The Moon and Sixpence – W Somerset Maugham
Published in 1919 and based, loosely, on the life of the painter, Paul Gaugin, this book takes its title from a review of Maugham’s masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, in which the critic described Philip Carey as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet”. In many ways this is a perfect summary of the principal character of this book, Charles Strickland, one of the least likeable men an author has ever based a book around.
The story is simple enough. Strickland, a rather dull stockbroker forging an unremarkable career in the City, suddenly abandons his wife of seventeen years, his two children and his partnership in the business to pursue a career as an artist in Paris. He is befriended by a fellow artist, Dirk Stroeve, who even nurses him when he is desperately ill. Strickland repays him by persuading Stroeve’s wife to move in with him, simply because he wants to paint her. When the relationship inevitably dissolves and Stroeve’s wife has committed suicide, Strickland, after bumming around southern France, eventually ends up in Tahiti. There he goes native, paints before dying of leprosy.
What makes Strickland so unappealing is that he is totally incapable of forming any emotional attachment with any other human being. He is totally selfish and single-minded in his pursuit of his over-riding ambition, to be a truly great artist. To those acquaintances, Strickland’s art seems naïve, gaudily coloured and exhibiting inferior draughtsmanship. They wonder why he is so driven. Strickland has no commercial interest in his art, he is happy to live a barely human existence, surviving on handouts and the charity of his friends whom he abuses. He is a driven man in pursuit of perfecting his art. Inevitably, it is only after his death that Strickland’s art is appreciated for what it is and his work is worth a fortune.
Strickland’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who relates in the first person the occasions when he came across Strickland or unravels key events in the artist’s life through interrogating witnesses. The narrator’s dialogue does not hide his disgust at the excesses and extremes of Strickland’s behaviour, but at the same time seems in awe of his single-minded determination to achieve his goal, irrespective of the cost. “He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one”.
The writing is sparse, sometimes austere, but as the reader works through the book, they realise that little by little seemingly trivial incidents or off-the-cuff comments build up into a comprehensive portrait of the protagonist. Driven by the tyranny of art, Strickland, an unfathomable loner is compelled to commit inhuman acts.
There are some wonderful passages, moments of acerbic wit or gentler satire of which Dirk Stroeve is often the butt. He is described as “one of those unlucky persons whose most sincere emotions are ridiculous”. Despite that and his ill-treatment at the hands of Strickland, Stroeve is the only one of his acquaintances who can see the spark of genius in the painter’s work. Perhaps it is because Stroeve is also a painter. As Maugham writes, “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”. Only an artist can see the true merit of a fellow artist.
I found the book a little hard to get into at first, the opening chapters read more like a learned treatise of an artist’s life and hardly seem designed to lure the casual reader in. Once you have made that investment, though, you will find you have discovered an astonishing book.