James's Reviews > Don Fernando

Don Fernando by W. Somerset Maugham
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's review
Jun 27, 2012

really liked it

I finished Somerset Maugham's "Don Fernando," which was Maugham's personal favorite of all the books he wrote.

It has been described as a travel book, but I don't think that's entirely accurate, though there are a few scattered sections that could be described as travel writing. The premise is that Maugham long planned to write an historical novel set during Spain's Golden Age. He traveled extensively and read 200-300 books on the subject, but was never able to get the book past the initial planning stage.

"Don Fernando," then, is a loose collection of observations on Spain in general, and especially Spain in the Golden Age. Maugham discusses food, architecture, painting, literature, the practice of writing, drama, mysticism, Catholicism, the Spanish obsession with honor, picaresque novels, and such figures as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, Cervantes, and Lope De Vega.

The longest chapter, I believe, is devoted to El Greco. Though Maugham admires El Greco's work, he also criticizes it. According to the Maugham biographies I own, the book is most famous for the El Greco chapter, chiefly because Maugham claims that he suspects El Greco, notwithstanding the fact that he had a mistress and a bastard son, was homosexual. (Maugham, despite the fact he was once married and had a bastard daughter, was himself predominantly homosexual.)

Though elsewhere in the chapter Maugham hails El Greco as great, he attributes what he perceives to be El Greco's flaws to his supposed homosexuality, saying that a homosexual is generally not capable of making great art, because he is essentially superficial, with an incomplete knowledge of the human condition. He cannot create great art--he can merely draw pretty decorations. This is why, for example, Maugham thinks El Greco's religious paintings are devoid of any true religious feeling--they are just excuses for him to draw elongated bodies, experiment with posing the hands, and paint dramatic clouds with lovely colors.

The relentlessness of Maugham's attack, and the negativity of his attitude really reveal more about Maugham's self-loathing than they reveal El Greco's flaws.

All this being said, it was a wonderful book. It rambles so much that Maugham doesn't have a chance to get too entrenched in an esoteric topic or point and the reader doesn't have a chance to get bored. It made me want to travel to Spain and to do some research into its literature and art, which is the best you can ask from a book of this sort.

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