December 8, 2008

W. Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Sixpence

Posted in Maugham W. Somerset at 8:00 am by John Self

Having read and enjoyed a couple of Somerset Maugham’s less celebrated novels, I thought it was time to turn to the more famous ones. The author blurb on these new Vintage Classics editions of his works tell us that “with the publication in 1919 of The Moon and Sixpence, [Maugham's] reputation as a novelist was established.” The only other thing I knew about it was that it was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, and that the story as described on the back cover seems reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ (“He chucked up everything / And just cleared off“), a theme which Maugham would return in his last major novel, The Razor’s Edge.

One of the attractions of Maugham for me is his position as a sort of literary guilty pleasure: his books are comforting in their conformity to traditional literary form, a sort of dilute – or at least less bleak – essence of Graham Greene. However, The Moon and Sixpence is a little more daring in its structure than we might expect.

The story is told by a narrator who, to all purposes, is Maugham himself: a writer, a watcher and an occasional agent of intervention. He makes no attempt to endear himself to the reader, revelling in the sort of sexism which, whether or not deliberate, emphasises Maugham – writer or character – as just as ‘old-fashioned’ as I had thought his books to be. “I do not suppose she had ever really cared for her husband,” he says of one character, “and what I had taken for love was no more than the feminine response to caresses and comfort which in the minds of most women passes for it.”

Women in the book feature only in the context of their relationships to men. First among these is Mrs Strickland (she gets no name of her own), who wants to become part of cultural society by hosting soirées for literary and artistic figures, including ‘Maugham’. He is not surprised that she wants to stretch her social circle, for her husband, Charles Strickland, a stockbroker, is

just a good, dull, honest, plain man. One would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null. He was probably a worthy member of society, a good husband and father, an honest broker; but there was no reason to waste one’s time over him.

Strickland, however, is about to surprise even our world-weary narrator when in his forties he chucks up everything, and just clears off to Paris – not for a woman, but to become a painter. “To my mind,” says Maugham (I’ll dispense with the inverted commas but let’s imagine they’re there) at the beginning of the story, “the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.” There are a number of artists’ personalities in this book, but the one we learn most of is that of Maugham himself, and the writer’s willingness to cannibalise the tragedies of others for their own muse. When Strickland leaves his wife and children, our narrator arranges to go and see her:

I was torn between the fear of hurting a nice woman’s feelings and the fear of being in the way. I felt she must be suffering, and I did not want to see a pain which I could not help; but in my heart was a desire, that I felt a little ashamed of, to see how she was taking it.

In the end Maugham’s writer-as-vulture instincts win out, and to compound his cynical use of her, Mrs Strickland fades into the background as he discovers the infinitely more fascinating personality of her husband to write about. Strickland, whose talent as an artist is assumed from the first page, but never satisfactorily demonstrated to the narrator or the reader, has no qualms about abandoning his family. “The absurd little man enjoys doing things for other people. That’s his life.” Maugham (without inverted commas this time, the author not the character) succeeds in getting across the charisma of what we might call the single-minded bastard. Maugham the character, however, struggles to come to terms with what we would probably now call a psychopathic personality.

It was impossible to make him understand that one might be outraged by his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour of complete indifference. I knew also that in the end there was truth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence.

Alongside Strickland appears the character of Dirk Stroeve, an artist who is the first to recognise Strickland’s greatness – but his tragedy (or his first tragedy – there are more to come) is that his ability to perceive and process beauty is not attached to an ability to produce it: he himself is a lousy artist. In the end Maugham’s attempt to understand Strickland comes undone, because there is nothing of him to understand beyond his paintings and his effect on those whose trust and love he has abused.

He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation.

What’s refreshing about The Moon and Sixpence is that Maugham himself never succumbs to the obvious temptation, to seek to explain Strickland’s actions in abandoning his family and career. He tells us, with a wink, that “if I were writing a novel, rather than narrating such facts as I know of a curious personality, I should have invented much to account for this change of heart.” By then, two-thirds of the way through the book, Strickland has made his final appearance in Maugham’s story, and there is no denying that the remainder of the story, set in Tahiti and relying on third-hand accounts of Strickland, is less compelling for his absence.  But if Strickland’s decisions seem alternately brave, foolhardy and selfish, Maugham’s decision – to write a novel which pretends not to be a novel, which begins at the ending and ends in the middle – is entirely justified.

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23 Comments »

  1. Rob said,

    This was a favourite of mine when I went through a phase of reading Maugham a few years ago. I liked his narrative voice very much, though I have a weak spot for the “barely disguised author as onlooker and minor character” technique. I’ve been meaning to revisit him for a while – in particular this book and The Razor’s Edge, but I never seem to have time for the old favourites these days…

    Incidentally, it’s worth reading Ted Morgan’s biography of Maugham I have you have a spare 800 pages’ worth of time. It’s long out of print, but that isn’t the issue it used to be…

  2. Petulia said,

    I really enjoyed reading this book (and your review). I found particularly interesting the parallels between the description of places in the book and Strickland state of mind.

  3. KevinfromCanada said,

    I think Rob should complain about his avatar. His reviews never look like that.

  4. Rob said,

    Thanks for the support (I think), Kevin. The same could be said of your comments!

  5. JRSM said,

    I have come round to Maugham, after a long period of not getting what all of the fuss was about. He’s one of those writers, like Lawrence and Kipling, whose prose style probably isn’t that fantastic, but whose eye for telling detail and sense of a good story can really win you over.

    I was at first surprised by the way Gauguin had been Anglicised, but then I suppose Strickland’s story would have been less shocking to Maugham’s first readers if he’d been French–they all expected the French to get up to no good, after all.

  6. Rob said,

    JRSM,

    What do you make of these new Maugham covers from Vintage? Personally, I think I prefer the older photographic ones.

  7. Demob Happy said,

    Great review John, I read this book some time ago but it has left a lasting impression on me – as did ‘Of Human Bondage’.

    I agree with JRSM that the book’s shock derives from the unlikeliness of an upstanding Englishman ‘going native’ quite in this manner, whereas it might have been expected for a Frenchman (especially given that it is modelled on Gaugin).

    Following Rob’s comment – I’m not normally a sucker for the “barely disguised author as onlooker and minor character” technique, especially in books written in the last 50 years or so, when it can seem so knowingly ironic that it becomes almost camp. I was reading a Piers Paul Read novel (remember him?) recently from the 80s that employed a similar technique as a satirical device but it really grated on me. But Maughn gets away with it somehow, being like John said something of ‘a guilty pleasure’.

    I also remember being struck by the inventiveness of the narrative, particularly Strickland’s absence in the final part of the novel – all of which suggests a greater control of form than this ‘traditional literary’ figure is normally credited for.

  8. Rob said,

    Demob, generally when I find that kind of knowing irony in a book, I leave the author in a room by himself…

    With Maugham, I think the way he uses himself, or a stand-in for himself, may come from the years he spent as a medical student and (I think?) midwife in the slums of London. I get the impression that he was interested in the way he had a privileged position, with access to people and ways of life that he wouldn’t normally see, and the curiosity of this circumstance in some ways fuelled his approach to his writing. (If I remember right, and I may not, “his” relationship with some of his characters isn’t entirely unlike that of say a family doctor: checking in occasionally, being asked for advice and, of course, taking notes.)

  9. John Self said,

    Just found an excerpt from The Razor’s Edge, which gives a similarly ambivalent view of following one’s dream:

    Years ago, when I was young, I knew a man who was a doctor, and not a bad one either, but he didn’t practise. He spent years burrowing away in the library of the British Museum and at long intervals produced a huge pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophical book that nobody read and that he had to publish at his own expense. He wrote four or five of them before he died and they were absolutely worthless. He had a son who wanted to go into the army, but there was no money to send him to Sandhurst, so he had to enlist. He was killed in the war. He had a daughter too. She was very pretty and I was rather taken with her. She went on stage, but she had no talent and she traipsed around the provinces playing small parts in second-rate companies at a miserable salary. His wife, after years of dreary, sordid drudgery, broke down in health and the girl had to come home and nurse her and take on the drudgery her mother no longer had the strength for. Wasted, thwarted lives and all to no purpose. It’s a toss-up when you decide to leave the beaten track. Many are called but few are chosen.

    Rob, that’s very interesting about Maugham’s medical background. Fits in nicely (and he has a similar role in The Razor’s Edge). Also, I quite like the new covers, other than of course the asinine VINTAGE MAUGHAM thing.

    Incidentally, since reading The Moon and Sixpence, I have picked up copies of Maugham’s The Magician and Theatre. If anyone has recommendations, do say (I should add that I tried reading Of Human Bondage a year or two ago, supposedly his masterpiece, and couldn’t get on with it at all).

  10. Rob said,

    John, have you had a go at the collected stories yet? There are some gems in there. (If I remember right, the fourth volume was a series of spyish stories about his character Ashenden, who was one prototype for James Bond, and reflected some of Maugham’s own experiences working for the secret services, e.g. going abroad and sending back short story manuscripts containing coded information.)

  11. John Self said,

    No I haven’t Rob – mostly due to being overwhelmed by the fact that there’s five volumes of the buggers! I wonder if the stories in Vol 4 which you refer to are included in his ‘novel’ Ashenden, which Amazon reviews suggest is really a collection of stories anyway.

    I’m interested in Cakes and Ale too, for its apparently controversial portrayal of the literary society of the time – though sadly as it’s not available in the new style covers, it’ll have to wait a while yet!

  12. Rob said,

    Just checked and it’s volume three that’s the Ashenden stories, and about 50 pages shorter than “Ashenden” the novel. No idea what the difference is, but I’m curious to find out.

    eBay always seems to have quite a few Cakes and Ales in the old orange and white Penguin, if that’s any use to you. (Although now I check it and see that the only copy seems to be in Australia.)

    We seem exactly opposed on the covers: you’re waiting to buy the books with the new covers, and I’m starting to wonder whether I should start buying them up while the old covers are still around…

  13. KevinfromCanada said,

    Is that a picture of John Self, or an avatar? He looks kind of like a cross between me and Rob, with a little Demob Happy thrown in for a joke. Only asking — wordpress might have outdone itself on this one.

    I’m headed to the basement shelves for Maugham. My mother-in-law gave me a hardbound copy from the 1930s of the short stories and this review has caused me to revisit them. If I recall correctly, my copy also features recipes written in Ukrainian by the mother-in-law’s mother. Could be a major cooking weekend here in Calgary, all because of John Self.

  14. Demob Happy said,

    Interesting Rob, on the family doctor analogy. I think Maugh probably gets away with this gentle omnipresence by not being too smart-assed when he ‘checks in’. Must have a great bedside manner.

  15. JRSM said,

    I actually like both sets of covers, I have to say. I think you’ll need to be quick to get the photographic Vintage ones, Rob. Most of them are already out of print, and those that aren’t often seem to be weird print-on-demand versions with nasty cover stock.

  16. John Self said,

    That’s right, JRSM – a couple of the photographic ones in my local store are like that: a curious effect which makes the cover look like a badly reproduced photograph of itself. Vintage seem to do that; I’ve seen it on John Cheever too (an author crying out to be given the full reissue treatment).

  17. Maltesh said,

    I have been reading you blog off late, must say nice review.
    You are on my blogroll.

    Me being a book enthu, ur blog provides a good insight on books. Nice work

  18. Rob said,

    Ah well, no old covers for me, then. Serves me right for getting rid of them the first time!

  19. John Self said,

    Thanks Maltesh, and glad to make your acquaintance. I’m a bit of a book enthu myself.

  20. zahawies said,

    Good post! :)

  21. Maugham is a great favourite of mine. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve reread Mrs Craddock–one of the wisest books about relationships that I’ve ever read. Actually it annoys me to hear Maugham referred to as a second-rate writer.

  22. John Self said,

    Very interesting, Guy – Mrs Craddock is not one that I’ve heard of, let alone seen mentioned here. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  23. Cakes and Ale is another great one and I also have a soft spot for The Lifted Veil and The Merry-Go-Round.


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