Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Somerset Maugham and a Book Title I Daren't Mention

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.

A typical George Gissing scene

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.


Martin said...

A great novel, and free to download to the Kindle, as it's in the public domain.

Anonymous said...

Please get perfectly well perfectly soon - and thank you for this reminder. One of the titles one has always known but never read - I'll do so now....

Camilla said...

This sounds great, I'll put it on my to-read list!
Hope you feel better soon.


ps word verification has diagnosed you as suffering from a 'goompie ecterm'. I think there's a cream for that ...
pps first try didn't work - luckily the second try revealed the remedy for goompie ecterm, 'amixt mailac', which you can pick up from the chemist in the morning.

Universal Acknowledgement said...

Yes, well, I shall add "Of Human Bondage" to the list of "Novels I Should Read One Day". May I, however, suggest as medicine a work (almost exactly contemporary - 1916) that is more likely to lift the spirits, "Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest"?

"She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season."

Little Nell said...

Well that’s one to add to the list. I’m glad you’ve been diagnosed correctly; I was worried when you talked about claiming a stake - that’s a whole different genre (though I understand it’s rather popular right now). Come to think of it a stake through the heart would need more than a human bandage - oh hang on, misread the title :)

More Lanzarote shots to drool over if you’re well enough to make the journey.

Steerforth said...

Martin - Really? I didn't think that he'd been dead for long enough. I'll check this out for 'The Moon and Sixpence'. Thanks.

Anna - It is one of those titles that are well known but not read enough.

Camilla - I had an aunt who claimed that she suffered from a number of ailments and I know that if you'd mentioned a goompie ecterm she would have responded "Ooh I 'ad one of those - terrible it was."

Universal - I must admit I struggle with Wodehouse. People often think I'm going to be a fan (perhaps because I remind them of some of the characters), but I'm woefully ignorant. I once turned down an invitation to a dinner with the inner sanctum of the P G Wodehouse society because I knew that I'd never live down the shame of being exposed as a charlatan.

But when people like you, whose opinions I respect, recommend Wodehouse, I can't help thinking that it's time for a reappraisal.

Nell - it was the visual equivalent of a convalescence in the south of France. Thanks for the link.

Karyn said...

His novel Cakes and Ale is also worth reading. It is a satire on those second-rate novelists, and on the critics who didn't appreciate his work, and its narrator is based on the character Philip from this book.

Roget said...

Get well quickly and in good time, Steerforth - just don't wake up from your delirium and find you've enlisted for a sailor. Thanks for your "Of Human Bondage" recommendation. My father was an avid fan of Maugham and I remember novels from the collected edition in their green and blue jackets being a regular choice of his on library visits in the '50s. I think part of Maugham's problem in terms of his literary standing was that he became more famous/notorious than his books. There was much talk of monkey glands in his last years and revelations of cruelty after his death. He's long overdue a general rediscovery. I feel the same about J B Priestley, another gifted storyteller in eclipse. I think The Good Companions is one of the finest and most entertaining novels I've ever read. As for PGW, you are halfway there with your signature cravats. Try The Code of the Woosters. It's short and perfect - and it has Gussy Fink-Nottle AND Roderick Spode in addition to Wooster and Jeeves.

Richmonde said...

I don't mind how often I say it - Of Human Bondage is brilliant. I've just been reading some of his spy stories and understanding them for the first time. Shaggy dog stories without with Tinker Tailor, Conrad, Greene etc cd not have existed.

Martin said...

Yes, do, The Moon and Sixpence is available, too, among others.

Nicholas said...

Shrewd precaution on titling the post.
I recently wanted to buy young plants to start a nut grove so innocently used the arboricultural term and searched for "hazel whips".
This is also another voice in the chorus of agreement with your evaluation of Maugham. And OHB made a fine movie (Bette Davis and Leslie Howard).

Steerforth said...

Thank Karyn - I've read about how much it upset Hugh Walpole. It sounds wonderfully bitchy!

Roget - The Good Companions sounds like a good idea. I won't have any trouble finding a copy, as I 'recycle' poor old JB Priestley every day. Many of his novels are now road-surfacing material, so it would be nice to rescue a copy.

Richmonde - It has been a revelation. I really thought that Maugham was up there with Warwick Deeping. I suppose he hasn't been taken seriously by some because his writing isn't 'lyrical' enough.

Martin - I've downloaded it. Sadly Cakes and Ale isn't free.

Nicholas - Hazel whips? I can believe it. A significant number of my hits come from people looking for kinky material - if only I could make some money out of it;)

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard? I shall have to see it!

Canadian Chickadee said...

A great report, Steerforth. I read Of Human Bondage years ago when I was a student. (Back in the dark pre-Kindle ages, when I dragged the seven kilo book around with me on the bus every day whilst I was reading it.)

However, one thing concerns me, Steerforth -- it is NOT "just pneumonia" as you put it. Be very careful, and do exactly what the quacks tell you. If you don't shake it off right away, it can have some nasty repercussions and is nothing to fool with or to take lightly. Voice of experience talking.

Steerforth said...

Don't worry, my GP made it abundantly clear. I'm going to take things very carefully over the next few weeks!

I read mine on a Kindle - on the plus side it's harder to tell how long a novel is, so you're less likely to be intimidated by the length, but I do miss having a chunky trophy on my bookshelf.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Hi, Steerforth, so glad you're going to be cautious 'til you're better. Your on-line reports are much too interesting to be missed! :0)

Annabel (gaskella) said...

You must write more book reviews - I've not read any Maugham, but do have this book on my shelves. Your praise will get it transferred onto my bedside pile pronto. I hope you get better really soon.

Justin said...

I'm in bondage at the moment, to Proust. Half way through volume one and hoping I won't feel like searching for the lost hours I've spent reading it. It's looking good so far though: three pages to describe how asparagus makes your wee smell.
I'm afraid Maugham will just have joing the back of a (six volume) queue.

Anthony Adler said...

My mother, being an occasionally impish and whimsical sort (and having long-ago enjoyed Somerset Maughaum's short stories) picked up a batterd copy of Of Human Bondage for me at a charity fair when I was about seventeen or so. It's been my Starter for Ten novel ever since - an entertaining way to provoke guests' eyebrows when they read my bookshelves. I can also recommend him as an essayist - I was astonished by how thoroughly I enjoyed The Vagrant Mood[1].

[1] Typo'd as The Vagrant Mod. See also No County for Old Men, Of Mice and Me, and Invisible Ma.

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I'd probably write more book reviews if people like you weren't already out there doing a much better job of it ;)

I always feel guilty when I see this listed as a 'literary' blog, as it could get done under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Justin - A former colleague compared part of the third book to a Ronnie Corbet monologue - not a literary allusion I'd heard before. I think I'd need to be on a desert island before I read Proust.

Anthony - That reminds me of the 'Lost Consonants' series in the Guardian, years ago.

I wish people commented on my bookshelves. The last time anyone said anything was to my wife: "Has Phil actually read those books?"

Tilly said...

I was very taken by Of Human Bondage when I read it, maybe 20 years ago. I remembered it as the wonderful novel where nothing happens in an ordinary way. At the time it was a life I would never lead, I would never be that person. Now I find I have lived that life. Maybe most of us do. I think it's better he's a 2:1 rather than a 1st, fits better with the story.

I could read your blog posts all day. Stay well.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Tilly - I think you're right about reading the book after experiencing life. It all rings true.

John Self said...

Agreed, Maugham is terrific - I'd also recommend The Painted Veil, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor's Edge. He has a good way with story and characters and, frankly, the prose scarcely matters when you've got that.

I'm not sure about Martin's comment about Of Human Bondage (and others?) being in the public domain. There may be some special arrangement in place for some of his books, but otherwise, Maugham died in 1965, which would make his works subject to copyright (at least in the EU) until 2035. Royalties from his works all go to the Royal Literary Fund, so proceeds from his books go to help new and struggling writers.

Steerforth said...

I didn't understand that either, but Martin's right - you can download the book courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Perhaps it's only in the public domain in the US, where I think copyright is related to when a work was created rather than when the author died.

Rather than wade through numerous articles on copyright law, I'll leave it to your legal expertise!

harriet said...

I've come to this nearly two years late so you probably won't even see this comment, but I must protest at your description of Bennett as a second rate writer. At his best he is an excellent novelist and much under appreciated. This is a great review, though.

Steerforth said...

Harriet - I went on to revise that opinion after reading the Clayhanger trilogy: http://ageofuncertainty.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/mrs-woolf-and-mr-bennett.html