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Wednesday Wheel of Things

What I've Just Finished Reading

About three-fourths of the way through Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey meets the most insufferable character -- Thorpe Athelney, a kind of Edwardian proto-beatnik: exuberant, sentimental, deliberately careless, endlessly facetious. I want to throw eggs at him. I think it's the condescendingly gender-essentialist praise he heaps on his wife and daughter that bothers me more than anything -- always extolling their hips and telling Philip to get himself a nice ignorant country girl who will bear healthy children and make her own cakes for tea. But he and his family are kind to Philip when he loses all his money in South African stocks and has to quit medical school, and he helps Philip get a job in a shop, and some people are just a little insufferable like that; what can you do? Philip does not find him nearly as insufferable as I do, which is in character for Philip.

W. Somerset Maugham has become one of my favorite authors without ever doing anything noticeably spectacular -- slipped into my pocket with my car keys, as the song says. The Razor's Edge bored me a lot of the time and ended in a cheesy sermon about The Wisdom of the East, but it got under my skin, and I found I was still talking about it a week later. Of Human Bondage sucked me right in from the start. Maugham's prose isn't delicious like Jane Austen's, and he's very far from being as funny, but he's close-up and meticulous like Austen, and I think that's part of what I like so much. Of Human Bondage follows a lonely boy through childhood and into an awkward, fumbling adulthood, where he makes friends and mistakes and tries to work out what his purpose is, or if he should have one. It's got a wonderful slow pace and the narration is quiet, nonjudgemental and matter-of-fact, with the exception of a few very irritating euphemisms (the book was published in 1915, so some euphemism is indicated, but every now and then Maugham feels the need to spackle on a big whack of pointless coyness, e.g. "a profession whose most notorious member for our generation was Mrs. Warren," and it always jars a little). Philip is always believable, and that makes him likeable even when he's not.

I loved it a little less toward the end. Philip's tendency is always to feel set apart from people and to summarize them at a distance in a fairly condescending way, and this gets a little worse when it should be getting better, as he completes his medical training -- though that's probably accurate to a lot of young doctors' coming of age. The last few pages were kind of awful. But I enjoyed the rest of it enough that it didn't matter. I really like all of Maugham's stubbornly self-destructive female characters, even as I feel I ought to be a little suspicious of Maugham for writing so many of them. The Sturdy Mothers of the Race, not so much.

What I'm Reading Now

Mistress Pat by L. M. Montgomery -- one of my Yuletide fandoms this year, so I'm re-reading it. It's a little rougher going that I was expecting. I was prepared for Pat to be change-averse to the point of pathology, because that's the whole point of Pat and I love her for it -- but I'd forgotten just how pervasive the Gardiners' snobbery is these early chapters. They might be even worse than the proverbially proud Murrays of New Moon, who at least have the excuse of being old and disappointed (and/or orphaned and raised by old disappointed Murrays and the spirits of trees). I'm not at all invested in how tacky all the Binnies have been since the Creation, but Pat and Judy are going to press the point really hard for two hundred pages anyway.

I do love how much of a weird outlier Pat is among Montgomery heroines -- Montgomery called her "the most like myself" at one point, but I don't know if that's really accurate. It felt accurate at the time, probably, when she was writing the Pat books and suffering from severe depression (and writing constantly anyway, as if/because her life depended on it). She's an intense picture of one or two aspects of Montgomery's personality. In Pat, it's the less obviously admirable ones -- love as obsession, nostalgia overgrown into paralysis, defensive judgmentalism as a bulwark against any too-painful understanding. She has Montgomery's overwhelming love of nature in common with Emily and Anne and Valancy and Sara, but in Pat it seems to be as much a source of pain as of solace. Or at least that's how I remember it; I'm only on Chapter Two.

Anyway, Pat. Pat hates change, but life is change -- that's pretty much the whole story. Pat gets put through the wringer in this book. I vaguely remember hating the ending, but I'm not sure anymore about why. You'll get to hear all about it eventually whether you're interested or not.

What I'm Reading Next

Brideshead Revisited, finally! I'm getting back on the 99 Novels train.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 7th, 2015 04:15 pm (UTC)

I read Theatre by Maugham. It was ok but I also found myself thinking about it later. Painted Veil did get under my skin more but that was probably because the movie took me by surprise in its awesomeness.

Oct. 7th, 2015 04:28 pm (UTC)
Which movie? It looks like there's one with Ed Norton and one with Greta Garbo. The description sounds very Maughamy. I'll probably wind up reading it eventually.

Maugham is interesting, because I'm constantly feeling slightly annoyed with him, but I can't stop reading. I don't despise him, so he's not quite the novelist equivalent of that anemic shopgirl Philip gets obsessed with in OHB, but I feel a similar compulsion to follow him around everywhere and an equivalent uncertainty about why exactly that is. I mean, he's a good writer and he likes some of the same things I do writing-wise -- that's probably all there is to it.
Oct. 7th, 2015 04:32 pm (UTC)

The Ed Norton movie. I watched it and then got the book right away.

Oct. 7th, 2015 04:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'll check it out.
Oct. 7th, 2015 09:12 pm (UTC)
I quite liked the Ed Norton The Painted Veil, too. It's probably the thing that gave me the vague yen to read Maugham's work in the first place, now that I think about it. Perhaps Of Human Bondage is a good place to start? It sounds like it might be more to my taste than The Razor's Edge.
Oct. 7th, 2015 09:32 pm (UTC)
I'd definitely recommend giving Of Human Bondage a try!
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 8th, 2015 01:39 pm (UTC)
That does cast an interesting light on several things, yes! And they do seem like they could all have been the same person at some point, though I didn't really think about it until now.

I guess I should read Cakes and Ale, then! I'm pretty sure I've seen it at the bookstore recently, and "Of Human Bondage in a less depressing key" sounds like just the thing.
Oct. 9th, 2015 01:28 am (UTC)
I've always wanted to read Of Human Bondage since there was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where a character mentioned it was his favorite book. Which is an odd reason to want to read something, and so I never actually got around to it! But it does sound good, and perhaps I should read it for its own self.
Oct. 9th, 2015 03:31 am (UTC)
Do it! Odd reasons to want to read something are just as good as any other kind! Better than some.
Oct. 10th, 2015 03:37 am (UTC)
Definitely need to read the other Montgomery books. I love Anne (though I do like the earlier books better!)
Oct. 10th, 2015 03:21 pm (UTC)
The earlier books are better! Well, Anne of Green Gables is a masterpiece; I have kind of a grudge against Anne of Avonlea. I like Anne of the Island. LMM's "girls at school" books are enjoyable even though she professed to dislike writing them.

Emily's my favorite, though the gloominess and the Mary-Sueness (she has purple eyes! and elf ears! and might be a psychic!) and Dean Priest put some people off. The Emily books are about Being A Writer and are very intense and thorny about it. Some of the passages are copied almost word-for-word from LMM's journals, but there is also the occasional supernatural love bond. They get a little more complex and interersting every time I read them.

The Blue Castle is a very different favorite. It's joyful and optimistic, and just one self-contained book, and the heroine is an adult.
Oct. 15th, 2015 04:55 am (UTC)
Yes--also I just get sad about people growing up. I avoid reading epic family novels because it invariably ends up following them as they age and then them dropping out of the picture...I don't know, it makes me sad. I liked Anne in the later books, don't get me wrong, but IDK. Makes me feel kind of sad. I also can't help but think that some of the later books are written with the shadow of the two world wars (and in the last book, quite clearly).

Aw, why don't you like Anne of Avonlea?

I do like the school books too! I like their cozy little house and Phil and Priscilla and Stella and their sweet life. And that awful proposal scene with Gilbert is enough to strike ice daggers into my heart.

I shall look into it post-haste! :D I've heard about the Blue Castle, too, though never looked into it (not sure why).
Oct. 15th, 2015 03:32 pm (UTC)
Anne of Avonlea probably isn't as bad as I remember it. But I really dislike the characters of Paul Irving and Davy Keith, especially how callous and mean Davy is to his sister Dora and how everyone is just too amused by his "adorable" antics to pay any attention to Dora at all.

Paul's just two steps over the "too twee to handle" line for me, and I hate the way Anne sort of mentally adopts him as The Genius I Could Never Be when she's still considering whether to make writing a regular part of her life.

I'd say the Emily books have the shadow of the war on them, but not explicitly -- they were written in the 1920s and take place before 1914. The Blue Castle was written during the same time period, but takes place in more or less the early 20s, and is much more comfortable with modernity.
Oct. 21st, 2015 05:25 am (UTC)
Ah, I like Paul (and I looove the whimsy fairytale stuff) so I liked Avonlea. I also love that at the end when she sees the bend in the road of college she realizes that while she really wants to go and will, it's not that she's been unhappy during this time and that it will hurt to pull up all the little roots she's put down. I move a lot and it definitely is something I've felt before. Onwards and upwards, but it always hurts a little to uproot yourself.

But yeah, I really don't like how Davy vs Dora get treated. I didn't notice when I was younger, but man. Like someone on meme said, she's always trying her hardest and not being difficult and somehow that's never enough... :( You shouldn't play favourites with kids.

Oh interesting! *off to the library site*
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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