W. Somerset Maugham, “Of Human Bondage” (1915) – This one hurt. The only comparison I can think of is Celine’s “Death on the Installment Plan.” Maugham and Celine are on utterly opposite sides when it comes to style: Celine, the great prose innovator of the twentieth century, Maugham, the master of conventional, easy-reading style in whichever medium he used. But both were in medicine before they took up writing, and both knew pain, both taking it and inflicting it. Both wrote great books putting versions of themselves through the wringer of youth.
The main character, Philip, has a rough time from the beginning- he’s got a clubfoot and his parents both die before he turns ten. He’s adopted by a basically indifferent elderly uncle and aunt. He goes to boarding school, which is hard enough when you’re not sensitive and clubfooted, but sucks extra hard when you’re both. He’s the wrong sort of middle class, just enough money to avoid learning anything useful or being able to easily adjust to normal working life, but not enough money to actually skate through.
Leaving school, he tries accountancy, hates it, and then tries to be an artist in Paris at the fin de siecle. Impressionism is just getting off the ground and everyone wants to be an artiste. Maugham draws a grimly convincing portrait of the life of people who want to live the bohemian lifestyle but aren’t quite up to it, artistically or in terms of resources. There are schools everywhere willing to rook credulous anglophones out of their pounds sterling by telling them they’ll teach them how to draw and paint and then blaming their lack of talent — which basically amounts to soul, in this world — when they fail. As Maugham has Philip explicate later, lack of money doesn’t ennoble- it makes money take on hideous proportions, makes you mean and calculating. Throw artistic pretensions on top of it, and Philip gets another beating from life and returns to Britain.
But the pivot of the novel is a Philip’s relationship with one Mildred, a waitress at a coffee shop (shades of Charlie Kelly!). People have wondered about how Maugham, who was gay, portrayed the pitfalls of heterosexual romance as well as he did. Some speculate he had a male Mildred in his life- I think that’s possible but also think that he was a sharp observer, that straight romance is really none too subtle at the end of the day, and that what he’s pointing towards is damn near universal.
Philip essentially uses Mildred as a means of torturing himself. He falls in love with her nearly instantly. I don’t entirely grasp what writers of this generation mean by “falling in love.” Philip has other lovers that he lists off all kinds of positive feelings for, including a sense of loyalty and respect that I associate with love, but insists he’s not “in love” with them. In this book, “love” is a sort of sickness, a fever (to use hackneyed language, sorry), an alibi for all kinds of awful behavior.
Due to his “love” for Mildred, Philip winds up in an array of situations that, a hundred years later, the internet invented any number of crude terms for, from “cuck” to a quite literal “Captain Save-a-ho” scenario. Shows how our language for romance has degraded! This is a six-hundred page novel and charting all the ins and outs of this torturous non-relationship is more than I can do. He gets in other relationships with good women but leaves them because he’s “in love” with Mildred. He literally gives his best buddy money to take Mildred away for a holiday to bone after he introduces them to each other. In the end it takes a public health emergency and an inheritance to finally give Philip the escape velocity to leave her orbit.
Mildred is one of the better literary depictions of a cipher, a cruel and essentially misogynistic depiction but brilliantly realized. She has just enough humanity to see what she does to Philip is cruel, but between her own callowness and the real limits Edwardian England put on women’s agency, she can’t help but reel him back in again and again. Blame really lies with Philip, and he knows it, but because of the sickness of “love,” he can’t help it. In the end, he basically burns himself, winding up content with a good relationship (though with what we’d see as a sketchy age differential) that isn’t “love” and deciding that’s good enough. Unrequited love is its own peculiar, humiliating type of hell, and Maugham is the Virgil leading us through it. *****