Voice of Truth

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What I Am Reading: Somerset Maugham, pt. 1 9 July 2009

Filed under: Reading — Aly @ 11:29 pm

(I apologize in advance. I’m currently carrying on this ridiculous ALL CAPS conversation with Pratik on Facebook, so sorry if my post seems a bit choppy or something.)

I have been reading a few works by W. Somerset Maugham, famous for his Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, and The Painted Veil. I read volume four of his short stories two years ago, when I was last in India (my grandparents’ house has a stockpile of books from the ’70s that no one except me ever reads) I finished Of Human Bondage in India, and really enjoyed it, so I decided to take along a few more books with me. Like I said, no one else reads them anyway, and you can trust they will not be missed. I was stuck on which of the several Maugham novels to choose, but finally settled on Liza of Lambeth, his first novel.

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage is just over 600 pages long, but I really enjoyed it. It’s a bildungsroman in the truest sense, not in a barely-there sense like The Catcher in the Rye or something. Philip Carey is this orphan who goes to live with his uncle, an Anglican priest (is that the right term?), and his wife. Philip has club foot, which basically means his foot is twisted in a weird direction. It causes problems for his entire life, because he cannot walk well and is very sensitive about it. Spoilers follow, but I doubt any of you will actually care to read this book, so whatevs.

Philip could have gotten a scholarship to Oxford, but his bad social skills make him uncomfortable, so he ends up dropping out of school and going to Germany for a year. He comes back to London, works as an accountant (but hates it), and finally goes defies his uncle and becomes a painter in Paris. After realizing he will never be a truly great painter, he returns to England to be a doctor.

He falls in love with this ugly chick named Mildred, and it is a love he has never experienced before. However, she’s stupid, ugly, vain, kind of a bitch, and does not even appreciate him. Philip despises her, but he loves her anyway.

[One of the only thought-provoking things I read in Atlas Shrugged was this monologue in which a character claims that we fall in love with those who embody our highest values. If we find ourselves inexplicably in love with a stupid, etc. person, it is not that “opposites attract”, but that we’re just not thinking deeply enough, and that stupidity or vanity or shallowness are qualities we actually hold highly.]

Anyway, I am not sure how to take that, but I just thought it was an interesting point in conjunction with Philip’s love for Mildred. She abandons him, then comes back, pregnant out of wedlock and in need of help. After her delivery, she leaves Philip again for his friend, and finally they meet again when she is a prostitute. Philip finally learns not to love her, and employs her as his maid. They fight and she leaves.

He becomes broke, unable to finish medical school, and works in a department store for a few years, until his uncle (finally) dies, leaving Philip enough money to complete his studies. He meets Athelney, a nice guy with a bunch of kids, and becomes friendly with the family. They help him find his department store job and eventually become like family to him. He becomes a doctor and falls in love with Athelney’s eldest daughter, Sally. I found the end, when he realizes his love for Sally (who, by the way, is like fifteen years younger than him), pretty unbelievable. It was too obvious but unsatisfying. I wish it had ended differently.

There were moments when I hated to keep reading, knowing Philip was making a bad decision. However, it was not as facepalmingly (what? FF didn’t underline that as not a word?) bad as Girl with a Pearl Earring, for example.

When Philip is in Germany, he is discussing religion with his friend Weeks, and suddenly has a revolutionary thought. I love that passage:

“St. Augustine believed that the earth was flat and that the sun turned round it.” [Weeks]

“I don’t know what that proves.” [Philip]

“Why, it proves that you believe with your generation. Your saints lived in an age of faith, when it was practically impossible to disbelieve what to us is positively incredible.” [Weeks]

“Then how d’you know that we have the truth now?” [Philip]

“I don’t.” [Weeks]

Philip thought this over for a moment, then he said:

“I don’t see why the things we believe absolutely now shouldn’t be just as wrong as what they believed in the past.”

“Neither do I.” [Weeks]

“Then how can you believe anything at all?” [Philip]

“I don’t know.” [Weeks]

Philip asked Weeks what he thought of Hayward’s religion [Hayward is another dude with them in Germany].

“Men have always formed gods in their own image,” said Weeks. “He believes in the picturesque.”

Philip paused for a little while, then he said:

“I don’t see why one should believe in God at all.”

And that was that. The rest of this page is also worth reading, since it talks about the reason why Philip found it so easy to disbelieve (he never truly had faith; it had been forced on him, etc.). However, I would prefer not to type it — this post is so long already — and I cannot find it as an etext.

His conversion was so simple, so straightforward. He looked at things logically and deduces a reasonable conclusion from the facts at hand. My conversion was almost as straightforward, though not so quick. I might write about it someday.

It was one of those “deep” books. I punctuated it with some Jeffrey Archer mystery crap, just to make Of Human Bondage even better and bearable in comparison. I sensed some satire, but this one was such a challenge to read that I didn’t really feel up to going Mrs. Harvilchuck on it. Overall, it was enjoyable, and I will definitely try something else by Maugham.

[I split this post because it was so long. See pt. 2 for my thoughts on Liza of Lambeth.]

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One Response to “What I Am Reading: Somerset Maugham, pt. 1”

  1. […] Somerset Maugham, pt. 2 10 July 2009 Filed under: Reading — Aly @ 6:31 pm [See pt. 1 for my thoughts on Of Human […]


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