Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Notes — The Servant, On Paper And On The Screen

The Maughams knew something about servants.  Certainly, Somerset’s nephew 2nd Viscount “Robin” Maugham must have.  He travelled in all the “right” circles, including those of his more famous uncle.

The Book: First American Edition
While he wrote several novels— four of which were translated to film — one of them gained particular acclaim as both a novella (really a short story bound as a hard back) and as a film, adapted by Harold Pinter, featuring Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles and James Fox. The Servant was published in 1958 and the film released in 1963.

Many consider the story an indictment of the British class system — and it is.  For me, it is both macro and micro views of power and domination.  Even though no one dies and there is no real crime in a legal sense, killing someone else’s soul might be a pretty horrendous act of cruelty, just as keeping servants in their place is an act of social injustice and abuse.  Thus, a symbolic victory by a servant who turns the tables on his master might have us rooting for how deftly the tables have been turned.  A small step for humankind.

The movie
But this seeming fluff of a story has a bit more bite than one might expect.  Going back to the power and domination theme, which befits a plot about a rebellion against an institutionalized class or caste system, the story nevertheless remains powerful without the social context.  It can be simply personal.  In the course of any relationship, for example, the person who seems to be the one running the show may not be.  Or, over time, through premeditation or natural selection, the weaker one in the beginning may preside in the end. (Certainly, there might be some nasty business in the interim.) I think this is the question the story asks.  Who deserves our sympathy?  The poor human who, through accident of birth, is given the short end of the socio-economic stick? Or the easily conned human, who while consciously meaning no harm, seems blissfully unaware that his upstairs status as a human being was also a result of a sperm lottery and unearned in any sense of the word? If he is also unaware that he and others like him have been exploiting a large chunk of the population upstairs and downstairs and all around the colonies, does that mean he deserves to be singled out and destroyed? Does the punishment fit the crime if criminal doesn’t know what crime he has committed?

Robin Maugham, The Nephew
I think The Servant makes the moral to be drawn, if you choose to draw one, a much more complex calculation. 

Robin Maugham was the author of more than 30 books, many of them crime fiction.  He was among the first of the popular writers to include gay themes and characters, which may have contributed to his early literary decline, whereas his far more successful, closeted gay uncle chose to avoid the subject altogether.

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