Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Review of "The Moon and Sixpence" by Somerset Maugham - Painting An Unflattering Portrait of A Genius Artist
In this acclaimed novel, Somerset Maugham has painted a very unflattering portrait of Paul Gauguin in the person of the fictional Charles Strickland. In "The Moon and Sixpence," the author takes the reader through an arduous journey following the impassioned odyssey of an painter in search of himself and the ultimate expression of his art. The collateral damage that Strickland/Gauguin left in his wake is almost unimaginable. He walked away from the life of a London stockbroker with a wife and two children, leaving them destitute and at the mercy of his wife's sister and brother-in-law.
Having fled London, the painter lived a life of penury and poverty in Paris while scraping together enough money to reside and paint in a grubby atelier With the exception of a Dutch ex-pat painter of dubious artistic reputation, no one who saw Strickland's paintings saw any merit in them, yet he soldiered on. He almost died of fever, but was nursed back to life by the Dutchman and his wife. His thanks for that act of kindness was to steal the Dutchman's wife and drive her to commit suicide.
His itinerary to find himself took him next to Marseilles, where he ran afoul of a tough master of the docks who threatened to kill him, so he hired himself out to a ship heading to the South Pacific and finally landed in Tahiti.
It was of course his pictures from the Tahiti period that prompted the art world to eventually pronounce him a genius. He took a common law Tahitian wife who bore him two children, one of whom died as an infant. He lived the last years of his life knowing that he was dying of leprosy, yet painted some of his best work during that period of his life.
Maugham tells an unvarnished story in a way that is fascinating. He purports to make no moral judgments on the choices that Strickland made, but at the end of the novel, I could not help but be repulsed by the type of human being that Strickland turned out to be. Does artistic genius justify inhuman behavior towards others? The novel asks the question implicitly. It is clear that despite his having found his own paradise in the South Pacific, living with Strickland/Gauguin was no Garden of Eden picnic.
Along the way, the author indulges in a wonderful and lyrical philosophical disquisition on the nature of beauty:
"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. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination."
As I get into the rhythm of reading several Somerset Maugham novels in a row, I begin to sense some of his persona leaking through the narrative of his stories. We now know that he lived as a closeted bisexual for much of his life, and that fact of biographical history sheds some light on the female characters he portrays whose libido often exceeds that of their more passive male companions. We have such a pair on display in "Theatre." Julia has become the most celebrated stage actress in London. Her husband Michael, a former mediocre actor and now her manager and theater owner, seems to be living a repressed and celibate life within their marriage after the union had produced a son who follows a well-worn path to Rugby and Cambridge. Julia, on the other hand, has a long running affair with a callow youth who steals her heart and uses his closeness to her fame as a stepping stone to meet influential society people and beautiful young actresses.
As he does in many of his novels, Maugham uses the action in which his colorful characters engage to comment upon aspects of society that he finds boring and odious. The behind the scenes gossip from the world of the London stage is intriguing and titillating, and his observations on the nature of love and of fame make this novel an entertaining read.