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.