Of human bondage

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Author : W. Somerset Maugham (pronounced ‘mom’, not ‘maw-gam’)

First published : 1915

Pages : 607 – if you can make it through the first 100 pages, you will begin to actually like it

Price : 25¢ – At the second-hand bookstore by the river. (I buy only Penthouse, Hustler and Oui, new)

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Of human bondage

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so damn simplistic. Why can’t I read Tolstoy or Balzac, cover to cover, engrossed, nodding my head in grave understanding, not even getting up for a meal or a pee? Why do I love only stuff like Frederick Forsyth, James Bond, John Grisham and Jeffery Archer?

Did you see what I did there? James Bond is not an author. Never mind, I was trying to test your GK.

As you start getting older, you begin having this ‘I shouldn’t miss out on all those classics’ urge. Then your eyes fall upon the dog-eared, tea-stained copy of ‘Of human bondage’ that you picked up at the 50% sale in NOVA, the second-hand book store by the river, for 25¢. OHB is high up in every list of 10 best, 20 best, 100 best novels ever.

Of course, I didn’t read the book in one go. You think I’m crazy to sit around reading a guy who was born in 1874? It took four score and ten days of reading and re-reading the parts I relished and I am finally done with it. I am not that slow a reader. I always read multiple things at the same time, which is like having sweet chutney with your food, to vary the taste and keep it fresh.

I laid OHB aside, time to time and picked up racier stuff from the authors I mentioned above. Then there were the National Geographic and the Economist that kept rolling in and I had to get through those or otherwise the back issues keep piling up and jamming my IPad’s memory.

After page-100, the novel began growing on me. It turned out to be not so bad actually. OHB is essentially a piece of realistic fiction about the first 30 years in the life of the protagonist, a club-footed and orphaned boy named Phillip Carey. Realistic, since other than a few cosmetic changes, Phillip Carey is actually Somerset Maugham himself.

Phillip is an introverted, insecure lad, understandably very self-conscious about his club foot and Maugham was known to have been a homosexual with a stammer, in an era when homosexuality was not only illegal but deep inside the closet.

Phillip Carey was born into a family that had once been well-to-do, till suddenly at the age of 9, his world collapsed in on him. First, his father, a surgeon in good standing, suddenly died, leaving just a life insurance policy and their house behind. His mother, a housewife who was not used to money management, let the little that she had been left with, slip through her fingers quickly.

Here is where the narrative begins. Tragedy strikes again, six months later. His mother dies trying to deliver a stillborn baby, leaving him with his governess, Emma, a dear woman he loves. But he can’t live with her. He has to move in with his cold and domineering uncle Reverend William Carey and his pitiable, insecure wife, Louisa. His uncle assumes trusteeship of the two thousand dollars that are left for his upbringing.

The author’s ability to create finely etched characters is phenomenal. Phillip’s uncle is an amazing depiction. Let’s just put it this way – you wouldn’t hate the man but he is a pompous ass you would rather not have anything to do with. Here is an excerpt that brings his character to life pretty lucidly…

(At the breakfast table. Only his uncle has the right to have an egg, hard-boiled)……

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Phillip perched himself on the books and the Vicar, having said grace, cut the top off his egg.

“There,” he said, handing it to Phillip,” you can eat my top if you like.”

Phillip would have liked an egg to himself but he was not offered one, so he took what he could.

“How have the chickens been laying since I went away?” ***to his aunt***

“Oh, they have been dreadful, only one or two a day.”

“How did you like that top, Phillip?” asked his uncle.

“Very much, thank you.”

“You shall have another one on Sunday afternoon.”

————————-

Is this guy for real or what? Since this is an autobiographical novel, I hope the author didn’t really have an uncle like that.

Phillip’s uncle and aunt are childless and in their fifties. Instead of opening up their arms to Phillip, they see him as a burden, an intrusion into their comfortable small town life. They send Phillip to boarding school, where he is harassed, taunted and pushed around by the other boys, because of his clubfoot. School starts off as a nightmare but gradually eases as he grows and begins to excel in his studies.

Two other characters stand out. The first comes into Phillip’s life when he is 19, a gangly but not unattractive youth, who does not seem psychologically hamstrung by his clubfoot any longer. Miss Emily Wilkinson, aged around 27, has been a governess in Germany and France. She is the daughter of one of Phillip’s uncle’s ministerial colleagues and he meets her in his uncle’s home. They meet every day since she is giving him voice lessons.

Miss Wilkinson isn’t pretty. In fact she has ‘thick, ungainly ankles’. But he has a massive crush on her anyway and soon they end up kissing every chance they get. Gradually she falls in love with him, though his crush is just an infatuation. He is in fact quite unromantic……

———————————–

“Why d’you want to kiss me?”

He knew he ought to reply: “Because I love you.” But he could not bring himself to say it.

“Why do you think?” he asked instead.

She looked at him with smiling eyes and touched his face with the tips of her fingers.

“How smooth your face is,” she murmured.

“I want shaving awfully,” he said.

It was astonishing how difficult he found it to make romantic speeches. He found that silence helped him much more than words. He could look inexpressible things. Miss Wilkinson sighed.

“Do you like me at all?”

“Yes, awfully.”

When he tried to kiss her again she did not resist. He pretended to be much more passionate than he really was, and he succeeded in playing a part which looked very well in his own eyes.

————————————–

The relationship comes to an end, at least from his side, when he catches Miss Wilkinson undressing in her room and finds her grotesque and unattractive.

The second character is that of Fanny Price, a seemingly cold and unattractive 26-year old student in the Amitrano Art School in Paris, where he has enrolled to study painting, though in actual fact he has gone there to be a part of the boisterous art world and the famed nightlife that he has heard so much about. She has been designated by the teacher to be his mentor during his first steps into craft of painting.

Fanny Price is an example of an unattractive person with low self-esteem who is convinced that no one would want to have a relationship with her and as a sort of reflex action, she has built a touch-me-not wall around herself. Phillip does not love her but he is by nature a decent individual and since none of her fellow students or teachers really like her, he tries to be friendly with her and she makes him think she doesn’t care, while deep within, she burns up with her desire for him.

Here is an excerpt of a chance meeting between the two in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in the initial stage of their relationship……

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As he wandered he chanced to see Miss Price sitting by herself on a bench. He hesitated, for he did not at that moment want to see anyone, and her uncouth way seemed out of place amid the happiness he felt around him; but he had divined her sensitiveness to affront, and since she had seen him thought it would be polite to speak to her.

“What are you doing here?” she said, as he came up.

“Enjoying myself. Aren’t you?”

“Oh, I come here every day from four to five. I don’t think one does any good if one works straight through.”

“May I sit down for a minute?” he said.

“If you want to.”

“That doesn’t sound very cordial,” he laughed.

“I’m not much of a one for saying pretty things.”

Philip, a little disconcerted, was silent as he lit a cigarette.

She spoke with a passionate strenuousness which was rather striking. She wore a sailor hat of black straw, a white blouse which was not quite clean, and a brown skirt. She had no gloves on, and her hands wanted washing. She was so unattractive that Philip wished he had not begun to talk to her. He could not make out whether she wanted him to stay or go.

“I’ll do anything I can for you,” she said all at once, without reference to anything that had gone before. “I know how hard it is.”

“Thank you very much,” said Philip, then in a moment: “Won’t you come and have tea with me somewhere?”

She looked at him quickly and flushed. When she reddened her pasty skin acquired a curiously mottled look, like strawberries and cream that had gone bad.

“No, thanks. What d’you think I want tea for? I’ve only just had lunch.”

“I thought it would pass the time,” said Philip.

“If you find it long you needn’t bother about me, you know. I don’t mind being left alone.”

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I’m not a spoiler, so I won’t tell you what happens to Phillip’s relationship with Fanny Price in the end.

Next, Phillip finally falls in love and as happens frequently in real life as well, his love interest, Mildred Rogers is a vulgar, contemptuous, ‘boy-like’ tea-shop girl, who often betrays him, going off with his other men friends, steals from him, and scorns his sexuality. Theirs is a sad, on-off affair, during which she gets pregnant by another man, while Philip remains obsessively in love.

What struck me most about the book was the feeling that I see myself in the character of Phillip Carey and I have come across folk exactly like his uncle, Reverend Carey, Miss Wilkinson and Fanny Price, in my own life. All in all, Of human bondage is a dark and cruel narrative with a prosaic, tormented style. Somerset Maugham has mined his own life quite explicitly and ruthlessly. Phillip Carey is Somerset Maugham who begins life in Victorian England with it’s stifling norms and emerges as a young man with his two feet firmly planted in the modern world. The exquisite detail contained within the 600 pages left me with a feeling of intimacy, with all the characters.

There are other women, beautifully crafted characters all, who enter Phillip’s life – the loving but plain Nora Nesbitt and the wholesome, feminine Maria del Sol(Sally), but I’ll let you find out about them.

Meanwhile, I will leave you with an excerpt on his feelings for Mildred…….

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‘He thought of this old fancy of his, and it seemed impossible that he should be in love with Mildred Rogers. Her name was grotesque. He did not think her pretty; he hated the thinness of her, only that evening he had noticed how the bones of her chest stood out in evening-dress; he went over her features one by one; he did not like her mouth, and the unhealthiness of her colour vaguely repelled him.  She was common. Her phrases, so bald and few, constantly repeated, showed the emptiness of her mind; he recalled her vulgar little laugh at the jokes of the musical comedy; and he remembered the little finger carefully extended when she held her glass to her mouth; her manners like her conversation, wereodiously genteel.  He remembered her insolence; sometimes he had felt inclined to box her ears; and suddenly, he knew not why, perhaps it was the thought of hitting her or the recollection of her tiny, beautiful ears, he was seized by an uprush of emotion. He yearned for her. He thought of taking her in his arms, the thin, fragile body, and kissing her pale mouth: he wanted to pass his fingers down the slightly greenish cheeks. He wanted her’.

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Yayyyyyy! That was my first classic!!!!! Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it?

8 thoughts on “Of human bondage”

  1. I’ve tried many times to read Maugham and failed miserably each time. Mind you I do not mind reading Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare for fun. I actually have Conrad’s Lord Jim and Cousin Bette by Balzac lying on my bedside table. I did start the Balzac but then go side tracked….

    I’ve been invited to write book reviews a few times recently, one assumes there is honour in being so invite and even may be some remuneration of some kind, but am not sure how to go about actually writing a review.

    It would be interesting if I wrote a review in the style above 🙂

    Like

    • You would excel in writing reviews, I am definite, given the outside-the-box thought that you put into your writing.

      But my style is not what is expected from a reviewer and won’t be accepted by most publications. Big effing deal. I have my middle finger for them folks. Being old, my middle finger is stiffer than most.

      I had never read Maugham prior to OHB and now I intend reading his other work.:D

      Like

  2. Gary Robinson said:

    I have this book somewhere in my room, Achyut, along with Maughams’s short stories. Your review makes me want to read him. Thanks! 🙂

    Like

  3. arundhati c. said:

    Very well written review. I have read SM’s short stories and The Painted Veil…will read OHB …do read The Painted Veil…very poignant.
    -arundhati

    Like

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