maugham was able to get away with, and not have to worry about all the tools and tricks and hooks upon which we are taught modern literature depends. But alas we are products of our time – as was Maugham.
To be sure, Maugham is one of England’s greatest writers; one who has distinguished himself up against so many who will remain forever anonymous. Then, as now, he was treasured for the simplicity of his stories that overflowed with humanity. He is missed; and for the critical reader, he never disappoints.