Sunday 7 June 2015

The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham

A splendid recent radio documentary about Somerset Maugham has reawakened my interest in the old sod's work. He was one of the 20th Century's most successful — and best — writers. So when I was in Maryland a while ago I combed through a secondhand book store for titles by him and I picked up several, including The Moon and Sixpence.

After a promising start to his career as a novelist, Maugham switched to writing for the stage and spent a long spell as a successful dramatist — he set a record for the number of plays one writer had running simultaneously in London's West End. 

When he eventually returned to novels in 1915 he discovered that the craft of writing stage plays had taught him a great deal, and he approached fiction with a new philosophy of unadorned clarity and direct language. ("I no longer sought a jewelled prose... on the contrary plainness and simplicity.") This is immediately evident in Of Human Bondage.

Unfortunately, a few years later when he wrote The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham seems to have have largely forgotten this lesson. 

The book begins with some pompous, dull and abstract ramblings by the narrator. Having courageously waded through this, my advice to you is to skip to section 8 and start with the sentence "When I reflect on all that happened later..." You won't miss a thing. 

But from that point on The Moon and Sixpence tells a gripping story, about a boring and ordinary London stock broker called Charles Strickland (great name) who suddenly has what we would now call a mid life crisis and abandons his business and family to become a penniless painter, eventually dying under horrible circumstances in the South Seas.  (Maugham was inspired by the life and art of Gaugin.)

The Moon and Sixpence was published in 1919 and this subject matter — abandoning a conventional existence for creative fulfilment — is way ahead of its time. In fact, it's a classic 1960s counter-culture trope, which speaks strongly for Maugham's prescience. (His 1944 novel The Razor's Edge shows an even keener gift for prophecy, pretty much anticipating the whole hippie movement.)

Strickland's lack of remorse for abandoning his family, and his ruthlessness in single-mindedly pursuing his art, are quite breathtaking: "here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he was like a wrestler whose body is oiled." In fact it's  shocking how callous he is about his wife and how much she in turn hates him for running out on her. (She changes her tune decades later when he's a dead, world famous artist, and his paintings worth a pretty penny.) "Nor with such a man could you expect the appeal to conscience to be effective. You might as well ask for a reflection without a mirror."

Strickland is constantly described as a satyr, primordial, pre-civilization, a force of nature. He betrays a friend and patron with great casualness. This is a man who has saved Strickland's life, taking the painter into his home when he was starving and deathly ill. Strickland rewards him by running off with the chap's wife. As the wife announces her intentions to her poor sap of a husband, Strickland "went on whistling as though it had nothing to do with him."

The book is at its most powerful in posing the mystery of how this extraordinary butterfly suddenly developed from the mundane caterpillar of the dreary stockbroker, after decades spent timidly nibbling on the leaf of his middle class existence. Maugham loved and understood painting, so his fascination and knowledge really help power this novel. He writes of art with great authority (he actually travelled the South Seas and snapped up some forgotten Gaugins). 

What is particularly clever about the book is the way it holds Strickland's paintings back from us. It's well over halfway through the novel before the narrator sees some of them — and then, in a brilliantly unexpected twist, "I was bitterly disappointed... my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cab driver."

In fact, we don't get a proper description of Strickland's work until the very end of the story, after his death, when the narrator and the rest of the world have belatedly caught up with the painter's genius (as was indeed the case with Gaugin, and others, like Van Gogh). And it carries all the more impact for having made us wait.

Apart from the occasional tedious patch, like I've already moaned about, Maugham's prose is superb. It's a model of economical story telling. He shifts locations and points of view and relates the tale through the viewpoint of a number of characters encountered by the narrator, each with their own account of Strickland. Yet it never seems second hand or remote. Maugham also has a nice line in irony, as when he describes an old booze soaked beachcomber, saying he "would not have hesitated to face a dozen unarmed men with nothing but a revolver to help him."

One thing bothered me about this novel... the title. It's a great title, but what does it mean? I'd begun to work out some complex poetic symbolism in which a tiny silver coin, the sixpence, could be held up to the night sky to obscure the silver disc of the moon...

In fact, it's a lot simpler than that. According to the Guardian, there was a review of Maugham's earlier novel Of Human Bondage, in The Times Literary Supplement which described its hero as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Maugham evidently liked the phrase and used it to christen his next book. He was going to include an explanation in the preface of the book, but neglected to do so. A pity, since there was so much dull stuff he did include at the beginning.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads including the stylish Harri Peccinotti still life, which I've given most prominence. The Pan cover, another nice photographic still life, is from an ABE seller. The 1950 Bantam is from another ABE seller. The 1955 Bantam with the white cover, which is the edition I read, is from Cover Browser.)

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