The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

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.

 

Book Meme – Page 123

Sam at The Life and Times of Me! has tagged me for this meme. The rules are:

  1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
  2. Open the book to page 123
  3. Find the fifth sentence
  4. Post the next three sentences
  5. Tag five people

The nearest book was The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, which I’™d just finished reading.

This passage on page 123 tells of Stroeve’™s reaction to his wife’s death:

‘œHe was absolutely exhausted. His volubility had left him at last, and he sank down wearily on my sofa. I felt that no words of condolence availed, and I let him lie there quietly.’

The Moon and Sixpence was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin. This quote from the back cover sums it up:

‘œThe Moon and Sixpence is at once a satiric caricature of Edwardian mores and a vivid portrayal of the mentality of genius.’

More about this book will follow in another post.

I do find it difficult to tag other people and I know that a variation of this meme has done the rounds a few months ago. So if you’re reading this and want to do the meme please consider yourself tagged. If you do please let me know.

From The Stacks Challenge

The Overdue Books Challenge came to an end on 31 January 2008. The idea was to read 5 books from those you had already purchased, had been meaning to get to and haven’t read before. There was to be no going out and buying new books and no getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The books I chose were:

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

On the first count I didn’™t do too well because I only read two of these books, namely The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I wrote about on 13 December 2007 and Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom, which I wrote about on 30 January 2008.

Although I started off quite well it wasn’™t long before I began to buy more books so I failed dismally on the second count. Still, I’™m pleased that I did read at least two books from my To Be Read List, so I’™m counting it as a mini success and I will read the other books this year.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

This was one of the best books I read in 2007. Philip Reeve is a new author to me and I first read about him on Ann’s blog. Here Lies Arthur is an adventure story, set in Britain in AD 500. I have always been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and this book tells his story, casting a new and original slant on the ‘facts’. Very little historical evidence has survived to give concrete information about life in Britain from the fifth to the sixth centuries. The picture Reeve paints is of a turbulent and harsh world, with Arthur as a war-leader in a land where opposing war-bands fight for supremacy. Arthur is not the romantic hero of legend but a dangerous, quick-tempered man, ‘solid, big-boned with a thick neck and a fleshy face. ‘A bear of a man.’

Merlin is in this story too, not the magician of legend but Myrddin, a singer of songs and a story-teller par excellence, whose tales convince people of Arthur’s supremacy and power – the King That Was and Will Be. With the help of Gwyna, a young girl whose home has been ransacked and burnt, Myrddin works his own kind of magic on people, eager to believe in miracles, the old gods and spirits, the Lady of the Lake and the significance of the sword, Excalibur called Caliburn in this book.

Gwyna, disguised as a boy acts as Myrddin’s servant as they travel with the war-band. Then as it becomes difficult to continue with the disguise Myrddin sends her to Gwenhwhfar’s household to act as a spy. As in the legend Gwenhwhfar is not faithful to Arthur. Other characters in the legends are interwoven into the story, most memorable is Peredur, Sir Perceval of Round Table fame and the hero of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

As Gwyna matures she takes on the role played by Myrddin, spinning tales of her own, giving meaning to his life and death. It’s the stories that matter, with their magical enchantment. We can still hope that Myrddin’s Arthur will one day return, ‘the wisest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.’

Gwyna ends the story with the tale of the ship carrying Arthur to ‘an island in the west’ where ‘he lies sleeping, healed of all his wounds. And he’ll wake one day, when our need of him is bad enough, and he’ll come back to us. And the name of that ship is called, Hope.’

The stories of course are made up of words and what a spell Reeve has woven with his words. The names and place names conjure up such memories and visions of the time when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and there is a list at the back of the book with a guide to how they might have been pronounced. I kept referring to the guide as I read along, saying the names out loud and letting the sounds resonate within my head.

It may be sentimental, but this is what I found irresistible in this book, the mixture of fact and fantasy, realism and enchantment, and the importance of story to encourage and inspire people. It brings the legends to life.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam and The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Old Filth tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, variously known as Eddie, The Judge, Fevvers, Master of the Inner Temple and Teddy. Not a dirty old man, he is ‘œspectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean.’ Filth is his nickname standing for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He was born in what was then Malaya and sent home to England as a small child of five. The story goes backwards and forwards in time telling of his childhood at boarding school, then after Oxford he became a barrister and eventually a Judge on the circuit in Hong Kong. The book starts with Old Filth aged 80 living on his own in Dorset after the death of his wife, Betty. His near neighbour is Terry Veneering, also a retired lawyer he had known and detested in Hong Kong. He and Terry end up unexpectedly spending Christmas together. I was hooked straight away and read on eagerly.

As Filth begins to look back on his life, he becomes anxious to contact old friends and relations and as he contacts these people the story of his life emerges. He relives their times together, tries to make amends and sees events in a new light. There are many surprises before Filth comes to terms with his life and widowhood. It’™s a gentle book, full of humour and heartbreak.

The Photograph was the first book I read this year and I raced through it eager to find out why Kath was holding hands with a man who wasn’™t her husband, Glyn. After her death, Glyn comes across a photograph inside an envelope on which Kath had written DON’™T OPEN ‘“ DESTROY. It had been taken many years and on close inspection Glyn realises the man is his brother-in-law, Nick.

Glyn, a TV history researcher, infuriated by the photograph and the discovery of her involvement with Nick sets out to discover more. He becomes obsessed with his search as it becomes obvious how little he knew about Kath and her life.

I have always found Penelope Lively’™s books full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and this one is one of her best. It’™s about relationships, love and fidelity, grief and loss and the power of memory, all topics that for me made this book compelling reading.

Two excellent books.

Heart of a Child Challenge

I really shouldn’t be entering another challenge, but I just can’t resist this one. It’s being run by Becky at Becky’s Book Reviews – see her post on this challenge here.

The challenge is to read 3 to 6 books between February 1, 2008 and July 14, 2008, choosing from books and authors that you discovered, loved, or adored as a child. Anything and everything that you read through the age of 18 would qualify.

The books I will be choosing from are:

  • Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd.
  • Heidi by Joanna Spyri
  • The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
  • The Gloriet Tower by Eileen Meyler

These were all favourites. I may have to add Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children and also What Katy Did Next.

3rd Annual Brigid in Cyberspace Poetry Reading

I found this on Table Talk’s blog.

WHAT: A Bloggers (Silent) Poetry Reading
WHEN: Anytime February 2, 2008
WHERE: Your blog
WHY: To celebrate the Feast of Brigid, aka Groundhog Day
HOW: Select a poem you like – by a favorite poet or one of your own – to post February 2nd.

See here for more details.

Not knowing what Groundhog Day is I looked it up on Wikipedia. If a groundhog (also known as a ground squirrel, woodchuck or marmot) emerges from its burrow on February 2 and doesn’t see its shadow it’s a sign that winter is ending, but if it does see its shadow that’s a sign that winter is still here and the groundhog goes back to its burrow.Winter then comntinues for 6 more weeks.

No sign of a groundhog here today (or any other day) but there are signs that winter is ending in this part of Britain, if not further north where there have been severe snow storms. I thought this poem is a reminder to slow down and enjoy life.

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies (1871 – 1940) was a Welsh poet, known as ‘The People’s Poet’ and a ‘Super-Tramp’. See Welsh Heroes for more information.