Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction by Philip Holden
“The South Seas,” reminisced Somerset Maugham when recalling his visit to the area from 1916–1917, “were entirely new to me,” offering the celebrated playwright the opportunity of “entering upon an entirely new literary life.”[i] The Moon and Sixpence, the novel that resulted from the British writer’s travels, represents the beginnings of a transformation of his writing in terms of both subject matter and literary genre. The novel tells the story of Charles Strickland, a respectable London stockbroker who decides in middle age to abandon his wife and children and devote himself to his true passion: art. Strickland’s destructive desire for self-expression takes him first to Paris to learn the craft of painting, and finally to Tahiti in the South Pacific, where he dies in obscurity. Based on the life of French postimpressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence builds on a long tradition of European writing about the South Pacific as an exotic locale. Maugham, however, introduces new elements that give the novel greater resonance. By setting the initial part of the narrative in London, he criticizes the hypocrisy of English culture in the early twentieth century. In addition, Maugham’s use of a naive narrator who pursues Strickland in incomprehension, wonder, and at times disgust, gives further complexity to the novel, enacting Maugham’s own struggles between artistic expression and public respectability, and between his public persona and private life.
Although he is best known as a playwright and writer of short stories, W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) enjoyed one of the longest and most varied literary careers of any author in the English language. He was born in Paris, orphaned at ten, and abruptly transported first to the house of a provincial English clergyman uncle and then the harsh environment of a British boarding school. After studying in Germany, Maugham trained as a doctor in London, and the social deprivation he witnessed in the outpatient’s department at Saint Thomas’s Hospital, South London, provided background material for the gritty realism of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. A closeted homosexual moving with increasing comfort in bohemian circles in London and Paris, Maugham took his revenge on his past suffering and present insecurities through fiction. His second important novel, Mrs. Craddock, is a caustic portrayal of the sterility of middle-class provincial English life, as are many of his plays. After the success of the play Lady Frederick in 1907, Maugham’s popularity and financial security were assured, and yet he continued to exhibit creative versatility. Returning to prose fiction with the autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1915), he continued to write popular short stories and novels until well after the Second World War, drawing on an intense and varied life. His work for British Intelligence in Switzerland provided material for the Ashenden stories, which influenced Ian Fleming and played a substantial role in the development of the genre of espionage fiction. Yet his travels in the South Pacific with his American lover Gerald Haxton that resulted, after the initial success of The Moon and Sixpence, in the short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf (1921) were the most important turning point in a long career. From 1919 onwards, Maugham would move away from the theatre, and produce the series of novels, short stories, and travelogues for which he is now best known, set in the South Pacific, British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, China, and India. Unlike that of many of his predecessors, Maugham’s exotic fiction is not simply exoticizing, but looks beneath a surface glamor to the sordid domestic details of colonialism in decline. In 1926, the British writer bought a villa at Cap Ferrat, France, where he would live—apart from a hiatus in the United States during the Second World War, which provided material for the frame narrative of his most popular novel, The Razor’s Edge (1944)—until his death in 1965. Maugham’s last book, Purely for My Pleasure, was published in 1962, when the author was eighty-eight years old.
The Moon and Sixpence, like much of Maugham’s work, subtly mixes biography, autobiography, and fiction. As Maugham and Gerald Haxton traveled from Honolulu to Pago Pago in Western Samoa, and on to Fiji, New Zealand, Tonga, and finally Tahiti, the author was meticulous in recording character sketches of fellow passengers on ship and acquaintances he made while ashore, mindful of the possibilities they represented as material for fiction. “In great cities,” he would later write, “men are like a lot of stones thrown together in a bag; their jagged corners are rubbed till in the end they are as smooth as marbles. These men had never had their jagged corners rubbed away.”[ii] Thus the Hotel La Fleur in the novel is in actuality the Hotel Tiaré, where Maugham stayed; the real name of the hotel is then transferred to its proprietor, Louvaina Chapman, who becomes Tiaré Johnson, “a woman of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions” in the novel. In Apia, Maugham noted the evident terror of the owner of the Central Hotel before his wife, who used “her fist and foot to keep him in subjection.”[iii] The man’s predicament became the inspiration for Captain Nichols in The Moon and Sixpence, the beachcomber who gets to know Strickland in Marseilles and later fills in gaps in his life story for the narrator.
Maugham’s experience of the South Pacific, however, was not unmediated, and he drew on literary sources to supplement his own observations when he wrote his novel. He had read much European and American Literature set in the region, including in all probability Herman Melville’s Typee and Omoo, and the French traveler Pierre Loti’s The Marriage of Loti. In his previous writing, indeed, there are references to the South Pacific as a place of potential refuge from the hypocrisy of Western civilization. In The Merry-Go-Round (1904), the protagonist Frank Hurrell dreams of “the violent adventures of the South Seas,”[iv] while in Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey, a distorted but recognizable self-portrait of the author, ponders fruitlessly the possibility of escape from London to the “lagoons of the South Sea Islands.”[v] Indeed, Maugham’s travels in the South Pacific were not only a voyage of discovery but also a pilgrimage to sites associated with artistic forebears. He visited the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson in Apia, and in Tahiti traced the footsteps of Gauguin before the painter departed for the Marquesas and eventual died. Maugham had lived in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century and was an early admirer of postimpressionist art. He was also a shrewd businessman. Visiting a hut where Gauguin had stayed while he was sick, Maugham was shown three glass door panels that the French artist had painted as a means of showing gratitude to its owner. He purchased the best preserved of the three for the price of a new door, guiltily offering the hut’s owner twice his initial asking price.
To literary precedent and the experience of travel we need to add a third ingredient to a consideration of The Moon and Sixpence: the time of its composition. Maugham appears to have written much of the novel during the summer of 1918, when he rented a house near Farnham in the Surrey countryside and stayed there with his wife, Syrie, and their young daughter, Liza. In the year after his return from Tahiti much had happened. America had entered the First World War, and Gerald Haxton had enlisted and embarked on a ship to South Africa that had then been sunk by a German raider. Gerald survived and was interned in Germany, but Maugham believed him dead. In May 1917, he married Syrie Wellcome, who had already given birth to their daughter Liza out of wedlock. Maugham had, indeed, been named as a respondent when Syrie’s former husband, the pharmaceutical company head and philanthropist Henry Wellcome brought divorce proceedings against his wife in 1915. Maugham’s relationship with Syrie had been the most important of a number of his heterosexual affairs at that time, and they married with few illusions: Syrie certainly knew of Maugham’s sexuality and his relationship with Gerald, and Maugham himself was more interested in the public appearance of marriage than developing a private relationship. The summer in Surrey may well have represented the couple’s last peaceful time together; by the autumn of 1918, acrimony had crept into their relationship, and their mutual antagonism would grow over the years until their eventual divorce a decade later.
The Moon and Sixpence is thus built around a contrast between the restrictions of English society and the freedom offered by Tahiti, with Paris, where Strickland lives in poverty and learns his craft of painting, occupying a liminal space between the two worlds. In adapting the story of Paul Gauguin’s life, Maugham consciously exaggerated this opposition. Gauguin himself was born in Peru, worked as a merchant seaman before marrying and settling down as a stockbroker; he then returned to a Bohemian life in the company of Dutch postimpressionist Vincent Van Gogh, before quitting Europe for Tahiti. Strickland’s journey is a simple one-way process from civilization to primitivity. Some of Maugham’s other changes indicate his keen awareness of the marketplace; his protagonist’s life is scandalous, but it does not break the bounds of contemporary proprieties that were observed in the publishing world. Gauguin died of syphilis, while Strickland is afflicted by the more socially acceptable leprosy; Gauguin’s exploitative liaisons with under-age Tahitian girls are replaced with Maugham’s protagonist’s monogamous relationship with the sixteen-year-old Ata, who worships him with “superhuman love.” Strickland’s persistent misogyny, however, which is in sharp contrast to Maugham’s sensitivity to women characters in earlier novels and plays, may well have been influenced by his relationship with Syrie.
In contrast to the controversy that had greeted Maugham’s earlier novels two decades before, and the relative silence that had confronted his most profound work, Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence was well-received, and became a best seller in the United States. What criticism there was of the novel tended to concentrate either on its excessive melodrama or on the implausibility of Strickland’s character: an anonymous review in the London Saturday Review opined that it would be impossible for such a “crypto-Monet to live the stockbroker’s life” until he was over forty before breaking free.[vi] Expatriate New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield developed this response into a more perceptive insight. Because of the manner in which the novel is related by its narrator, Mansfield noted, we gain little understanding of Strickland himself. “We are not told enough,” she noted. “We must be shown something of the workings of his mind; we must have some comment of his upon what he feels, fuller and more exhaustive than his perpetual: ‘Go to hell.’”[vii]
Yet Maugham’s choice of a narrator who is a minor character in, rather than the protagonist of, the narrative, marks a conscious development of a literary tradition. This feature of the novel imitates much colonial fiction by writers such as Hugh Clifford or Rudyard Kipling, in which a frame narrative of a conversation between friends or acquaintances in a place of relative tranquility--a club in London, perhaps, or a soldier’s mess--results in a shared memory of adventure. In the works of such writers this mode of narration provides a measured contrast between civilization and primitivity, in which moments of danger and adventure are contained and controlled by a calm, rational frame, confirming colonial values. As Jeffrey Meyers has noted, however, Maugham’s immediate model in the use of this narrative structure was Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, which puts it to a very different use. In Heart of Darkness the frame narrative dissolves. Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, comes back from his pursuit in the Congo of the enigmatic explorer and trader Kurtz with his faith in the European civilizing mission shattered. Darkness is less a feature of the Congo than it is of the contemporary London to which Marlow returns, and by extension, it lies at the heart of Western civilization; the novella’s subject matter cannot be contained by its narrative frame.
The Moon and Sixpence takes this process of revision of a tradition one step further: the story is not retold, as Conrad’s is, to a group of socially representative onlookers in London, but is rather presented directly to an audience of readers by a narrator whom we are encouraged to identify as a younger version of Maugham himself. The initial part of the novel teases its reader to judge where fact stops and fiction begins; the first chapter, for example, contains footnoted references to three recently published books on Strickland’s life and art, as well as a note on an auction-house catalog description of one of his works, and while the artifice is transparent to us now, it did cause confusion for contemporary reviewers. Textual features of this sort decrease the distance between the reader and the narrator, directly implicating readers within the social context described. Maugham’s worldview is less profound than Conrad’s but it is also more ironic; his narrator inhabits, leaves, and returns at the end of the novel to the restriction of a bourgeois English drawing-room, aware of the narrowness of this social world but unable to break out of it. In his inarticulateness regarding the nature of Strickland’s genius, Maugham’s narrator in Tahiti turns his gaze elsewhere, looking at the underside of European rule that is far less glamorous than dreams of adventure and primitivity: washed-up beachcombers, remittance men, and alcoholics. If The Moon and Sixpence manages in its portrayal of Stricland’s life to warm the last embers of exoticism and romance, the novel’s attention also wanders elsewhere. Maugham’s interest in figures such as Captain Nichols foreshadows the devastating critiques he would make in later fiction of the sordid domestic reality that lay behind the polite facades and pieties of colonial rule.
There is, indeed, a further aspect of The Moon and Sixpence produced by Maugham’s narrative strategies: its concern with the surfaces of modern life and the difficulty of reading them for signs of what lies beneath. Strickland’s departure to France is completely unexpected; after it has happened, the narrator searches for clues as to the stockbroker’s motivation, but can find none. The narrator, the painter Dirk Stroeve in Paris, and Dr. Coutras, the physician who attends Strickland during his last days in Tahiti, all recognize the power of his paintings, but remain unable to account for their power: they describe them physically, but are unable to articulate what makes them special. In the novel, we not only see Strickland through the eyes of the narrator, but we even more frequently receive his story at third-hand, through the mediation of characters such as Nichols, Coutras, or the English wife he leaves behind. In each of these cases, Strickland’s unreadability predominates; the reader, like Maugham’s narrator, is “in the position of a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the appearance of the extinct animal, but its habits.” A clue to Maugham’s partly unconscious concerns can be gained from the introductory section to The Moon and Sixpence, in which the narrator discusses art, and notes that while Velasquez is a better painter, he prefers El Greco because the latter, through “sensual and tragic” art “proffers the mystery of his soul” to those who view his paintings. This connection recalls one of Maugham’s very few published comments on homosexuality in an essay on El Greco, in which Maugham identifies the painter as homosexual, and then identifies homosexuality with an ironic attitude to life. “The homosexual,” Maugham notes, has “keen insight” into the depths of human nature, but “fetches up from them not a priceless jewel but a tinsel ornament”; he “stands on the bank, aloof and ironical, and watches the river of life flow on. He is persuaded that opinion is no more than prejudice.”[viii] The British writer’s analysis is less a reflection of homosexuality itself than it is his own experience of living a double life in a society marked by public homophobia. The Moon and Sixpence was thus perhaps a covert, and partially unconscious, means for Maugham to explore the tensions of a divided life.
The disadvantages of being an author, Maugham wrote late in his life, were offset by writing’s cathartic power. The writer’s “sins and his follies, the unhappiness that befalls him, his unrequited love, his physical defects, illness, privation, his hopes abandoned, his griefs, humiliations, everything is transformed by his power, and by writing he can overcome it.”[ix] In this perspective, The Moon and Sixpence emerges not as simply an abstract, ironic contrast between decadent civilization and Edenic primitivity, but as a profoundly personal exploration of the many performances of selfhood necessary for the author and for all of us in modern life.
Philip Holden is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of four books and many articles about colonial and postcolonial literary and cultural production.
[i] Quoted in Leslie A. Marchand, “The Exoticism of W. Somerset Maugham,” in The Maugham Enigma, ed. Klaus W. Jonas (London: Owen, 1954), p. 59.
[ii] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (London, Heinemann, 1948), p. 195.
[iii] W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook (London: Heinemann, 1949), p. 111.
[iv] W. Somerset Maugham, The Merry-Go-Round (London: Heinemann, 1904), p. 249.
[v] W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (Garden City, NY: Sun Dial Press, 1945), p .636.
[vi] “The Primitive Man,” in W. Somerset Maugham: the Critical Heritage, ed. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead (London: Routledge, 1987), p.143.
[vii] Katherine Mansfield, “Inarticulations,” in W. Somerset Maugham: the Critical Heritage, ed. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 140.
[viii] W. Somerset Maugham, "El Greco," in Mr. Maugham Himself, ed. John Beechcroft (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), p. 246.
[ix] W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (London, Heinemann, 1948), 185.