Wednesday, June 29, 2011

William Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage

William Somersert Maugham

Many critics consider Of Human Bondage (1915) to be the great masterpiece of William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965).  I haven’t read the book since my earliest youth, and a longing for Maugham (or, perhaps, my youth) led me to reread the novel.
Bondage is the story of Philip Carey, born with a clubfoot and a deeply sensitive nature.  After the death of his mother, Philip is sent to live with his cold and distant uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, where he is largely unloved or ignored.  Philip soon goes to school, where his clubfoot is the source of some ridicule, but young Carey does well and seems destined for Oxford.  Instead, yielding to impulse, Philip moves to Heidelberg to study on his own.
Returning to England, he enters into an unsatisfying romance with an older woman before moving to London as a chartered accountant.  Unhappy in an office, Philip then goes to Paris to study painting.  He lives a wonderful Bohemian life until a fellow failed art-student, Miss Price, commits suicide.  Though he has had a great deal of pleasure in Paris, Philip realizes he’ll never be a ‘great’ artist, and returns to England.
It’s in London that Philip finds his true calling, medicine.  He works as a medical student while forming an unhealthy, obsessive passion for a slatternly waitress, Mildred.  Despite his adoration, Mildred treats Philip with disdain, exploiting, insulting and humiliating him.  When Mildred leaves town with a friend of Philip's (who pays for their trip!), our protagonist runs out of money and takes a low-paying position as a shop clerk.
Once his uncle dies, Philip receives a small inheritance.  Mildred comes back into the picture, now with child, and Philip pays for the pre-and-post natal care.  Mildred has become a prostitute and, to spare her that indignity, Philip invites her to live with him in exchange for house-keeping duties.  Once it is apparent that Philip has overcome his obsession for her, Mildred flies into a rage and destroys all of his belongings, trashing the apartment.  She leaves him … perhaps forever.
As Philip finishes his residency, he slowly falls in love with a young country girl, the daughter of a friend.  He passes Mildred in the street, now secure in his freedom from her, and later proposes to the young woman prior to moving off to become a country doctor in a small seaside town.
Of Human Bondage is a remarkable book that plays to all of Maugham’s strengths and weaknesses.  Maugham is perhaps the most interesting, insightful and polished short story writer of the Twentieth Century, looking at raw human behavior with honesty and compassion.  His short stories “Rain,” “The Letter,” and “The Outstation” are all masterpieces of the form.  He also had a special gift for observing the Englishman Abroad, and his stories of Southeast Asia reflect his own extensive travels throughout the Empire.  His ‘travel books,’ for want of a better phrase, are important aesthetic and historical documents, chronicling a time when the world was small and many of its peoples simple. 
His novels, however, are often a mixed bag.  They suffer from an episodic quality that often feels like a series of inter-connected short stories, rather than a sustained narrative.  As you can see from this synopsis, Of Human Bondage has material enough for several short stories, and perhaps even three-or-four novels.  For this critic, the most successful Maugham novel is The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a masterful evocation of Paul Gauguin and his world, because the story is sustained and each digression is central to the overall narrative structure.
Bondage is a largely autobiographical novel.  Like Philip, Maugham was orphaned, raised by a chilly Vicar, had a disability (he stammered rather than had a clubfoot), was fascinated by art and became a doctor.  This overlapping of fact and fiction became a Maugham trademark, later writing that “fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other."
The central interest in Bondage is the story of the Philip-Mildred relationship.  It seems as if there is no debasement, no humiliation, and no attack (physical or emotional) to which Philip will not submit in his love of her.  Mildred is a creation both comical and horrific: a prostitute with aspirations of gentility, a nitwit with pretence of learning, a living vampire in human form.  Though the abuses she heaps on Philip rivals the trials of Job, the fact that he loves her and willfully submits to her torments is always believable.  Perhaps Maugham, a homosexual at a historical period that encouraged self-loathing and recrimination, was exploring his own sexual anxieties in the Philip-Mildred relationship.  We may never know.
Maugham’s biography is the stuff of legend: world traveler, espionage agent, playwright, art collector, literary stylist.  Those interested in learning more should read Somerset Maugham (1980), by Ted Morgan, my favorite biography of this fascinating man.  Future installments will revisit Maugham and his work.
Maugham was something of an anomaly even in his own time, a ‘literary’ writer who was also popular with mainstream audiences.  This popularity has, perhaps, led to his dismissal by some literary critics who equate readability with irrelevance.  This is a mistake, as Maugham is one of the defining English language voices of the last century, who continues to be insightful, relevant and informative today.

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