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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 2 December 2011

"The Moon and Sixpence" by Somerset Maugham

This delightful book is the fictionalised story of Paul Gaugin. The narrator, a writer, meets Mrs Strickland and ,through her, Strickland, a stockbroker, who shortly abandons his wife, his family and his career to travel to Paris to become a painter. The wife persuades the narrator to go to Paris to persuade her husband to return but Strickland is rude and obsessive. If one is a genius one submits to the tyranny of one's art and normal human relations go out of the window. Later the narrator returns to Paris. Another 'chocolate box' artist, Stroeve is the only person who recognises the genius in Strickland but Strickland treats Stroeve like dirt, mocking him and his work. After Stroeve and his wife nurse back to life a seriously ill Strickland, Strickland seduces her and she leaves her husband. Later Strickland abandons her and she commits suicide, leaving 'ridiculous' Stroeve doubly betrayed. In the last part of the novel the narrator happens to be in Tahiti. Strickland went there, painted, a died a terrible death which the narrator pieces together with witness statements from the people who knew him.

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.


Wonderful characters.

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

8 comments:

  1. Your comments were lovely and insightful. Do you think the destructive passion for art in Strickland, reflected Maugham's own sexual 'demons'?

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  2. Thank you for explaining the last line in the book! "A beautiful brilliant book" sums this novel up nicely. Definitely in my top five. I notice you don't review short stories. Too bad because Maugham was one of the best. Read "Ten by Maugham" or better yet get the BBC audio version. Maugham was an outsider from his socks up and a funnier writer it would be hard to find. I listen to him during long walks and snicker a lot. Alarms fellow pedestrians.

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  3. Strickland was an eternal pilgrim "to a shrine that didn't exist", but he hoped and dreamed that he would find that shrine on "an island lost in a boundless sea". When he finally met Alta, his demeanor in the way that he treated women changed - ever so slightly. Strickland actually asked Atla if she would take him for a husband. Also, he said that he would only attend the banquet if Atla was willing to go. It shows that Strictland - in his own way - loved Atla. In addition, Atla loved him deeply; from which, I conclude that they shared many years of good experiences together. Strickland loved painting. He painted his firt mistress once, and then gave the painting away without hesitation. He painted Alta many many times, and did not tire of her over all of those years. Strickland was cursed by his passion - but he found his life companion. When the narrator said that "The wheels of God Grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small" - it made him think of Atlas son (the one that survived). The one son, with the native woman, that had a remarkable resemblance to Strickland, was a reflection of Gods slow, and detailed work. Atla's son was not burdened by the same curse as his father, and was able to live happily and freely, dancing underneath the moon and the stars. To me, the "moon" represents nature, truth, and freedom. "Sixpence" represents the sick and disgusting nature of societal economic rat-race that we live in, and the evils that come along with it. For example, Atla was essentially one of the captains sex slaves when she was first introduced in the story. One of the more pure sex slaves, because she only slept with the captain and his first mates, (paraphrasing). The last two sentences conjures up a metaphorical feeling in me when I read it. His uncle remembers when "Royal Natives" cost a shilling. I understand that Royal Natives were Oysters. I think this is a metaphor in relation to slavery, and it related back to the comparison of the Civilized world to the natural "Native" world - which is being commoditized by "the Devil" which could always quote scripture to their purpose. Because slave masters were rich, white, god fearing Christians, that could quote scripture to justify it. The Moon (natural world) and Sixpence (civilized world). Strickland was a man born in the civilized world that was meant to be born in the natural world. He died where he wanted to die. He dies where he belonged. And the wheels of God grind slowly, but in small detail. His native son was born in the natural world, and born absent of his father's curse.

    "Sometimes I've thought of an island lost in a boundless sea, where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees, in silence. There I think I could find what I want"

    "I see you as the eternal pilgrim to some shrine that perhaps does not exist. I do not know to what inscrutable Nirvana you aim. Do you know yourself? Perhaps it is Truth and Freedom that you seek, and for a moment you thought that you might find release in Love."

    "The wheels of God Grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small."

    "I do not know why I suddenly thought of Strickland's son by Ata. They had told me he was a merry, light-hearted youth. I saw him, with my mind's eye, on the schooner on which he worked, wearing nothing but a pair of dungarees; and at night, when the boat sailed along easily before a light breeze, and the sailors were gathered on the upper deck, while the captain and the supercargo lolled in deck-chairs, smoking their pipes, I saw him dance with another lad, dance wildly, to the wheezy music of the concertina. Above was the blue sky, and the stars, and all about the desert of the Pacific Ocean."

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    1. Oh my god! And that's why I think Strickland didn't sell any of his paintings when he was alive, because he didn't believe in the commoditization of the natural world. The civilized world commoditized his work after he died.

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    2. Thanks for your comments, Jay. They are very interesting.

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  4. 'The mills of God' quote is actually an ancient Greek proverb, already current in the first century AD.

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    1. That's really interesting. I suppose they had water mills? I know that windmills were introduced to Europe during the crusades. Or were they referring to hand-milling?

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