Saturday, March 17, 2012

Of Human Bondage - W. Somerset. Maugham

‘Of Human Bondage’ is widely regarded as Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece. I read it on Kindle but the e-book is available for free at, all 1241 pages of it.

The novel came out in 1915, when the author was forty-one. The story it tells of Philip Carey and his struggle to find happiness and meaning in existence, closely traces the arc of Maugham’s own striving and experience in the first thirty years of his life. It remains one of his most successful books.

Philip Carey is orphaned at nine and brought to the emotionally unsupportive home of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. Born with a clubfoot, growing up, first with aloof guardians and later, in a school where his disability never allows him to fit in, he finds solace in books. He refuses to prepare for Oxford and goes instead, to university in Heidelberg. He tries accountancy and gives it up to study art in Paris before he finally hits upon a rewarding occupation in medicine. In the course of this journey he muses on religion and philosophy and people, that is, he ponders on the science of life, and after a few rocky affairs finds happiness in the arms of a woman he loves.

Maugham's mother died of tuberculosis like Carey’s mother, and he was sent at the age of nine to his uncle, the Vicar of Whitstable. He hated school (King’s school Canterbury to Carey’s King’s School Tercanbury). It appears he was picked on owing to his small size and the fact that he was more comfortable speaking French than English. He developed a stammer, which like Carey’s clubfoot was a lifelong burden making him self-conscious and shy. Maugham too went away to Heidelberg to study, coming back to try his hand at accountancy before studying medicine. It is natural one would conclude the book is autobiographical. Maugham has however maintained that incidents and people from his own life only formed the ballast for the novel. And of course there is a remarkable divergence in the resolution that Maugham achieves for his creation. Carey sublimates his dreams of art, travel and exotic experience, in the here and now of earning an honest livelihood, finding and keeping an honest love and raising children. Maugham was differently motivated- his homosexuality probably prevented him from aiming for too ordinary a life- Philip Carey came home, where Maugham chose to pursue the itinerant life of an artist.

Now that I have written this, I can’t help thinking of another very autobiographical novel- Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. GOST very closely traces Roy’s own life story up to the point where the main action of the novel takes place. The resolution of the plot however, has to be widely off-course, vis-à-vis the one followed by Roy herself. Arundhati Roy’s mother Mary Roy is best known for challenging Christian personal law in India, which denied Christian daughters a share in ancestral property. Arundhati Roy’s book is possibly a what-if scenario where her mother accepted the notion that she was living on charity, thus making herself and her children extremely vulnerable in a crisis. It is interesting that one’s own life story in a different context or with a different denouement could make for literary fodder.

Everybody at the discussion liked the book. Pooja, Pulak and Sneha had read it before. It was the first time for Sips, Tarun, Varun and I. Pooja said she suggested the book because she wanted to see if her impression had changed over the years. She was happy to discover she still loved it. She was impressed in particular with the easy readability of the book and the development of Philip Carey’s character. However what struck her the most was his affair with Mildred Rogers. There was something unreal and horrible about that relationship that stayed with Pooja. But most people found the Mildred saga, however awful, very believable. They had seen some close friend or the other caught in the infuriating sort of web that Carey finds himself enmeshed in. I felt that Carey was particularly susceptible because he was compulsively caring of the desolate and destitute- see how he reaches out to the friendless and talentless Fanny Price, or cares for Cranshaw in his dying days. It was all in a piece that Mildred on a self-destruct mode could be relied on to consistently sink into the dire-enough-straits needed to rekindle that relationship – from both ends! Tarun felt Mildred did not care for Philip and that was the biggest turn-on for him. Sneha was just too put off by Philip’s behaviour, his capacity for abasement and humiliation. There was a connection made to Philip’s own feelings of inadequacy and his loveless childhood. Sneha mentioned that Maugham’s marriage had been described as abusive.

Pulak described how the book had marked a turning point in his life, when he began to question the frenetic pace at which he travelled to new parts of the world. He found Philip’s relationship issues natural and he described the weird inadequacies that people could imagine for themselves- Philip Carey with a clubfoot was not an exception but a rule. On the whole what resonated with him was Philip’s quest for a philosophy and a world-view. Pulak also remarked that Philip’s need to care for people could have made him a good doctor.

Rohit agreed with the viewpoints expressed by the group. He too felt that Mildred’s indifference added to her allure and gave us interesting anecdotes to support his theory. Sneha loved the book and liked how Carey’s character develops through the book, and how he appeared to have come out of his shell by the end of the book. He knew his worth and his mind, and was at last, comfortable in his skin; in her words, he does not take any sh__t anymore. Nor does he react too violently - the character has clearly grown. She had initially been sceptical of the ending, finding it too pretty, but felt after the discussion, that everything came together so well in the end and that the book actually headed to a great finish. She and Pooja were both impressed by how well Philip Carey dealt with his artistic ambitions in the context of his ambition to make something of his life.

Varun had not completed the book but he was struck by how selfish Philip Carey seemed to be. There was some debate that self-centred probably described him better and I went on again about his kindness. I suppose a self-conscious person would sooner or later turn into a self-centred one. Varun loved the character of Herr Sung and the group had a good laugh. We have all been trumped by that brand of brazen outrageousness!

There was much discussion on philosophy, ethical standpoints, religious journeys, the change in a character over time and self-knowledge.

Tarun was surprised to find he had liked the book! The Mildred story, and in fact, every page of the book rang absolutely true for him. His take home was that Philip Carey was a drifter with little tenacity to stay a course, probably because the economic imperative was missing. Hmmm… it follows then that the need to persevere came home to him when he sank into poverty. Of course Maugham followed a different trajectory- he persevered throughout and followed his dreams. He did not sink into the humdrum life of a country doctor but broadened not only his own horizons but through his art, that of an age.

I found the prose clunky and tedious, but truth and intelligence have a mesmeric quality that makes the book utterly readable. Think high IQ Reality Television! At the end of the book, I could not help pitying Mildred who despite her rather independent personality, obviously lacked basic survival skills and needed to turn again and again to a man she found repulsive. The protagonist/author makes no attempt to understand the outlook of anyone different from Philip Carey- it is fitting that we will discuss Sense of an Ending at our next meeting which trips up a Carey-like protagonist in his self-centred world-view. Yes, ‘Of Human Bondage’ is more introverted than introspective. Yet, there is a searing honesty and a clear-eyed perspective, which make the book deserving of being called a ‘classic’.