Maugham W. Somerset

W. Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Sixpence

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.

W. Somerset Maugham: Up at the Villa

One of the consequences of my inability-to-settle-down-with-a-book-recently (I told you we need a word for that) was that I read a few shorties to get back into the flow of things. Last year I had enjoyed Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, so it was predictable that when I was shopping around for some more I would go not for one of his most famous – say, Cakes and Ale, or The Moon and Sixpence – but the one with the nicest cover. And this really is just about the finest and most elegant of the old Vintage Classics designs, which are now being replaced with something altogether more ill-advised (more of that in due course). That it’s only 120 pages too is just a happy coincidence.

Up at the Villa

Up at the Villa was published in 1941, when it would probably be agreed that Maugham had his best work behind him (of the four further novels he published, only The Razor’s Edge would join the list of Major Works). Sure enough it’s a slight thing both in length and substance, made up as much of featherweight entertainment as of the social insight Maugham is known for.

A brief digression: Anton Chekhov, in a letter in 1889, said “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” This idea of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is that only the essential elements should be included in a story or a play. But the corollary is that if a gun does appear in the first act, it’s pretty obvious to the viewer that someone is later going to be shot. It becomes less a device of authorial concision than of plot predictability.

Maugham in Up at the Villa takes Chekhov’s advice literally. At the end of the first chapter, there are three separate times when we are told that the heroine is bringing a gun with her. The heroine is Mary Panton, a young woman living in a sixteenth century villa with “a magnificent view of Florence.” She doesn’t own it, but has been loaned this dream home for a time by its English owners: “though the rooms were large and lofty, it was of no great size and she managed very well with the three servants they had left her.” Mary is privileged in other ways too: she is beautiful and much desired, and at the opening scene receives a marriage proposal from Edgar Swift, a family friend twenty years her senior but whom she has known and loved since childhood, and who was particularly ‘kind’ and ‘understanding’ when Mary’s husband died suddenly at a young age.

Mary is also pursued by another man, the roguish handsome Rowley Flint, who is much more her age but not quite her class. It is her desire to do the best for everyone, and to use her gifts to benefit the less fortunate, that leads to trouble. She tips a restaurant musician heavily: “That’s why I gave it. It’ll mean so much to him. It may make all the difference to his life.” This could be marked with the symbol of a clanging bell in the margin for its obvious foreshadowing, just as much as the gun at the end of chapter one (don’t tell me you’d forgotten it!). She expands on this:

“I’ve sometimes thought that if I ever ran across someone who was poor, alone and unhappy, who’d never had any pleasure in life, who’d never known any of the good things money can buy – and if I could give him a unique experience, an hour of absolute happiness, something that he’d never dreamt of and that would never be repeated, then I’d give him gladly everything I had to give.”

Well: be careful what you wish for. What follows could, aptly enough, be expressed in a play as easily as a novella, because almost everything comes from what the characters say and do, and much of that is, if not outright predictable, at least reasonably foreseeable. But it’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need.

W. Somerset Maugham: The Painted Veil

I suppose it counts as serendipity when you’ve been meaning to read more books by an author after liking one years ago, and then a trusted source recommends the film of another book, and then another trusted source gives you a copy of the book… And so it is with W. Somerset Maugham, whose The Razor’s Edge I had enjoyed, and whose The Painted Veil (1925) has recently been in cinemas and even more recently on my reading pile.

This is a character-driven book – though Maugham in the introduction says it is the only novel he has written starting from a story rather than a character – and the central player is Kitty Fane, unfaithful wife of dull government bacteriologist Walter (“with his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking.  But surprisingly enough he was not”).  He is stationed in Hong Kong and Kitty finds that heat and boredom drive her into the arms – or thereabouts – of Charles Townsend, Assistant Colonial Secretary in the colony.

Kitty is described in the blurb as “shallow” but I had more sympathy for her than that.  After all, “within three months of her marriage she knew that she had made a mistake; but it had been her mother’s fault even more than hers.”  And the icy portrait Maugham paints of Kittys’ mother, Mrs Garstin, puts her on a par with the great family villains of literature, a sort of frustrated Lady Macbeth, “hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid.”  Her intentions for Kitty are crisp and clear:

It was not a good marriage she aimed at for her daughter, but a brilliant one.  … Still no one whose position and income were satisfactory asked [Kitty] to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy.  She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over.  She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time.  Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market. …

Kitty flushed: she knew that her mother did not care now whom she married so long as somehow she got her off her hands.

All this goes to prove that a good storyteller can breach the old rule of show, don’t tell as much as he likes: besides which, all this is by way of background and if Maugham gave us these scenes in full detail the book would be four times the length.

There are several turning points in the story, some foreseeable and others not, and scenes of breathtaking force, such as the stretch of chapters 22 to 26, where Walter confronts Kitty, who then delivers an ultimatum to her lover Charles.  Reading these it is easy to see why a film producer lit up at the prospect: no actor could fail to do justice to the naturalistic but gripping exchanges.

The Painted Veil is one of those books which feels old-fashioned even for its time, yet which satisfies in more or less every way.  It brings to us thoughts not only of faithfulness but faith in a wider sense, and of the purpose of life with or without love.  All I need to do now is be disappointed by the film adaptation, and the experience will be complete.