Friday, May 30, 2014

The Moon and Sixpence - Somerset Maugham

An extraordinary tale which could only be based on real life, 'The Moon and Sixpence' is loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). What is extraordinary about the French artist's life is the manner in which he completely surrenders to art as he sees it leaving behind any distractions from his pursuit of art - family, friends, material possessions, love, fame, recognition. Merely art for art's sake.

In the novel however Maugham writes about a character called Charles Strickland, an English stockbroker. Maugham puts the narrator as a young writer who makes some acquaintances in the writerly circles in London. In one of those parties he meets Mrs. Strickland, wife of the dull stockbroker, who does not understand nor cares for literature or arts. One fine day, Strickland the boring, leaves his wife an children, with almost nothing to sustain themselves on. When the narrator is sent to Paris to convince Charles to return he says he does not care to return because he wants to paint. He has been drawn to painting and has been taking classes and wants to devote his life to it without any distractions. Charles lives in abject penury, has no money to get by, does odd jobs to sustain himself but goes about painting. He encourages no friends, no discussion and no love affairs because he does not wish to get distracted.

In time, the narrator moves to Paris and meets the highly anti-social and despicable but clearly focussed  Strickland and another character Stroeve, who loves to paint but has no talent of it. What Stroeve is good at is identifying talent and he puts up with Strickland's bad behavior because he believes he is a great artist. When Strickland is mortally ill he takes him and cares for him. Strickland begins an affair with Stroeve's wife, Blanche, showing no sense of remorse for Stroeve nor his wife. Blanche finally commits suicide when she realises that Strickland cares for nothing but art. Stroeve leaves Paris in distress but offers Strickland a home in Holland where he can paint in peace. Stroeve forgives all the excesses of the genius.

From Paris to Tahiti, marrying a native, living in penury and still painting, falling ill to a dreaded disease and painting on through his illness until he dies, Strickland's mad obsession continues. What is even greater is his refusal to market himself or even seek recognition, critique or fame. His best works that are painted in Tahiti, are burnt down with the hut in which he lived after his death,, as desired by him. But whatever is left of his works, pick up great demand after his death and gives some comfort and fame to his family, Mrs. Strickland and her children.

It is extraordinary. Some lines must be quoted (all spoken by the taciturn Strickland).
'A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes on her account.'

'I don't want love. I haven't time for it. It's a weakness..'

'I can't overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work.'

'I know lust. That's normal and healthy. Love is a disease.'

'Women are the instruments of pleasure, I have no patience with their claim to be helpmates, partners, companions.'

Strickland is a fantastic character. The book has been made into a Hollywood movie.

My deal friend Mohan gave me the book and I am grateful to him for having thought of introducing me to these ideas. Thanks Mohan.

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