My first association with the name of W. Somerset Maugham are the huge and dusty volumes in my grandmother’s huge and dusty library. I remember as a child being impressed by the fact that she was such a devoted reader and that she had all the volumes of certain authors. Later, when I grew up and knew better, I recognised the pattern of good (i.e safe) authors allowed during the communist rule but nevertheless this doesn’t diminish the value of my grandmother’s library and the awe with which I observe it every time I visit.
After a rather long obsession with all sorts of contemporary Bulgarian authors, I decided on a shift back to something more classical and established. Somerset Maugham has long been present in my reader and one of my best friends has been annoyingly insisting for me to read it so it was about time I succumbed to yet another of the authors you must read before you die, or whatever.
The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the life of the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. Told through the point-of-view of a nameless first-person narrator, a writer, The Moon and Sixpence tells the story of Charles Strickland. When we are first introduced to him, Strickland is a normal English man (around 40), with a normal job (a stockbroker) and a normal family (a wife and two children). He appears deprived from any sort of artistry or character for that matter. He lives a dull and boring life and it is quite a shock for society when he suddenly abandons his job, his secure life and his wife to travel to Paris and paint. Strickland’s passion for the arts, his total indifference towards earthly pleasures and comfort, and his search for ways to satisfy his tormented soul lead him to French Polynesia to build a new life and to explore his potential. Unappreciated and criticised while alive, Strickland becomes one of the most admired artist post-mortem.
The similarities with Paul Gauguin’s life are numerous. The French, up until his 44th year, lived an ordinary life, first as a stockbroker in France and later as a salesman in Denmark. After 11 years of marriage and five children, he decided to paint full-time, abandoned his family and returned to Paris. Years of poverty, deprivation, lack of appreciation and an attempted suicide followed. During these years, Gauguin was close to yet another tormented artist, namely Van Gogh. Eventually, he moved to Tahiti never to return again. There, he devoted himself to painting and to sexual exuberance, which gave fruit to two things – more children and more models for his paintings. The artist eventually died from an incurable injury. He was later recognised as one of the greatest Post-Impressionists.
The Moon and Sixpence is a book as much about the contradictory nature of the artistic genius as it is about the strength and necessity to follow your dreams. Which is always easier said and preached, than being done. Charles Strickland abandons an average life to follow an artistic career not out of pure selfishness or because of a mid-life crisis but because that is what he has to do. He leaves a wife and children never to see them again, shatters the lives of all that he passes through inevitably, and never ever experiences a sense of doubt or remorse.
“I don’t think of the past. The only thing that matters is the everlasting present.”
His desire to paint art stands above all earthly pleasures we are accustomed to and falsely believe we cannot live without. As if possessed by a demon, Strickland (Gauguin) goes without eating, sleeping, or sex, as the only thing that feeds his body is the beauty of art, the unbearable strive to create art, to live and breathe through it.
“I don’t want love. I haven’t time for it. It’s weakness. I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I’ve satisfied my passion I’m ready for other things. I can’t overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work. Because women can do nothing except love, they’ve given it ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it’s the whole of life. It’s an insignificant part. I know lust. That’s normal and healthy. Love is a disease. Women are the instruments of my pleasure; I have no patience with their claim to be helpmates, partners, companions.”
Maybe one of the most striking characteristics of the painter is his total indifference to other people’s opinions. He lives a life according to his own moral standards and his own desires, something that society frowns upon not because it is particularly bad but because each and everyone of us secretly wants to be freed from the oppression of other people’s opinions but is too afraid to do so. Charles Strickland shocks people wherever he goes and his approach to life is in sharp contrast with everything established. And through this behaviour, he is the most free of them all, for he has been freed from the torturous and absurd desire that society has placed upon as a convention – to please others.
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.
Charles Strickland, a man possessed by the arts, might have lived a life that to many can seem torturous. And yet, Maugham portrays him as a happy man and I believe it was so. For he abandoned the secure and mundane for the pursuit of his dream. And that is something that deserves admiration as so few of us are ever able to do it. The Moon and Sixpence is a beautiful narrative of the sacrifices the artistic genius demands, of the ups and downs, and of the blessing and the curse that is the ability to say no to everything that chains you and go out there naked and free.
Other favourite quotes:
…art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand
I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed.
I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.
It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest.
“Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and you to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”
I imagine that for months the matter never comes into your head, and you’re able to persuade yourself that you’ve finished with it for good and all. You rejoice in your freedom, and you feel that at last you can call your soul your own. You seem to walk with your head among the stars. And then, all of a sudden you can’t stand it any more, and you notice that all the time your feet have been walking in the mud. And you want to roll yourself in it. And you find some woman, coarse and low and vulgar, some beastly creature in whom all the horror of sex is blatant, and you fall upon her like a wild animal. You drink till you’re blind with rage.
“A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her,” he said, “but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes on her account.”
Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.
As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.