August has a proud history of being a month when I read, and discuss, a lot of books. In 2012, during Book a Week, I posted about five books, in genres spanning science fiction, low fantasy, social history and moral philosophy. In 2015, I birthed the Bonus Book tradition by posting about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. In a sense, Bonus Books are the remnant of Book a Week: a striving to read and discuss more than one book per month, while acknowledging that a weekly standard would be invasive into the rest of my life, or else result in shorter and/or worse blog posts.
This next book is not the book that was recommended to me, but it's close. In 2012, my master's advisor recommended Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who have read it, or even picked it up off of a table or shelf, it's a very long book. Nonetheless, I acquired an e-book of it, and proceeded, over 2012-2013, to read approximately 365 pages. That was a third of the book.
The next best thing is the follow-up. After the success of Of Human Bondage in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham released The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. The Moon and Sixpence also sold well, and is widely regarded to be one of the classics of World War I-era English literature. Its subject matter, though, could not be farther from the war. With that, I leave you...
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
Literature (1919 - 250 pp.)
In The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham's passive narrator follows the life of Charles Strickland, a stockbroker turned painter who flees his London family for Paris, Marseilles, and finally Tahiti. The narrator, who befriends Mrs. Strickland, is sent to Paris at her behest, where most of the novel takes place. Strickland is simultaneously a case study of the motivation to abandon a profession to become an artist, and an outlet for Maugham to pontificate on the place of art in 20th-century society. Now, 100 years after the book's release,* the book's questions about art are still impossible to answer, as they may be for eternity.
Strickland as a person inspires either indifference or hatred. Maugham uses the narrator's less than flattering impressions of Strickland as a constant source of witticisms, such as the initial thought that "[o]ne would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null." (30) In the first part of the book, Strickland acts as a proto-Ned Flanders. When Strickland leaves his wife and children in London to become a starving artist in Paris, the narrator switches toward a quasi-religious take: "You evidently don't believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule." (65) As someone who has lived this way, it's stressful. Whether Strickland embodies that part of any of us who would want to live as an artist in Paris, or whether Strickland is simply an irresponsible, selfish man, is up to the reader to decide.
The other characters add colour without adding plot points. Dirk Stroeve is a Dutch artist who cooks wonderful spaghetti but, according to the narrator, cannot produce a painting better than the equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel. (95) Stroeve, like the narrator and Strickland, acts as a vehicle for Maugham's one-liners. His greatest line comes early, before Strickland has an affair with his wife, before every character vacates Paris. He asks the narrator the question every artist loathes hearing, and receives the answer that makes every impoverished night sound pointless:
'And how, then, will you recognize merit?' asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.'There is only one way - success.' (96)
The value of art is a recurring theme in The Moon and Sixpence. Strickland produces paintings that are alternately called beautiful and horrible. Whether Strickland's art is praise-worthy is a constant point of contention between the narrator, Stroeve, and Strickland himself, who, unlike the other characters, abandoned a successful career. The narrator ponders about the consumers of art: "They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and yet when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it." (159) It is exhausting, yet it follows the life of every artist, that this is the ultimate audience. The narrator considers himself discerning, yet the reader never hears what the narrator actually paints, only his impression of Strickland's and Stroeve's paintings, and his frustration with the market for art. The last hundred years has not made the market for art any kinder.
Although the novel famously follows the life of Paul Gauguin, Strickland's last years in Tahiti are analogous to Francisco Goya's last years. When the narrator pieces together Strickland's life in Tahiti, he learns that Strickland, afflicted with leprosy, painted murals on the walls of his small house. According to Strickland's doctor, these murals were Strickland's masterpieces, and "brought to mind vague recollections of black magic". (239) Strickland spent the last year of his life blind but still gazing at these murals. Goya spent the last years of his life in a two-storey house outside Madrid where he, too, painted murals on the walls; these became his famous Black Paintings. Goya was deaf at the time he lived in the house, one of the reasons the house was called "Deaf Man's Villa". In The Moon and Sixpence, Strickland orders the house burnt to the ground upon his death, which his wife obliges to the doctor's dismay. Thankfully, Goya's Black Paintings suffered no such fate, and they hang on canvas in Madrid today.
Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 4
*Last month's book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, was released 99 years ago. This blog is on a century streak!