Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham

Book #741

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (First published May 2012)

The only Maugham I’ve tackled before was Cakes & Ale. That was okay, but not the best book I’d ever read. So, it was with some uncertainty that I approached this which is far longer. A couple of short chapters in though and I was hooked. The story of Philip’s life from the tender age of 9 until his early 30s had many parallels with my own but in terms of the events that befall him. But, the strength of this book lies not in the sensationalism created by unexpected happenings. Rather it’s in the slow realisation that Maugham is weaving a very deft parable of the human condition relevant to us all.

If I’d read this when I was in my early 20s, instead of my early 40s, it would have been a very different book. I would have found a lot in Philip’s childhood which echoed my own (separation from parents, the Dickensian boarding school, the loneliness of incessant bullying, the discovery of the passion of reading… and the escape it provides). But I doubt very much that I’d have been wise enough to learn the lessons Philip then goes on to learn. I doubt I would have profited at his expense even if someone had pointed out what those lessons were.

Somehow though, as I write this, I feel Maugham standing over me saying, “That’s precisely my point, old boy.” We have to learn the lessons of youth the hard way for two reasons, one our own fault and one the fault of others. Firstly, we are often bound to think that we know what is best for us, at least in the west. And from the lofty vantage point we have already raised ourselves to, we can see nothing to impede our progress further towards our aims. We are ignorant that we don’t really know what we are aiming for (false-summits abound in life) and we forget to look at ourselves, exactly the place where most of our adult problems originate. Secondly, there are very few people further on than us who bother to turn back and speak to us of the problems they encountered. For some, it’s too painful. For others, it’s best forgotten. And even fewer of those who can share are able to phrase it in a way that youth actually understands.

So, for the vast majority of us, Philip’s struggle against the eponymous human bondage is a mirror of our own. For this reason, I urge you to read this book. And I’d go so far as to urge you to re-read it every decade. I plan to do so in 2022, if I get that far. Philip yearns for freedom, for love, for acceptance, for purpose… and he blunders around thrown from one life encounter to another in something resembling cosmic pinball. You both rejoice and weep with him. You sit with him on the rollercoaster and, the journey being very intimate, your cheek catches the occasional fleck of vomit.

Very few writers can create characters as rich as Maugham has done with Philip. I was very much impressed by his life and what he learns from it. The way the character matures through the book is so subtle you need to watch out for it. The recurring relationships he has with women are a great device to see this maturity develop, particularly with that of Mildred, a character I shan’t forget in a hurry. I wonder if anyone has ever dramatised this for more than the big screen. A film-length version wouldn’t do it justice. It would make a fantastic drama series.

Anyway, in closing, I must note something that I don’t think has ever happened to me before. I was astonished some way towards the end to find Philip reading a book which turns out to be The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett. Guess what my audio book was while I was reading Of Human Bondage. Yep, Peregrine Pickle. Amazing. Nice to know that Philip and I share some literary pathways!

Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset

Book #722a

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (First published April 2012)

Please welcome our latest reviewer, Arukiyomi.  You may notice his button in our sidebar; this links through to a rather nicely put together spreadsheet of all the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die lists.  Enjoy, both the review and the spreadsheet.

This is an epic in the great tradition of Scandinavian literature. A trilogy which helped to win her the Nobel Prize, Undset’s masterly portrayal of the life of a 13th century nobleman’s daughter is a classic work and should be more widely known.

Kristin is a headstrong beauty who spends most of her life torn between her urges (love, guilt, loyalty) and her obligations (family, religion, gender). There’s plenty here that occurs in many other great novels but what makes the difference to this work is not only the richness of Undset’s exploration of Kristin’s character, what makes this novel stand out is the setting.

I doubt many are familiar with 14th century Norway. Exploring it through Undset’s prose is a very rewarding experience. Granted, there are brief stretches in the second book where the medieval Scandinavian political scene dragged a bit. But these are brief and you’re soon back into the countryside, or houses, or food or clothing or religion and these are all richly described. For me, the blend of superstition and Christianity was fascinating. Why so? Well, it mirrored almost perfectly that of the 21st century Papua New Guinea I’m living in. Made me wonder if the present day church in Norway is what PNG’s will look like in 2800.

There are plenty of events along the way that keep you occupied while you get to know the setting and Kristin herself. She has 7 sons and, as they grow up, she finds herself facing somewhat similar issues to those her father faced with her. She deals with these in various ways, always haunted by what she put her parents through.

And there are plenty of other characters to keep you busy if you’re not taken with Kristin herself. Her father features a great deal in the first book and he’s something of a hero, both on the domestic and national fronts. Simon is also a key figure in the narrative and his love for Kristin is an entire story in itself.

So, if you want to immerse yourself in the past for a while and see both how life has changed while humanity has stayed the same over the last 800 years, get yourself a copy of this. For portability though, I suggest you get the e-book. Alternatively, at 1100 pages, use it to build your biceps on your daily commute.