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.