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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Somerset Maugham and Gauguin's Child of God

A recent BBC programme, The Private life of a Christmas Masterpiece considered Gauguin’s Te Tamari No Atua (God's Child), a re-imagining of the familiar nativity scene, the Madonna lying exhausted on a bed, blunt- featured, dark-skinned and stocky, easily recognisable as Gauguin's 14-year-old pregnant mistress.

The programme mentioned how Somerset Maugham, researching the novel that became The Moon and the Sixpence.

The visit is recorded in A Writer’s Notebook (p117-118), and in a 1950’s interview, later published in Apollo.

Maugham said: 'There was such an informal and merry atmosphere about the Tiare Hotel, that we could easily overlook some of the primitive features of bedchamber and plumbing, to say nothing of huge flying cockroaches, the pariah dogs and cats who fornicated all night long on the metal roof or in the free space under the dwelling.'

The prime attraction of this hotel was its proprietress, the fat rollicking Louvaina Chapman, of Tahitian, French and Scandinavian blood, who had befriended Gauguin on numerous occasions. Her mouldy ledger still contained, stuffed between its ink-smudged pages, many of his unpaid bar-chits.

'No mattah! No mattah!' Louvaina told Maugham ... 'If he no hab monnee, dat hokay. I like talk wit' him, 'cause he hab many new t'ings tell me. Vahines (girls) let him paint dem noho (naked), an' dey tell me he vairee goo' lover. Too bad he hab badluck here in Tahiti ...'

As Maugham remarked: '... When I arrived in Tahiti in 1917, Gauguin had been dead for less than fourteen years, so there were many people still living in Tahiti and the Marquesas who remembered him very well. My research was able to progress remarkably, indeed, thanks largely to Louvaina.

Dear loveable fat lady! She was so huge, draped loosely in a pink Mother Hubbard dress. She was always singing or laughing, her triple chins forever shaking jelly-like. So kind and generous, a heart larger than herself. She told me many previously unknown things about Gauguin's life in Tahiti. I felt Louvaina was too outstanding and colourful not to include her in my novel on Gauguin. She became Tiare Johnson in my The Moon and Sixpence, and her lively rundown boarding-house Hotel de la Fleur. Louvaina died just few months after I left Tahiti, in the calamitous 1918 influenza scourge. I mourned her passing.'

Louvaina had introduced Maugham to the chieftainess in a village on the south coast of Tahiti, from whom he learned of a Gauguin painting on the glass panes of a native's hut in the district of Mataiea ...

'I found the wooden frame dwelling, hidden in thick foliage on the southern coast of the island. When I saw the painting, strangely executed on the upper glass panes of a door, I was spellbound. An original Gauguin! How it had escaped not being carried away by a collector, I could not understand. However, it was a good thing I came along when I did and bought it. There had been other doors in the front of the hut painted by Gauguin, but the children of the Anani family had scraped them mostly away with their fingernails. Had I left the remaining painting where it was, it would have been shortly destroyed, also. I gave the native man two hundred francs and he was very happy with the transaction.'

Gauguin had given it to the farmer in 1892 after the farmer had looked after him when he was sick from syphilis. The painted glass took pride of place in the writing room at Villa Mauresque, Maugham’s glamorous home for most of his life.

But The Private life of a Christmas Masterpiece also suggested that Gauguin did not understand the title he gave to his most famous painting. Te Tamari no Atua, always translated as God’s Child, is actually a plural. The mistake is attributed to Gauguin’s less than precise Tahitian, but if – as it is – the painting is a radical re-imagination of the Nativity, then it may not just be that haloed child that belongs to God, but the child-mistress-Madonna, the women tending the infant, and – why not - even the cattle in the background and that white cat nestling at the Madonna’s feet, and with that plural the suggestion that God does not discriminate, purchase or value us at differing rates.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Letter to an Unknown Woman

Go into most Paris bookshops and you will find the final shelves mainly occupied by the works of Stefan Zweig – the plays, the essays, the libretti, memoirs, the historical biographies, the too few attempts at a novel, and the short stories and novellas that are the heart of his achievements.

Thanks mainly to Pushkin Press, these works are more available to us in translation than formerly, and Chess, Amok, Leporella and Moonbeam Alley.

Once Zweig was a global figure, and now, in English anyway, he is one of those writers deeply loved and little known – the type a Nicholas Lezard or a Clive James hymn – the secret superstar, a high church writer for the devout reader.

In being so little known and unjustly forgotten, recommendations become inflated, and so Zweig can be made to seem almost saintly, and his work must bear the weight of all the history that inform his times yet his best work, while minor in scale and focus, is also raw and obsessive, tales of madness, either lifelong or momentary, most often framed by a narrator intrigued but seldom touched by the lives he relates.

It’s almost exhilarating, then, to read Michael Hoffman’s dismissal of the man and his work in LRB, not only because it is gloriously bad-tempered and painstaking in its exasperation that anyone could be fooled by such a writer, but also an effective antidote to the praise that embalms Zweig’s work.

Quite simply, Zweig was not a great writer, not a subtle one and not a consistent one, but, the bit between his teeth – as in Chess or Amok or Letter from an Unknown Woman – he is good – really good – at showing how panic, fear, lust or hatred animate a character, animate the tale that the character inhabits, and involve and deliciously infect the reader who is consuming that tale.

And being really good is all a writer needs to be to make us ache to endorse and recommend him to others. Greatness brings a chill, and sometimes those less than great – Somerset Maugham is something of an equivalent and differently equivocal figure – can warm us to an enthusiasm that is not dulled by respect or obligation.

And, as a fan of all things Ophuls, and also of all things David Thomson - who may well be the most Ophulsian of all writers on film - I bring you this endorsement of the film of Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Zweig’s short tale is bitter and thoroughly unsentimental - for Zweig, romance is, more truly, a sickened pathology. Zweig catches obsession's every high and bum note and yet Ophuls, faithful to the tale, somehow makes it all tender and forgivable, too: the woman in Zweig’s tale is pinned as remorselessly by Zweig as she is by her enduring adoration of a feckless male: Ophuls has her ennobled by it.

Ophuls makes Lise - see, she is not an unknown woman to Ophuls – transcendent: love’s martyr. I am far more tender towards Ophuls depiction of Lise - and to Joan Fonatine's performance - than Thomson is here, but, as ever, he illuminates, especially when his attention alights on Louis Jourdain.

You should never take memory for granted. ­After all, remembrance is not a reliable scientific process helping us to ­understand the past. It can be simply the projection of our wishes, the thing that has made us walk crookedly all these years when we believed we were upright and straightforward.

Take Letter from an Unknown Woman, made by Max Ophüls in 1948, and now brought back in lustrous restoration by the BFI. You should see it, of course, just because it is Ophüls, because John Houseman produced it and Howard Koch adapted it from the Stefan Zweig novella. These are all first-rate contributors – then there is Franz Planer, who shot its Vienna of 1900; there is Travis Banton, a drunk on the slide, fired by Paramount and Fox, but able to design one more great costume picture. And the film has Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in the leads – they are good, of course, but they seem to have switched roles. When I first saw the film – at eight, I suppose (too young, but my mother had taken me) – Fontaine was emphatically the lead. It was a film about her, Lisa (or about my mother and me). Now I can see that it's a movie about Jourdan's character, Stefan Brand.

Lisa lives with her mother in Vienna in an apartment in a courtyard of flats. She is 16 and Banton does miracles to make ­Fontaine (actually 30) feel that age – but all the clothes he gives her are just adornment to her complete embodiment of a helplessly romantic teenager. A man moves into another flat in the courtyard – Stefan, a concert pianist, handsome, vain, self-centred. And Lisa falls in love with him from a distance, the kind of uncritical love that appealed to a boy of seven or eight.

But Lisa's mother finds a second ­husband. The new family moves to Lind, to Lisa's chagrin. So as soon as she is old enough, she goes back to Vienna and gets a job modelling in a clothes shop. She hangs around near the old courtyard until Stefan notices her. He is at a crisis point, one she identifies. He has had too rapid a rise as a pianist but he knows it came too easily. His music has not found itself yet, and if it counts on his character rescuing it, then it may be lost. Decadence and repetition are creeping into his act.

He does not remember Lisa, the kid. But he takes up the young woman, and in a beautiful, prolonged nocturnal sequence he woos her – and begins to find himself – before taking her back to his apartment, in her old building, for the one thing he measures women by. There is a brief affair but then he has to go off to Milan for a ­concert. He will be back in two weeks, he says. She is at the station to see him go, in agony. He forgets her again, and she never tells him she is pregnant from their romance. She does not hold it against Stefan. But she finds an older man – decent, honourable and interesting – who will marry her and who longs for her son to call him "Father".

In 1948 or 49, whenever my mother took me to see the film, I fell in love with it as our picture on the wall. The boy sleeps in the mother's bed, and he yearns to have a father. I understood those things – you see, the film was unsuitable for me, yet a key to understanding. And I saw Joan ­Fontaine as a breathtakingly classy and dream-like version of a perfect mother – why not? Movies were made like that in 1948. Well, one evening at the Magic Flute, Lisa and her husband see Stefan. He has changed; there is grey in his black hair. He is now the former pianist – a man of the world and many affairs, a glib piano-player who hardly plays, a wastrel. In Louis Jourdan's performance, I notice how his way of talking has changed. The younger Stefan was boyish, eager and open. Ten years later, the man is filled with self-loathing and fake ironies. But Lisa cannot see this decline – or if she does, she cannot see any other course than try to rescue the man.

She offers herself to him again – but he can't remember her. This is tricky to ­manage in a movie where the imagery is so immense and so radiant and the action is only 90 minutes. But Jourdan does it very well. He is fuddled. He uses other people so much as mirrors that he does not notice them for themselves. It is clear that he is entirely unworthy of her adoration or infatuation.

I won't tell you how the story ends – that would be unfair, though I think if you see the film afresh now, you will feel that the melodrama is a little heavy-handed at the end. But we have known all along that Stefan's perilous thin-ice life has let him be challenged to a duel, and we gather that he is not expected to survive. Indeed, he plans to be away before dawn – he has a manservant (played by Art Smith) vital to the whole story. His escape is only ­prevented because he receives a long ­letter, a letter from an unknown woman. When he starts to read it, the story it ­contains dooms him.

This was always a Hollywood film, ­produced by William Dozier, who was ­married to Joan Fontaine at the time. No matter that the story concerns a pianist, it has a lavish score (by Daniele Amfitheatrof) making ample use of the plaintive solo violin that tells your heart to be ready to break. The "Vienna" is well ­rendered – as befits Alexander Golitzen, the head of design at Universal at the time.

The chief problem now in watching the film is how Fontaine's heroine has dated. Her infatuation with Stefan is not just for him but for the whole scheme of infatuation. Neither does it have any back-up in a portrait of Lisa that knows her neurotic problems, her unduly sheltered life or her vibrant sense of unreality. There may have been women as infatuated in Vienna in 1900, in the world of 1948, or in 2010. That doesn't help the way in which the character now comes across as feeble or empty-headed. She is prepared to ­surrender her imagination to Stefan now in ways that strike us as archaic and ­disastrous. Surely the woman at the end has seen through his masquerade. Surely she has more on her mind than to be his adoring victim.

Fontaine was widely praised for her performance at the time – for the ease with which she goes from the kid to a sophisticated woman. But the performance looks posed and mannered now, as if a mother was absolutely confident that she played with her young son, and that he swallowed her idealised but destructive version of what love is. The mother and son do not come out of the experience well – to put it mildly. And in part, that's the foolish ­dictate of melodrama. The whole thing needs a different ending, one in which the son might see the mother's stupid error.

But that's asking for a lot. So Fontaine has to be taken carefully now. But Jourdan's lothario has improved beyond belief. Jourdan was actually two years younger than Fontaine – I wonder if he dared tease her. But both of them had been put under contract by David O Selznick (Jourdan had been in the ­resistance during the war) – and thus they were loaned out for Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Fontaine flourished briefly. She was outstanding as the "I" figure in Rebecca, just missing an Oscar. But then the Academy caught up with her on Suspicion. She was a romantic lead until the mid-50s, but not much longer, and she was – is – the ­sister of Olivia de Havilland.

Louis Jourdan did less well: he was the groom in Hitchcock's The Paradine Case and Rodolphe, opposite Jennifer Jones, in Madame Bovary. Ten years later, he had a hit as the man in Gigi. And here's the remarkable thing: he and Fontaine are still alive – aged 92 and 90. Stefan Brand was his great performance – filled with ­self-hatred and unease – but I'm sure in 1948 he guessed he would be hardly noticed next to Fontaine. I talked to Jourdan once; he was a very handsome man still at 70, intelligent, hushed and somehow broken – he had had a son who had killed himself. I think he knew ­reasons for being out of love with himself. But of course, in 1948, there was only one place to be in a film – that was "in love", so any idiot in the ­audience could be swept along on the glib music.