I really really liked this book. Not only was it colorful and witty, but it was heartwarming and, at time, melancholy, too. The narrator is a likeableI really really liked this book. Not only was it colorful and witty, but it was heartwarming and, at time, melancholy, too. The narrator is a likeable young married man whose central American adventure begins with this unforgottable opening paragraph:
My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also take from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410 - a boy's first gun. I suppose he thought it wouldn't kick much, that it would kill or at least rip the flesh in a satisfying way without making a lot of noise or giving much of a jolt to his sloping monkey shoulder.
Ray Midge's personality is supremely rational, and his character serves as a straight man for the many unbalanced friends he makes on his road trip to find his wife - most notably the "Doctor" Reo Symes and his ancient, devoutly Christian mother, Mrs. Symes, whom he meets on the way through Mexico and British Hondouras, successively. He is not merely a spock-like walking encyclopedia, however - he is fundamentally sincere, trusting, good-natured and philisophical. Midge never once pities himself, even though he feels at one point or another all the normal human emotions of frustration, discomfort, love, lust and anger.
The novel begins with Midge tracing the eloped couple's whereabouts, and ends with Norma finally revealing the events behind those billings. Between these ends is a far fetched aventure, with characters as strong and memorable as Joseph Heller's, and a snappy, dry, distinctly Southern-eccentric sense of humour in the tradition of Mark Twain. It's very funny indeed.
Some quotes from my folded down pages:
I was starting off for Mexico in [Dupree's] junker without so much as a new fan belt. There were health bar wrappers, at least forty of them, all over the floor and seats and I hadn't even bothered to clean them out. It wasn't my car and I despised it. I had done some thinking too. The shock of clean oil or the stiffer tension of a new belt might have been just enough to upset the fragile equilibrium of the system. And I had worked it out that the high mileage was not really a disadvantage, reasoning in this specious way: that a man who has made it to the age of seventy-four has a very good chance of making it to seventy-six- a better chance, in fact, than a young man would have. [p.19]
-- "His mouth was bleeding from scurvy, from mucosal lesions and suppurating ulcers, his gums gone all spongy. He was a broken man all right but by God the work got done. He wrecked his health of that we might have Wings as Eagles."
The Doctor went on and on. He said that all other writing, compared to Dix's work, was just "foul grunting," I could understand how a man might say such things about the Bible or Koran, some holy book, but this Dix book, from what I could see of it , was nothing more than an inspirational work for salesmen. Still, I didn't want to judge it too quickly. There might be some useful tips in those pages, some Dix thoughts that would throw a new light on things, I was still on the alert for chance messages. [p.66]
-- Melba brought me her stories. They were in airmail tablets, written in a round script on bot hsides of the thin paper. One was about a red-haired beauty from New Orleans who went to New York and got a job as a secretary on the second floor of the Empire State Building. There were mysterious petty thefts in the office and the red-haired girl solved the mystery with her psychic powers. The thief turned out to be the boss himself and the girl lost her job and went back to New Orleans where she got another job that she liked better, although it didn't pay as well.
Melba had broken the transition problem wide open by starting almost every paragraph with "Moreover." She freely used "the former" and "the latter" and every time I ran into one of them I had to backtrack to see whom she was talking about. She was also fond of "inasmuch" and "crestfallen."
I read another story, an unfinished shocker about a father-and-son rape team who prowled the Laundromats of New Orleans. The leading character was a widow, a mature red-haired woman with nice skin. She had visions of the particular alleys and parts where the rapes were to occur but the police detectives wouldn't listen to her. "Bunk!" they said. She called them "the local gendarmes," and they in turn called all the girls "tomatoes." [p. 130]
Worth the hype etc. etc. etc. many people have consistently said for six generations now why now it's time for you to hunker down and read the damn thWorth the hype etc. etc. etc. many people have consistently said for six generations now why now it's time for you to hunker down and read the damn thing. It's a healthy dose of literary greens and the historical highpoint of prose realism, probably of literary prose period; and written at a time in which writers like Eliot faced society in all it's clumsy, runaway hugeness....more
The Way of All Flesh is a really sharp social history of the author's age in 3 generations of one family. It's brisk and farcical throughout but on thThe Way of All Flesh is a really sharp social history of the author's age in 3 generations of one family. It's brisk and farcical throughout but on the way Butler constructs some really painful confrontations between father and son, whose lasting damage and psychological realism puts forward a very depressing general account of family life and the bourgeois pressures of keeping the family's "station" stable across generations. Butler attacks a great deal through the learned voice of the protagonist's kindly, bachelor uncle, but generally these targets all represent forms of Victorian moral hypocrisy and of, alternatively, downright cynicism and corruption of the pampered educated elites, especially within the clergy....more
This is a wonderful novel that features a protagonist, Philip Carey, that is neither entirely unfortunate, nor entirely blessed. His personality is inThis is a wonderful novel that features a protagonist, Philip Carey, that is neither entirely unfortunate, nor entirely blessed. His personality is intelligent, modest and honorable but not entirely wise, and more than a little insecure. He suffers from a club foot which gives him an inescapable feeling of inferiority from early in his childhood, The club foot comes and goes in the narrative, and for long stretches it is irrelevant to the plot, but it always re-emerges in Philip's most vulnerable moments. We can all relate to this kind of state of disability that, though a minor obstacle to our aims in life, seems to loom large by virtue of being attached to us. An early scene with a teacher gives Philip hope to overcome his "cross to bear," and it is not clear whether the confidence so momentarily instilled in him is a good thing or not:
"I'm afraid your choice of professions will be rather limited. You naturally couldn't go in for anything that required physical activity."
Philip reddened to the roots of his hair, as he always did when any reference was made to his club-foot. Mr Perkins looked at him gravely.
"I wonder if you're not oversensitive about your misfortune. Has it ever struck you to thank God for it?"
Philip looked up quickly. His lips tightened. He remembered how for months, trusting in what they told him, he had implored God to heal him as He had healed the Leper and made the Blind to see.
"As long as you accept it rebelliously it can only cause you shame. But if you looked upon it as a cross that was given you to bear only because your shoulders were strong enough to bear it, a sign of God's favour, then it would be a source of happiness to you instead of misery."
He saw the boy hated to discuss the matter and he let him go.
But Philip thought over all that the headmaster had said, and presently, his mind taken up entirely with the ceremony that was before him, a mystical rapture seized him. His spirit seemed to free itself from the bounds of the flesh and he seemed to be living a new life. He aspired to perfection with all the passion that was in him. He wanted to surrender himself entirely to the service of God,(...) and as he limped up the chancel, very small and insignificant beneath the lofty vaulting of the Cathedral, he offered consciously his deformity as a sacrifice to the God who loved him. p. 109
Like with other heroes with a destiny, Philip never knew his real parents. He is brought up by his tough but principled uncle and his doting, barren aunt. They are relateable as the relatives who "want the best from us," however can only express it tyrannically, and cause the rebellious youth to turn into dead-end paths to spite their admonitions. This episode, where friends of the family are called upon to enable the young Philip to enter one of a narrow field of respectable professions, is interesting to read in today's meritocratic age:
His entire fortune had consisted of only two thousand pounds, and though it had been invested in mortgages at five per cent. he had not been able to live on the interest. It was now a little reduced. It would be absurd to spend two hundred a year, the least he could live on at a university, for three years at Oxford which would lead him no nearer to earning his living. He was anxious to go straight to London. Mrs. Carey thought there were only four professions for a gentleman, the Army, the Navy, the Law, and the Church. She had added medicine because her brother-in-law practised it, but did not forget that in her young days no one ever considered the doctor a gentleman. The first two were out of the question, and Philip was firm in his refusal to be ordained. Only the law remained. The local doctor had suggested that many gentlemen now went in for engineering, but Mrs. Carey opposed the idea at once.
"I shouldn't like Philip to go into trade," she said. "No, he must have a profession," answered the Vicar.
(...) Finally it was suggested that he should become articled to a solicitor. They wrote to the family lawyer, Albert Nixon, who was co-executor with the Vicar of Blackstable for the late Henry Carey's estate, and asked him whether he would take Philip. In a day or two the answer came back that he had not a vacancy, and was very much opposed to the whole scheme; the profession was greatly overcrowded, and without capital or connections a man had a small chance of becoming more than a managing clerk; he suggested, however, that Philip should become a chartered accountant. Neither the Vicar nor his wife knew in the least what this was, and Philip had never heard of anyonebeing a chartered accountant; but another letter from the solicitor explained that the growth of modern businesses and the increase of companies had led to the formation of many firms of accountants to examine the books and put into the financial affairs of their clients and order which old-fashioned methods had lacked. Some years before a Royal Charter has been obtained, and the profession was becoming every year more respectable, lucrative and important. p. 223-4
Philip's rebellion against the bourgeois professional world takes him to Paris, to study art, where he experiences the exciting society of student debate in dingy local pubs, seriously questioning after the truth of artistic beauty. This moment here captures the moment when such discussions run rapidly out of steam, only to be saved by a new round:
At that time impressionism reigned in the Latin Quarter, but its victory over the older schools was still recent; and Carolus-Duran, Bouguereau, and their like were set up against Manet, Monet, and Degas. To appreciate these was still a sign of grace. Whistler was an influence strong with the English and his compatriots, and the discerning collected Japanese prints. The old masters were tested by new standards. The esteem in which Raphael had been for centuries held was a matter of derision to wise young men. They offered to give all his works for Velasquez' head of Philip IV in the National Gallery. Philip found that a discussion on art was raging. Lawson, whom he had met at luncheon, sat opposite to him. He was a thin youth with a freckled face and red hair. He had very bright green eyes. As Philip sat down he fixed them on him and remakred suddenly:
"Raphael was only tolerable when he painted other people's pictures. When he painted Peruginos or Pinturichios he was charming; when he painted Raphaels he was," with a scornful shrug, "Raphael."
Lawsom spoke so aggressively that Philip was taken aback, but he was not obliged to answer because Flanagan broke in impatiently.
"Oh to hell with art!" he cried. "Let's get ginny."
In a poignant moment in which Philip's dreams are dashed by his grumpy but respected professor, the issue of money is raised. With surprising sympathy, the curmudgeon discourages Philip, for his own good, from continuing with his course. Whether right or wrong advice, the professor's lament over middle class poverty is a memorable injection of anxiety into the story which increases and increases as Philip's life becomes ever less stable:
"There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one's means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money. They are hypocrites or fools. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off. The only thing to be careful about is that you do not pay more than a shilling for the shilling you earn. You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art."
Philip's woes truly begin after he drops out of art school and begins to study medicine. He makes new friends at a new institution in London and begins to settle into his chosen profession. However he falls hopelessly in love with a contemptuous young waitress called Mildred. At first meeting, everything repulsive in her personality that his brain screams to avoid cannot withstand the "bondage" of Philip's predestined love for her:
He went over he features one by one; he did not like her mouth, and the unhealthiness of her colour vaguely repelled him. She was common. Her phrases, so bald and few, constantly repeated, showed the emptiness of her mind he recalled her vulgar little laugh at the jokes of the musical comedy; and he remembered the little finger carefully extended when she held her glass to her mouth; her manners like her conversation, were odiously genteel. He remembered her insolence; sometimes he had felt inclined to box her ears, and suddenly, he knew not why, perhaps it was the thought of hitting her or the recollection of her tiny, beautiful ears, he was seized by an uprush of emotion. He yearned for her. He thought of taking her in his arms, the thin, fragile body, and kissing her pale mouth: he wanted to pass his fingers down the slightly greenish cheeks. He wanted her. p.452
While Mildred toys with him and accepts Philip's gifts without sexual reward in turn, Philip, in spite of her attractions to other (married) men, deceives himself into thinking that her libido is simply as cold as her personality. But the lie is given to this when Philip introduces her to his art school friend and Griffiths, who she promptly runs off with. In the shock of the moment, Philip begins to understand something about the "beastly" true nature of sexuality, that which other men are comfortable with, and through which they have what Philip wants, but which Philip, for the type of person he is, cannot embrace.
Because Mildred was indifferent to him he had thought her sexless; her anaemic appearance and thing lips, the body with its narrow hips and flat chest, the languor of her manner, carried out is supposition; and yet she was capable of sudden passions which made her willing to risk everything to gratify them. He had never understood her adventure with Emil Miller: it had seemed so unlike her, and she had never been able to explain it; but now that he had seen her with Griffiths he knew that just the same thing had happened then: she had been carried off her feet by an ungovernable desire. He tried to think out what those two men had which so strangely attracted her. They both had a vulgar facetiousness which tickled her simple sense of humour, and a certain coarseness of nature; but what took her perhaps was the blatant sexuality which was their most marked characteristic. She had a genteel refinement which shuddered at the facts of life, she looked upon the bodily functions as indecent, she had all sorts of euphemisms for common objects, she always chose an elaborate word as more becoming than a simple one: the brutality of these men was like a whip on her thin white shoulders, and she shuddered with voluptuous pan. p.627
After Mildred's fling with Griffiths ends without a future, she is happy to return to the reliable Philip for resources and shelter. His utility as a beta-male provider is summarized in her repeated refrain that Philip is "a true gentleman" Momentarily she feels sorry for her abuse of him, but Maugham describes how quickly pity of a man by a woman turns to contempt of his weakness, and (as manifested later), the more severe offense of being sexually rejected by a weak man:
She was surprised when he refused her suggestion, but she shrugged her shoulders: let him put on airs if he liked, she did not care, he would be anxious enough in a little while, and then it would be her turn to refuse; if he thought it as any deprivation to her he was very much mistaken. She had no doubt of her power over him. He was peculiar, but she knew him through and through. He had so often quarrelled with her and sworn he would never see her again, and then in a little while he had come on his knees begging to be forgiven. It gave her a thrill to think how he had cringed before her. He would have been glad to lie down on the ground for her to walk on him. She had seen him cry. She knew exactly how to treat him, pay no attention to him, just pretend you didn't notice his tempers, leave him severely alone, and in a little while he was sure to grovel. She laughed a little to herself, good-humouredly, when she thought how he had come and eaten dirt before her, She had her fling now. She new what men were and did not want to have anything more to do with them. She was quite ready to settle down with Phillip. When all was said, he was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and that was something not to be sneezed at, wasn't it? p.780
While Philip's life rushes chaotically forward between his doctor's training and his chaotic, all-consuming passion for Mildred, an old friend of his loses his life. Philip falls into a depressed rumination over his the lack of meaning his friend's life ended up in:
Philip felt a sudden horror for what had once been his friend, He tried to force himself to read, but presently pushed away his book in despair. What troubled him was the absolute futility of the life which had just ended. It did not matter if Cronshaw was alive or dead. It would have been just as weell if he had never lived. Philip thought of Cronshaw young; and it needed an effort of imagination to picture him slender, with a springing step, and with hair on his head, buoyant and hopeful. Philip's rule of life, to follow one's instincts with due regard to the policeman around the corner, had not acted very well there: ita was because Cronshaw had done this that he had made such a lamentable failure of existence. It seemed that the instincts could not be trusted. Philip was puzzled, and he asked himself what rule of life was there, if that one was useless, and why people acted in one way rather than in another. They acted according to their emotions, but their emotions might be good or bad; it seemed just a chance whether they led to triumph or disaster. Life seemed an inextricable confusion. Men hurried hither and thither, urged by forces they knew not; and the purpose of it all escaped them; they seemed to hurry for hurrying's sake. p.686
Later the same though recurs in relatively happier circumstances: Philip has survied a lot of hardships and appreciates, now that he has escaped from the worst terrors of poverty and shame and unrequited love, that nothing other than deviation from the perfect, happy "pattern" of life could make the happy pattern what it is:
There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace. Some lives, and Hayward's was among them, the blind indifference of chance cut off while the design was still imperfect; and the the solace was comfortable that it did not matter; other lives, such as Cronshaw's, offered a pattern which was difficult to follow, the point of view had to be shifted and old standards had to be altered before one could understand that such a life was its own justification. Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realized that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in to the elaboration of the design. He seemed for an instant to stand above the accidents of his existence, and he felt that they could not affect him again as they had done before. Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be. p.866
A happy ending is made for Philip by the end of the book. It is beautifully written. Philip, thinking about his unborn son, returns to thoughts of the "pattern" of life, and turns once again to think about his deformity, but with an enlightened perspective on the pain and weaknesses that this new life must inevitably pass through, as everyone in fact must:
He thought of passing his hands over his little perfect limbs, he knew he would be beautiful; and he would make over to him all his dreams of a rich and varied life. And thinking over the long pilgrimage of his past he accepted it joyfully. He accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and contempt which had so often been heaped upon him had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which he felt would never lose their fragrance. Then he saw that the normal was the rarest thing in the world. Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind: he thought of all the people he had known (the whole world was like a sick-house, and there was no rhyme or reason in it), he saw a long procession, deformed in body and warped in mind, some with illness of the flesh, weak hearts or weak lungs, and some with illness of the spirit, langour of will, or a craving for liquor. At this moment he could feel a holy compassion for them all. They were the helpless instruments of blind chance. He could pardon Griffiths for his treachery and Mildred for the pain she had caused him. They could not help themselves. The only reasonable thing was to accept the good of men and be patient with their faults. The words of the dying God crossed his memory: Forgive them, for they know not what they do. p.995
How can I summarize this novel? To me it is the closest thing in existence to the truth of life between two covers. It is the finest thing I've ever read in the realist tradition. It is a journey of self-formation through painful confrontation with reality and hard-earned experience. It is a marvelous, heartbreaking, heartwarming and above all TRUTHFUL book.