Monday, July 21, 2014

The 100 best novels / No 44 / Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham (1915)

The 100 best novels

writtein English

No 44

Of Human Bondage 

by W Somerset Maugham 


Somerset Maugham's semi-autobiographical novel shows the author's savage honesty and gift for storytelling at their best

Monday 21 July 2014

Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster wrote: "The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, of anything else that we cannot define." He might have been writing about W Somerset Maugham's masterpiece, Of Human Bondage. For English readers, this is a Bildungsroman we mostly first encounter as adolescents. It earns its place in this list for the edgy economy of its dark, often cruel narrative more than its style (prosaic) or its humanity (tormented). Maugham's unforgettable portrait of Philip Carey is one that teenagers, typically, will ingest like junkies, not least because Maugham poured so much of himself into the plot of the novel and its strangely sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps not since David Copperfield, an obvious inspiration (No 15 in this series), had an English writer mined his own life so explicitly or so ruthlessly.

W Somerset Maugham
Philip Carey is an orphan hungry for love and experience. Like Maugham, who was a homosexual with a bad stammer, he is afflicted with a disabling deformity, a club foot. Raised by his clergyman uncle, the boy is imprisoned in late-Victorian vicarage life dreaming of his release from bondage, and praying to an indifferent God to have his disability healed. After a closely observed passage through boarding school, Philip escapes to study in Heidelberg, enjoys a brief spell as a struggling but failing artist in Paris, and then returns home. Now begins the most poignant and memorable passage of the novel, Carey's hopeless affair with Mildred, a waitress.
Maugham was a self-hating homosexual, and his picture of Mildred as Philip's love-object reflects the trials of a young gay man in the aftermath of the Oscar Wilde case. Mildred is "boy-like", vulgar and contemptuous of her crippled lover. She 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. Finally, after a hideous crisis in which Mildred wrecks his flat and shreds his wardrobe, she leaves to become a Shaftesbury Avenue prostitute. Only then does Philip realise he no longer loves her. He escapes her spell just in time to redeem himself, and marry a girl called Sally, a sentimental conclusion that does no justice to the savage honesty that permeates the heart of the novel.

A note on the text

Of Human Bondage was initially called The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey, then Beauty from the Ashes, a quotation from Isaiah. When Maugham discovered that this title had been used already, he borrowed his final title from one of the books in Spinoza's Ethics. It was published in Britain by William Heinemann on 13 August 1915, during an annus mirabilis for British fiction. This series has already listed entries for The Good Soldier, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Rainbow. From a long list of titles published that year, I've also excluded some other big names: Woolf's The Voyage Out, Wodehouse's Psmith Journalist, and Conrad's Victory.
The novel's history is interesting. Maugham first wrote the manuscript that would become Of Human Bondage when he was 23, having just taken his medical degree after five years at St Thomas's. He sent it to Fisher Unwin which, while he was still a medical student, had published his first novel Liza of Lambeth to some acclaim. Maugham asked for an advance of £100, but was refused. "Rebuffed," he wrote later, "I put the manuscript away." He turned to writing for the theatre, where he enjoyed considerable success. "I was no sooner firmly established as the most popular dramatist of the day," he writes, "than I began once more to be obsessed by the teeming memories of my past life."

Maugham was at pains, however, to insist that this was "not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel". It was, in short, a mash-up of fact and fiction, seasoned with his own emotions, even when some incidents were borrowed from elsewhere. Whatever the process of composition, it satisfied its author. "I found myself free from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me," he wrote later.
Maugham was always fiercely self-critical. "I knew I had no lyrical quality," he once wrote. "I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphor; the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me." But he did have an instinctive gift for storytelling. Many would say that his short stories embody his best work, and he remains a substantial figure in the early-20th-century literary landscape. Although Maugham's former reputation has become somewhat eclipsed, Of Human Bondage can still be cited as his masterpiece, a 20th-century English classic with a devoted following.

Three more from Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence (1919); Cakes and Ale (1930); The Razor's Edge (1944).

007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  
031 Dracula by Bram Stoker  (1897)
035 The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
036 The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)
039 The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910)
040 Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1915)
041 The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
042 The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
043 The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)
044 Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Waugham (1915)
045 The Age of Innocence by Edith Warthon (1920)
046 Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
047 Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
048 A Pasage to India by EM Forster (1922)
049 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loss ( 1925)
050 Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

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