Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Human Bondage

Attentive readers will have noticed that Mrs Hickory and I have been in Sweden, enjoying it with all the open-mouthed wonder of a farmboy taking his cabbages to the local market town for the first time. Which is how I think most things in life should be lived, even though I am prone to forget this and give in to world-weary cynicism at the first opportunity. Anyhow, we are now on the farm, and have been for a while, so now it is summer things: books I am reading, places I am walking through, curious things that happen, stray thoughts that strike me as I wander through this now familiar land

 I have just read Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. Many sources seem to consider it his masterpiece I really can't agree. It is in not a masterpiece, and Maugham himself has written better books. 'The Moon and Sixpence' is much better, in the literary sense, and a better read, and some of his short stories are innovative and compelling, which this isn't. It seems a bit unpolished to me. There are good and interesting characters, some well-painted scenes, some sections are genuinely captivating, but the whole doesn't work. The beginning, the childhood and school, is dull and might well have been left out. It would have some purpose if it created the character of Philip from the details that he experiences, but it doesn't do that. When we need to learn something about his character the narrator simply tells us what he is like. The end is predictable in part; it is obvious he is being set up for settling down with a specific girl, and obvious he is going to get on with the crusty old doctor. I wonder if it for moral reasons that the narrator doesn't let Philip travel as he wished once he is qualified. It seems strange in Maugham to care about that, but I don't see any other reason, unless he was just tired of the whole thing and wanted to finish it.

I wish we had been able to follow Paul's travels in Spain and the East before he was sacrificed to the demands of normality and maturity. But it is Maugham's book, not mine, and he conceived it that way. The central relationship is very powerfully created and the tension is maintained throughout. I repeatedly experienced an empty feeling in my stomach when I feared he was going to fall for Mildred once again. That is a sign of good storytelling, when it has you shouting at the character not to be a bloody fool.

3 comments:

Vincent said...

I've tried to be an attentive reader, but wasn't too impressed with Sweden as seen through your eyes. It sounded too ordinary. I liked what you said about the public art being even worse than in England. I'm normally ready to defend England, whenever it's attacked by foreigners, expats or traitors, but not on this one!

I've often been curious about Sweden, but you've shown how it's a pretty ordinary place, where people live, and that's useful: to know that it's not an outstanding tourist destination. In the last 5 years, always in May, I've gone to Benalmadena (Costa del Sol), Kingston (Jamaica), Lisbon, Amsterdam and Paris: each an exotic adventure in its own way. Benalmadena was regrettable. We didn't like our fellow-tourists and the Spaniards who actually lived there independently of the tourist trade didn't like tourists of any stripe, so we were left in a no-man's land and not ready to revisit Spain for a while. I think on the whole Amsterdam suited us best, especially as our hotel was out in the canals-and-windmill countryside, not far from the village of Edam. I actually preferred the public art in Lisbon to that of Paris. As for Jamaica (to complete the survey) we go there for family reasons. It's the most exotic of the lot but next time we do want to go as tourists.

If you listen to readers' requests, here's one. Could you some time write a retrospective view of your time in Sweden which would indicate the sweetest and most memorable things which you connect with the place (rather than your own life-narrative), which might give me a reason to go there, one May in the indefinite future?

James Higham said...

Saw bondage and Mrs Hickory, thought of 50 shades and put 2 and 2 together and came up with 5, as one does. :)

CIngram said...

I couldn't possibly comment, James ;-).