Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence

This was indeed the perfect follow-up to Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin, the SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed earlier in the month. W. Somerset Maugham’s short novel functioned like a prequel for me because, whereas Dori focuses on Gauguin’s later life in the South Pacific, Maugham concentrates on his character Charles Strickland’s attempt to make a living as a painter in Paris.

The Moon and Sixpencethe unusual title comes from the TLS reviewer’s description of the protagonist in Of Human Bondage as so absorbed in reaching for the moon that he doesn’t notice the sixpence at his feet – is narrated by an unnamed author drawn into Strickland’s orbit through his wife Amy Strickland’s attendance at London literary soirées. He hasn’t gotten to know the couple very well at all when he hears that Charles, a stockbroker, has abandoned his family and left for Paris to pursue painting – a hobby for which he’s never previously shown any aptitude.

Amy sends the narrator off to Paris to talk sense into her husband, but Charles never shows the least remorse. The narrator marvels at his insouciance and utter conviction that he is meant to be an artist.

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.

Tucker Collection, New York Public Library Archives (Public Domain).

I noted familiar themes from Of Human Bondage (published in 1915, four years prior to The Moon and Sixpence), especially the artist’s struggle, nomadism and the threat of poverty. Dirk Stroeve, the talentless Dutch painter who becomes friendly with the narrator in Paris and recognizes Strickland’s brilliance even as he lets the man walk all over him, reminded me of the happy-go-lucky Thorpe Athelny in Bondage.

At less than a third of the length of that earlier novel, though, The Moon and Sixpence struck me as a condensed parable about genius and sacrifice.

 

Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. … It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets. … There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to … mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.

This is a fascinating character study, whether or not you’re aware of Gauguin’s life as the inspiration, and would be a great introduction to Maugham’s work if you’ve not read him before. (Secondhand copy from Bookbarn International.)

My rating:

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14 thoughts on “Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence

  1. I just got my copy of Of Human Bondage in the mail yesterday and was a bit put off by its length. I hadn’t realized how big it is. It’s good to hear how much you enjoy reading this author; it will prevent me from pushing his book to the bottom of the pile.

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    1. Of Human Bondage is wonderful (4.5* for me, so that little bit better!), but much more sprawling and Dickensian. I didn’t think Maugham was read that much nowadays, but whenever I go on Goodreads I see many enthusiastic reviews from friends, so perhaps he is perennially popular. I think I’ll look for The Painted Veil and/or The Razor’s Edge next.

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  2. Ooh, The Painted Veil is great (although of course rather emotionally wrenching; no one is ever allowed to be forgiven for anything they’ve ever done because of Maugham’s Enormous Catholic Guilt Complex).

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  3. As usual, in “Moon and Sixpence” (which I read twice at different ages) Maugham is at his off-center center, working at an almost epistolary (oh, don’t mind me) narrative. A master of relentless self-effacement. And the people in the book all efface themselves before the higher will of understanding, charity, love, and inspiration. Good values. (Inspiration is a cruel destiny — but then again someone has to have it.)

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    1. Not sure what you mean by “off-center”. I do love epistolary novels. This one you might call more of a tale within a tale? He’s telling us about Strickland, whom he learns about in part through others’ stories…

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      1. Anyone well-versed in painting can read Strickland as a rather Anglicized parody of a very French (Breton) Gauguin. The odd thing is that in his off-center pose, Maugham is making fun of himself. His differentness, his gay otherness.

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  4. I read this last year (or listened to the audio book read by Robert Hardy) & found it fascinating. I hadn’t read any Maugham for ages until last year when I also read Cakes & Ale and Painted Veil. Must read more Maugham!

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