Monday, June 11, 2012

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham


"Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment." 


Of Human Bondage is one of the very first classics I ever read for pleasure, and I still love it.  I first read it when I was eighteen, a freshman in college.  It was forced upon me by a boy in my dorm, who lived down the hall and on whom I had an enormous crush.  He insisted I take it home over Christmas break and read it.  How could I refuse?  Well, I did end up loving the book, though things never worked out between the two of us.

Years later, I've read lots more classics for pleasure, including several by Maugham, but I never picked it up again -- I had so many other books I wanted to read!  It's actually been so long since I read it that I could barely remember the story any more.  I didn't even remember how it ended!   Finally, I decided it was time for a reread.  Last fall we nominated books for 2012 our classics group at the library, and I put this on my list -- I wanted so much to discuss it with other people!  Well, wouldn't you know it, things came up and I had to miss the discussion, but I couldn't resist reading the book again anyway (I also added it to my Classics Club and Chunkster Challenge lists).  And I am pleased to report that I still loved this book the second time around, maybe even more so than the first time.

For those who aren't familiar with the book, it's a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, loosely based on the life of the author W. Somerset Maugham.  (It's a long book, so I'll try to give the setup without too many spoilers). The main character is Philip Carey, a young man growing up with a clubfoot in the late Victorian period.  He's orphaned as a small boy and sent to live with his uncle, a strict vicar in a small town in Kent.  His aunt is kind but doesn't know much about raising children.  Philip is a bright boy but mostly bullied by his schoolmates because of his disability, and his teachers seem pretty heartless.

However, Philip is a bright boy, and when he's older, he goes off to boarding school, and his teachers expect great things of him.  His uncle expects him to go off to Oxford and then take orders, but Philip has doubts about religion.  Instead, he goes to Germany for a year to study before returning to England.  Philip has a small inheritance, and tries various professions. He spends two years as an art student in Paris before he realizes he'll never be anything but a mediocre artist, so he finally decides to follow in his late father's footsteps and become a doctor.

One fateful night in a cafe, Philip meets a waitress named Mildred, and it's the beginning of an obsessive relationship.  Mildred is really toxic, one of the most obnoxious characters I've ever met in literature.  The book deals with their relationship and Philip's personal growth along the way.   Will Philip marry this horrible woman?  Will she put him in the poorhouse with her greed?   "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."

Bette Davis as Mildred and Leslie Howard as Philip in the 1934 film adaptation
This book is more than 600 pages, but I breezed through it in about five days.  I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen, though I did have to grit my teeth and power through a few times -- Mildred is so awful, I really wanted to reach into the book and throttle her!  And Philip deserved a few good smacks upside the head a couple of times too.  But I really did love this book.  Philip's personal journey is really interesting and I got really caught up with it emotionally, I was really on the edge of my seat.  And I found the writing to be just wonderful and insightful.  Apparently Maugham considered himself among the best of the second-rate writers, but I disagree.  I kept finding passages throughout the book that I loved, and kept marking them with sticky notes (since I hate writing in my books).

I also loved reading about Philip's year in Germany, and his attempts to be an artist.  A couple of times Philip mentions a stockbroker fellow who chucked it all to be an artist in the South Seas, which is obviously Paul Gauguin -- who shows up in his 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence -- another Maugham novel which I read years ago and have essentially forgotten.  I'll have to reread that one again as well.

Has anyone else read this book?  Did you love it as much as me?  Any more Maugham you can recommend?  And have any of you reread a favorite classic after a long period?  Did you still love it or was it just not the same?

37 comments:

  1. It's funny, because the ending of the book was the only thing I really remembered strongly about it. I had a very strong reaction towards it, and associated it with Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, which I read a year or so after Of Human Bondage. That's the biggest thing we discussed at the book club - the transition between early adulthood and the rest of your life, that balance between living your dreams and being responsible. It was a fascinating discussion.

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    1. I was so sorry to miss it! I loved it so much and I was dying to discuss it with someone. I was really pleased with the ending, it was very satisfying. I don't want to say anything else for fear of spoilers. We'll have to have lunch or beverages and you can fill me in on the discussion.

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  2. Ah! Hit "publish" too quickly. I meant to say that I wish you could have been there!

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    1. Saturday was just crazy at work, there was no way I could get out of it. I guess those are the breaks of having a job. :-(

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  3. How funny, I also read this as a freshman in college. Until I read your review, though, I couldn't have told you a thing about it, other than remembering that I liked it. It's been in the back of my mind to try Maugham again one day.

    I can't write in books, and I hate used copies with highlighting or notes - so I use paper markers as well.

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    1. I hate writing in books! I know I did it in college, but now I can't bear it. I don't dog-ear the pages either. Post-it notes are perfect, unless you stuff too many in and it hurts the bindings.

      It was really nice to reread a book I loved so much and realize it had held up over time. Some books just aren't the same. I'm sure I got different things out of it, but I'm so happy to have enjoyed it again.

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  4. Ive never read it but I want to now! I have heard of it along with, wasnt it 'The Painted Veil' he also wrote or am I mixing up authors? Well both of those I want to read anyway

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    1. Yes, The Painted Veil is by Maugham also, and it's wonderful! Also a great movie adaptation.

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  5. You know, I never actually knew what this book was about before reading your review. It sounds like something I would really enjoy, I didn't realise it was a coming of age story :)

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    1. It's really good -- I love that I got different things out of it this time around, but I liked it just as much. The writing was beautiful too.

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  6. I was wondering whether you would be happy to put up a link in my monthly series called “Books You Love”. The idea is for people to link up posts about a book they loved – it doesn’t have to be one they just posted about. It could be an old fave. I am hoping we will end up with a nice collection of books that can go on our reading lists. Here is the link Books You Loved June Edition

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    1. Thanks for the invitation! I've posted my link and I look forward to reading all the other postings.

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    2. It is super that you linked this in. Adds definite class to the collection. Have a great week.

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  7. I've not read this but put it on my "Classics Club" list to read. I'm looking forward to it, especially based on your review. I was struck by the Leslie Howard connection to Ashley Wilkes. Not exactly the same, but you wonder how Ashley and Scarlett would have gotten along as a couple.

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    1. And Bette Davis was also considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara. . . Of Human Bondage was her breakthrough role. She didn't get the part of Scarlett so they created a movie for her called Jezebel. She also starred in The Letter, an adaptation of a play he wrote.

      I'm pretty sure Scarlett would have treated Ashley pretty badly, though she actually loved him in her own weird way.

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  8. Try The Razor's Edge, Maugham's last great novel. The South of France, Eastern mysticism, ex pat Americans, its got the lot!

    OK its middle-brow, but once you pick it up...

    Best

    Herts

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    1. I did read Razor's Edge years ago, but I've forgotten that one too. I didn't love it as much as OHB but it might strike me differently now. Another to add to the re-read list!

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  9. You had me at bildungsroman!

    The only Maugham I've read is the Painted Veil at the start of 2011. It was definitely one of my favorite classic reads from last year. I have Razors Edge sitting on my TBR and I hope to get to it this year.

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    1. I loved The Painted Veil! I also read Mrs. Craddock this year and really liked it. I'm hoping to read Theater and Liza of Lambeth, then I need to go back and reread Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence. Probably Cakes and Ale as well. Plus I have the collected short stories. . . . then it'll be time to reread again!

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  10. I'm adding this to my list, it sounds like my cup of tea. You have a lovely blog by the way, I've been enjoying reading through some of your older posts :)

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    1. Thank you so much! I don't post nearly as often as I want. And I love finding so many other great book blogs -- which ends up making my TBR list even longer, it's dangerous.

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  11. Oh, I absolutely loved this book! The only other Maugham I've read is The Painted Veil. I liked it - definitely - but not nearly as much as I loved this one.

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    1. I loved The Painted Veil, but I can't really compare them. The movie adaptation of The Painted Veil was really good too.

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  12. Oh, and...

    "Mildred is really toxic, one of the most obnoxious characters I've ever met in literature." <--Absolutely!

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    1. She's really a monster. I think I need to watch the movie to see Bette Davis, who must have been perfect for the role.

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  13. In 2010 I read 'Up at the Villa' which is a really fantastic book. I've always wanted to read more Maugham as I enjoyed his writing very much. It sounds like 'Of Human Bondage' would be a great book of his to read.
    I read Madame Bovary as a teen and then as an adult and had a drastically different response! My perception of Emma was completely changed.

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    1. I loved Up at the Villa! It's so short, it really left me wanting more.

      I never read Madame Bovary until I was an adult and I'm sure I would have hated it as a teenager. I'm really glad I waited. I think some books shouldn't be read in high school. I remember a friend reading it and in retrospect that was just wrong. How could a teenaged boy appreciate it?

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  14. I loved The Painted Veil and plan to read Of Human Bondage for Classics Club. You review has me pushing it closer to the top of the list!

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    1. It's really good -- I know it's long but it's a really absorbing read. Maugham's style isn't dense or difficult like some other classic writers. I found it very quick to finish, despite the length.

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  15. I haven't read this one but have read all of his short stories -- he is a genuine storyteller -- the real deal. His memoir, The Summing-up, is also an excellent read.

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    1. I have his collected short stories in two volumes which I got at the library sale for $1 each. I hope to get to them eventually. Short stories always seem to get pushed to the end of the TBR list.

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  16. I haven't read any Maugham, but this book is already in my Classics Club list. Thanks for your neat review, makes me want to read this soon.. :)

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    1. Maugham is just wonderful. I hope you like it!

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  17. This sounds great - I read Ashenden earlier this year and loved it. W. Somerset Maugham is definitely a writer I need to read more of. And Mildred does sound awful! :)

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    1. I don't know anything about Ashenden but I'm intrigued by it. I also want to read a biography of Maugham, his life sounds fascinating.

      Mildred is just beastly, I wanted to jump into the book and throttle her!

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  18. I'm working through the classics currently on my shelves and am trying not to pick up new ones until I'm mostly done but this will definitely be in my next batch! I'm glad it held up for you on reread. :)

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  19. I read this for the first time about ten years ago (also outside of school) and was surprised, like you, to find out how amazingly quickly the pages flew past. And how handy that it counts for more than one challenge for you: that's always fun!

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