‘IN THE VERY FIRST ROW OF THE SECOND-RATERS’: READING W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM’S OF HUMAN BONDAGE

I have spent much of my time this long weekend glued to the 600 pages of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915). I picked up the yellowing, crumbling copy at UAB’s library to read for pleasure, after having read a while ago The Razor’s Edge (1944) –and yes, having seen the two film versions, one with Tyrone Power, the other, surprisingly, a pet project of Bill Murray. I vaguely recalled this was supposed to be a scandalous novel, but that was not was had kept it at the back of my mind for future reading, nor the three film versions, which I have never seen. Rather, it was Brad Pitt as a police officer in Se7en asking his partner Morgan Freeman whether Maugham’s novel, a clue connected to the sophisticated serial killer they are after, is S&M. Note this: Freeman plays in the film the cultured detective William Somerset –script-writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s homage to Maugham, his favourite writer. And yes, this novel is indeed S&M, but not of the leather-clad kind Pitt meant.

Maugham was a great star in his time, in that line of solid British writers that has also given us Graham Greene, John Le Carré, maybe Anthony Burgess, and that, while also somehow connected with E.M. Forster, has nothing to do with Modernism. Maugham, enormously successful as novelist, playwright and short story writer, is actually one of the greatest victims of Modernism, as his unadorned prose and oddly melodramatic novels are at the antipodes of what Woolf et al regarded as interesting literature (include also Bennet and Galsworthy). Theodore Dreiser loved Of Human Bondage and I should think he makes a good transatlantic companion for Maugham. There’s been recently a renewed interest in Maugham’s work because of a handful of new film adaptations: Up at the Villa (2000), Meeting Julia (2004) and The Painted Veil (2006) –Naomi Watts and Edward Norton are superb there– but, arguably, they have fixed Maugham in the role of vaguely passé, decadent writer, a la Noël Coward or Terence Rattigan, rather than vindicate him.

It seems Maugham described himself as belonging to ‘the very first row of the second-raters’. A colleague, who happens to specialise in Shakespeare, spoke wonders to me about Of Human Bondage and I read it, accordingly, not at all as second rate, but as one of the great forgotten novels that should be included in my dream course about, well, great forgotten novels. Now I’m not so sure. One thing I noticed is this: I never looked at the page number as I read Maugham’s masterpiece and when I did it was to note, with surprise, that I had read 100-150 pages non-stop. This is something that rarely happens, and a good sign that the author does indeed know how to tell a tale. Yet, as for the tale itself, possibly what’s happened to me as a reader is exactly the same that happens to its protagonist, Philip, regarding his paramour Mildred: he has no idea why he loves her, being, as he is, fully aware of her many faults and of her lack of beauty –of her vulgarity, in short. Even so, Philip loves her; even so, I’ve loved this book. But it is, let’s be clear about this, first row of the second-raters.

As I read the story of Philip’s life –close to the author’s own life in many aspects, completely fictional in others– I kept wondering why I wanted to go on reading. I doubt any reader can truly like Philip and I don’t wonder that some have found the story of his obsession for the heartless Mildred that of a fool. Maugham, however, deals through Philip not just with the misery of unfulfilled sexual yearning but also with the even bigger misery of misreading one’s mediocrity. He gives Philip a chance to confront his own and choose finally a reasonably happy life but the book is strewn with the dead bodies of those who fail to come to terms with their own limitations. I was (morbidly) impressed by that; also by the women’s frank approach to sex in the novel, far more direct that in Lawrence because of the, excuse the pun, bare prose.

Curiosity satisfied, then, for the time being. I know I’m not done with Maugham, either because I’m at heart a philistine or because we need the second-raters (front or back row) as much as we need the first-raters… to make our reading complete.

4 thoughts on “‘IN THE VERY FIRST ROW OF THE SECOND-RATERS’: READING W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM’S OF HUMAN BONDAGE

  1. A friend of mine told me to read Maugham but with all the work that i’ve to do. i haven’t done it, but now reading your blog has remind me of it, so in summer i’ll read it. Last classes, we talk about the poems and the influences that they have, and a part from having felt in love with the song “stop al the clocks” later that day i was watching a serie and i realized that the title of the episode was from one poem ” do not go gentle”. it was funny and i’m happy to be able to recognize the influences of poetry nowadays.

  2. That’s the idea, Ariadna: learning enriches your ability to make connections, and, therefore, to understand the world we live in better. Hopefully, even to contibute to it.
    Yes, do read Maugham in the summer, by all means!

  3. My short list is getting longer and longer… anyway I bet you would enjoy Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga just as much. I read that as a teenager, when these people were solid modern classics, not remote and forgotten would-be classics.

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