I read Of Human Bondage earlier this year. The first two chapters are perhaps the most pathetic (in the true meaning of the word) I've ever read. Perhaps they are a touch sentimental by modern standards, but the writing is controlled but at the same time empathetic. Alas, the rest of the book slides quickly down into a morass of awfulness and never manages to drag itself out.
Those first two chapters deal with the orphaning of the main character, Philip. He is sent to live with his deeply priggish minister uncle, attends boarding school where he is bully and mocked because of his club foot, tries various professions and decides to become an artist in Paris for a while, returns to England, completes his medical training, falling in love with a trollopy tease of a waitress.
The whole thing is very banally pretentious. Various theories or philosophies for life are put forward, giving the affair a rather studied (and shallow) European air. But Sentimental Education this is not - though I suspect Flaubert's novel was very much on Maughan's mind when he wrote Of Human Bondage. There's nothing here that is interesting or remarkable. The philosophy is bland and superficial. The psychology of the characters dull and the action sluggish.
What dirt and nastiness Maughan permits is decorous and prim - precisely the sort of things Philip rails against. Obviously, one can rebel against bourgeois conventions and morality, but only so far. I can't recall anything very interesting about how it was written - after a hundred pages or so I switched off, though I kept turning them in the hope of finding something to reward my perseverance. It is fustrating, though, to think that while Maughan was moving his stuffy litle marionettes in their quiant little comedy, Joyce had already written Potrait of the Artist and was at work on Ulyssess.
Now, it is not fair to compare a book to Ulyssess and say, "It isn't Ulyssess, so it is no good." If all books were as experimental, dense and byzantine as Ulyssess, book sales would be even lower than they are and illiteracy would be a necessity for keeping a blanced mind. But Of Human Bondage is Of Human Bondage is too old fashioned, uninteresting and blandly written compared to other books published in 1915 (1) that aren't anywhere near as radical or unreadable as Ulyssess. I would take The Valley of Fear - or even Tarzan - over Of Human Bondage. And never mind that D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Kafka and Ford Maddox Ford all had considerable books published that year.
1 - '1915 in Literature,' wikipedia article, viewed 10th of December, 2008. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1915_in_literature)