Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/11/2015]

THE GENTLEMAN IN THE PARLOUR: A RECORD OF A JOURNEY FROM RANGOON TO HAIPHONG by W. Somerset Maugham (ISBN 978-1-55778-216-8) purports to be non-fiction, a break from the particular requirements of writing fiction. But there are a lot of incidents which seem very similar to the (fictional) stories that Maugham wrote. The story of the woman who followed her fiance all over Asia, finding him no matter how hard he tried to cover his tracks, seems more like a fictional construct than something that had really happened. The translator who eventually revealed that he translated all of Maugham's speeches of greeting to village headmen into the same speech, even though Maugham spent hours crafting a different speech each time, is too perfect as a story to be presumed to be true.

"But now that I come to this part of the book I am seized with dismay. I have never seen anything in the world more wonderful than the temples of Angkor, but I do not know how on earth I am going to set down in black and white such an account of them as will give even the most sensitive reader more than a confused and shadowy impression of their grandeur. ... It would be enchanting to find the apt word and putting it in its right place give the same rhythm to the sentence as he had seen in the massed gray stones. ... Alas, I have not the smallest talent for this sort of thing..." (Actually, he had several more sentences of the "apt word" sort.) Well, clearly he *does* have talent for this, but I do not, which is why when I was writing my Cambodia/Vietnam log, I got completely blocked at the Angkor Wat portion and eventually decided just to say that enough other people had written more and better that I was not going to try to be a completist about it.

Maugham writes about villages he visited unchanged by time--people live exactly as they did for hundreds of years. This may have been true in the 1920s, but now technology has reached into the most remote villages. Partially, this is because governments want to exercise more control, so all sorts of government workers visit villages, rather than just one minor official once every year or two. These workers bring with them technology. There are immunizations for the children, or an electrical generator, or (these days) cell towers. World War II resulted in a lot of roads and airstrips being built, and these along with motorboats and four-wheel drive vehicles make distributing consumer goods to remote areas more feasible.

At the end, Maugham compares Burma and Annam (Vietnam). He says, "I do not suppose the Annamites like it any more than the Burmese that strangers hold their country. But I should say that whereas the Burmese only respect the English, the Annamites admire the French. When in the course of time these peoples inevitably regain their freedom, it will be curious to see which of these emotions has borne the better fruit." While one might argue that Vietnam is indeed in better shape than Burma, whether this can be traced to the French rather than the English as colonizers is questionable. For starters, the Vietnamese had been promised independence from the French if they fought against the Japanese in World War II. After the war ended, the French returned, and it took almost ten years for the Vietnamese to throw them out. This was followed by what was effectively a civil war with American intervention for twenty years, which was followed by conflicts with Cambodia and China. Surely all this had as much effect on their emotions as any admirations they may have had for the French in the 1920s.

To order The Gentleman in the Parlour from, click here.

THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/29/2008]

THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham (ISBN-13 978-0-099-50739-0, ISBN-10 0-099-50739-0) was this month's selection for the "original" book discussion group. Mark and I had seen the movie a while ago, and Mark suggested the book for the group. The screenwriter changed a lot; more specifically, he added a lot. There is no aqueduct-building in the book, and no insurrection or civil war. (The ending is also significantly different.) I think the reason for this (besides wanting to add action sequences) was that the book was told entirely from the main character Kitty's point of view, and that was considered undesirable for the movie. First of all, it would mean that the lead actress would be in every scene, which is hard work. And second, this in turn would make the film "a woman's film", at least to the backers, meaning that it would not attract a wide enough audience. So the screenwriter added scenes of Walter Fane in the lab, scenes of Walter Fane in the hospital, scenes of Walter Fane by the river, and so on. Of Kitty's feelings about the nuns and their life and emotions--the main focus of the book--very little is left.

They also moved the location of the British "colony" from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, for reasons I can't figure out. (Maugham himself had to change it from Hong Kong to the fictional Tching-Yen when the book first came out for legal reasons.)

The notions of marriage in THE PAINTED VEIL seem very similar to Jane Austen's: Kitty is pressured to marry by her mother because, as she ask, "How long can you expect your father to support you?" Also, her younger sister gets engaged and Kitty feels she must marry, or be "shamed" by her continued spinsterhood. This is expressed more explicitly in the novel, which gives more of Kitty's history, rather than just the few days before her wedding.

To order The Painted Veil from, click here.

Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.