Of Human Bondage

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage - e-book
 
Read from February 25th to April 17th, 2013
 
My rating: 5/5 stars


A novel as beautiful as a Beethoven symphony, a marvelled Theodore Dreiser exclaimed at its apparition. An inspired comparison, for it’s as majestic. As solemn. As impressive. As moving.


And of course, like every masterpiece, as controversial. In fact, it was so slaughtered by the English and American critics that only Dreiser’s unconditional admiration put it in the eye of the public, who never tired of it since. A public who never learns, as a friend of mine observed once, that the critics are always right.


But what has given Of Human Bondage such different perceptions? Well, the main reproaches are the following: the theme choice - it presents a pessimistic view of the world leaving the reader with the depressing impression of the futility of life; the character choice - the hero tends towards self-pity and self-absorption; and of course, the moral choice (oh, not again!) - the vision of love, sexuality and religion are distorted.


It seems to me (and probably to all who chose to think this is amazing writing) that the multiple layers of the novel (social, emotional, philosophical, symbolic) are meant to emphasize the human limitations, called by a Maugham who superposes his voice on Spinoza’s, bondage“The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master... so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him."


Spinoza’s solution is the pursuit of knowledge; a quest that ultimately leads to God and could counteract and control the passions, to achieve a certain degree of relief from their turmoil. but what of Maugham's?


Of Human Bondage, like any true bildungsroman, describes the “life and opinions” of Phillip Carey, who engages himself in a similar ontological quest, keen to discover the meaning of life, whose metaphor seems to be a Persian rug (the pattern in the carpet motive). Early in his existence he parts with God despite (or maybe because of) his religious education from which he remains only with the odd habit of thanking God He doesn’t exist. Then he looks for his place in the world, and finds Art for a while, only to discover his talent is mediocre at best, so he abandons it to follow his father’s profession and become a doctor. Then he falls in love and this is the greatest humiliation of all, the love for a vulgar, uneducated, not even beautiful Mildred, "an implacable, pale green worm", as someone said (and what a great role Bette Davis made of this!). With an inexplicable, voluptuous masochism, Philip lets himself by humiliated by a harrowing of the hell of love:

“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.”


So, yes, there is no heroic hero, no triumphant vision, no trust in knowledge and morality at all – the critics were absolutely right. Spinoza’s solution is rejected: life is only a battered Persian rug, with a beautiful intricate pattern whose sense is vaguely aesthetic, but which usually has no sense at all. Step on it in resignation, accept the erratic gifts of fate, renounce without struggle at what you can’t have and adapt without resentment, for: 


“Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.”


And maybe this is an explanation for the perpetual success of this novel. At the end of the day, you too can find hope even in hopelessness:


“… he called to mind his idea of the pattern of life: the unhappiness he had suffered was no more than part of a decoration which was elaborate and beautiful; he told himself strenuously that he must accept with gaiety everything, dreariness and excitement, pleasure and pain, because it added to the richness of the design.”

PS Incidentally I saw a review of this novel written in Nicky Minaj–style, which seemed to me utterly grotesque until I had an epiphany: maybe this is how Mildred would have expressed herself had she read the novel! After all, who can deny there is an obvious truth even in that crass saying with its succinct bluntness: Life is shit and then you die.

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Comments (1)

Comments on Goodreads.com
  • 1. Comments on Goodreads.com | Tuesday, 24 December 2013
Ginny Cinque stelle date da te sono un mezzo miracolo! ;-)
Devo proprio rileggere questo libro.
Apr 19, 2013 06:12AM

Stela Calin Mi ha davvero commossa questo libro. Non mi aspettavo, le mie idee di Maugham erano davvero nebulose. :))))
Apr 19, 2013 06:17AM

Ginny Maugham è uno dei miei amori di gioventù. :)
Il primo libro suo che ho letto è stato "Il filo del rasoio" (The razor's edge)
Indimenticabile!
Apr 19, 2013 09:21AM ·

Stela Calin Good, grazie, lo metto sulla mia to-read list!
Apr 19, 2013 09:35AM ·

Arwen56 I never read anything by Somerset Maugham. I have to fix it. :-)
Apr 19, 2013 11:10AM

Stela Calin I'm looking forward to your opinion, dearest!
Apr 19, 2013 11:28AM

Arwen56 Can I start from this one? Or is it better another book? I know nothing about him, sorry. :-)
Apr 19, 2013 11:36AM

Stela Calin It's the only one I read but i'll certainly read others! It's a long book but I so liked it - the style, the theme, the characters, amazing!
I don't know if The Razor's Edge is better but this one is certainly worth!
So go ahead and read it! But maybe Ginny has something to say too.
Apr 19, 2013 12:36PM ·

Arwen56 Ok, honey. I've understood. ;-)

@Ginny
Cosa consigli a una principiante? Voglio dire, io non ho mai letto nulla di questo autore. C'è per caso un romanzo da cui sia meglio iniziare per conoscerlo? Thanks. :-)

PS: Uhmmm ... della letteratura ispano-americana non vi ho mai sentito fare cenno (almeno, mi pare). Non vi piace?
Apr 19, 2013 01:10PM

Ginny @Arwen, puoi iniziare benissimo da "Of human bondage" ma anche da "Il filo del rasoio" o dal famosissimo "Il velo dipinto". Insomma, puoi fare come credi senza timore di sbagliare :-)
A me sono piaciuti moltissimo anche "La luna e sei soldi" e i racconti, in particolare "La lettera", da cui William Wyler ha tratto lo splendido film "Ombre malesi" con Bette Davis (che però ha un finale completamente diverso dal libro).

A proposito della letteratura ispano-americana, a me piace moltissimo. Non ho pregiudizi, apprezzo ogni genere di ogni provenienza, purché sia di eccellente qualità ;)
Apr 21, 2013 01:18AM

Stela Calin Anche a me piace molto la letteratura ispano-americana - infatti ho un Llosa in attesa: The Feast of the Goat che comincerò presto.

Avevo dimenticato "Moon and sixpence", grazie Ginny, l'ho letto da giovane e mi era piaciuto molto - si dice che è basato sulla vita di Gauguin.
Apr 21, 2013 06:15AM

Arwen56 Grazie per i consigli, carissime. :-)
Apr 21, 2013 10:38AM

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