Tag Archives: bildungsroman

Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

“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 ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. “

W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, is an intense character study of Philip Carey from his unhappy childhood through his life as a young man. The book is labelled a bildungsroman, and in this case, the label is a reductive. Of Human Bondage had been in my to-read list for years, and this wonderful book makes my Best-of-Year list.

Philip’s life does not begin well. He is born with a club foot, a deformity which shapes his entire life. His father, a London doctor, spent above his means and died unexpectedly, leaving a widow, pretty Helen and his small son just a tiny amount of money. When Philip is 9, his mother dies and he’s left in the care of his paternal uncle, William Carey, a Vicar and his wife, Louisa. William and Louisa are a childless couple, and life at the vicarage is dull and restrictive. While Aunt Louisa loves Philip and tries to do her best for the boy, life at the vicarage is built around the selfishness and self-importance of the vicar. William Carey earns just 300 pounds a year, not a great deal, so he is the one who eats an egg while his wife nibbles nervously at bread and butter. The pompous, miserable, querulous vicar is the one who goes on holiday while Louisa stays home. If Philip is a ‘good boy’ he may get the top of his uncle’s boiled egg. With the household built around the idea that the vicar is the most important creature in the house, the addition of a small, lonely, unhappy boy is not easy. The vicar, who did not approve of Philip’s parents, intends that Philip should enter the church. Shipped off to boarding school, Philip, due to his club foot, suffers great torments at the hands of the other boys. It’s at boarding school, Philip finally finds a friend, but it’s a friendship based in Philip’s deep insecurities and need for love.

When he’s a young man, Philip refuses to try for an Oxford scholarship and instead, using his small inheritance, goes to Germany. He’s desperate to ‘live’ and escape the suffocating life in the vicarage. His aunt’s sad, dreary existence seems to be an incentive to gain experience abroad. Philip returns home and studies accounting but decides that is not for him, and so, possessing a little artistic talent, he moves to Paris to study Art. Eventually realizing that he will never be a great artist, he returns to England and begins his training as a doctor. Philip meets a cockney waitress named Mildred and she becomes the bête noire of his life.

Our lives are defined by our experiences and our choices and so it is with Philip. He obsessively pursues the dreadful Mildred, and she treats him abominably. She drifts in and out of Philip’s life, using him shamelessly, and each time she returns and leaves, her degrading treatment of Philip is worse and worse. She is a horrid creature; she understands Philip in terms of how she can manipulate him, but she sees his code of behaviour, his ‘niceness’ as weakness. Philip falls as low as a human being can go in terms of money, and it’s only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to surface.

It’s through Philip’s interactions with Mildred we see how relationships fill a need. Philip has nothing in common with Mildred, but think of a key and a lock, they ‘fit’ together, and while even Philip recognises that the awful passion he has for Mildred is self-destructive, he can’t stop.

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.

So enough of the plot, but onto some of the significant people Philip meets. He has a sexual relationship with an older woman in his uncle’s home and after her successful conquest, he abandons her without hesitation. He meets a repellent young female art student in Paris, and fails to see her deep poverty until it is too late. He meets a fellow artist who gives him a rug saying it explains the meaning of life, and through his hospital work, he befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelny–a man of grandiose ideas who has a large, lively family.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over the entire ‘bondage’ idea. Philip is hostage to many things: his deformity, religion, money, sexual desire and his need for love. Philip tries to find freedom, the illusory idea of freedom, by leaving the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage, but he carries his human limitations with him to Germany and later Paris. He experiences many failures and disappointments while observing the failures of others who also seek freedom, fame or the meaning of life. Maugham addresses the idea of what it means to be ‘free’ and this is the question that haunts Philip until the novel’s conclusion. Freedom isn’t ‘out there,’–it’s not a geographical location–it’s metaphysical and Philip must overcome his emotional and mental hurdles in order to achieve freedom of the mind. Only then does he have a shot at happiness.

There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.

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Peerless Flats by Esther Freud

I arrived at Esther Freud’s novel, Peerless Flats after reading and throughly enjoying one of this author’s short stories. I am drawn to short story collections with multiple authors as a way of ‘trying’ out new names. A novel by Freud, Hideous Kinky, was made into a film. I wasn’t crazy about the film, but I was interested to try a novel. Peerless Flats should be, according to traditional literary conventions, a bildungsroman–a coming-of-age novel in which we see the moral, social and psychological maturation of the main character. But none of these things take place for sixteen-year-old Lisa in spite of the fact that she is faced with decisions about sex, drugs, loyalty & responsibility. As a result, the novel seems to say a great deal more about the shapeless void of modern society and the shameless lack of parenting than anything else.

Peerless Flats, and what a cruel name that really is, is the name given to a block of bleak, slum flats in London. It’s here our heroine, Lisa, homeless, lands with her somewhat feckless mother, Marguerite and younger half-brother, Max. They’ve been “dogsitting” for an acquaintance, but now that this person is returning from America, Lisa, Max and Marguerite have n0where to stay. The flat is supposed to be temporary, but it soon looks as though Lisa and her family will be stuck there for some time.

As the novel continues, it becomes clear that this state of affairs is just the latest episode of impermanence in sixteen-year-old Lisa’s life. Her mother could probably be described as a sort of feckless hippie. They’ve spent the last 7 years living with Swan Henderson, the man who fathered Max, but Swan has moved on to a younger woman, and is planning a “round-the-world sailing trip with a Dutch nursery school teacher named Trudi.” As a result of the break up of Lisa’s mother with Swan,  Lisa, Max and Marguerite have moved to London. The prospect of landing in London with nowhere to live and with two children to care for doesn’t particularly worry Marguerite. She tells Lisa, “Something is bound to turn up.”

The flat, and it’s a lifesaver when they get the key, is an abysmally depressing place with “rubbish thrown from the windows above by people too lazy to use a dustbin”:

The man stooped on the fourth floor and unlocked a door, and for a moment they all stood crowded together in the tiny hall of the flat. The council man showed them wordlessly around. he pushed a door open into the sitting-room. It was oblong and empty, with wooden floorboards and a window with small panes that cut the tower block opposite into squares. There was a bathroom  and a narrow kitchen with flowers in orange, brown and yellow in the wallpaper all linked together with hairy green stalks. Max covered his eyes when he saw them. At the end of the kitchen was a toilet in a little room that hung out over the edge of the building.

With no bedrooms and very little money, the mother and two children basically camp out in the flat.

Lisa has a sister, Ruby, a girl who possesses a sort of reckless glamour. She lives with a thug named Jimmy Bright, now sports an East Ender accent and is experimenting with heroin:

Ruby was meant to be in London on a History of Art course. By the end of the first term she had already dropped out and was working in a shop that sold bondage trousers and plastic shorts and shirts with one sleeve longer than the other. People were whispering that Ruby was on drugs. That she was having an affair with a Sex Pistol. That is was a sacrilege to cut off that beautiful waist-length hair. Lisa felt immeasurably proud.

Just as Max’s father Swan feels ok with taking a round-the-world boat trip and forgetting he has a son, similarly Lisa and Ruby’s mostly disinterested father floats somewhere off in the background. He’s not really part of their lives, but he’s happy enough to show up occasionally to buy the odd meal out. He’s a shady character whose exact employment remains vague. Ruby is clearly their father’s favourite, and there’s no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Peerless Flats is not a particularly shaped novel and it mirrors the drifting nature of Lisa’s life. While Lisa attends drama school, the novel takes an impressionistic approach by not examining Lisa’s day-to-day life. The story covers a period of time in Lisa’s troubled life as she drifts in and out of various situations and relationships. On one hand she becomes obsessed with the idea that someone will spike either her food or drink with drugs, and yet at the same time, she experiments with drugs. She strikes up unformed relationships with two young men–Tom, who really fancies the much more glamorous and self-destructive Ruby, and Quentin, a twenty-five-year-old “down-on-his-luck drug dealer” who pressures Lisa into giving him a windfall bag of pot. Lisa drifts into various situations that expose her vulnerability while she partially longs to be more like Ruby and secretly wishes for a more permanent home.

Peerless Flats is predominantly a very sad story. Here’s this sixteen-year-old girl who has no ‘adults’ in her life. She’s responsible for herself, and just one look at Ruby tells us what a disaster this can turn out to be. Every day Lisa walks a tightrope. Danger seems to surround her–from the nights she walks alone in the dark streets to the errand she’s sent on to acquire Heroin.

The characters are mostly well-drawn–although the adults are definitely blurry; I suspect this is a deliberate decision. I particularly loved the doom-ridden Ruby and her attempts at drug rehab, but at the same time Lisa is the more substantial sister. Here’s Lisa visiting Ruby in one of her several hospital stays:

She found Ruby sitting on a bench in the garden. She was as yellow as ever and seemed to have made some friends. She introduced Lias to two girls. Marlene, who was West Indian and not yellow but a greenish colour, and a girl called Trish, who was so thin and fragile Lisa wondered that she was able to sit up unaided.

‘It’s brilliant in here,’ Ruby beamed, ‘you can get all the gear you want.’

Lisa’s face fell. She had Ruby’s packet of heroin all ready to present to her.

‘You just place an order with Trish’s boyfriend and next visiting hour it arrives with the grapes.’

‘Oh,’ Lisa said

‘Yeah, Marlene winked, ‘we don’t half save a lot on syringes.’ And the three girls erupted into a fit of giggles. Lisa smiled weakly. She still had a stitch from the last sprint from the station. When they recovered, Trish and Marlene went off to raid the kitchens. ‘There’s a whole freezer full of raspberry ripple.’

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Filed under Freud Esther