I haven’t read any book by W. Somerset Maugham before. So when it came to choosing between reading his The Human Bondage or The Moon and Sixpence, I chose to read the latter solely because it was four hundred pages short of the former’s six hundred pages. I didn’t even consider the blurbs at the back cover. But now that I’m done I absolutely would love to give reading the longer novel a try. Maugham’s storytelling is masterful and fast paced (it can be read in less than a day).
In The Moon and Sixpence, an English writer narrates his encounters with the eccentric and enigmatic painter Charles Strickland, an acknowledged genius, which according to the text in the book cover was inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin.
The narrator, an old-fashioned one who thinks a woman’s place is under a man but one whose narrative structure signals some experimentation that sets it apart from the more traditional forms, begins by telling us that the biographies and articles then in existence does not give a realistic depiction of the life of the late artist.
Strickland was a forty year something London stockbroker married to a wife with two children when the narrator was acquainted to him. He seemed an ordinary, dull man concerned only with business when suddenly, for apparently no reason, he abandon his family and sets off for Paris. Grief stricken, the abandoned wife sends her, our narrator, to Paris to reason with Strickland and beg for his return.
In Paris, the two meet. Contrary to gossip and his wife and family’s own suspicions, it turns out that there was no woman behind Strickland’s leaving. In the following somewhat comic dialogue between the narrator and Strickland, an important bit of the main character’s personality and motivations are revealed:
‘Has she deserved that you should treat her like this?’
‘Have you any complaint to make against her?’
‘Then, isn’t it monstrous to leave her in this fashion?’
I glanced at him with surprise. His cordial agreement with all I said cut the ground from under my feet. It made my position complicated, not to say ludicrous. I was prepared to be persuasive, touching…
‘Hang it all, one can’t leave a woman without a bob.’
‘How is going to live?’
‘I’ve supported her for seventeen years. Why shouldn’t she support herself for a change?’
‘Let her try.’
Of course there were many things I might have answered to this. I might have spoken of the economic position of women… but I felt that there was only one point which really signified.
‘Don’t you care for her anymore?’
‘Not a bit’, he replied.
The matter was immensely serious for all the parties concerned, but there was in the manner of his answers such a cheerful effrontery that I had to bite my lips in order not to laugh. I reminded myself that his behavior was abominable. I worked myself up into a state of moral indignation.
‘Damn it all, there are your children to think of. They’ve never done you any harm. They didn’t ask to be brought into the world. If you chuck everything like this, they’ll be thrown on the streets.’
‘They’ve had a good many years of comfort. It’s much more than the majority of children have. Besides, somebody will look after them. When it comes to the point, the MacAndrews will pay for their schooling.’
‘But aren’t you fond of them? They’re such awfully nice kids. Do you mean to say you don’t want to have anything more to do with them?’
‘I liked them all right when they were kids, but now they’re growing up I haven’t got any particular feeling for them.’
‘It’s just inhuman.’
‘I dare say.’
‘You don’t seem in the least ashamed.’
I tried another tack.
‘Everyone will think you a perfect swine.’
‘Won’t it mean anything to you that people loathe and despise you?’
Strickland left his family because he wanted to paint in solitude. It is this difficult temperament, with its lingering unconcern for himself and those around him apart from his artworks, that will color the tragedy that the narrator shares with us when the two of them crosses each others path again a few years later when the narrator moved from London to Paris.
He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him. I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the mind’s eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it. He was never satisfied with what he had done: it seemed to him of no consequence compared with the vision that obsessed his mind. p. 78
Strickland is beset by poverty and sickness, and causes misery to the people around him, especially those who try to help him. Later, he ends up in Tahiti, a blind man and a leper. But it is there that he was finally able to pursue his life work in peace shortly before he dies. ■