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Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham. 1919. French title: L’Envoûté.

book_club_2Things 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)

maugham_moon_sixpenceMore 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.

  1. February 26, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    M. Wiki provides a reasonable explanation of the title.

    “Do you know ‘coffee klatch’?” Yes! It is common in the U.S.

    I believe the French get the credit for the poète maudit (we use the term in English, too, because French is classy).* Villon must be the first great example. It seems that Alfred de Vigny coined the phrase. Byron could not have been one – he was much too wealthy. Shelley, though, he counts.

    * And if we said “damned poets” it would be too confusing. It sounds like we’re just cursing – “Those damned poets! Get a real job, why doncha? Etc.”

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    • February 26, 2013 at 11:54 pm

      So coffee klatch exists. Now I can say that it’s American next time I blurt it out and have French people looking at me as if I came from planet Mars.

      And poete maudit it is. Tortured is a necessary criteria to deserve the name of poete maudit

      Thanks for the explanation and the link for the title.

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  2. February 26, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    I agree with you about preferring Cakes and Ale–and again it may have something to do with the fact that it’s about a writer. The mid-life crisis sprang to mind–I wonder when people first started with that term?

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    • February 26, 2013 at 11:16 pm

      I have no idea when people started to talk about mid-life crisis. After watching a film by Woody Allen? 🙂

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      • February 28, 2013 at 7:23 am

        I was talking to someone once about the mid-life crisis concept and he was vehement that there was no such thing. I’ve seen it happen too many times though when middle aged people, for one reason or another, take stock of their lives and decide to make changes.

        I suppose we could have a subcategory of books on the theme.

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        • February 28, 2013 at 9:07 am

          I haven’t witnessed so many radical changes when people turn 40 but it doesn’t mean that people don’t question their choices and most of them decide to live with them.

          This concept can only be recent since there were centuries where 40 was being old and not have so many years to live, statistically.

          I agree with you about the book subcategory.

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  3. February 27, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! Glad to know that you liked ‘The Moon and Sixpence’. Maugham is one of my favourite writers and this book is one of my favourites, though I haven’t read a book of his in a while. Your mention of ‘artiste maudit’ made me smile 🙂 Because only a few days back I read an essay collection on French books which used that word a few times while referring to Villon, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. I was happy when I saw the word again in your review 🙂 I didn’t notice those misogynistic lines that you have quoted, when I read the book. It is surprising that they are there, because it is difficult for me to believe that Maugham wrote them. I loved your description of the phrase “faire café-klatsch”. I will add it to my vocabulary to be used frequently in the future 🙂 I think because Maugham spent part of his growing up years in Germany and he loved French literature and culture and spent his later years in France, he might have been aware of this phrase and would have used it. I haven’t encountered this phrase before in another English book. Thanks for writing about it – I learnt one new thing today. I didn’t know that ‘Cakes and Ale’ was about Thomas Hardy. I should read it again one of these days. Thanks for your wonderful review!

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  4. February 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I liked this a lot but I haven’t read Cakes and Ales. Usually I prefer works about painters and am often allergic to books about writers, although I like books about books. Weird. Still, I want to read Cakes and Ales and compare. I’m sure it is very good.
    I think that obnoxious behaviour in artists might not be as well tolerated anymore but I’m not sure. Like the suffering artists the artis as enfant terrible has become sa thing of the past.

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    • February 28, 2013 at 8:35 am

      Cakes and Ale is excellent, I’m interested in reading your thoughts about it.
      Perhaps our societies are less rigid now and people are freer to live the way they want without shocking their contemporaries. Some attitudes that were frown upon before are now nothing to talk about.

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  5. February 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Terrific commentary Emma.

    This is not a knock on the book, I think that it might add complexity, but it sounds as if Maugham goes into some unpleasant territory. My answer to the question of living for others is that you do it to some extent if you have made the commitment to do so and the others rely on it. My answer to the unpleasant artist syndromes that certain behavior is ver acceptable.

    With that said I think that it is the role of literature to question these things.

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    • February 28, 2013 at 8:42 am

      I don’t think it’s unpleasant territory.
      The narrator thinks himself adventurous but when he compares himself to Strickland, he knows he’s not able to leave outside of society. (which is not a bad thing) I wonder if he doesn’t have some sort of regret not to be passionate enough about his writing to abandon everything to write.
      Guy, if you read this, what do you think ?

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  6. February 27, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    I believe the title of “The Moon and Sixpence” was taken from a review of Maugham’s earlier novel, “Of Human Bondage”, in which the reviewer said that Philip Carey (the protagonist of the earlier novel) reaches for the moon, but doesn’t see the sixpence at his feet. Maugham liked that line, and used it in the title of this novel.

    I read “The Moon and Sixpence” while I was still at school – i.e. many, many years ago now! I remember I quite liked it, but no, it’s not in the class of “Cakes and Ale”, which I think is a more mature novel in all respects. Were I to read it now, I think the misogyny you point out would grate.

    We like to think of artists as tortured, misunderstood souls somewhat detached from society. I don’t know this is necessarily the truth. Sure, some of them are odd, or eccentric, or misunderstood, or misfits, or morally reprehensible in some way; but equally, there have been writers, artists and composers of the highest quality who have led lives of uneventful respectability, and have been generally quite decent. I think artists, like the rest of us, come in all shapes and sizes. And while it is true that there have been people like van Gogh whose worth was not appreciated within their own lifetimes, there have also been others (Velazquez, Titian, Monet, etc.) who were recognized and celebrated within their own lifetime.

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    • February 28, 2013 at 9:03 am

      Thanks for the explanation of the title, it makes sense.
      I agree with what you say about artists but I still think our vision of them changed in the 19thC. I’m not a specialist in history of art, but Velasquez was a court painter, like Botticelli or Michelangelo, he was hired to do a certain work. They brought something new to painting but worked in a different environment.
      It’s different from Manet or Van Gogh or Gauguin who weren’t “official” painters. But you’re right, Monet had a quiet life compared to them.

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  7. March 2, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Love that first quote.

    The concept of the artiste maudit, if not the phrase, is I think very familiar in English. The concept of the artist being beyond society’s rules, a tortured figure flouting convention, remains very strong.

    Coffee klatch I knew as a phrase, but I thought was American (and I note that Tom says it’s common in the US, so perhaps it is more American than British).

    That question of whether it’s selfish or making the most of your own life, to abandon convention, raised a question for me in turn. One you in part answer later on. What about the wife?

    Abandoning convention is one thing, abandoning a person another. Is the wife just another thing, a trapping of a lifestyle? Walking away from a car, a job, a house, these are just things. A woman though is a person, except when she’s been somehow reclassified into a thing as some men yet do.

    That already had me wondering about the role of women in the novel before I got to your paragraph regarding misogny. There’s a phrase in English, “the pram in the hallway”. The idea was that domesticity was the death of art, and in a way that connection with a woman was as she would drag you down (you being, of course, male) by tying you to domesticity and weekly striving to pay the bills.

    It’s a denial of agency. It’s surprising though how often even now I read novels which address the reader as you, or talk of everyone, and it’s evident it’s assumed that the you, that everyone, is male.

    So, is the pram in the hall the death of art? Perhaps. But is that the woman’s fault? Does she have a story too? The film Control is quite good on this, the biopic about the singer from Joy Division. As his musical career takes off his wife becomes this homebody figure, slightly dumpy and always dealing with nappies and household chores. He has an affair with a slim European girl who understands him and works for some minor fanzine.

    If you watch though, it’s not his wife that creates the situation. He proposes to her, and when she’s uncertain keeps at her until she marries him. He puts the pram in the hallway, then resents her for its presence. It’s a more nuanced portrayal than usual, because it recognises that they are both responsible for the situation. Most films, most books, perhaps this book, would just focus on how his wife is dragging him down and how he’s found freedom with the new girl and not think about the responsibility he bears for that too or about the unfairness of him casting his wife into the role of deadweight.

    I’d printed this review out to read. I wrote one word against that “As lovers” quote. Bollocks.

    I have this one, and I will likely read it, but the portrayal of women is a shame. I prefer books which recognise that both genders have an inner life.

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    • March 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      The book is full of great quotes, I’m really fond of Maugham’s prose.

      Strickland abandoning his wife is almost criminal at that time; she’s left with the children and has no money. She starts a business of typing and reviewing texts, her family helps her with the children. The scandal affects her very much.

      But now that women are independent? I’m not so sure. Think of it the other way round. Would you like your wife to stay with you because it’s her duty and she doesn’t want to abandon you? I’m not certain leaving your dreams aside for a partner is being nice to them. If I wasn’t around any more, whatever the reason, my husband would go on with his life after a while. He’d meet someone new and perhaps she’d make him happier, who knows?
      One is only indispensable to their parents and their children. Children are scarred for life if a parent abandons them.

      I’ve seen Control, I know what you’re referring to. It’s true for artists as for other professions, you know. Being a housewife when it’s not a choice can be stifling. It breaks the equality is a couple and keeps the woman into the role of mother and housewife. The woman in her, the one her husband fell in love with, is in the background. She’s another person, in a way. This is why I think it’s important that both partners work and share house chores and both take care of the children. It helps keeping the equality.

      The portrayal of women in The Moon and Sixpence goes with the times. Strickland is misogynistic and his vision of women is restrictive. He never sees them as a muse as other artists do. Would we have Capitale de la douleur without Gala? Or Modigliani’s paintings without Jeanne? And Baudelaire’s poems inspired by his mistress?

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  8. March 2, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    If a marriage has fundamentally broken down then it’s done, absolutely. I suppose it’s more that often the woman in these stories doesn’t seem to have much voice. It’s not so much that I think you should abandon your dreams for your partner, I don’t, it’s more that I wonder how it came to be that that’s the choice you have.

    Of course, if these were easy questions they wouldn’t prompt great books. Have to run, looks like I’m finally getting out for the evening!

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    • March 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      Good evening then, have fun, at last!

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  9. March 9, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I prefer of human bondage of all his books but this is a clever enough book ,part inspired by Gaugin I felt strickland was a thinly veiled version of him with maybe a bit of Stevenson thrown in as he also went to live in Tahiti ,as for Maugham and women well as someone else point out it is just the time I feel he does some stoonger female characters in some of his other novels ,all the best stu

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    • March 9, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      I also want to read Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge.

      I don’t think that Maugham necessarily shares the image of women conveyed by Strickland. But Strickland really sees women as a keeping him away from his artistic career.

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  10. March 18, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I had a phase of reading Somerset Maugham some years ago and I remember enjoying this one but I had forgotten what it was about. The Razor’s Edge is the one that stands out the most. Of Human Bondage too (similar title to Roth’s Human Stain). I wonder if Maugham will have a revival soon? In Britain at least, he is still rather unfashionable. It needs a major TV adaptation to arouse the public’s interest.

    And no I’ve never heard of a coffee klatch but it sounds good!

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    • March 18, 2013 at 9:58 pm

      Funny that you mention Philip Roth here.

      We discussed this book during a book club night. We have read Exit Ghost by Roth and I was comparing Maugham to Roth too. I think both have a lot of humour and both know how to mix the trivial with deep matters. They seem to tell a mundane story and all along discuss serious matters.

      This is why I love Roth and probably also why I love Maugham.

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  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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