Human Bondage, Of

by W. Somerset Maugham (1914)

7/10

In recently re-reading John Fante‘s letters, I noticed he described his magnum opus Ask the Dust as “like Human Bondage, but with humor and wistfulness.” Given that Dust is one of my all-time favorite books (see my review), and that Bondage has been collecting dust (ahem) on my to-read shelf for a great many months, I decided that Fante’s letter was the perfect cue to pick up this otherwise intimidatingly-dense tome.

(By the way, if you haven’t read Ask the Dust yet, you should literally stop everything right now in order to obtain a copy and read it.)

The parallels between Dust and Bondage are indeed obvious, what with a young sensitive type obsessed with a non-requiting insensitive type. Fante’s description about humor and wistfulness is spot on as well. Maugham doesn’t have the poetic flourishes that Fante whips out by the dozen, but I quite liked his unadorned, direct style; it gives me some reassurance in my own similarly plain writing.

Thematically, Maugham reminds me of Hesse, who also deals with the search for beauty among the mundane. They’re similarly preoccupied with ideas of metaphysics and spirituality, though Maugham seems to take a broader view, looking at the world as a whole and searching for patterns of human behavior. Hesse, for his part, remains fixated on the dichotomy of the earthly v. the ethereal and never reaches a satisfying conclusion. Maugham doesn’t seem to explicitly identify this dichotomy, though he appears to settle eventually on the earthly side of it with his own relatively unsatisfying conclusion. It’s interesting that this work predates Hesse’s most important works by five years or so.

Despite its density this was a quick and engaging read. I loved it for almost the entire first half, fascinated by Phillip’s adventures in Heidelberg and Paris, and intrigued to see where he ended up. I recognized a lot of myself in Phillip and thus enjoyed his musings on a personal level as well.

Unfortunately most of my enjoyment screeched to a halt when Mildred entered the story. Most unfortunate is that she essentially became the story’s centerpiece, the plot alternating between Phillip’s desperate obsession and Mildred’s cruel rejections. This dragged on for too long, and when Maugham finally jerked the narrative out of this rut he was left with far too few pages to craft a satisfying, well-paced ending. The relationship with Sally, telegraphed as early as p. 425, was left completely untapped until being disjointedly rushed to fruition in the final 20 pages. I liked where it ended up, on an optimistic and joyful note, but it did not feel earned in so little space, and following on the heels of so much depression and despair.

Additionally, some of the symbolism was a little too on-the-nose — especially the mirrored relationships between Phillip-Norah-Mildred and Mildred-Phillip-Miller/Griffiths. It would have been understandable even without so much heavy-handed repetition. Still, as I said before the book remained quite readable throughout, and I always enjoyed Phillip’s existentialist musings, even if they were also repetitive after a while.

One note that is not a criticism but rather is something I feel unable to grasp in reading about this era is how people responded to love and betrayal. First of all, it’s bizarre to see the phrase “make love” meaning something so clearly different from what we understand it as today. I’m still not sure exactly what it means in Maugham’s context. Is it just courting, or flirting, or romantic repartee? Then there’s kissing, which is apparently done even if you don’t really like someone, as Mildred did with Phillip, sort of out of duty when someone does nice things for you. I can only assume that kissing at that time meant much less than it does to us, since it conveyed no claim on a romantic relationship whatsoever.

Then there’s betrayal, which apparently is no big deal either, considering how characters like Mildred, Phillip and Griffiths handle it as a matter of routine. There appears to be little sense of what we now consider shame or honor, none of the horrible things that Mildred/Griffiths do are ever discussed directly, and everyone just sort of goes on as if massive betrayal is a fact of life. I can’t figure out if this was normal or if Phillip is just that much of a sap, but the latter doesn’t seem quite consistent with the rest of how he’s presented. To be clear, I don’t consider this a fault in the book, just something that generally baffles me about this era.

Summing up, this is a novel, like those of Hesse, in which ideas about life and existence enjoy primacy. Its great first half is diminished by a misguided second, though most people should find something to identify with in Phillip, a surrogate for Maugham himself.  Bondage is perhaps a common ancestor of Hesse and Fante, the former of which explored similar ideas and the latter similar characters. It’s good to read for the same reason that many classics are: for a more complete frame of reference on literature in general, and because it offers many useful insights into the human condition.

Oh, and go read Ask the Dust.

 

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