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Of Human Bondageby Gore Vidal
Synopses & Reviews
It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham," wrote Gore Vidal. "He was always so entirely there."
Originally published in 1915, Of Human Bondage is a potent expression of the power of sexual obsession and of modern man's yearning for freedom. This classic bildungsroman tells the story of Philip Carey, a sensitive boy born with a clubfoot who is orphaned and raised by a religious aunt and uncle. Philip yearns for adventure, and at eighteen leaves home, eventually pursuing a career as an artist in Paris. When he returns to London to study medicine, he meets the androgynous but alluring Mildred and begins a doomed love affair that will change the course of his life. There is no more powerful story of sexual infatuation, of human longing for connection and freedom.
"Here is a novel of the utmost importance," wrote Theodore Dreiser on publication. "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."
With an Introduction by Gore Vidal
Commentary by Theodore Dreiser and Graham Greene
A young man struggling for self-realization becomes caught up in a destructive love affair that forever alters his life. Reprint.
About the Author
William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris on January 25, 1874. His father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a solicitor to the British embassy; his mother, Edith Mary, saw to it that Willie, as he would be known, was born on the grounds of the embassy so as to ensure his British citizenship. By the time Willie was four years old, his three older brothers were all being schooled in England, and he was raised as an only child. Edith died in January 1882, and Robert Maugham died two years later. The orphaned Willie, who barely spoke English, was packed off to the Kent home of his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, the rector of Whitstable, and his German-born aunt Barbara Sophia. They were a childless middle-aged couple. Willie was sent to the King's School in Canterbury, where he was ridiculed for his small stature, his foreignness, and, especially, his stammer. Still, Maugham discovered an appreciation of and gift for words, and it was during a period of studying at Heidelberg that Maugham decided to become a writer.
Shored up by a meager income of ú150 a year--his inheritance from his father--Maugham briefly studied accountancy before opting to attend medical school. During this time, Maugham also cultivated a passion for the theater. He published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897), inspired in part by his work as an obstetric clerk in the London slums. Sojourns in Italy and Spain followed, and it was in Seville that he wrote The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey, an unpublished work that he would later refine into Of Human Bondage. Once again in En-gland, Maugham wrote several plays and stories, including The Hero (1901) and Mrs. Craddock (1902). In 1903, the Stage Society mounted Maugham's A Man of Honour. The piece was well received, although it was not until 1907 that Maugham found theatrical success with the biting comedy Lady Frederick. Within a year, Maugham had an unprecedented four plays (Lady Frederick plus The Explorer, Jack Straw, Mrs. Dot) running simultaneously in the West End.
Four years later, Maugham temporarily abandoned playwriting to write the semi-autobiographical Of Human Bondage as a means of exorcising childhood memories that had lately been haunting him. Expanding his Stephen Carey manuscript, Maugham told the story of the clubfooted Philip Carey, an orphan sent to live with his vicar uncle. Philip then studies art in Paris before returning to London to take up medicine, where he meets and falls obsessively in love with the waitress Mildred. Although the novel was not initially a success on its London publication in 1915, it did well in the United States, thanks to a championing review by Theodore Dreiser.
In the winter of 1913, Maugham met Syrie Wellcome, a married woman long separated from her husband. A very public affair ensued; Syrie, pregnant with Maugham's child, suffered a devastating miscarriage. Their liaison was interrupted by Maugham's wartime stint in the Ambulance Unit in France, followed by work as a secret agent. After the war he moved to Rome, where Syrie joined him. In New York in 1916 to witness the production of his play Our Betters, Maugham dodged Syrie by announcing a trip to Tahiti with Gerald Haxton, a high-living American he had met during the war. Haxton, who had earlier been banned from England as an undesirable alien, became Maugham's lover and secretary for twenty-nine years.
The South Seas trip was a journey of discovery for Maugham. Fascinated by the denizens of the Pacific, he gathered much material--including the inspiration for the story 'Miss Thompson,' more famously known onstage and in films as Rain, and for the novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919), based on the life of Paul Gauguin. On the way home to England via America, Maugham wed Syrie in New Jersey. They had a daughter, Liza, and settled uneasily into a marriage blighted by Syrie's increasingly grasping nature and Maugham's fear that she would betray his homosexuality. The couple divorced in 1927, and Syrie went on to enjoy considerable professional success as an interior designer.
In 1928 Maugham bought a home in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. During the Second World War he fled to Paris and then to England. At the end of the war, Maugham, now in his seventies, returned to his home in France with a new secretary and companion, his longtime friend Alan Searle. During the twenties and thirties Maugham was a famous and successful playwright and short story writer; many of his stories were made into films. Among his novels are The Painted Veil (1925), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razors Edge (1944). After a last collection of short stories, Creatures of Circumstances (1947), and a final novel, Catalina (1948), Maugham abandoned fiction entirely for essays and nonfiction. His general nonfiction books, inspired by his love of travel, include On a Chinese Screen (1923) and Don Fernando (1935), the revealing The Summing Up (1938), and A Writer's Notebook (1949). He also established the Somerset Maugham Award, to allow novelists to travel as he himself had done. Maugham died on December 16, 1965, just short of his ninety-second birthday, at his home France. His New York Times obituary said, 'For decades he cast a clinical eye on human behavior and turned out works that made him a fortune few writers have equalled. . . . His style was neat and simple; his stories were sharply defined; . . . his audience was vast.'
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