Of Human Bondage.

Another pretty good deal on Amazon – the complete BBC series Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series is just $20 on DVD. I’m picking it up as a gift for someone who will probably see this so I’m going to stop talking about it now.

I also answered three questions for Keep Food Legal, the only organization dedicated to fighting for “culinary freedom” in the U.S. Hands off my unpasteurized cheese.

No Klawchat this week.

W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, #66 on the Modern Library 100, is a dense, autobiographical, highly philosophical novel that takes its protagonist, Philip Carey, from the moment he becomes an orphan at age nine through the end of his twenties, during which he tries several careers, loses his faith, and embarks on several ill-fated affairs, including one disastrous obsession that nearly ruins his life. It’s a book I’m glad I read, but will certainly never read again because the slightly awkward prose and the long internal monologues made it an arduous read.

The book opens with the death of Philip’s mother and his removal to the country home of his uncle, a vicar, and submissive aunt, who comes to love him as the son she never had but lacks any authority in her own home. Philip chafes under the restrictions of this life, finding solace by reading the books his uncle owns for show, but finds his life taking a turn for the worse when he’s shipped off to boarding school where his club foot makes him an object for derision and social isolation. After discovering he no longer believes in God (if he ever truly did), he begins a series of misadventures at university and in various careers, including a stint in accounting and an attempt to be a not-starving artist in Paris, before settling into medical school in London. At the same time, he begins an on-again, off-again affair with the unattractive, selfish, manipulative Mildred, who seems to view Philip as a personal ATM, only showing him attention or affection when she needs something from him, popping up in his life when he least needs her all-consuming distractions.

The novel relies heavily on events from Maugham’s own life. Like Philip, Maugham was orphaned before he turned ten, and was raised by a strict, religious uncle and an ineffectual aunt who expected him to take orders after school. He also drifted through several potential careers before studying medicine for five years, during which time he continued to observe people and their emotions and worked on his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published when he was 23. (By comparison, Philip doesn’t become a writer in Of Human Bondage, and doesn’t complete his medical training until he’s nearly 30.)

Maugham’s prose is choppy and his inconsistent use of cockney spellings, even outside of the dialogue, is a distraction, but he makes up for these deficiencies with strong use of symbolism throughout the novel. Philip’s club foot stands in for Maugham’s own personal shame (at least earlier in his life) at his homosexuality, a theme that pervades the entire novel even though Philip never develops anything stronger than a friendship with any other male character. Philip’s sense that his disability causes his ostracism, leads others to mock or simply underestimate him, and prevents him from living a full life seems to stand in well for the obstacles before a gay man in England in the late 1800s/early 1900s, when any sexual act between two males was illegal and punishable by a prison term. Maugham was in medical school when Oscar Wilde was tried for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison, which convinced Maugham to keep his own sexuality (he was either gay or bisexual) a secret, both in his private life and in his early writings. Rather than make his protagonist gay, Maugham gave him a physical disability that could cause similar social disadvantages by making him sufficiently different from the rest of the guys.

The “bondage” of the book’s title, taken from a phrase in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (which, along with Renan’s Vie de Jesus, was a major influence on the personal philosophy of the young Maugham), refers to the multiple societal constraints that appear to limit our ability to find happiness in a life that is, according to Philip, devoid of inherent meaning. The strict religion of the Victorian era and the accompanying moral codes, the expectations a man’s breeding and/or education placed on his career, all of which also limited whom one might choose to love (if one even has such a choice), are bonds Philip must consciously break to find any sort of personal happiness in a universe that will not deliver happiness to him in this life or anything after it. The introductory essay in the edition I read says that many readers found the book’s positive ending jarring or unrealistic, but in my reading, it made perfect sense: Philip casts off all of his bonds and chooses a life he believes will make him happy with a woman well-suited to his temperament, for whom he feels genuine affection (if not actual love). I read this as Maugham’s own private yearning for a world in which he, too, could cast off the societal bonds, and live openly as a gay man. (Maugham had at least two longstanding, not-exactly-secret relationships with men, but passed away two years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 began the process of decriminalizing “homosexual acts” between consenting adults.)

Philip’s obsession with Mildred provides the narrative greed for most of the middle third of the novel, and I appear to be in good company in finding it inexplicable. She is presented without any redeeming qualities; she is rude, dismissive, haughty, plain, unfeminine, manipulative, and an unloving mother to the child she bore to another man she was sleeping with even as she is coaxing Philip out of some of his money. Philip’s obsession is presented in vivid, realistic terms, but there’s no logic to it at all beyond the possible desire he feels for a woman who won’t have him. He throws another relationship overboard, jeopardizes his career, and loses much of his savings for her, only to have her exact a rather severe punishment on him (albeit one that loosens yet another bond, that of a man to his property) in the end. She could have been just as awful a person, yet depicted as beautiful, and the obsession would have been more believable, yet Philip stands by her despite a lack of physical attraction and even as she openly mocks him by using his money to run off with another man. Is she merely a stand-in for the irrational, emotional impluses which bind us in our daily lives?

That same introductory essay, written by Professor Robert Calder of the University of Saskatchewan, who has written two biographies of Maugham, classifies Of Human Bondage with other autobiographical bildungsromans (coming-of-age novels) of its era, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I found excruciating), Sons and Lovers, and The Way of All Flesh (both on my to-be-read shelf). It’s a highly introspective, emotional style of novel, with long digressions on the author’s own psychological and philosophical development, and attempts to explain how external forces (people and events) shaped that development. As someone who reads for plot over all other elements, it’s never going to be my favorite subgenre, and Of Human Bondage didn’t offer me great prose or highly compelling characters to balance out that weakness.

Odd fact: One of Maugham’s great-grandsons, Derek Pavancini, is a blind, autistic savant pianist.

Next up: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

A Wild Sheep Chase.

Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, gives an early glimpse of the mind-bending plot twists that define his two best novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, along with the usual measures of food, cigarettes, nonchalant sex, and characters that alternate from three-dimensional to transparent, sometimes within single passages. While it can’t match either of the other novels I mentioned, it’s a good read on its own both for plot and for its expansive thinking, and also interested me as a look back at Murakami’s formative years as a writer, like watching video of a big leaguer from when he was a prospect in high school.

None of the characters in A Wild Sheep Chase have names; the best we get are the Boss, the Rat, and J, while the protagonist and his girlfriend don’t even get so much as a nickname or a single letter. The main character is in advertising and, as the book opens, his wife leaves him for one of his closest friends (although he’s more numb than mad or grieving, as the marriage seems to have been long dead), shortly after which he receives an urgent summons from a mysterious businessman about a PR flier his firm put out that included a photograph of a very unusual sheep. That photograph, sent by our hero’s friend the Rat, seems to show a sheep that, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist, at least not in Japan, but the businessman’s interest goes beyond mundane questions of taxonomy, as this sheep appears to have powers beyond any other ovine known to man.

That businessman represents a shadow organization that controls many aspects of Japanese industry, particularly on the advertising side. He offers the protagonist a deal, without much say in the matter: Find that sheep within a month or find your life ruined. So the hero and his girlfriend – whose ears are, as it turns out, fairly important in their subplot, if not the main plot as well – set out to figure out where the Rat is and thus, they hope, find that sheep.

The wild chase is anything but wild; it’s slow, halting, and in some ways quite realistic, even if the sheep they’re chasing and the people they encounter aren’t. And it’s not clear, even after the chase is resolved, whether the protagonist was searching on behalf of the Boss’s minion or for his own personal growth. Before the sheep tale appears, he has no real anchors left in his life – no wife, no kids, a routine job, a scarce existence in the physical or emotional planes. The chase itself provides much of what’s missing from his life, including purpose and urgency, but of course the chase will end, after which he’ll either find his life in tatters or he’ll have the riches promised him … and he’ll have to find a new purpose. Explaining my thoughts on the end and what Murakami may have been trying to express would give away too much of the resolution, but I can say that I found that payoff a little underwhelming. The physical plot was resolved, but the philosophical questions and answers remained vague. It’s a better read as a suspense novel that makes you think a little differently than as a book pushing for any specific philosophy or emotional reaction, whereas his best works provide more clarity without devolving into sermons.

Next up: Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which seems to be just the book to buy your sister if she’s already read At Swim-Two-Birds. it’s currently on sale through that link for $6 in the Penguin Ink paperback, with cover design by tattoo artist Bert Kerk.

A Pale View of Hills.

Kazuo Ishiguro is best-known today for Remains of the Day, which really means he’s best known for making the book that they turned into that movie, although another one of his novels, the dystopian heartbreaker Never Let Me Go, was recently made into a movie starring the human dimple. (Both books are on the Klaw 100.) His debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, was critically acclaimed at the time of its release but has been obscured by those two later works, although it showcases both Ishiguro’s strong yet beautiful prose and his ability to create dreamlike settings that keep the reader off balance through shifts in time or realistic unrealism.

The narrator of A Pale View of Hills is Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in England after the suicide of her older daughter, Keiko, her only child from her first marriage, to Jiro, a traditional Japanese man. Her younger daughter, Niki, from her second marriage, comes to visit from London, triggering a series of flashbacks for Etsuko to when she was pregnant and struck up a relationship with the peculiar widow Sachiko and her daughter Mariko shortly after the end of World War II. Sachiko and Mariko have an odd relationship; Sachiko leaves the ten-year-old Mariko home alone for long periods and doesn’t require her to go to school, while Sachiko herself pursues a lopsided relationship with the American serviceman known as “Frank.” Mariko appears to be bright, but is scarred by horrors she witnessed during the end of the war, and her mother appears unable to help or even cope, escaping instead into her alternate reality with her paramour.

Those flashbacks are intertwined with another series of reminiscences to a time when Jiro was alive and his father, Ogata-san, came to visit Jiro and Etsuko for several days. Jiro himself was fairly cold and distant with his father, who seemed at that stage to have a stronger relationship with his daughter-in-law than he did with his son, as the latter is poisoned by the gap between Ogata-san’s views on the loss of Japanese culture with their defeat in war. (Ishiguro explored that topic, of coming to terms with Japan’s imperialistic, jingoistic past after World War II, in An Artist of the Floating World, a book I found less successful and less enjoyable than Hills.)

Ishiguro enjoys creating layers of mystery, then revealing only some of the answers as the book nears its end, a habit that covers this book from start to finish as well. One of those mysteries is left up to the interpretation of the reader, and I’m going to discuss my own belief, so consider this your spoiler warning.

Near the end of the book, Etsuko shifts without warning when relaying a conversation between herself and Mariko from referring to Sachiko in the third person to speaking in the first person – that is, she is suddenly Sachiko. Their two stories have substantial, if slightly imperfect, parallels, but Mariko could easily be Keiko, sharing her alienation and depression, since Keiko is depicted through memories as withdrawing herself gradually from her family and life, eventually doing so completely to the point where her body isn’t discovered for several days because she lived alone with no contact with family and apparently little or none with friends. Sachiko-Etsuko is convincing herself that she’s acting in her daughter’s best interests when she is attempting to smother her grief through this chase of a foreign man whose interest in her is mainly sexual; if you believe the two women are one, the strongest interpretation is that the American, Frank, is not the man Etsuko eventually marries, not just because of the different nationalities but because of Frank’s irresponsibility.

In this interpretation, Ishiguro’s overriding theme is that of guilt and regret, something he covered again in Remains and Floating World – our difficulty or even inability to come to terms with the past, with our own actions and those of others that affected us, with the hurt we dealt to others (with or without intent) and with how our choices crippled our own chances for happiness. Etsuko’s dissociation from her memory of Mariko-Keiko is her way of coping with her own guilt: As she grieved the loss of Jiro, her quest for her own happiness (or simply a facade of normalcy) forced her daughter’s best interests into the background just when she needed more of her mother’s love and attention. Etsuko acknowledges at one point that she knew the move from Japan to England would exacerbate her daughter’s problems, but clearly she made the move anyway, for what must have been purely selfish motives. Neither Japanese society of that time nor English or American societies since then accept selfishness on the part of the mother relative to the needs of the child, and Etsuko has to whitewash her own memories to live with them.

A Pale View of Hills includes Ishiguro’s usual digressions about music and art, and Etsuko and Ogata-san have an exchange on the art of cooking that spoke to me:

”Are you really planning on becoming a cook, Father?”
“It’s nothing to laugh at. I’ve come to appreciate cooking over the years. It’s an art, I’m convinced of it, just as noble as painting or poetry. It’s not appreciated simply because the product disappears so quickly.”

When Ishiguro was writing the book, in the very early 1980s, he probably couldn’t imagine our modern culture of celebrity chefs, who earn far more than painters or poets, although I think his point about the lack of respect for a product that is consumed rather than observed or read is a sound one.

The Remains of the Day.

I’ll be on ESPNEWS on Monday afternoon right after the Rookies of the Year are announced at 2 pm EST, and then again at 2:40 pm to talk more about those winners and the awards to come over the next week-plus.

I’ve got a short take on Dan Uggla on Rumor Central.

I’m doing a daily wrap-up/links column each weekday this week in Buster Olney’s absence, so if you see any news story, rumor, or blog item that you think is worthy of a comment, please throw a link in a comment on this or any post this week, or shoot me an email.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a stunning novel, powerful and moving despite being understated at almost every turn – a quintessential English novel written by a man who was actually born in Japan but who has become one of the greatest English novelists of the last half-century. Very few books can contain so little action and yet carry such emotional weight, even with an inevitable finish that brings the curtain down on the protagonist/narrator in crushing fashion.

Mr. Stevens has been a butler for 30 years at Darlington Hall, most of that time serving Lord Darlington, a well-meaning nobleman who indulges his liberal worldview by dabbling in international politics between the world wars. Darlington is dead for three years at the novel’s start, but Stevens takes the reader through a series of flashbacks that gradually expose the nature and effects of his master’s efforts as well as his relationship with Miss Kenton, who oversees the female staff in the house and occasionally shocks Stevens with the strength of her will and with actions and words he can’t quite interpret. As the flashbacks deepen, helped along by some chance events on a six-day sojourn Stevens takes to visit the now-married Miss Kenton in her village, Stevens becomes more aware of what the last thirty years have truly entailed for him.

Although regret is, to my reading, the overwhelming theme of the novel, work/life balance also seems to play heavily in Ishiguro’s rendering of Stevens’ life and character. Through extraordinarily dedicated service and loyalty both to his master and to an independent ideal of “dignity” in work, Stevens has spent all of his energy on his vocation, letting it subdue or crowd out any person underneath his work-oriented exterior. This leads to the questions of regret which hang over the novel and come to the fore in the final section, but on its own, Stevens’ almost obsessive pursuit of dignity and the butlering ideal leave him out of touch with the people and actions taking place around him – sometimes deliberately, but other times inadvertently, and much to his loss in the long run.

The Remains of the Day isn’t all heaviness and sorrow, however; an English novel of manners should at least have a dose of comedy, and this one does, particularly Stevens’ inability to gel with his new American master, who expects a bit of a repartee with his head man but finds Stevens unequal to the task. Stevens recognizes that his boss wants a bit of “bantering” and applies himself to the task as if he were trying to learn to cook or to speak French, with comic effect.

I’ve previously reviewed (and loved) Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Next up: I’ve got about 120 pages to go in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (now 50% off at amazon), a pretty fast-moving detective novel that has become an international best-seller.

Brighton Rock.

Today’s chat transcript is up and, I think, rather snarky. I wrote a bit about Happ and Penny last night on the Four-Letter. I’m tentatively scheduled to be on ESPN Radio tonight at 10:25 pm EDT.

Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is his lone entry on the Bloomsbury 100, yet more evidence that as much as critics agree that Greene was a great novelist, they can’t seem to agree on what his best work was. Modern Library had The Heart of the Matter on their top 100; Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put both that work and The Power and the Glory on theirs; the Guardian put The Quiet American; and I believe I’ve seen similar praise (that I can’t locate) for The End of the Affair. And for all of that, I loved the half-serious/half-satirical Our Man in Havana*.

*Apropos of nothing, this is now the 11th Greene novel I’ve read, including all of his “serious” novels. That puts him sixth on the list of authors when ranked by the number of titles I’ve read – your challenge is to guess who the top five are in the comments. One hint: I’ve never written up a book by #2 or #4 on this site.

Brighton Rock is lumped in with Greene’s “Catholic novels,” but while there’s certainly a lot of discussion among the characters of religion and its relation to right/wrong, I think that’s at most a secondary theme in the book. The novel focuses on a teenage delinquent nicknamed “Pinkie” who has taken over one local gang of street toughs who run, among other things, small-time bookmaking outfit. Pinkie’s gang commit a murder before the book has started, which leads to a string of murders and attempts all aimed at covering up the initial crime. Pinkie himself starts out as just an amoral, power-hungry killer, but as the book progresses and Greene peels back the layers of Pinkie’s character, we see more that he is driven by a raging feeling of inadequacy, set off when others show a lack of respect for his abilities, and driven by a desire to be seen as a capable adult.

Pinkie is pursued by an amateur detective named Ida Arnold, whose passing acquaintance with one of Pinkie’s victims turns into a quest to identify the killer(s) and see them brought to justice, a quest that itself changes shape as the story progresses. While Pinkie has clear, dogmatic views on life informed by inexperience and a superficial form of Catholicism, Arnold is a spiritualist with an independent moral compass of less certain origin. Pinkie hooks up with a girl who could provide testimony against his gang for one of the killings, and saving her becomes part of Ida’s quest, but the girl herself (Rose) is a cipher of a character who is childlike in her thoughts and actions.

Greene’s novels are short and tend to move along quickly, but despite the detective-novel portion of the plot, Brighton Rock was slow and plodding, especially when the camera focused on Pinkie, who is more interesting as a character to study and dissect than as one whose actions we might want to follow.

Next up: I’m a bit behind on reviews, as I finished John Cheever’s Falconer last night.

Embers.

I first learned about Sándor Márai’s Embers through this peculiar list of the top ten novels in Eastern European literature (according to Tibor Fischer), part of a long series of literary top tens that the Guardian has run. Márai’s stood out as one that was short, available in English, and Hungarian, a country that has always fascinated me, both before and after my 2003 pilgrimage to Budapest. I bought the book, and then reader Amy asked (randomly) in a recent chat whether I’d heard of the book, a sure sign that it was time to crack it open.

Embers itself is an unbelievably simple and powerful story, with just three main characters, one of whom is dead but who appears in flashbacks. The two living characters, both now in their mid-70s, meet for the first time in forty-one years as the visitor, Konrad, has returned from a self-imposed exile. Henrik, his host and formerly his closest friend, receives Konrad with cold hospitality and a long but spellbinding harangue on their friendship, Konrad’s exile, and the event that triggered Henrik’s flight.

There’s almost no action, and what action there is occurs in cut scenes where we meet Krisztina, the late wife of Henrik, and discover the key differences in Konrad’s and Henrik’s upbringings. Márai replaces action with the gradual unfolding of secrets and the stories that bound the three characters together and then drove them apart. Along the way, Henrik muses (to Konrad) on the nature of anger, betrayal, and vengeance. It’s a deep psychological novel in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but in a much more manageable package. For those of you still in school, it would lend itself well to an analysis of how Marai uses environmental factors such as light, temperature, and weather to reflect or even set the moods of the book’s various scenes.

To say more of the characters would be to risk spoiling the plot, if I haven’t done too much of that already. If you can stand a book that is all talk and no action, but is gripping all the same, Embers is worth the three or four hours it will take you to tear through it.