I’d read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an ‘outmoded’ author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs – and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:
‘I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.’
Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, ‘just a good, dull, honest, plain man’. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.
I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel’s main character is described as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.
After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, ‘a queer fish’. In Tahiti they took him for granted: ‘In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.’
After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:
‘Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.’
This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.
The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a ‘great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.’ Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.
I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:
‘Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, “The Moon and Sixpence” fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.’
I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’ work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.