Sunday, 26 October 2014

W. Somerset Maugham- The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence

W. Somerset Maugham

Other Maugham Reviews- Cakes and Ale - The Magician - The Razor's Edge 

“For men, as a rule, love is but an episode which takes place among the other affairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance which is untrue to life. There are few men to whom it is the most important thing in the world, and they are not the very interesting ones; even women, with whom the subject is of paramount interest, have a contempt for them.”

After reading the three W. Somerset Maugham novels linked to above, I'd gained a solid appreciation for the author's obvious natural ability for descriptive, thoughtful and insightful prose- but I'd yet to experience a story that totally captivated me from beginning to end. The Magician was a fun Gothic horror, seemingly drawing from authors like Lovecraft and Poe, but it admittedly lacked a consistent quality of prose that I had found in the two other books; both written later in Maugham's career, but themselves lacking a narrative that I felt fully engaged with. Either that, or maybe different authors, when read a good number of years after their heyday, need a certain amount of time for their style to really click with the reader. I'm usually impatient when dealing with new to-me authors I decide I don't like, but with Maugham I always had the feeling that he really was brilliant and I just didn't understand him yet. The Moon and Sixpence proved me right.

This 200-pages plus novel (released just following Maugham's most widely-praised book Of Human Bondage, which I have on the to-read shelf) was inspired and re-engineered from the real-life story of French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (of whom I knew nothing bout prior to this). A mercurial figure whose artistic genius wasn't appreciated until after his death, Gauguin's obsession with his art at the expense of everything else in his life must have peaked the interest of an author who cares much about portraying the human capabilities for obsession. Under Maugham's re-imagining, Gauguin became the English Charles Strickland; a character who left a massive impression upon me. Rather than have Strickland himself narrate or use an omniscient narrator, Maugham chooses to go the route of The Great Gatsby, creating a perhaps semi-autobiographical unnamed writer to recount the key occurrences of Strickland's later life, from both personal contact ('friendship' would be a slight exaggeration) and later by investigating second-hand accounts from others.

Stern Maugham
This degree of seperation between Strickland and the audience is Maugham's masterstroke, as it retains enough of an element of mystery to keep Strickland as an enigma. He is, by the standards of normal civilised humans, a detestable figure; a stockbroker who suddenly leaves his unsuspecting wife and children in London with not a care for them, moving to Paris to live in poverty while persuing his obsessive need to paint. He is similarly fowl to those who treat him as a friend in Paris, callously taking what he needs from them without remorse, offering in return only a dry wit and total honesty.

Ingrained in Strickland's artistic mind is a contempt for demands of society that adds a pureness of personality that I found constantly compelling to read about. Unlike Jay Gatsby he is not a nice man, but his presence is the same- an aura of unique genius that only certain people can see and appreciate. As the narrator loses personal contact with Strickland and later investigates what became of the posthumously famous artist, the sense of detachment from the truth grows, and so Strickland's new life in the remoteness of Tahiti (based on Gauguan's real exploits, though seemingly heavily romanticized) adds more mystery to the image of this unique character.

I massively, massively enjoyed The Moon and Sixpence from beginning to end, drawn in by the magnetism of the characters and crispness of Maugham's prose. Though I have almost no interest in art, Maugham presented an evocative, resonant world among poverty in Paris, driven by a fascination with a man who fit in with society whatsoever and whom bluntly challenges any typical social conventions that get in his way. Maugham's writing is just superb, whether it be the battling dialogue or careful conclusions from a considerate narrator, and it had me reading faster and more consistently than each of his prior works I looked at. I know this is asking for disappointment, but I hope that my future experiences with him offer the same kind of enjoyment.