Review: Of Human Bondage

I’ve had this experience a lot lately. Maybe you have too. You reread a book that you once admired only to discover that it doesn’t resemble in the least what you remember about it.

When I originally read Somerset Maugham‘s Of Human Bondage, I thrilled at Maugham’s description of Bohemian Paris where we follow the young protagonist studying painting. The atelier discussions about Impressionism and Academic art were compelling. Maugham’s story was vivid and true to life, it seemed to my highschool self.

Now, several decades on, the aesthetic discussions are unbearably trite. Even so, Maugham’s judgments are still the art world’s received wisdom. One hundred years later, they’re the commonplaces that you find in every chapter of the Undergraduates Big Book of Art History.

What’s worse are the moral judgments many of the characters make: there is no right or wrong, or sin. Such full-throated hedonism is only possible when the culture is stable. The 20th Century demonstrated that without morality, ideology becomes triumphant. Against the ideological state, there is no freedom and no innocence.

In defense of Maugham, the Parisian art world portion of the novel is minor. The main story arc is elsewhere. My reading is, therefore, eccentric. Because of my particular interest, I am abandoning my plan to reread his Moon and Sixpence novel, which is based on the life of the painter Gauguin.

Interesting to note that Maugham was a British spy for some period of this life.

Maugham
Maugham

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