14 December 2009

The Moon And Sixpence


Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 215
Publishers: Vintage Classics
First published in the year: 1919


A Moon and Sixpence is a story that Maugham wrote inspired from post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin's tumultuous life. There was a sense of notoriety around Gauguin because he left his regular job and deserted his wife and children just like that! He rejected European civilization calling it 'artificial and conventional' and moved to the island of Tahiti where he created paintings that went on to become masterpieces after his death.

He was drawn to primitivism as an art form and his paintings -- characterised by bold experimentation of colours and geometric designs -- changed the course of modern paintings and after his death, Gauguin became one of the most influential artists of his times. (his painting below)


Having only recently read Maugham's Ten Novels and Their Authors and The Painted Veil, I for many reasons felt he was combining the themes of both these books in A Moon And Sixpence. In Ten Novels.... Maugham describes with great fascination the life of famous authors and what went into the making of their classic novels. It is with the same sense of curiosity and ear for scandal that he approaches the life of Gauguin. The other important theme in the book - much like The Painted Veil – is marriage and entrapment. Maugham is decidedly cynical about the institution and every couple he describes in A Moon And Sixpence has a secret sorrow and is caught in a trap of undefined misery. This is a constant theme with most of Maugham's works where a marital union never really reaches fruition because one of the partners feels dissatisfied.

The first few pages of the novel are a bit difficult to get by,
as they are somewhat turgid. But once the story begins and takes a sharp turn with the disappearance of Charles Strickland (modelled on Gauguin), you are gripped by the narrative. His desertion of his comely wife and adorable kids is shocking to everyone who know him. The story is described by Maugham himself, who much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is the sincere, wise but detached narrator-character in the book. He is not an active participant in the tumultuous lives of the people around him but he is a trusted confidante and each character reveals their innermost feelings to him.

The story takes you through Strickland's unconventional life – he is brusque, loutish, cruel and eccentric to a maniacal level. Having foregone his cushy life, he lives in the most wretched conditions, striving to paint and give vent to the artist in him. He borrows money constantly as if it wer his right. In spite of his brutal ways he still finds enough people to care for his undiscovered genius. One of them is the goofy Dirk Stroeve, an inferior painter, who can recogonise superior art. He provides home and shelter to Strickland when the latter takes violently ill. But his compassion means nothing to Strickland who makes no effort to resist Dirk's wife, Blanche when she falls for his roguish charm. What others think of him means nothing to Strickland and he doesn't bat an eyelid when Blanche dies.

His happiest and saddest days are in the gorgeous island of Tahiti – where he is somewhat at peace with himself. While everywhere else his behaviour is considered deviant, in Tahiti, odd balls are accepted for what they are since there are many around. Tahiti also brings a painful end to his life when he is struck by leprosy. The book says that Strickland created dazzlingly beautiful paintings on the walls of the house he lived in. But when he was about to die, he asked his wife, Ata (who he married there) to burn it all down.

It's hard to say how much of the novel is entirely based on Gauguin's life, and Maugham has said, he took the basic framework of the painter's life and worked around it. Maugham's book materialised when the author went to Tahiti and spoke to people about Gauguin.
As it stands, Strickland is so abominable, cruel and so wholly negative that it's a bit difficult to accept him as a real character. Also, his life prior to being a painter is never clear. Maugham could have at least given some indication of his artistic bent of mind but he's portrayed exactly as the opposite. His sudden transformation as an artiste is not convincing. Even Gauguin in his life as a stockbroker, is understood to have painted on and off, so it's surprising why Maughan could not incorporate that aspect into the story. This is a jarring point in the novel, one that threatens to ruin the experience of the book.

Yet, the novel offers an incisive, penetrating view into what possibly goes into the making of an artist, his unique temperament and his unrelenting search for inspiration. Still, Strickland cannot be a representative for all artists since Maugham's portrayal of him is deliberately sketchy and overly negative. It's like knowing only one part of a story.
Amidst the outrageous and tragic events that unfold, what keeps the narrative rooted and real is Maugham's sane, controlled presence. His vivid description of characters, his acuity in identifying their nature and compulsions, his ability to spell out universal human truths, makes the novel a compelling read.

The book, like most of Maugham's other works teems with quotable quotes. This is what he says of women and the perverse thrill they derive from suffering. "A women can forgive a man for teh harm he does her, but can never forgive him for the sacrifises he makes on her account"

On his inability to be angry with Strickland for too long, Maugham says, "It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogethr dislike anyone who make me laugh."

Apart from this, there are countless reflections on art and life - which are all profounding inspiring.

20 comments:

Sandhya Iyer said...

Alexander: I was wondering if Maugham really knew Gauguin?

Alexander said...

Sandhya,

As far as I know Maugham never met Gauguin (I think the painter left France when the writer was still a teenager). His interest was fired by some of his friends in Paris where he lived in early 1900s; a painter whose name always forget... Roderick O'Connor it was, I think.

I have never thought of 'The Moon and Sixpence' as very much based on Gauguin; the story is broadly the same as his life but this was used only as a foundation for a fantasy; just like Peter Shaffer's (and Milos Forman's) 'Amadeus' is far from being a biography of Mozart.

Interesting review but I will be able to comment more on it when I re-read the novel myself. And that I am going to do in the next few days (having just finished 'The Painted Veil'). I like the objectivity of your style, it contrasts pleasantly with my affectation which is rather odious sometimes.

Sandhya Iyer said...

If it was only a fantasy, and most it was fiction, I think Maugham could have justified episodes better. They are a bit sketchy, esp in the manner in which Strickland's earlier life with his wife is portrayed. There is absolutely no inkling of his creative pursuits, and I don't think that can be possible honestly.
Also, much like Maugham does with Ten Novels and Their Authors, he tends to get too critical and negative about the person he's talking about - which tends to obscure any positives he may have. The same thing happens with Strickland.

You know why I got confused, because Maugham says himself that he would have written the book differently, lending more plausibility to many of the actions of his characters, esp Strickland's -- if only he wasn't relying somewhat on facts as he heard them. Of course, this itself could be just a story within a story, but the result is that Strickland's character - while he is intriging and powerful in his own right - remains too sketchy. I could not emotionally invest much in the character.

Alexander said...

I suppose Maugham tried to give more verisimilitude with this, the sketchy characters and episodes I mean (and the first person narrative as well). He might have failed to do so. For my part I don't mind sketchy characters, they give more scope to my imagination (poor as it is). But of course there must be something about them and it must be exciting enough. Perhaps Maugham was afraid to try a more detailed description of a genius, perhaps he wanted to stress what he also says in 'Ten Novels...', that genius is often allied with grave defects, it's very different from talent and might burst out without any early indications. Who knows. I'll write more in the end of the week.

If you liked the idea and Maugham's treatment, which I am afraid you didn't, you might like to read his play 'The Bread-winner' where a very similar plot is used: a London broker loses all his money and decides to leave his family and enjoy the life for the rest of his life. The play, however, is not a very easy one to find, I think there is no modern edition of it and it was last reprinted in the second volume of The Collected Plays back in 1952. But I might be wrong of course.

Sandhya Iyer said...

I agree the hazy, sketchy portrayal fuels your imagination. I had no problem with that, in fact, it was necessary not to 'define' clearly a character like Strickland, so as to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. That I fully agree.

But my issues were not really with what Maugham left unsaid, but with what he said about Strickland!

Alexander said...

I'm afraid I don't quite follow you, Sandhya. On the one hand, Strickland's character is too sketchy, and on the other hand even the little Maugham says of him somewhat disturbs you. I remember Strickland, from my previous reading, as somewhat larger than life; certainly he is a bit too dramatized and I daresay not very real, but that's essential for the story. Of course he cannot be regarded as portrait of an artist in general. Is it possible to draw such portrait on paper? I suppose it is possible to try but it will make for a tedious reading. My previous impression of Strickland was more of an admiration for his determination than of dislike for his attitude to the people around him. But that's perhaps because I am bad man myself.

I don't know what will come out of the next reading which I've just started; it is always so different. So far I can tell only that I don't in the least find the first pages 'somewhat turgid'. Actually, I think them one of the finest Maugham ever wrote - with the exception of few unusually unclear sentences for him, but it's not a big deal. He makes a number of fascinating points: about the artist and its personality and the passion for myths and legends about the great that is inherent in the human race, for example. At the same time he is totally hilarious when he describes the book of the Rev. Robert Strickland.

By the way, to the best of my belief, this is the only novel of Maugham when he uses such notes as on the first pages here. Of course the books he refers to don't exist and they were devised solely to make the story more real; that's why Maugham uses real publishers, even his own British one (Heinemann). In many ways this contributes to the first pages to be excellent introduction to the story, at least for me: I am already interested in Strickland even before he appears on the pages at all.

I think it is a mistake to look for facts in a novel and try to find too much of Gauguin's life in 'The Moon and Sixpence'. Maugham wrote story, not history. He did so all his life, no matter how well or how badly he wrote. So his short stories are not colonial history, nor is his 'The Razor's Edge' a biographical portrait of Larry Darrell. But I suppose that passion for facts is natural enough: after 'The Moon..' he got tons of angry letters for turning Gauguin into an odious Englishman and after 'The Razor...' he got a lot of curious letters where Larry was and what he was doing. So, obviously, Maugham succeeded quite well to achieve verisimilitude in his stories. But he never pretended to be anything but a storyteller; certainly in anything he wrote there is some real facts but I don't think it possible to distinguish them from the fiction. And, for my part at least, that makes no sense at all. I don't see why fiction should be anything more than fiction.

sandy said...

Alexander: I don't know how to thank you! I got the book today and in excellent condition (you took so much care after all!). This is such a sweet gesture, I cannot thank you enough. I'm going to love reading it. And your postcard was even more special!

Coming back to matching wits with you on Moon and Sixpence, it's not like I didn't like the book or something. I have come to think that almost anything written by Maugham will be readable by virtue of his excellent writing and pinsight - two qualities I always look for in a writer (I really recommened George Eliot to you - I am curious why Maugham didn't include her in his list of Ten authors. She is exactlly the kind of writer I fathom he would love.)

I must admit that I am a little perplexed about why Maugham chose to take Paul Gauguin's life (however losely based), only to give it a fictional treatment but convinces you all along that it's fact! It's a bit confusing all round.
The novel touched moments of greatness, but Strickland remained a bit underwhelming for me. You either seem him as a loutish swine or as a mad genuis. There are only two shades to him. Now, I understand Maugham's compulsions in his portrayal, but as a reader i have a right to feel something amiss. The catharsis didn't come about precisely because there was no real empathy for his character.

Also, I had no plans of reading up on Gauguin. But when I was reading the novel, I felt it was important. The art that Maugham describes of Strickland's is the same as that of Gauguin's. No?
That is where the biographical evidence got stronger for me.

Anyway, I think what Maugham said of Strickland & his art stands true for him as well. "He (strickland) did not hesistate to distort or simplify if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought."

To be honest, I saw the book more as Maugham's extended commentary on marraige than art.

Alexander said...

Oh, that was quick! I was afraid you'd have to wait one month or so. The guys from the post are always ready for a pleasant surprise. Great. I am very glad you got it all right; it's a special book, only for Maugham fans.-:) I apologize for my extremely ugly handwriting, hope it's legible at least.

A nice chat we're having about 'The Moon and Sixpence'. As I progress with the book, I have to agree with you on one point and (with your exclusive permission, of course) I will include it in my review as well: Strickland's transformation into artist is not convincing. Maugham gives something in that direction but he leaves much, too much indeed, on the reader's imagination. I suppose he just couldn't think of anything better, or if he could he wasn't able to put it on paper in satisfactory manner. He wrote many times about the advantages of writing in first person singular, namely that you can always evade some tricky point by leaving it to the imagination of your readers; well, it can be overdone as anything else.

Still, I find Strickland extremely compelling. His indifference to so many unimportant things that others attach a huge importance to, and his furious determination to achieve whatever vision he has in his confused mind... I find that inspiring. Yes, Gauguin's strange ideas about colour and composition fit quite well with the conception; I suppose that's why Maugham took not only some facts from his life but also some things from his art as well. You're right here again; but somehow I can't see the book in this biographical light. I mean, it is not really necessary to know Gauguin's life or art for understanding and enjoying the novel, perhaps even get some benefit from it.

It's an interesting topic that: can a very original and unusual character be made real and believable? Even if he is drawn straight from life. Maugham wrote some interesting things about that in 'A Writer's Notebook':

'There are of course men of marked idiosyncrasy who offer themselves to your observation with all the precision of a finished picture, they are 'characters', striking and picturesque figures; and they often take pleasure in displaying their peculiarity, as though they amused themselves and they wanted you to share their amusement. But they are few. They stand out of the common run and have at once the advantage and disadvantage of the exceptional. What they have in vividness they are apt to lack in verisimilitude.'

Then he goes on to explain how tedious is to study the average man because he is 'strangely amorphous'. Also, I remember in the preface to one of his collections with short stories, when he confessed (for first and last time as far as I know) that he had drawn a portrait of a real man but he had toned him down a great deal because otherwise he would have burst his pages. Perhaps that's what happened with Strickland but in the reverse direction: Maugham started with few mundane facts and then got carried away with his fancy. But I know little of what Gauguin's real character was like, a more thorough study may well show that Maugham used more from him than he was content to confess.

P. S. I am still afraid of the dimensions of 'Middlemarch' but next year I'll try it for sure. This is one prejudice I have inherited from my mother: if a book is long, it can't be interesting enough to be read completely. Which is a perfect nonsense, of course. So my mother never finished 'Agony and Ecstasy' which is one of the greatest books I have ever read (about another genius from and out of this world at the same time). But my mother did finish 'Of human bondage' all right.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Oh talk about long books! I haven't been able to finish Don Quixote, Tom Jones, A Suitable Boy - none at all. The last one - A Suitable Boy - one of the most popular and modern classics from India by Vikram Seth is in excess of 1400 pages!
I don't think I can finish it unless all other books are taken away from me for a while :-)

sandhya said...

I read a few pages of The Summing Up. I think this is easily going to be one of the finest and most satifying reads for me. Can't wait :-)

Alexander said...

I really hope it would be. It's not for nothing that it is the book most often hailed as Maugham greatest one. It is far better than any possible (auto)biography: it gives you (almost) no facts, but (almost) a complete personality. 'A Writer's Notebook' is at first glance totally different, but it actually complements 'The Summing Up' admirably. I very much doubt that I will ever read a more honest and more candid account of anybody written by him- or herself. The fact that it lacks the dirty details only makes me admire the book more. I have wanted to write a review about for quite some time but I dare not. It will be shameful.

And currenly I am trying to write a review of 'The Moon and Sixpence' and so far I have failed miserably to do so. I finished the book last night and it just swept me off my feet. I can't tell you how much I wish I were as 'odious' as Charles Strickland. Alas, no chance. I am just odious, and the quotation marks are somewhat out of place here.

I think I can safely say, for myself of course, that Charles Strickland is one of the most powerful and fascinating characters Maugham ever created. Hang Gauguin; he doesn't matter a bit.

sandhya said...

hey Alexander: Wanted to tell you that I am still reading 'Collection of Short stories' by Maugham. have to return it to the library you see. I read a few stories like 'Appearance and Reality' and 'Some Facts about Life" , "The Happy Couple" and so on. It's obvious that some of it Maugham wrote at a very young age, so there is a certain naivete, but not wholly without some charm. I'm loving reading it. The last few days were busy, but I've been makign time to read a few stories everyday and I can tell you I feel instantly elevated in the midst of such elegant writing.

I can't wait to get to The Summing Up and for the infinite joy I will derive out of it. I plan to read it word by word carefully.

Alexander said...

Hi Sandhya!

Dear, I thought you're on some charming Christmas holiday. I hope you've been busy mostly with enjoying yourself, reading Maugham or otherwise.

That's an excellent point you've made, 'bout reading word by word i mean. That's exactly the way Maugham should be read, not so much for anything else but because that's exactly the way he wrote: constantly revising his manuscripts word by word in search of perfection. And Raymond Toole Stott, Maugham's most accomplished bibliographer, tells us in his fantastic Bibliography that of all manuscripts of Maugham that of "The Summing Up" is the most corrected and revised one; he even goes on to say that it is doubtful that half of what was written was actually approved (by Maugham himself, of course) for publication. Sometimes I almost wish Maugham had been less demanding of himself; we could have enjoyed more of his writings today.

Few notes about the short stories, those you mentioned and others.

As a matter of fact, dearest, none of the stories in all four volumes of Maugham's Collected Short Stories was written before 1920 when Maugham was 46 years old. The only four exceptions, when he used a great deal of early material, written before the Great War (what an idiotic description of the First World War!), are "The Happy Couple", "The Luncheon", "A Marriage of Convenience" and "The Mother". From them only "The Mother", first published in a magazine in 1908, was left almost untouched amd is the only example in the genre of the short story when Maugham was sufficiently satisfied with an early work of his. The other two were rewritten thoroughly and greatly improved providing us today with fascinating glimpse into Maugham's development as a writer. Except for "The Mother" , the early versions can be found in "Seventeen Lost Stories" (1969), compiled and with introduction from Craig Showalter, eminent Maugham collector and admirer. (The early name of "The Luncheon" is "Cousin Amy".)

I haven't heard about Maugham's story called "Some Facts about Life" but my great intuition tells me that you mean "The Facts of Life" (that charming tennis player, gambler and womanizer Nicky, right?). Certainly there is some naivete in it, so is there in "Appearance and Reality", but it is due certainly not to Maugham's age. The stories were published were published in magazines in 1939 and 1934, respectively, when Maugham was 65 and 60 years old, respectively. So the naivete was either a defect of his or a desired effect. Be that as it may, I find both pieces enchanting.

In conclusion, one little piece of advice. If you've liked Maugham's stories enough to re-read them in the future, which it seems to me is the case, I suggest you get the original volumes they were published in and read them in this way. Sure these volumes don't have the variety of the Collected ones but they make up for that with unity of style and subject: so all of Maugham's very short stories are in "Cosmopolitans", "Ah King" and "First Person Singular" are comprised entirely of exotic short stories, "Trembling of a Leaf" only of South Seas ones and so on. All eight volumes make for, in my opinion, unforgettable reading. Only the last one, "Creatures of circumstance" (1947) is somewhat lacking in unity since in it, together with new pieces of course, Maugham collected all stories written through the years which he thought decent enough to be published. He of course knew that this was his last collection of short stories. He said so and was as good as his word. As he always was.

sandy said...

That's exactly the way Maugham should be read, not so much for anything else but because that's exactly the way he wrote: constantly revising his manuscripts word by word in search of perfection."

Absolutely, and yet, there is something effortless and so naturally elegant and good-natured about his writing. It is obvious though that he polished his writing and achieved a great level of perfection to express things as lucidly as only he could.

I am reading a few stories everyday...will keep you updated. Last night I read "The Luncheon".

And yes, you caught me there. I thought I would escape with my carelessness. It is 'The Facts of Life' :-)

Alexander said...

Yes, exactly. It's funny that something that looks so much like on the spur of the moment or an impromptu conversation with a friend should in fact have been the result of weeks and months of toil. But one, of course, can't please everyone. Some regarded Maugham with great respect for his craftsmanship, others regard him with great contempt for he never wrote anything spontaneously, and that - as we all know - is not artistic at all.

I have just learned that Chopin used to revise his compositions numerous times before publication, much like Willie. And if I ever thought of a music that is spontaneous and sounds like a pure improvisation, that's Chopin's. Funny, indeed.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Hey Alexander - Long time!!!

I was reading Maugham's short stories as you know. I buried myself in it for all these days - reading only one or two stories every day. Finally, I am done!
Enjoyed it a lot. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but Maugham makes everything so readable. The character sketches, the setting up of stories, the succinct humour, the irony...it was all wonderful!
I fear I will embarass myself by writing a review but I will try.

Also, i am reading The Summing Up - thought not from Page one. i have discovered one thing about Maugham. He is so lucid, that except when he is writing fiction, I dare say, one can read his book from any page.

Alexander said...

Hi Sandhya,

Nice to hear you're having great time with Maugham. Certainly this is one of Maugham's little delights, reading his books from any page I mean; it also works pretty well with re-reading fiction, though in general I prefer to read the whole book (without skipping as Willie suggests!); but it's not rare that I read a chapter or two from the beginning of 'Cakes and Ale' or the middle of 'Of Human Bondage'. Willie Ashenden and Philip Carey are just like an old friends - but much more faithful than the real ones.

As for your future review of Maugham's short stories, it is quite impossible to embarrass yourself more than I have already embarrassed myself with writing for almost every short story Maugham ever wrote - so please fire away since I am quite curious to read your charmingly cool analyses.:)

The last few weeks - believe me or not - I haven't read a single word by Maugham since I've been too absorbed in the most elusive (according to him) of all arts, namely the music. But I am planning to change this soon. Yeah, I have planned a good many things last few weeks that never materialized; I wonder why one bothers to make plans when they so often remain... well, only plans. Can we do something to stretch the day to, say, 56 hours? No? Pity.

Your reading of 'The Summing Up' does stimulate me to re-read some parts of this masterpiece and try a review myself. Now, THAT is a challenge.

Sarah said...

I recently read about it in a book on Irish art that Maugham might have based The Moon and Sixpence on the life of Roderic O'Connor. The two have actually met, and the casual comment I came across, without exact sources and evidence, mentioned that they didn't like one another.

Alexander said...

Hardly on his life, but Maugham might have taken a hint or two for the character of Strickland from O'Connor. Both met on regular basis while in those wild, bohemian times in the early 1900s in Paris. Reportedly, there was no love lost between the two men, but Maugham thought well enough of O'Connor to buy several of his still lifes for his art collection.

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