Monday, February 13, 2012

Quitting Time: Half-Notes On "Of Human Bondage"

As I mentioned in my first post of the year, I keep an annual tally of the books I complete. Since 2009, I've averaged around twenty-five titles per year, and while the ultimate goal is always quality, my 2012 pace has been sputtering lately. This understatement has been highlighted, at least in my mind, by the Twitter feed of writer Matt Bell. In addition to having one of the more insightful/unique literary accounts, Bell has been updating his book completions of 2012, and recently noted his eighteenth book of the year. Even if half of these titles were started last year, or are slim volumes, it's an impressive total. In a given year, I may read one or two "long" books; again, length has nothing to do with quality, but works over 500 pages in length are time consuming and can skew one's annual total. So far this year, I've read two +500 page books (The Art Of Fielding, and the recently published Christopher Hitchens compilation, Arguably). In between these two, I devoted time to W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, an attempt to catch up on a lot of the older classics I have not read yet. It might seem pointless to devote words to a book I gave up on, but my bailing out highlighted more than a few literary issues.

I bought a used copy of Of Human Bondage last year and finally pulled it off my shelf a few weeks ago. When two separate co-workers in two separate instances asked me what I was currently reading, both said "Why?" when I mentioned the title. Going in, I had little if any knowledge of Maugham's style, life, or literary designations. I simply knew the name and the fact that a lot of his works tend to fit into the usual canon of classic literature. The skepticism at my reading filled me with two distinct emotions. One side of me felt relieved, since I had spent hours digging through dense, tiresome prose, hoping to hit the switch from "ordinary prose" to "holy shit, this is fantastic and the pages are flying by." The other side of me was determined to see it through, to find themes and passages worthy of discussion and critique. I closed the book for good on page 138 of the Bantam Classic edition, on a paragraph that perfectly sums up my frustration with Maugham's prose:

"Philip did not believe in the accuracy of the Careys' statements. All they distinctly remembered was that Miss Wilkinson had not got her hair up the last time they saw her in Lincolnshire. Well, she might have been twelve then: it was so long ago and the Vicar was always so unreliable. They said it was twenty years ago, but people used round figures, and it was just as likely to be eighteen years, or seventeen. Seventeen and twelve were only twenty-nine, and hang it all, that wasn't old, was it? Cleopatra was forty-eight when Antony threw away the world for her sake."

This section comes in a chapter devoted to the flirtatious Miss Wilkinson, who has just beguiled Philip Carey with a not-so-veiled story of having sex with a young man in Paris. Philip is attempting to come to terms with her age and her designs on him, and while this above passage isn't long at all, it does seem worthy of reduction or editing. Maugham's tendency, at least in the first quarter of the novel, is to build up layer upon layer of intimate detail, reveal a potentially scandalous or still-contemporary issue, and then quickly move on to repetitious details. I won't devote too much energy to a plot synopsis, especially since I'm not writing about the entire work, and since a general synopsis of such a well-known work is easy to find online. Philip Carey, a club-footed orphan (a metaphor for Maugham's own stuttering problem) is sent to live with his uncle, a cold and distant fundamentalist vicar. There might be other twentieth century novels that are better at lambasting religious suffering, but Maugham does succeed in this area:

"Philip got up and knelt down to say his prayers. It was a cold morning, and he shivered a little; but he had been taught by his uncle that his prayers were more acceptable to God if he said them in his nightshirt than if he waited till he was dressed. This did not surprise him, for he was beginning to realize that he was the creature of a God who appreciated the discomfort of his worshippers."

Also, even with the time period in mind (Of Human Bondagewas published in 1915), Maugham is fairly bold in depicting the obvious sexual attraction between Philip and other men. These scenes are presented as intense platonic friendships, but even if one could manage to read them without a contemporary lens, the true meanings are obvious. I remember one of my former professors delicately cautioning against "queer readings" of every text. He didn't mean this in any discriminatory way, but rather his implication was that revisionist readings can sometimes take writings out of context. But given Maugham's own sexuality, it's impossible not to read between the lines.

"Soon they grew accustomed to the two walking into chapel arm in arm or strolling round the precincts in conversation; wherever one was the other could be found also, and, as thought acknowledging his proprietorship, boys who wanted Rose would leave messages with Carey. Philip at first was reserved. He would not let himself yield entirely to the proud joy that filled him; but presently his distrust of the fates gave way before a wild happiness. He thought Rose the most wonderful fellow he had ever seen....He thought of Rose all through the holidays, and his fancy was active with the things they would do together next term."

Despite these almost startlingly contemporary issues, gripping narratives in the novel are too few and far between to sustain interest. Instead, readers have to wade through needless details and structures, as if Maugham were afraid to leave out even the most casual or distinct atmospheres. Architecture, gardens, emotional states, boarding school tedium...yes, these are imperative for the story, but Maugham took "the devil is in the details" to a suffocating extreme. Had the emphasis been more on the sociological rather than the literal, which I find to be Maugham's strongest gift, I'm sure the text would have flowed more, and I might have even finished the work. Again: why am I devoting a post to this? I've started many novels before, only to give up after a few pages, but I can't remember getting this far into a work before stopping. It proves the point that every work of art has its detractors, and labels such as "classic" or "canon" are not always to be taken seriously, or rather they shouldn't always be assumed. Getting back to my notion of "the sociological," the general realization is that Maugham's personal life was much more gripping than his prose. This was driven home by two supporting essays, one of which stressed this idea unintentionally.

In her introduction to the Bantam Classics edition, Jane Smiley's attempts to laud the book are tedious, but through no fault of her own, since the majority of the introduction is a fascinating look at Maugham's biographical details. But when it comes to Of Human Bondage, she writes:

...[It] did not at first look like a success. Some British reviews were admiring but bemused. One reviewer, unable to actually form a wholehearted judgement of the book, wrote, 'I am not sure he has not written a highly original book. I am not even sure he has not written almost a great one'...but Of Human Bondage got a second chance for commercial success with a long and enthusiastic review in The New Republic, written by the American realist novelist, Theodore Dreiser (xiii)."

Smiley then quotes Dreiser's ridiculous gushing over the work ("a symphony of great beauty," "priceless texture"), with only the occasional glimpse as to why the book is important. Despite being ahead of the times, an introduction should do more than make a passing reference to Maugham's "interest and candor" about sexuality; virtually everyone has an interest in the subject. If his prose was lambasted, censored, or a part of a genuine sexual revolution, then this would be noteworthy. By the end of Smiley's introduction, the overall feeling is that of "well, everyone says this is a great work, so that must be the case." I'm not at all doubting Smiley's appreciation of it, or her literary background, but my feeling was that of someone hastily defending a maligned book, not an assured rebuttal to critics or a genuine appeal to casual readers.

Christopher Hitchens's 2004 essay "Poor Old Willie" is a much more explicit take on Maugham's literary shortcomings. Hitchens was never shy about his appreciation or distaste for a writer or a novel, but this piece is a genuinely sympathetic look at someone who potentially received more attention than was necessary.

"Just as he was a character in one of his best-known novels, so Maugham worked assiduously to create a persona for himself in life. And the life was, according to [Somerset Maugham: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers], a good deal more exquisite, dramatic, torrid, and tragic than any of the works (Hitchens 243-244)."

As with Smiley's introduction, we're treated to the fantastic details of Maugham's life, one of society and wit, mixed with not-so-quiet sexuality and secrecy. After reading these companion pieces and imagining the few personal details that made their way into the beginning of Of Human Bondage, I would have much preferred to know Maugham as a personal essayist rather than as a novelist. Of course, I'm basing these ideas on merely a few pages of one title in a vast bibliography. There are worse prose writers out there, both past and present, but it's obvious that Maugham infused his fiction with the sort of intense details that would have been out of place in his own non-fiction. But it confuses me when certain titles are lauded without any real explanation (returning to Dreiser, it shows that critics wielding too much influence has been an issue for longer than we realize). Maugham is endlessly fascinating, but as Hitchens states to close his essay:

"Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honor from the Crown--but it was for 'services to literature,' rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world (Hitchens 249)."

Works Cited:
Hitchens, Christopher. "Poor Old Willie." From The Atlantic Monthly, 2004. Reprinted in Arguably. Copyright 2011 by Christopher Hitchens.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage. 1915. Introduction copyright 1991 by Jane Smiley.

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