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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Monday, November 24, 2014

A great story by the near-forgotten Maugham that ends with a devastating line (I will not give it away)

Once upon a time ... everyone (but me) read Somerset Maugham, especially The Razor's Edge; the only book of his I've read, I think was a novel whose name I've forgotten about a colonial official who goes off to some pretty remote SE Asian capital, bringing his wife, and as I recall they get exposed to an Ebola-like virus and she dies - a good novel, and it provided me with a beautiful quotation that I used at my mother's funeral service. That said, Maugham hasn't exactly felt like a gap in my reading, as virtually no one talks about his work today it seems. But I've been turning occasionally to an old pb I have of Great European Stories, or some such title, and last night read Maugham's story The Colonel's Lady and thought it was terrific: a concise, painful, believable story about all that's wrong or could be wrong in a marriage. In this case, a Colonel retired to the English countryside; his wife is a "good wife" in every respect, or so he thinks, but she's not enough for him - too plain, too cold - and so he keeps someone "on the side" in London - he's all very clubby and class-conscious. His wife, Evie, publishes a book of poetry - he can't really even deign to read it but tells her it's "jolly good"; to his surprise, the book becomes a literary sensation (in that sense, this story is dated - otherwise, not) and he's "put out" by the attention she's receiving. So he reads the book and finds that it's a narrative about a lonely middle-aged woman and her deep love affair with a much younger man - who dies for love. Now the Colonel is deeply embarrassed angry; he talks to his lawyer about what he ought to do. The lawyer, a very sensible guy, tells me pretty much do nothing - and the Colonel comes around; the story is beautifully ambiguous - we never quite know whether she had such an affair or if she used her literary license - and he can never know, either - but we see very subtly and obliquely the enormous spaces between these two people and potentially between any two seemingly comfortably married adults. The story ends with a devastating line, which I will not give away - a question that the Colonel asks of his lawyer.

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