I've been feeling under the weather for a while - nothing specific, just aches and pains, lethargy and a general feeling of wrongness. I put it down to stress, working outdoors in the cold or, perhaps, simply middle age beginning to claim its stake.
I carried on as usual, relying on siestas in the afternoon to deal with the tiredness and a few glasses of wine in the evening to dull the pain. But last week I started to feel pretty rough and decided to visit my GP for some reassurance.
I suppose I was hoping to see an old-fashioned doctor - the sort who still occasionally work as locums, call you "old chap" and say things like "Nothing to worry about, but keep the golf clubs in the boot for a couple of weeks. If the pain starts to niggle, have a small brandy at bedtime". Instead, I had a woman who looked horrified and used phrases like "Actually, that's really bad".
After five minutes of watching her pull yikes! faces, I was convinced that I wasn't long for this world. When I discovered that it was just pneumonia, I felt a huge sense of relief.
I've now spent five days in bed and instead of wasting my time watching YouTube clips of the Jeremy Kyle Show (I never set out to watch them, but whether I begin with chimpanzees or the Hadron Collider, it always seems to lead back to Jeremy Kyle), I've been reading Of Human Bondage. After some rather unfortunate experiences, I decided not to use the novel's title for this post.
I'd never read Somerset Maugham before. I associated him with that group of early 20th century British second-rate writers - Bennett, Walpole and Galsworthy - whose novels were incredibly popular in their day but are now regarded as dated, with turgid prose and half-baked philosophies. Even Maugham himself seemed to agree with this view: "I am in the front row of second-raters".
But by chance I came across the customer reviews for Of Human Bondage on Amazon and was so impressed by the passion Maugham's novel had inspired in its readers (nearly everyone gave the book five stars) I decided to give it a go.
I'm normally a slow reader, but managed to devour all 729 pages of Maugham's bildungsroman in a weekend. Admittedly I was stuck in bed, but if I'd picked up a Joseph Conrad novel I would have soon been reaching for the remote control. Instead, I was fully immersed in the London of the 1890s, walked its streets, sat in its parks and jostled amongst the crowds at the music hall.
Of Human Bondage (Wikipedia link included because I don't intend to discuss the plot) is Maugham's masterpiece. The prose may lack the stylistic perfection of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but it is a powerful novel of ideas that, with its musings on absurdism, anticipates existentialist works like Nausea and The Myth of Sisyphus.
Throughout the narrative, the main character regularly asks himself if there can really be any meaning to existence. Everywhere he looks, people lead lives of quiet tragedy, defeated by overwhelming odds, with any last vestiges of hope crushed by the final acceptance of their own ineluctable mediocrity (if only they'd had blogging in those days).
If that sounds all rather maudlin, don't be put off. Above all, Of Human Bondage is a compelling story and unlike that other great chronicler of late Victorian London, George Gissing, it isn't relentless gloomy.
Maugham doesn't shy away from any unpalatable truths and some passages must have shocked its readers in 1915, but he avoids unnecessarry melodrama and resolves the novel with a conclusion that won't leave you banging your head against the wall.
Somerset Maugham has never been popular with the critics. Even at the height of his career, Maugham's plain, conventional prose was compared unfavourably to the work of new modernist writers like Thomas Mann and William Faulkner. But although Of Human Bondage may not be stylistically innovative, its sheer weight of ideas, the integrity of its narrative and the strength of its characters make it, in my opinion, a masterpiece.
Sadly, Somerset Maugham's greatest novel doesn't appear on any of the recent 100 best books lists that appear with an ever increasing frequency. It doesn't even pop up on readers' choices, eclipsed by masterpieces like The Da Vinci Code and Bridget Jones' Diary. That's why I'm adding my small stone to the cairn.
If you harbour any secret time travel fantasies about going back to late Victorian London, this is the nearest you'll get. Of Human Bondage is a panorama of a society in transition during the fin de siecle: outwardly stable, but driven by undercurrents that are threatening long-held views on religion, gender and class. Maugham's descriptions of the streets, cafes and railway stations are so vivid that you will feel as if you've been there.
Like most great novels, Of Human Bondage vividly conveys its time, but never seems dated because it asks questions and makes observations that are as pertinent today as they were 100 years ago. For example, one passage, in which Maugham describes a dance hall, could almost be lifted word for word to describe a modern club and the desperate hedonism of its users, anxious to forget the tedium of their daily lives.
As with many novels of this period, Somerset Maugham does occasionally get on his soapbox. There's the usual stuff about sex, money and the Church of England; but unlike H G Wells' incredibly tedious novel The New Machiavelli, he doesn't allow his pontificating to spoil the narrative.
Of Human Bondage is a great novel to read when you're ill or on a long journey. But frankly, why wait?
Sample quotes from On Human Bondage:
It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded.
When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me.
It is cruel to discover one's mediocrity only when it is too late.
Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one's mind.
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
It was one of the queer things of life that you saw a person every day for months and were so intimate with him that you could not imagine existence without him; then separation came, and everything went on in the same way, and the companion who had seemed essential proved unnecessary.
You will find as you grow older that the first thing needful to make the world a tolerable place to live in is to recognize the inevitable selfishness of humanity. You demand unselfishness from others, which is a preposterous claim that they should sacrifice their desires to yours. Why should they? When you are reconciled to the fact that each is for himself in the world you will ask less from your fellows. They will not disappoint you, and you will look upon them more charitably. Men seek but one thing in life -- their pleasure.
“Oh, it's always the same,' she sighed, 'if you want men to behave well to you, you must be beastly to them; if you treat them decently they make you suffer for it.”
The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.