Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fair warning, this is going to be a long review for this is a book that is close to my heart written by an author whom I deeply admire.
The Time is Right
There are some books that walk into your life at an opportune time. I’m talking about the books that send a pleasant shiver down your spine laden with “Man, this is meant to be!” as you flip through its pages cursorily. Or those that upon completion, demand an exclamation from every book-reading fibre of your body to the effect of “There couldn’t have been a better time for me to have read this book!” Now, I come from deferred-gratification stock. So books like these, you don’t read immediately,. You let them sit there on your table for a while. You bask in the warm expectant glow of a life-altering read. You glance at the book as you make your way to office, take pleasure in the fact that it’ll be right there on your table when you open the front door wearily, waiting to be opened, caressed, reveled in. And when that moment of reckoning arrives, you don’t stop, you plunge yourself straight into the book, white-hot passionate.
The Moon and Sixpence was just that kind of a book for me. I had just completed (and thoroughly enjoyed) a course on Modern Art in college and could rattle off the names of Impressionist painters faster than I could the Indian cricket team. I was particularly intrigued by Paul Gauguin, a French Post-Impressionist painter, after reading one of his disturbingly direct quotes. “Civilization is what makes me sick”, he proclaimed, and huddled off to Tahiti to escape Europe and “all that is artificial and conventional”, leaving behind a wife and five children to fend for themselves, never to make contact with them again. This struck me as the ultimate expression of individuality, a resounding slap to the judgmental face of conservative society, an escapist act of repugnant selfishness that could only be justified by immeasurable artistic talent, genius, some may call it. My imagination was tickled beyond measure and when I discovered there was a novel by W.Somerset Maugham (the author of The Razor’s Edge no less!) based on Gauguin, my joy knew no bounds. I was in the correct frame of mind to read about the life of a stockbroker who gave up on the trivial pleasures of bourgeois life for the penury and hard life of an aspiring painter without considering him ridiculous or vain. Supplied with the appropriate proportions of awe that is due to a genius protagonist, I began reading the book. I have to admit I expected a whole lot from it. I had a voyeuristic curiosity to delve into the head of a certified genius. I was even more curious to see how Maugham had executed it. At the same time, I was hoping that the book would raise and answer important questions concerning the nature of art and about what drives an artist to madness and greatness.
The book’s title is taken from a review of Of Human Bondage in which the novel’s protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.”
I admired Maugham’s narrative voice. In his inimitable style, he flits in and out of the characters’ life as the stolid, immovable writer who is a mere observer, and nothing more. His narrator defies Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as in observing his characters, he doesn’t change their lives or nature one bit. He has a mild disdain for the ordinary life of a householder and relishes his independence.
“I pictured their lives, troubled by no untoward adventure, honest, decent, and, by reason of these two upstanding, pleasant children, so obviously destined to carry on the normal traditions of their race and station, not without significance. They would grow old insensibly; they would see their son and daughter come to years of reason, marry in due course – the one a peretty girl, future mother of healthy children; the other a handsome, manly fellow, obviously a soldier; and at last, prosperous in their dignified retirement, beloved by their descendants, after a happy, not unuseful life, in the fullness of their age they would sink into the grave. That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the patter of life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognized its social value. I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only have change – change and the excitement of the unforeseen.”
In Maugham’s hands, Gauguin becomes Charles Strickland, an unassuming British stockbroker, with a secret unquenchable lust for beauty that he is willing to take to the end of the world, first to Paris and then to remote Tahiti. He is cold, selfish and uncompromising in this quest for beauty.
“The passion that held Strickland was a passion to create beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither and thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine nostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth. I could only feel for him a profound compassion.”
However words such as these serve to romanticize Strickland’s actions which at first glance, remain despicable. (view spoiler)Maugham paints him as a rogue loner, an unfathomable apparition, compelled to inhuman acts by the divine tyranny of art.
“He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the deserts of Thebes. He asked nothing from his fellows except that they should leave him alone. He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.”
In these beautiful words he describes Strickland’s strange homelessness and suggests a reason for his subsequent escape to Tahiti.
“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strange surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scnes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”
By the end of the book, Maugham’s narrator somewhat loses his grip over the reader and I could picture him in my mind floundering around the island of Tahiti, interviewing the people who came in contact with Strickland, trying to piece together a story. He finds himself in the “position of the biologist, who has to figure out from a bone, not only a creature’s body, but also its habits.”
The reader is promised the ineffable, a study of genius and is only delivered an admission of its elusive nature. Also the tone of the novel tends to get slightly misogynistic in places. But I suppose that is more a failing of the protagonist rather than the author. As compensation, Maugham offers delicious crisp cookies of wisdom throughout. In simple lyrical language, he penetrates to the core of the human condition and offers invaluable advice to the aspiring writer, the hopeful lover and the wannabe genius.
For its unpretentious, sympathetic and humane portrayal of a deeply flawed protagonist, its quotable quotes and its ironic humour, this book shall rank as my one of my favourite books on the life and development of an artist in search of the unknowable.
My Master Maugham
I strongly believe that the adjectives one throws around are a barometer of one’s sensitivity or at the minimum, one’s desire to be accurate. Both of these qualities are indispensable to the aspiring writer because honestly, what is there to writing exceptfresh verbs, evocative adjectives, searing honesty and an unbounded imagination. Also, that it’s easier said than done.
In this context, there are moments when I feel utterly stupid and unimaginative. My inner monologues resemble the chatter of teenage girls in their lack of content and use of worn-out adjectives. I mean, awesome and amazing, like seriously? Bleeuurghh!! During such exasperating times, my inner world aches to devour a mouthful of good-looking words in the Queen’s English. I head to my dusty book-closet and roughly displace its contents until I find a book either by one of the barons of British literature, a W.Somerset Maugham/PG Wodehouse or a laid-back satire along the lines of Yes Minister. The book usually serves its purpose admirably. It manages to extract me from my predicament by either making me split my sides laughing or by drowning me in a stream of sentences so beautifully constructed that I completely forget my insecurities and start shaking my head ponderously at the writer’s virtuosity instead.
Coming to the topic of the writer himself, W.Somerset Maugham is one of my favourite writers in the English language. Being an aspiring writer who’s yet to find his voice myself, his novels never fail to stab me with a hopeful optimism. My premature belief, that I can write well, is reinforced when I read Maugham. He never intimidates me or bores me, commonplace sins many writers will have to go to confession for. While reading his prose, he possesses the singular ability of making the difficult art of writing seem pretty doable. This, I’ve realized with the passing of time, is due to one simple reason. It is because W.Somerset Maugham never shows off! Never! Never does he ramble pointlessly. Never does he merely graze the point instead of hitting it fair and square because he was too busy fooling around with the language. Never! He hits bulls eye with eloquence and a kind of frugal, flowing lyricism. There is always a single-minded purpose behind his writings. It is to spin a mighty good yarn by getting the point across without making his readers consult a dictionary. He even propounds profundity in a manner that typically makes me re-read the paragraph(and underline it) to admire the economy and ease with which the thought was expressed in words. I find the writing styles of Hemingway and Maugham similar in form, but while Hemingway’s writing is austere to the point of being skeletal, Maugham clothes his words until they can be considered passably pretty.
For his remarkable abilities, Maugham’s opinions about his own writing were always modest. He believed he stood “in the very first row of the second-raters.” Asked about his method of writing, he simplified it to a matter of keen observation and honest reproduction. “”Most people cannot see anything,” he once said, “but I can see what is in front of my nose with extreme clearness; the greatest writers can see through a brick wall. My vision is not so penetrating.”
My favourite excerpts
Advice to aspiring writers
“ 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. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these book are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”
“Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.”
On the ironic humour of life
“Dirk Stroeve was one of those unlucky persons whose most sincere emotions are ridiculous.”
On the nature of art
“Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”