Tag Archives: satire

Somerset Maugham’s “Catalina”–When a satire is good-humored

There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one.  This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity.  It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book.  I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised.  Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.”  I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved.  Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.

And this is the point:  we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute.  Maugham is none of that in this book.  We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s EdgeThe Moon and SixpenceOf Human Bondage.  Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first.  To begin at the beginning:

Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle.  She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame.  His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household.  So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed.  And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen.  The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you.  He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.”  So far so good.

But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers.  In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to.  They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy.  When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign.  In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone.  But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work.  With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group.  So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try.  Again, it doesn’t work.  They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin.  They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church.  They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head:  it works, and she is healed.

The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily  interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego.  They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.

Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself.  A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.

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The Best-Laid Plans–Sarah Dunn’s “The Arrangement”

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” which is just to say that no matter how well we think we’ve planned, destinies have a way of coming along to f–k us up, the more as we’ve planned the harder.  In the upscale suburban community of Beekman in Sarah Dunn’s hilarious comic novel The Arrangement, the planning concerns marital conditions which range everywhere from ordered though mildly boring to outright acrimonious and divorce-prone.  Different couples in the community, though different in various ways, are mostly the same in the ways they’ve organized their lives around their children’s schools and future well-being, mostly college-bound young people as they are.  Trendy stores and shops are there too, but they are trendy in a very recycling-cum-farmer’s market-cum-craft shop-cum-socially conscious sort of way.

Enter Lucy and Owen, an apparently loving and overwrought young couple dealing with a child under ten, Wyatt, who shows characteristics both of autism and ADD, or even ADHD.  They have done all they conscientiously can to improve his life, but he is totally out-of-control a good part of the time.  This eats away at Lucy, whereas Owen deals with it by strategically (and usually successfully) coming up with redirects for Wyatt’s attention.  The couple also socializes with other couples in the community mostly just as they would were everything “okay,” which is an odd way of pretending that nothing is wrong when it clearly is.  Yet, no reader who has covered the first fifty pages or so would assume that there was anything wrong with the marriage itself, so the “remedy for no disease,” as it were, is odd.  What I mean to refer to is their assumption that they might benefit by adopting an “arrangement” which another couple tells them about at a private dinner they are sharing:  the open marriage.  The couple tells them that the arrangement is only for six months, and that there are ground rules.  They are intrigued, but at first don’t assume it’s an arrangement meant for them.

After a while, however, they finally decide to go ahead with it.  Their ground rules include things like “No texting (or sexting) to the other man/other woman inside the house,” “no falling in love,” “no more than a six month’s time span,” “no discussion of the situation in depth,” etc.  At first, Owen is all excited over the plans, and finds someone almost immediately, a craft store owner named Izzy.  Lucy takes a little longer, but finds someone, Ben, through a friend.  They’ve agreed that they don’t need to discuss things about their meetings, but the funny thing is that they end up lying to each other and being deceitful as if there were genuine, old-fashioned, unequal affairs going on.  And, Izzy ends up intruding into their marriage in a way that’s entirely inappropriate to the arrangement; Owen, over the course of time, realizes that she is sort of “crazy,” as her ex had conveyed to him when they spoke.

A lot of the humor of this book arises from the fulfilling of expectations which should have been perfectly normal with a regular old-fashioned affair, and the odd way both Lucy and Owen are startled when this happens.  There’s also a marvelously funny scene in which the whole community participates in a “blessing of the animals” at the local church, with mismatched and unlikely (and dangerous-to-mix) animals, who abruptly rebel from their owners and commit havoc on the surroundings and on each other:  this is the perfect symbolic scene for the themes of the book, or perhaps I should say the scene is the perfect objective correlative, for the people themselves and how they run their lives.

That the book ends more of less happily is due partly to the fact that Lucy and Owen, after spending time living apart while Lucy is falling out of love with her own friend, Ben, as Owen has done with his, Izzy, manage to get back together.  But for the satirical light of the book, this happens against a backdrop of other couples breaking up or making less happy arrangements for their lives.  To make Lucy’s and Owen’s way a little easier, Wyatt shows some signs of getting less erratic and concentrating more on what people say to him

Note that this book is in no way a heavy duty intellectual challenge.  It’s funny in a light way, well-written and free of most grammar and style errors, and a delight to read for its witty dealings with upper middle-class lives and mores.  It would be good to see other offerings from this author to see if there’re more scintillatingly satirical works in store.

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