I’ve read three novels by Maugham so far and this one, which I believe is one of his best-known books, was my favourite. Based on the life of Paul Gaugin, The Moon and Sixpence is a study of an artist named Charles Strickland as seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who comes in contact with Strickland at various times in his life.
When first introduced, Strickland, a banker in his forties with a wife, two kids and a comfortable life, doesn’t strike him as anything more than a conventional, decent middle-class bore. That changes when, out of a blue, Strickland abandons his family and leaves for Paris (then later Tahiti) – not for another woman, as his wife initially believes, but to be an artist.
Strickland’s passion and drive for art and beauty is so all-consuming it leaves no space for anything else, including other people. He is cold, self-absorbed, completely lacking in empathy, oblivious to the lives he ruins, to the extent where it makes you wonder how he had managed to pass for a normal human being for the first forty years. He also remains an opaque enigma throughout the book and we never get the kind of insight that can make other deeply unlikable fictional characters at least partly sympathetic. In the last third of the book, we lose touch with him completely as the narrator travels to Tahiti some time after Strickland’s death to piece together his last years. Yet what’s also clear is that Strickland lived in a grasp of a fierce, primal, unstoppable force much bigger than himself:
“He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the deserts of Thebes. He asked nothing from his fellows except that they should leave him alone. 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.”
I always had a soft spot for the stories of people – real and imaginary – who are utterly consumed by art, but not many of them portray the cost of this single-mindedness so memorably. Though Strickland’s devotion to art is ultimately romanticised and even people he harmed view him with compassion.
Maugham’s beautifully clear prose is just exceptional, there were so many times when I stopped to re-read a particular passage, wishing I could memorise it word for word. Later in the book, he touches upon the idea of some people being born out of the place where they truly belong, and the question of what constitutes a life well lived.
If something in the book rubbed me wrong, it was the frequent misogyny; though I guess it’s fair enough coming from Strickland who is portrayed as an altogether unattractive individual, and of course you can’t divorce an author from the attitudes of the time they lived in. Maybe what really bothered me about the idea implicit in the novel that Strickland’s second wife, a young Tahitian girl who does whatever her husband tells her and welcomes his beatings because that’s how she knows he loves her, is in fact a perfect wife, is the sad fact that this “ideal” still lives on today.