16 June 2008

Maugham and literary ambition

Lately I saw the film of W. Somerset Maugham's 'The Painted Veil'. Completely against my initial prejudice, I liked it very much and found that the landscape, the oppressive sense of heat and lack of air and its studied atmosphere hung with me for several days afterwards.

I especially liked the way its unpromising plot kept eliding my expectations and going places that were unlikely and surprising. I wondered about Somerset Maugham, who I've never read, and why no one seems to read him any more, when at one point in the Twentieth Century he was one of the staples of any enthusiastic reader.

I had his 'Cakes and Ale' on my shelf. I read it with relish and it is funny and dry and flattered me into thinking that I too would know a literary poseur when I saw one.

The narrator is an apparently successful author who is unexpectedly contacted by Alroy Kear, an old acquaintance and social climbing literary figure in London. He leaves us in no doubt about Kear's lack of talent:

"Though I have finished few of his novels, I have begun a good many, and to my mind his sincerity is stamped on every one of their multitudinous pages."

The urge to add italics to that withering second-last word is difficult to suppress.

Sincerity is of course a necessary precondition for the creation of kitsch. Lovely. A joy on every page.

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