14 December 2009
The Moon And Sixpence
Author: Somerset Maugham
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.
Posted by Sandhya Iyer at 23:08