What makes this a great book is the elegance of the prose (suggesting that the narrator is a prissy non-entity) coupled with the brutality of the ideas (standing for the rawness of art; Strickland is a man possessed by the terrible demon of art and at the same time a sensuous and brutal man loved by women). Perhaps this duality reflects Gaugin's art: simplistic and naive but full of power. The characterisations are all remarkable:
- Mrs Strickland is a women who seeks the company of artists and writers while never suspecting that her dull stockbroking husband has artistic genius; after being abandoned she opens a typing agency but after Strickland's death and subsequent fame she begins to bask again in the attention given to her as his wife.
- Dirk Stroeve the fat untalented but commercially successful artist who was ridiculous in his devotion to his wife and ridiculous again in his grief; but he was the first man who recognised the genius in Strickland.
- Mrs Stroeve who was afraid of Strickland and then left her husband for him and then killed herself when Strickland left her.
- The Tahitians: the jovial obese hotel owner with a wonderfully relaxed attitude to sex even though she was now to fat to have any; the Captain who knew Strickland in Marseilles although he was probably making his story up to please the narrator who paid for it in whisky and cigars; the doctor who attended Strickland in his last days.
And the book is remarkable for the amount of sex in it. It was published in 1919 and it is so frank. Tahitian 17 year old Ata has "never been promiscuous like some of these girls - a captain or a first mate, yes, but she's never been touched by a native." p182 Frank and funny. And the narrator himself suggests that when sex it over "you feel so extraordinarily pure. You feel like a disembodied spirit, immaterial, and you seem to be able to touch beauty as though it were a palpable thing, and you feel an intimate communion with the breeze, and with the trees breaking into leaf, and with the iridescence of the river. You feel like God." p78
There were so many gems and bon mots in this book:
- "Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour." p46
- Conscience is "the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws." p51
- "I have always been a little disconcerted by the passion women have for behaving beautifully at the death-bed of those they love. Sometimes it seems as if they grudge the longevity which postpones their chance of an effective scene." p56
- "Le Maitre de la Boite a Chocolats" [Stroeve] p62
- "Because women can do nothing except love, they've given it a ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it's the whole of life. It's an insignificant part. I know lust. That's normal and healthy. Love is a disease." p140
- "Here lies the unreality of fiction. For in men, as a rule, love is but an episode which takes its place among the other affairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance which is untrue to life. There are few men to whom it is the most important thing in the world, and they are not very interesting ones." p152
- "The sadness which you may see in the jester's eyes when a merry company is laughing at his sallies and his jokes are gayer because in the communion of laughter he finds himself more intolerably alone." p157
- "Neither wit nor whisky could detain him then." p161
The ending is equally brilliant. The narrator meets Mrs Strickland and her now grown up children (a soldier and a soldier's wife; perfectly conformist members of society with no genius) and the son quotes 'The mills of God grind slowly , but they grind exceeding small.' The narrator feels "sure that they thought the quotation was from Holy Writ" and when he contrasts this boy with Strickland's Tahitian bastard "a quotation from the Bible came to my lips, but I held my tongue, for I know that clergymen think it a little blasphemous when the laity poach upon their preserves. My Uncle Henry, for twenty-seven years Vicar of Whitstable, was on these occasions in the habit of saying that the devil could always quote scripture to his purpose. He remembered the days when you could get thirteen Royal Natives for a shilling."
This ending combines obscurity and scholarship (the Mills of God quotation is actually Longfellow but Maugham doesn't tell us that) and then teases again by offering a Biblical quotation but we are never told which. It then falls from fiction into fact: Maugham's Uncle was really the Vicar of Whitstable. It ends with another little character vignette which Maugham has peppered throughout the novel. This character, like a few of the others, has absolutely no part to play in the story. Uncle Henry is utterly incidental and yet he finished the book. Royal Natives are Whitstable oysters.
Apparently it is called The Moon and Sixpence because you can stare at the Moon whilst ignoring the sixpence at your feet.
A beautiful brilliant book.
December 2011; 215 pages
Also read Maugham's much weightier but brilliant On Human Bondage