The Moon and Sixpence

Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is loosely based on the life of the French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. ‘Charles Strickland’, the character representing Gauguin in Maugham’s novel, is a comfortably positioned London stockbroker, who on the spur of an instinct, deserts his dependent wife and children, and relocates to Paris to pursue painting. Strickland does not desire fame, or any formal recognition of his talents. He is, in fact, genuinely uninterested in how others perceive or evaluate his art. He is simply motivated by a visceral need to visually express what his mind conceives. Strickland’s monomaniacal fidelity to his art, however, coexists with a brutal indifference to any human claims upon him. Maugham was always fascinated by this paradox of the supreme artist who is simultaneously utterly callous in his human interactions. This theme also surfaces in Maugham’s other works. E.g. In ‘Of Human Bondage’ Gauguin features in a conversation between art students Clutton and Phillip, and Phillip criticises Gauguin’s conduct towards his family. Clutton responds as follows:

“Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman you must give up being an artist. They’ve got nothing to do with one another. You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother–well, it shows they’re excellent sons, but it’s no excuse for bad work. They’re only tradesmen. An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.”’

I can’t say I share Maugham’s fascination for Gauguin, who in the person of ‘Strickland’ is projected as a sardonic brute- a man who has zero compunction in using and disposing those who help him, and is merciless towards those who make the mistake of seeking any kind of emotional succor from him. If anything, he regards them with scorn, and views their kindness as contemptible weakness. The narrator describes Strickland as ‘an odious man, but a great one’ with a singular artistic vision, and an uncompromising zeal in realising it. My own indifference to Strickland, no doubt, partly ensues from my ignorance of the art form. I don’t understand the medium, and cannot distinguish between what is considered pedestrian and what is regarded as high art. In the novel, the subjective, sensory response a painting evokes, plays such a strong part in how it is evaluated. I think this somewhat distinguishes paintings or sculptures from other art forms. E.g. When critiquing a novel, there will always still be some objective parameters which the critic consciously or subconsciously applies in responding to a text. These parameters may vary widely depending on the nature or genre of the text, but they are nonetheless present in some form.

I also don’t see how it’s possible for any literary writer to produce a work devoid of any normative content; her work will necessarily say something about how she perceives what is happening around her. Strickland eschews all norms; literally everything outside of his canvas and paintbrush is a superfluous encumbrance. He lives to paint and doesn’t care about anything else. So then what informs his paintings? What was it that he was trying to put on his canvas? Is it a purely sensory process? After reading the ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, I looked up Gauguin’s paintings, and was mildly interested in what I saw, without really gaining a sense of what he was seeking to express, beyond what the paintings obviously featured. The qualities that rendered his art great, are only inchoately described in the novel, with one perhaps needing to have some knowledge of the medium and art history to understand how the paintings reflect the ‘strange, tormented and complex’ personality of their maker.

For me, the highlight of Maugham’s writing, is his genius for bringing to light the many contradictions that are inherent within most individuals. In ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ there is the obvious discrepancy between the greatness of Strickland’s art and the baseness of his actions. However, I think this talent of Maugham’s is best displayed in his portrayal of secondary characters such as such as Dirk Stroeve. Stroeve is a bumbling fellow-artist who himself only knows how to produce hackneyed, trite artworks, but has an exquisite and instinctive appreciation for anything uniquely original or beyond the ordinary. He sees something exalted in Strickland’s paintings, and becomes doggedly devoted to the man himself. This devotion is met with open derision and humiliating sarcasm on the part of Strickland. With reference to Stroeve’s own work, the narrator comments:

“I discovered in Paris he had been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?”

The novel is very elegantly written, and abundantly exhibits Maugham’s characteristic wit and perspicacity. When reviewing Maugham’s work, I am always strongly conscious of not being able to do justice to it, and feel tempted to quote entire passages so that the prospective reader can perceive its highly impressive quality first hand, without having to rely on my clumsy attempts at paraphrasing. In the course of the novel the narrator makes many astute and penetrating observations on a wide range of subjects. These are seamlessly woven into the novel, and never feel in the least obtrusive. Take for example, the narrator’s perspective on those who claim to be unconcerned about what others think of them:

“When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves…It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger.”

This reflection is made in the context of understanding Strickland’s rare and complete immunity to societal censure.

There is also so much humour imbedded in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ with several passages of the novel causing the reader to chuckle out loud. Take, for example, the unnamed narrator’s introductory remarks on the unanimous critical acclaim Strickland’s art came to acquire, a unanimity not reflected in the responses to, and accounts of, his life. The narrator drolly relates how poor Reverend Strickland, abandoned son of the departed artist, is perturbed by many facets of his father’s life and writes a sanitised biography of Charles Strickland, perhaps seeking to reconcile the man to himself, as much as to anyone else. This biography is reviewed by ‘psycho-pathologist’ Dr. Weitbretch –Rotholz, who promptly proceeds to tear it to shreds, and castigates the author in the most unreserved terms.

“…it is difficult to avoid feeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy, his circumlocutions are roundly called lies, as his silence is vilified as treachery. And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in an author, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is roundly accused of prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning and bad cooking….Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Strickland , and there was no danger that he would whitewash him. He had an unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that had all the appearance of innocence. He was a psycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and the subconscious had few secrets from him. No mystic ever saw deeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees the ineffable and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

Also very amusing are the circumstances in which the narrator becomes acquainted with Charles Strickland, and seeks him out in Paris. The narrator is an up and coming young writer who frequents the lunches and tea-parties thrown for London literati by their socialite admirers. It is on one such occasion that he becomes acquainted with the amiable Mrs. Strickland who enjoys listening to, and mingling with, the writers and artists of the day. Her husband, stockbroker Charles Strickland has never taken her into his confidence with respect to his artistic inclinations, and when he bolts to Paris, she is convinced that it must for another woman. The narrator, her friend, is dispatched to Paris, with the mission of bringing Charles back. The narrator prepares the speeches he is going to deliver, and thinks through the methods he will employ to shame Strickland into returning, determining to resort to strong invective if necessary. He is thrown off balance when Strickland blithely admits to all charges, and unperturbedly proceeds to state his indifference. Herein, also lies the only flaw I found in the novel. How does Amy Strickland’s amicable enough husband of seventeen years, turn into such an ogre overnight? His actions may have resulted from his artistic compulsions and protracted boredom and ennui, but the total change in personality that accompanies his flight to Paris is slightly discordant.

Like many of Maugham’s works ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly written. Cerebral, and yet wholly unaffected, it makes for a very enjoyable read for art enthusiasts and novices alike.©

 

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