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Today's quote:

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Painted Veil

Somerset W. Maugham's story "The Painted Veil" confirms his belief that there is a true harmony in the contradictions of mankind and that the normal is in reality the abnormal. "The ordinary is the writer's richest field," he stated in THE SUMMING UP (1938), which also has become something of a guidebook for creative writing.

Maugham tells his stories in clear, economical style with cynical or resigned undertone. As he put it, "I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. It is a misfortune for me that the telling of a story just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favor with the intelligentsia. I endeavour to bear my misfortunes with fortitude."

He takes the title to his story "The Painted Veil" from Percy Shelley's Sonnet

" Lift not the painted veil . . ."

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.

and the story's 'punchline' "The dog it was that died" from Oliver Goldsmith's

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene'er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

Unfortunately, this line is not used in the superbly-made film of the same name which was shot on location in Guangxi province in China in an absolutely stunning landscape.

Maugham's travels and mine crossed many times even though he passed away the year I first set out to see the world. I once even stayed in the Somerset Maugham Suite in Singapore's Raffles Hotel!

Many of his stories are set in the islands of the South Pacific and in exotic locations in South East Asia, and they have been my travel companions during all those years. Here are some of them:

THE TREMBLING OF A LEAF - Little Stories of the South Sea Islands
German Harry
French Joe
The Lotus Eater