Of Human Bondage

With a film, you generally know what you’re going to get. A poster gives the gist away and the trailer presses the whole game on you like an over-zealous sport teacher (a figure from my nightmares.)

As the epithet teaches us, however, you can’t judge a book the same way, which means that frequently you get a fair old surprise and can find yourself half way through a story you’d never knowingly choose. This was the case with this one. From the title of this novel, you’d think it was quite unsavoury. From the author, I thought it would be quaint and charming. I was wrong in both.

I almost gave up the ghost halfway through, not due to the writing quality but because I was unrelentingly depressed by the whole thing. This book is about existential angst, the meaning(lessness) of life and art, and the cruelty of poverty. It follows a protagonist who makes a series of miserable decisions and a good 650 of the 700 pages seem to track his relentless decline into poverty and ruin. Now, I like good solid misery as much as the next Victorian literature fan. Jude the Obscure is actually a bit of a favourite of mine, and I challenge anyone to read a more depressing passage than the one where THAT thing happens to Jude. Sheesh. But Phillip brings so much of it directly upon himself that you really do start to lose sympathy with him. I am clearly part of the stolid middle classes referred to throughout the book who are happy to live an average life rather than experience the extremities of art, but I couldn’t stand this ceaseless self-sabotage.

However, I struggled on, and was rewarded. Without giving too much away, at least Philip’s self-sabotage ceases and from then on I could enjoy myself.

There is a lot of the Victorian novel in Of Human Bondage, despite it being written 62 years after Bleak House. It’s lengthy, it follows a single man’s difficult journey, and troubles itself a good deal with religion and morality (although its conclusions on these subjects do distinguish it from its Victorian predecessors.) But make no mistake – it’s a rip-roaring page turner. Even I, almost giving up halfway through, read its 700 pages in 5 days (the joys of Christmas.)

So, if you have a more informed yearning to read Somerset Maugham, have a bash at this one. I hope I haven’t given the game away too completely.

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One thought on “Of Human Bondage

  1. Pingback: 2012: The Edit « Room of Joy

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