Friday, February 29, 2008

Somerst Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

(This, sadly, was my last book for the Outmoded Authors challenge. Happily, though, there is going to be a second challenge coming later this year. I've so enjoyed this one, I can hardly wait to embark on that one.)

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

I love books written the way this one was, the kind of book that fools you into thinking you’ve picked up a somewhat gentle little thing that’s matter-of-factly presenting you with this quaint little story. Then, before you know it, it’s become much more than that, a book that portends wretchedness while throwing about some philosophical challenges. Suddenly, the bad thing you just knew was going to happen happens, and you still find yourself thinking, “Ohmigod, I can’t believe that just happened!” as you flip wildly through the pages of what has practically turned into a thriller, so eager are you to find out what’s going to happen next.

I found it nearly impossible to read this book without making comparisons to another book I love Budd Schulberg’s (he’s a somewhat outmoded author these days, isn’t it? Maybe he needs to be included in the next round of this challenge) What Makes Sammy Run? Both books display despicable characters, characters willing to step all over everyone in their lives in order to fulfill their selfish goals, through the eyes of narrators who find themselves drawn to them, not quite unwillingly. These narrators are, by turns, galled, unbelieving, and, at times, admiring. And they are fascinated, nay, obsessed, with their subjects, despite, on some level, wishing they weren’t.

I like to come to most of the novels I read a little bit blind, trying not to know too much about them (which isn’t always easy, especially given my obsession with reading dust jacket copy), and to be given my sight slowly as I make my way through the pages, until I get to the end, capable of fully seeing. Then, if the subject matter has piqued my curiosity enough, I might go see what I can find to read about it (or read the Introduction, something I never actually read before I read a novel). Thus, I avoided looking up anything about this book before I read it, and happily, my copy has long since lost its dust jacket, so I was completely blind when I turned to the first page. However, about a third of the way through it, I found myself just dying to know who Charles Strickland (the book’s despicable character) really was. Knowing that Maugham included Thomas Hardy, as well as himself, in Cakes and Ale, I was pretty sure he wasn’t just making up some artist off the top of his head. A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Strickland was based on Gaugin.

Gaugin may have been a genius, but if he was anything like this Charles Strickland, he certainly isn’t the sort of genius I’d want to know. That seems to be Maugham’s point, though, that most who could wear the label “genius” probably are pretty despicable. Given the little I know about Maugham (who was apparently a huge commercial success but never much of a critical one), I would guess that he was, on some levels, comforting himself. One can imagine his thoughts, “Well, maybe I’m not acclaimed the way William Faulkner is, but maybe I have more character than he does, than any of these so-called geniuses all the critics seem to adore.” A theme that runs throughout this book is: what does it mean to have character?

Personally, I find it hard to believe Maugham wasn’t critically acclaimed, and I have a feeling that it must have more to do with the literary fashions of the time than whether or not he deserved it. He wasn’t experimenting; he wasn’t jumping on the post-modernism bandwagon. He was merely telling a good story in a rather old-fashioned way: narrator as character in the book observes someone else and paints a portrait of that person through his eyes (and what more perfect way to tell a story about a painter?). I’ve always enjoyed this sort of use of the first-person in which it’s all about “him” or “her” as “I” see it, rather than the more standard (today, at least) all about “me.” However, we do get some wonderful glimpses of the narrator (whom I’d name, but I can’t recall anywhere in the book that his name is actually revealed. If anyone has read it and knows, please feel free to chime in). This comment of his is so endearing and tells us so much about him:

I forget who it was that recommended men, for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. (p. 13)

You really catch Maugham’s subtle sense of humor there, don’t you? He also has some great and beautiful moments of insight, such as here:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side-by-side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. (p. 235)

Don’t you just fall on your knees in admiration for someone with such writing talent? I do. And then while I’m down there, I bang my forehead on the floor over and over, bemoaning the fact that I will never, no matter how much I practice my craft, be able to compose such passages myself. After a few minutes, though, I stop banging my head, because I discover I’m hopeful. Hopeful since I’ve realized that Maugham is a good example of one of those popular, commercially-successful authors who indicates to me that maybe I shouldn’t despair over the masses, that maybe the masses aren’t really so bad (well, at least the masses of nearly 100 years ago) if they can appreciate someone who writes like that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can find that copy of Cakes and Ale I know I’ve got somewhere. Oh yes, and I need a good biography of Gaugin. Anyone know of such a thing?

Cross posted here.


Anonymous said...

More on Maugham - I am reading 'Mrs Craddock' at the moment, which has started very well, with a light deft touch; but which I suspect will turn coolly anguishing. It's about a mismatched marriage (she, educated, well travelled upper middle class; he, salt of the earth, gentleman-farmer). You can just imagine what Maugham will do with that, can't you?

Eva said...

Ohh-that first paragraph of your review has made me much more interested in this book. I'm still not totally convinced, lol, but more open to it. :)

BooksPlease said...

I ws really surprised when I read The Moon and Sixpence to find how much I enjoyed it too. I discovered that it didn't get a good review at the time it was written so maybe Maugham was just unpopular with the critics. The only biog of Gauguin that I know of is a book based on his own writings "Gauguin by Himself", but I'm sure there must be plenty around. I guess you didn't read my review of The Moon and Sixpence on the Outmoded Authors blog as like me you like to come at books a bit blind, but I mentioned this book there and the 1919 review. It may be of interest now that you've finished the book.

Emily Barton said...

MFS, oh yes, I can JUST imagine! I'll lend you this one next time I see you, if I can borrow that one.

Eva, you have to get past that opening chapter, and then, I promise you, it's well worth reading.

BP, now how could I have forgotten that I filed in the back of my head, when I saw your review of this book, "Must read once I've finished reading the book," and that it was very tempting to go ahead and read it before I was done? Anyway, I've now gone back and read it, and you did a much better job of capturing the whole essence and story of the book than I did. Funny we were both drawn to that one same passage, huh?

Rebecca H. said...

I really enjoyed Of Human Bondage and will certainly read more Maugham in the future. I like to read the way you describe -- without having much or any information beforehand and letting the book tell me everything I need to know. If there's an introduction, I will peak into it when I'm in the middle of the novel, but I'll make sure not to read the whole thing until I'm completely finished. There's something wonderful about letting a novel take you where it wants you to go.

litlove said...

Wonderful review, Emily! I love Maugham, and loved this novel. Now I just wish I could think of a good biography of Gaugain... If I come up with anything, I'll let you know!

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, oh yes, sometimes it's hard to stay away from the Introduction once you're well into the book, isn't it?

Litlove, thank you, and if you come up with that Gaugin biography, please do let me know.