I would sooner a writer were vulgar than mincing; for life is vulgar,
and it is life he seeks. ~ W. Somerset Maugham
BOOK | FICTION | LITERATURE
OF HUMAN BONDAGE
by W. Somerset Maugham
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★
I suppose the easiest, and quickest, way to sum up Maugham’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE would be to write something along the lines of “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” which is certainly the case for the story’s protagonist, Phillip Carey.
If, however, that was all I wrote, then not only would I be overly brief in this review (which probably is not a bad thing), I would also be overly unoriginal since we all know the above quote belongs to the great Henry David Thoreau.
Unfortunately, because I do not have Thoreau’s genius for writing simply (which requires skill and patience that most writers, to include me, do not possess), I will have to deploy many more words than just Thoreau’s for my own summing up of Maugham’s masterpiece.
But what Thoreau wrote so poetically is undeniably what the essence of Maugham’s story is about:
Carey, born with a clubbed foot and who grows up to be shy and insecure because of it, lives a life yearning to be someone he can never be, to love someone whom he can never love, and to be somewhere other than where he happens to be.
His yearnings, we find, go mostly unfulfilled.
What I enjoy most about the story is Maugham’s descriptive ability. His writing magically places me deep within the England and the Germany and the France of the early twentieth century. I can hear the cart wheels rolling along the cobble-stoned streets. I can see the crowded, smoke-filled cafe. I can taste the absinthe and feel the immediate allure and rush as it blissfully numbs away the bite of reality.
What I enjoy least about the story is Carey’s excessively drawn-out infatuation with Mildred Rogers, the cruel and insensitive simpleton who fancies herself to be of a station in life much higher than the one she is unable to escape, no matter how hard she tries. While she does not have the capacity to improve her lot in life through earnest devices and effort, she does have enough smarts about her to understand early on in her relationship with Carey that she has a power over him from which he is also unable to escape no matter how hard he tries. She uses and abuses Carey with her power so often and for so long that I found myself becoming impatient and bored with, not only Carey’s unbelievable weakness, but with the story as a whole. However, by that point, I was already deeply hooked, addicted to the tale and desperate to know whether Carey would find a way to ween himself from his deadly addiction to Rogers, or if he would die unfulfilled and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes writes in his poem “The Voiceless,” with his music still in him.
While I find the tortuous, one-sided love affair between Carey and Rogers to be a bit too much, through it I am reminded that any unhealthy dependency, be it our dependency on love, on money, on drugs, or on whatever, often takes us down a long and troubling path that, if we stay on it, will eventually lead us to the point of our destruction. And it usually is not until we nearly reach that point that we are finally able to realize just how destructive our dependency, our yearning, really is. Only then, if we are lucky or blessed or both (for unfortunately, many are unable to stop before reaching the point of their destruction and continue helplessly, fatally on), can we find the strength to separate ourselves from that which is destroying us and begin on a path to recovery.
But I guess that’s how life goes, and how it has always gone throughout the desperate ages — if we do not somehow find a way to come to peace with our satiated yearnings, our unrequited desires, they will most likely be the sad and desperate songs we sing until we finally, and at last, are placed within our cold and lonely graves.
Boy, I want you to butter the bread.
And remember, I like it buttery.
But Dad, it’s too hard for me to spread the lard.
Can’t Sister do it instead?
Boy, it’s up to you to butter the toast.
Cuz the only way for you to learn
To do the things that you can’t do
Is to do those things the most.
So every time there is bread to butter
I want you to spread the cream.
And soon you’ll be the best bread butterer
That the world has ever seen.
Butter is from Poem Man, a children’s book of poetry that my family and I put together, – literally put together: the poeming, drawing, covering, printing, stapling, etc. – back at the turn of the century.
I must admit, that when my children were young I had aspirations of being the next Shel Silverstein, my favorite poet of all time. While that didn’t quite work out for me, it sure was a lot of fun fooling around with children’s poetry back then when the kids, and the internet, were still young.
It’s hard to believe the original Poem Man website, circa early 2000s, is still out there. Check it out if you’re in the need of a good chuckle.
Guess I was doing Indie before Indie was cool…
Almost forgot that I’ve already exploited Poem Man some time ago, tying in a poem, or at least attempting to, called Petey Peter the Garlic Eater with my review of W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece Of Human Bondage.
Yeah, I know… but what the heck, right?