Bad Boys In Bondage

BarsoomI was reading a review of the cinematic triumph, Bad Boys In Bondage 3D, yesterday and it reminded me of an earlier time when the simple use of the word “bondage” was not allowed by the internet gestapo. Back then I was managing a reading group on Yahoo (or was it the old Excite days?) and when I went to post the upcoming reading selection, Of Human Bondage, the computer made a rude sound and rejected my post. The error message was tantamount to branding me as a sex-offender and I later found out that the internet guys in the back room placed my web-presence on the For Adults Only list (there was no notice of this action so I was spared several days of shame and embarrassment since I didn’t even know I was Adults Only … although I have always suspected it).

Of course today we are all more tolerant and adult in our attitudes (excepting the Republicans) so I feel safe using terms like bondage, bustles, ba’zoooms, Barsoom, and Betty Boop. That being said, I suppose it’s a good time to says something about Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, which I reread recently.

Why did I reread it? Frankly, it wasn’t because I considered it as the novel of the century: in fact, the real reason I reread it was because I got so bored the first time that I just frittered away the last several hundred pages with one eye on the text and the other eye on a hockey telecast with Jacques Plante in goal. How could that be if the novel is regularly included in all those Top 100 lists? Indeed, how could that be? So I felt I had to reread it to find out what treasure I had missed.

My first observation was that Maugham certainly wasn’t challenged to create something new: in fact, Of Human Bondage seemed to fit right in with other writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Emile Zola. It was a good, albeit familiar, story but it had no Boop. A gent with a club foot grows up and can’t settle on what he wants to do with his life, plus he has a lot of trouble with women. There’s a lot more and in truth, it’s not boring, but to quote Peggy Lee, is that all there is?

I think that the problem with this novel (and many others, I’m sure) is that it relies almost completely on the narrative. By this I mean that it is not written in any special way. I think back to Gustave Flaubert, especially Madame Bovary, and I remember as much about the careful and controlled writing, the imagery, the juxtapositions, etc. as I do about the narrative. Is it just that Flaubert is the far superior novelist or is Maugham writing at a period when Realism and Romanticism were dying and Modernism is gobbling up the literature of the time (read Ezra Pound and James Joyce) and his prose style falls in the crack?

Bondage

Since Of Human Bondage is regularly considered Maugham’s most autobiographical work, perhaps that is the explanation: as a representation of Life it forgets that literature is also Art.

I am not privy to Maugham’s reputation today and he might be slipping (like Thomas Wolfe). Is he still on the Top 100 lists because of inertia?

On the other hand, back when I was an undergraduate the mavens of literature were dismissing Charles Dickens: I remember being told that Bleak House was probably Dickens’ only tolerable novel. Now, fifty years later, they love Dickens again (Wolfe is still out behind the wood pile). I have read a couple of other Maugham novels: maybe I should try a few additional titles? I might be surprised.

Wikipedia gives us this bibliography (partial) for W. Somerset Maugham. What should I try next?

Novels

  • Liza of Lambeth (1897)
  • The Making of a Saint (1898)
  • The Hero (1901)
  • Mrs Craddock (1902)
  • The Merry-go-round (1904)
  • The Bishop’s Apron (1906)
  • The Explorer (1908)
  • The Magician (1908)
  • Of Human Bondage (1915)
  • The Moon and Sixpence (1919)
  • The Painted Veil (1925)
  • Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)
  • The Narrow Corner (1932)
  • Theatre (1937)
  • Christmas Holiday (1939)
  • Up at the Villa (1941)
  • The Hour Before Dawn (1942)
  • The Razor’s Edge (1944)
  • Then and Now (1946)
  • Catalina (1948)

Short Story Collections

  • Orientations (1899)
  • The Trembling of a Leaf (1921)
  • The Casuarina Tree (1926)
  • Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928)
  • Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931)
  • Ah King (1933)
  • Cosmopolitans – Very Short Stories (1936)
  • The Mixture As Before (1940)
  • Creatures of Circumstance (1947)
  • Princess September

What are your thoughts on this?

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