The Ties that Bind : W. Somerset Maugham – “Of Human Bondage”

“I like W. Somerset Maugham. He’s not spectacular but he’s very readable. I’ll rather have that, than the other way around.”Haruki Murakami, “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”

“So I started reading that book, ‘Of Human Bondage.’ False advertising!” -Joke that has been around since 1915.

ABOVE: S and M stands for “Somerset” and “Maugham”

There are two ideal ages to read W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”: at 20, when  it foreshadows what’s to come, and at 40, when it summarizes what has been. I am somewhere in between, at an uneasy point when Philip Carey’s mistakes come too late to warn me from my own, but when the happy closure still seems too far ahead to convince me.

I certainly related to the novel, which is one of the better, purest bildungsromans in the canon. As Murakami would point out, there aren’t really any pyrotechnics in either style or plot: we  follow club-footed Philip from his orphan years in a British parish; through his wanna-be artistic youth, (in a Parisian milieu straight from George Du Maurier’s “Trilby”); his badly-managed sexual relationships; his crummy career that includes a stint as a country doctor (those scenes might come from  Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Country Doctor’s Notebook”). With Philip, we learn about love, sex, religion, art, philosophy, society- and with him we re-asses all those things. It’s hard to imagine a person of any artistic or philosophical bent (particularly, but not exclusively, males)  that doesn’t find something to relate to in Carey’s crippled passage through life.

“Of Human Bondage” also features a surprisingly deep set of female characters, not always a given in mainstream novels from 1915. Whatever you may feel about Fanny Price, Norah Nesbit, or Mildred Rogers, however little they may fit feminist ideals of character portrayal-  they’re actual recognizable humans. If you don’t agree, if you haven’t met them all in modern guises and modern aliases, you just haven’t gone out with enough women. (Less believable is the idealized Sally who finally rescues Philip from the shitty vagaries of dating. But then who knows? Maybe I’m too old believe in her or too young to have met her.)

ABOVE:

(Bette Davis first made a sensation in the role of Mildred. It’s always good to remember that Bette Davis used to be young and hot and have Bette Davis’ eyes!)

“Of Human Bondage” is the mainstream novel at its finest. It  is indeed very readable, a trait that used to annoy the smugger critics, (the ones who feel insecure unless they’re serving as the guardian priests of cryptic codices). Maugham is not a critic’s writer. No mediators are needed. His meanings are immediately apparent, his sentences flow cleanly. Now that he is no longer a popular concern, it’s not even fun to tear him down for his heresy of popularity.

If you’re 20, read it and be warned; if you’re 40, read it and remember. If you’re any other age, of course, feel free to pick it up, but remember: there is no actual bondage on “Of Human Bondage.” If you don’t accept that, you will be very disappointed.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

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3 thoughts on “The Ties that Bind : W. Somerset Maugham – “Of Human Bondage”

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