Sunday, February 17, 2008

Women I'm Not Sure I Would Like

Just before Christmas I purchased on impulse "The Maltese Falcon" mentioned below, and "Cakes and Ale" by W. Somerset Maugham. I love Maugham's style. I think "Of Human Bondage is one of the most amazing pieces of writing. I hadn't read this one so I grabbed it, even though we were moving and we didn't need more books.

Like much of Maugham there is real emotion struggling through the satire. The story is about an older writer who is asked for his recollections on a famous writer who has just died so that a hack writer can write the approved biography--approved by the surviving widow, the second wife. The older writer is Maugham, the hack may or may not be Hugh Walpole. The famous writer may or may not be Thomas Hardy--Maugham denied it. I will say that I guessed it must be Hardy before I read the Wikipedia entry for which I was quite pleased with myself. I had no idea it might be Walpole but that sort of proves the point. Also singled out for mention by name in the book is the real life person of Evelyn Waugh:
"A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr. Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice. I wish he had explained why, but he merely threw out the statement ... I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E.M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster... As we grow older we become more conscious of the complexity, incoherence, and unreasonableness of human beings; this indeed is the only excuse that offers for the middle-aged or elderly writer, whose thoughts should more properly be turned to graver matters, occupying himself with the trivial concerns of imaginary people. For if the proper study of mankind is man it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial, and significant creatures of fiction than with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life."
I looked this up. The book came out in 1930. Maugham would have been 55 and Waugh 26. Waugh's satiric novel, "Vile Bodies," would have just come out, and he would have probably been compared to Maugham for it. (Because everything I do or see is connected, "Vile Bodies" was recently filmed as "Bright Young Things," directed by Stephen Fry (see below) and featuring James McAvoy of "Atonement" (see further below)). In 1945, when Waugh was just entering his 40's he wrote "Brideshead Revisited," and had apparently revised his earlier thoughts as it is in the first person! One other bit of trivia I found fascinating was the narrator's observation of a young man's beauty--odd in a novel 0f 1930 even by a man who was avowedly bisexual. It was still illeagal in Britain.

Moving on. The story is primarily about the narrator's experience as a young man with the first wife. She was common and slept with many men, but unlike the women below who seem surprised to find themselves in bed with men, she seems to feel it's merely a natural extension. I make you a good dinner, we have good conversation and then we go to bed, and there are no more consequences tomorrow than from the dinner or conversation--it's what I have to give. This too is alien to me--though there have been times in my life when I wish it were more in my nature. Notes on the novel compare Rosie with Molly Bloom of Joyce's "Ulysses" which I have not yet read. Forces of nature--earth motherish. And yet, I question whether these women can exist--or whether sex will always be a little bit more of a hang-up for most women than for men. That somehow there is a sorrow in the going to bed, a loss, no matter whether it is desired or enjoyed. These women are written by men, and the other kind--the ones who have the low self-esteem afterwards are written by women. But is it only because society teaches girls that an "easy" woman shouldn't be proud that they feel themselves soiled. If McCarthy and Janowitz liked themselves better or were writing novels in which the woman is not being punished, woud they write women more comfortable with their own sexuality? And yet, even Maugham says that these are not women who inspire love, but only great fondness. What good is that, then? I was never big on women's studies in college, but reading these all in a row seems to really open the door to the question. I don't think that I've really ever met a woman that comfortable with sex. Some have said they were, but the scars were visible. Most earth mothers I've met have been quite monogamous.

Undoubtedly, Maugham is a little in love with his earth mother--certainly more than the second wife who makes the house look, "exactly like the house of a writer should look." I believe this is a not so subtle jab at his own society wife, Syrie, whom he had just divorced. There is also a pointed description of a patron of literature who can make or break a writer but if the writer should disappoint is more than vicious in her own sense of personal betrayal (I thought fleetingly of Oprah here).

At any rate it's a brilliant book full of both humorous satire:

"The Americans, who are the most efficent people on the earth, have carried this device to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated converstion without giving a moement's reflection to what they are saying and so leave thier minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication."

And within the satire a piece of agonizing honesty:

"It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant of a an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind."

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