16 September 2010

Thoughts on Of Human Bondage

Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915) - his most intimate and autobiographical novel - was written by the author over the course of a few years and was a cathartic, purging exercise for him. Many tend to believe that the novel revolves primarily around a masochistic relationship that the protagonist has with a woman. However, Of Human Bondage is much more than that, and it's not until very later in the novel that the above episode actually takes place.

The novel is one of Maugham's longest (almost 700 pages) and captures the many shades of his life: an uneasy childhood, frustration at struggling to find the right calling and then finally, falling into an abusive relationship that almost leads to his ruin. While not all the episodes are autobiographical, the emotions are all his. Maugham was at the height of his popularity as a playwright when he set out to write this novel. His career as a novelist had taken a backseat and not even Maugham though he would digress from writing plays. But he did. Of Human Bondage wrenches out a story of deeply fractured emotions and inner conflicts experienced by an artist and an emotional man, which Maugham felt compelled to write about. He wanted to get it out of his system. He often said that he wrote because he couldn't help it. Which is what makes the novel one of the most intimate and searingly honest books ever written.
Maugham never really went back to the stage. Now that he was affluent, he returned to his first love - writing novels, short stories and essays, where he could be himself.

When the novel was first published  it was met with a certain ambiguity among critics. For a while it looked like the novel would be doomed to obscurity. Then writer Theodore Dreiser  wrote a stunningly positive review of the novel and suddenly it stoked a good deal of critical and public interest. Dreiser said, "Here is a novel of the utmost importance. It is a beacon of light by which the wanderer may be guided. . . . One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones."

Over the years, Of Human Bondage has gone on to become Maugham's most famous novels. The first part of the book is almost entirely autobiographical and is engrossing from the word go.

Maugham had a difficult childhood after losing his mother when he was a little boy and being sent to his childless uncle and aunt.  Likewise in the novel the protagonist, Philip Carey finds himself desolate staying with his uncle, a vicar who is overly religious and cautious with money. The aunt who has never known a life beyond meekly serving her callous husband is well-meaning and affectionate towards Philip. Given his circumstances, Philip is prepared to be a good Christian and follow the path prescribed by the Lord.

However his first exposure to the outside world as a boarding student is an especially painful one.  Philip has a club foot and limp, and when children studying with him cruelly tease him, it makes a permanent scar on his young heart.  Philip grows up insecure and conscious. To him, his club foot is a reminder of his inadequacy and he blushes every time someone makes a reference to it. There's a heart-wrenching scene where Philip - with his absolute belief in God - fervently prays one night that he should be rid off his club foot and be made normal the next day. As it turns out nothing happens and therein are sowed the first seeds of Philip's disenchantment with religion.

The next big hurdle for him is to find his calling. His uncle and aunt want him to either enter the Church or take up something conventional. Philip tries accounting for a few months but he finds it torturous. He has a talent for sketches and when a few people praise him, he is spurred on and decides to go to Paris and become a painter. His uncle is outraged and strongly protests, but after a few acrimonious exchanges, Philip has his way. This is quite autobiographical. Maugham has said about himself that though he was shy and a silent child, he was also cunning and finally always got what he wanted.

 Maugham's description of his growing up years is compassionate yet ironic, not only in the description of other characters, but also Philip, who is his alter-ego. As is the case often, Philip in the bloom of youth, full of hope for the future tends to look upon his middle-aged uncle and aunt with a smug condescension and believes that theirs was a wasted life. At this point, Philip has grand plans for himself and intends to attain greatness. When he reaches Paris, he is initially thrilled to live among artists listening to various theories all day. It makes him a more open person and many of his moral shackles loosen up. But he is still unable to settle down as a painter. His works are considered intelligent, but nothing extraordinary. As a senior painter tells him, 'It is cruel to discover ones mediocrity too late in life'.

Philip's funds start running out and he is nowhere in sight of earning through his art. Here, the life of his acquaintance, Fanny Price holds an uncomfortable mirror to what his own life could degenerate to. Fanny is a zealous artist but with zero talent. Ultimately she dies of poverty. This works as a catalyst in hastening Philip's decision to give up art and try something else. He is again lost and tortured.

Quotes Maugham,"It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded."

Philip decides to take up medicine and it is while studying that he encounters a waitress called Mildred. Her contemptuous look haunts him ,and he desires to possess her. She agrees to go out with him and soon Philip finds himself madly in love. She is vulgar, commonplace and not at all good-looking yet Philip cannot get rid off his obsession. He spends freely on her  though he has very little money. She does not love him and at various points goes off with other men who in turn leave her in the lurch. Philip still craves for her and does everything she might want,  including providing for her child (another man's) when she is in dire straits. Ultimately this relationship brings Philip to the point of utter despair.

He is left penniless and has to take up work as a common worker in a shop. At this point, another revelation comes upon Phillip. Following the death of both his uncle and aunt, he realizes that life is ultimately meaningless and we make our own little designs to keep ourselves happy for as long as we live. Every little episode is merely a curve in the design of life. This idea unburdens him and he feels elated again.

This learning curve ultimately comes to its logical conclusion when Philip settles to marry Sally, the daughter of a poor worker whose family was exceptionally kind to him when he had no one to go to.

Of Human Bondage tackles several themes and is an extremely rich and layered exploration into the human psyche (though it is unduly long and some episodes are extremely stretched out). Its greatness lies in the fact that even if the story is close to Maugham's life, the emotions are all tragically universal and gently touch upon deep-seated complexes we all suffer from. 

Many believe Philip's club foot could be a reference to the author's stammering. But many others believe it is an allusion to his homosexuality which he could not reveal given the time and age when such a thing was looked upon with derision. In fact, his masochistic relationship with Mildred many feel, alludes to a certain homosexual partner the author had. There could be some credence to this given that Mildred is described like a man with no attractive feminine features. She is bare-chested. Yet, this is merely in the realm of speculation and I wouldn't be too bothered about it, except that the incident comes quite abruptly in the book. 

What makes me suspect that it could be a slice from Maugham's own life is the surreal nature of the affair. Reality is very often much stranger than fiction.  Fiction is often far more predictable when compared to the complexities of the real world.

It's never easy to understand why Philip would fall for a woman without a single redeemable quality. Also, up to this point, Philip never comes across as someone who is wholly deprived of female attention.  In fact, he rejects a few women. His attraction for Mildred is sudden and unexplained. And yet, broadly, it suggests how human complexity can manifest itself in strange ways, and Philip is certainly a complexed man.

His relationship with Mildred underlines Philip's inner need to be humiliated and abused. His feeling of inadequacy - apart from his club foot - compounded by his non-success as a painter and general sense of despair - perhaps make him crave for a relationship where he can suffer. In fact, on various occasions, Philip brings this suffering upon himself. He knows Mildred's character and yet he introduces her to a handsome friend of his and soon enough they end up in an affair. Philip even pays for them to go on a vacation. His addiction to the affair continues, and only acute poverty forces him to get over this destructive relationship. In the middle, he even rejects a perfectly healthy relationship with another woman, Norah and goes back to Mildred. As a reader the Philip-Mildred relationship might seem puzzling, but if you've ever obsessed for someone who didn't return the favour  or blew hot and cold, it might not be so difficult to identify with Philip's servile state.

"He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other."

The other possible reason why Philip clings to Mildred and suffers her could be to feed his own flagging self-esteem by being in a relationship with a woman so lacking in class and character. In an odd way, her deep flaws and ugly behaviour make him feel better about himself.  He remains with her not because he has affection or respect for her but because of the inherent volatality and emotional violence of the relationship that his masochistic heart seeks. I tend to believe this theory because Maugham has captured with devastating accuracy this very emotional trait of human beings in some of his short stories.

One of the main themes of the novel is about the damning nature of love. In many ways, it advances Maugham's ideas on love, namely how one partner loves and the other lets themselves to be loved. "And the important thing was to love rather than be loved" In a twisted way, every character in the novel is consumed with a feeling to love, and are callous to those who love them.

Maugham opting to go for a conventional ending for his protagonist might appear contrived, but it also signifies the emotional maturity of Philip who this time round does not refuse Sally (like he did with Norah), even though he does not love her. He realizes by now the temporariness of life and how it wouldn't be so bad to make a design of being married with children. Once the limitations of life itself become clear to Philip he takes a more charitable view of himself and what he aims from his future.

As lucid as ever with its controlled irony and sardonic observations on life, Of Human Bondage rightfully deserves its place among the best in literature, though I would hesitate to rate it as Maugham's absolute best. Sure, there is immense emotional power in the writing and great philosophical insight, but that is true of much of his other works as well. But nevertheless, this is a creative tour de force.

07 September 2010

Review: The Crimson Throne

Author: Sudhir Kakar
Publishers: Penguin
Published in: 2010

Sudhir Kakar's semi-fictional period novel, The Crimson Throne takes a fascinating event in Mughal history, and intimately looks at it from the perspective of two foreign narrators - the italian Niccolao Manucci and Frenchman Francois Bernier - both of whom were real-life figures who were in fact part of this mid-17 century Moghal setting. The event in question is the war of succession between Shah Jahan's two sons - the liberal minded, Sufi-inspired Dara Shukoh and the fanatical Aurangzeb. Dara was the clear favourite of his father and everyone expects him to be the heir apparent. However, various elements conspire against him, and as one knows it was Aurangzeb who ultimately became Emperor.

The entire novel is divided between the observations made by the two foreigners, and as a reader, you share their sense of wonderment, amusement and outrage at different points. This is a time when India was divided into different kingdoms, and the Mughals were absolutely at the pinnacle of their reign. The threat of British invasion was a far-fetched thought and most foreigners viewed India as a distant, exotic land where there was plenty to see and experience. Among the two, Manucci is intrigued by the tales he hears of India and makes the journey from Venice to Goa. He hears that European healers are privileged over the local hakims in Moghal courts and is eager to learn the secrets to some rare potions. By sheer luck and good graces - as he admits himself - Manucci is able to entrench himself in the Dara Shukoh camp. He narrates with passion and poignancy his visits to the harems, where beautiful women (the concubines of the Moghal nobels) are a frustrated bunch with little or no sex (because there are so many in number!). Eunachs are used to guard the harems and very harsh punishments are heaped on women involved in any sexual misconduct. Manucci - being a healer- is one of the rarest of rare men allowed entry into the harem. He describes how he would often feel a soft kiss planted on his palms, as he went to check the pulse of an unwell woman from behind a veil.

Bernier is a scholar, and perhaps more rigid. He is distant and slightly contemptuous in his descriptions of Indians. But he gets close to Shah Jahan's foreign minister Danishmand Khan, the man who proves decisive in the end.
For most part of the book, it is impossible to see the two narrators as separate voices. Their distinct personalities don't emerge until much, much later, but thankfully, the central story does not suffer because ultimately the subject is focussed on the Moghals. From the ostentatious lifestyle led by the Moghal nobels (some rubbed the precious rose water on their horses everyday, the footwear of the nobels were studded with gems and precious stones, the most obscenely lavish parties were thrown and there was no limit to the number of women that the Omrah's kept adding to their harem) to the Hindu-Islam divide, there is much that is observed and astutely noted down by the two narrators. The Hindus were called idolators, and they were considered inferior in status to the Muslims. A Muslim of the lowest rank would not fathom getting his daughters married even to a high-class Hindu. On the other hand, there were several instances of Rajput kings giving away their daughters to Moghal kings - one is instantly reminded of the Jodha- Akbar situation.

It is only when Shah Jahan's health starts deteriorating and murmurs for a new heir begin that the narrative voices start to take on divergent paths. Manucci brings out the various qualities of Dara Shukoh, and the fact that he came closest to his grandfather Akbar in his religious tolerance and aesthetic liberality. On the other hand, Bernier takes a slightly opposing position and points out how Dara was an extremely irascible and tactless person, and was unpopular among those who thought Islamism would come under threat if he took over the reigns. Also, Bernier describes how Dara was an extremely superstitious person, and would not move a finger without his astrologers guiding him. Similarly, you get a twin perspective of Aurangazeb. Manucci sees Aurangazeb as a cruel dictator and religious fanatic, who uprooted every hurdle in his path without the least compunction.

Bernier, on the other hand, prefers to look at Aurangzeb's stead-fastness and ability not to get ruffled easily. Also, his ambition as we see, is less for self-aggrandisement and more because he’s a staunch upholder of Islam.
The writing style is lucid, and the ornate sentences go well with the mood and setting of the novel.  Sudhir Kakar's novel essentially proves useful in seeing from close quarters a significant time in Moghal history and how its course radically changed. The Crimson Throne is studded with several period details, and for that reason and more, is an engaging read.