Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling
The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham. 1919. French title: L’Envoûté.
Things have been a bit hectic for our book club this month with flus, business trips and heavy workload. So we skipped the February meeting and I’m not able to share with you a discussion about The Moon and Sixpence, which was this month’s choice. I was delighted to read another Maugham since I loved The Trembling of a Leaf and Cakes and Ale.
The Moon and Sixpence is a first-person narration about a famous painter named Charles Strickland. Our narrator is a writer who relates how he met Strickland through his wife who had a literary salon at the end of the 19th century in London. He met the man once at a party organized by Mrs Strickland for his husband and his business associates:
The respectability of the party was portentous. The women were too nice to be well dressed, and too sure of their position to be amusing. The men were solid. There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied prosperity.
He found this broker on the stock exchange boring and didn’t befriend with him. Strickland appeared to be the perfect bourgeois, stable, reliable, perfectly happy in his daily routine and not interested in anything artistic. So, when at nearly forty, he flees to Paris, leaving his wife and children behind and alone in London, Mrs Strickland is flabbergasted. She asks our narrator to go to Paris and try convincing her husband to come home. As long as she thinks he left her for another woman – because for what other reason could he make such a radical change in his life? –she fosters hope to see him return to his former life. To our narrator’s surprise, Strickland left everything behind to become a painter. Talk about a hell of a mid-life crisis. It appears that Strickland had been taking painting lessons for a couple of years and now wanted to follow his heart and be a painter.
A while later, our narrator moves to Paris and is again in contact with Strickland through a friend who is also a painter, Stroeve. The narrator reveals fragments of Strickland’s life in Paris and later in Tahiti as our narrator crosses paths again with the famous painter. Because Strickland did have a gift for painting and did make a breakthrough in painting…after his death.
The Moon and Sixpence has the same kind of structure as Cakes and Ale and adds the Tahiti theme predominant in The Trembling of a Leaf. Cakes and Ale is about a writer and his posterity (allegedly Thomas Hardy) while The Moon and Sixpence explores painting and artistic calling. (Gauguin inspired Maugham)
More than the story in itself, what’s interesting in The Moon and Sixpence is the questioning about Art and artists. Strickland is an unpleasant man. It’s as if he had consumed all his stock of social niceness during the years he was a married man and worked as a broker. After he decided to drop everything to follow his calling, he stopped yielding to social conventions. So he’s very rude, selfish, taking what he needs without thinking and thanking. He’s a man who shrugged off social polish to come back to “nature”. He only wants to paint, paint, paint. He interacts with others when required and doesn’t take into account their feelings. He doesn’t try to sell his paintings, doesn’t want to surrender to any social rule, any relationship that could get in the way of his painting. He’s possessed and it’s the title of the book in French.
The narrator is appalled by his behavior but also admire his strength and his talent. Strickland was brave enough not to let go of his dream and turn his back to comfort, friends and family. He never went back to England. The narrator has mixed feelings about him: Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
The underlying question is: Do we forgive any kind of behavior from an art genius for the sake of art? We seem to tolerate actions from artists that we would never tolerate from common people. The beauty they bring to the world appears to be worth their living out of social conventions. I’ll go a bit farther: Do we even expect a gifted artist to be a difficult character? Don’t we expect extravagant gestures, fits of despair and mercurial moods? Maugham made me think about the myth of the artiste maudit. I have no idea of how to translate this concept in English. damned or cursed artist would be the literal translation. I wonder when this concept of the gifted artist living from hand-to-mouth, full of angst and dominated by an urge to create started to emerge. In the Romantic Era with Byron? In France with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud? In a way, The Moon and Sixpence explores this myth, which is still alive if I think of the book Literary Rogues by Andrew Schaffer that Guy reviewed recently.
Another question raised by this novel is about whom we live for. The narrator also mentions another man, Abraham, who left behind a brilliant future as a hospital surgeon to live abroad in miserable conditions. He dropped everything in an instant, feeling he belonged to this place and not to London, just as Strickland found peace and home in Tahiti. As the narrator discusses Abraham’s choice with the man who had his life since he vacated the prestigious position, this man considers that Abraham lacks character and the narrator disagrees:
Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour’s meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.
This is why Newland Archer never left New York with the Helen. He was intelligent enough to acknowledge he lacked the character. This is why a lot of us give up dreams and live a quiet life. The narrator admires both Strickland and Abraham for following their instinct and their dreams, for being able to disregard money, comfort and social status to follow their dream. He thinks they might be right:
I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual.
That’s a good question. The other question is: since you have only one life, why sacrifice it to respect social conventions, to protect your family’s feelings? Why should you give up your dreams or a life according to what suits you for someone else’s sake? Is it selfish or is it making the most of your life?
I don’t have the answer but it leads to another question that the narrator muses over: “Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?”
Along with these ruminations come the usual issues around artists and fame. How contemporaries have a hard time recognizing a genius (and I can’t help thinking that the fear of missing the new Van Gogh impacts the prices of contemporary art) and how an artist’s family soaks up their fame and live upon it by procuration. There’s also a belief that beauty crosses the border of intellectual knowledge, that when it is genuine, it touches the philistine as well as the cultured person:
I cannot agree with the painters who claim superciliously that the layman can understand nothing of painting, and that he can best show his appreciation of their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman: art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.
The vision of women is the one thing I didn’t like in this novel. How misogynistic. Women aren’t praised here, they are materialist, taming men with domestic comfort, unable of intellectual elevation, enjoying mistreatments. They aren’t muses but balls and chains attached to the artist’s ankle. Mrs Strickland’s portray isn’t favourable to her sex and neither is the depiction of Stroeve’s wife. The civilized woman is awful in this book. Only the Tahitian companion of Strickland has a positive description but she’s submissive and behaves more like a loyal dog than like an equal partner. I frowned when I read judgements like this one:
As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.
Yes, they have nothing else to do since they can’t have a profession of any kind. Who decided to have women at home and only occupied with fascinated things as cooking, tidying, washing and then has the nerve to complain that they are boring?
In my opinion, The Moon and Sixpence is an excellent novel but it’s not as good as Cakes and Ale. Perhaps it’s because I felt more interested in the portray of a writer than in the portray of a painter. Maugham’s style is always exquisite, he handles irony with panache and spreads little bullet sentences everywhere in the book.
“The mystic sees the ineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”
“Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour.”
“There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.“
And there’s this incredible little phrase she’d love it if you’d join our little coffee klatch. that went straight to my heart. In my region, we say “faire café-klatsch” to say you’re spending some time around a coffee and chat. This expression isn’t French but local patois coming from French mixed with German. I didn’t know this existed in English as well. Do you know it?
Guy recently reviewed The Moon and Sixpence here, it’s worth reading. It tackles with other aspects of the book.
Ah yes! Something else: if someone could explain the title of the novel, I’d be grateful.