Sunday, January 17, 2010

Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #66

Title: Of Human Bondage
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Judgin' the Book by its Cover: The painting on the cover is sort of a funny choice-- the young artists in this novel reject impressionism in favor of the emerging modernist movement.

Thoughts: This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Philip Carey, a young Englishman whose experiences in many ways mimic Maugham's own. The story begins with the death of Philip's beloved mother, after which he is sent to live with his uncle, a childless and cold clergyman. When Philip heads off to school, his clubfoot and lack of confidence immediately mark him as a misfit, and he becomes increasingly more introspective and self-aware as the years pass by. Philip adopts and abandons belief systems, careers, and circles of friends on his path to maturity, and he navigates all these changes with ease until... Mildred.

Seldom in my reading career have I come across a character as easy to revile as Mildred. Shallow, rude, uncaring, hard, artificial, and spiteful, her appearance in the novel marks a pretty serious turning point. Philip's unfortunate obsession with her is so frustrating because he continually sacrifices his own well-being and future for a love that he knows is foolish. Maugham does a singular job of summoning up the torture of unrequited love, and watching Philip struggle through it is agonizing for the reader.

The characters are well-drawn and believable, and I really cared about Philip by the time the novel drew to a close. He's a sensitive and unusual character, but he's not a genius or otherwise exceptional protagonist. It's a truly interesting roman a clef, and provides a much more moving and compelling "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". Recommended!

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