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This is one of those books that I find particularly hard to assess.  On the one hand, it is eminently, even compulsively, readable.  On the other, it is animated by ideas that range from the merely silly to the truly destructive.

The novel, something of a roman a clef derived from the life of Paul Gauguin, tells the simple story of Charles Strickland, a seemingly garden variety middle class Englishman, who in his forties abandons his family to go live in Paris and paint.   The narrator is first dispatched to bring him back, unsuccessfully, and then meets him several more times throughout the ensuing years.  During these years the artist struggles to feed himself but has an arrogant confidence in his own vision.  A mutual acquaintance, the hack artist Dirk Stroeve, shares Strickland's belief in his greatness and Strickland exploits Stroeve unmercifully, finally stealing his wife.  Ultimately, the narrator attempts to track Strickland down in Tahiti, where he has gone in pursuit of his artistic vision, but finds that he has died from leprosy.  As I say, this basic plot line is quite compelling.  There is undeniably something heroic about Strickland's risk taking and something awesome about his sureness of self.  But the ideas that drive the plot are really awful.

Maugham announces early on his view of art:

    ...art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.

and the artist:

    To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I
    am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

In the first place, the view of art, though wholly consistent with modern understanding, is precisely wrong.  Great art is not fundamentally emotional, especially not an expression of the artist's emotions.   It is instead intellectual, and what makes it great is that the ideas that it presents are universal and evoke universal emotions.  What Maugham is praising is the subjective and the personal in art, that which requires either a visceral reaction devoid of thought or a knowledge of the artist's mood at the time he was working theory or an understanding of the theory he labored under.  Tom Wolfe, in his twin works The Painted Word (1975) & From Bauhaus to Our House (1981)(read Orrin's review) has done a better job than I ever could of demonstrating that this trend in Modern Art has lead to a point where the artwork itself is superfluous, what matters most is the theory.  Similarly, Maugham's attitude seems to be that the artist's personality is more important that the work he produces.  It is a short line from this idea to the wretched excesses of artists like Jackson Pollack to the famous for fame's sake nature of someone like Andy Warhol.  These people no longer produce Art; they produce their own personalities, then the glitterati and the critics buy their work and inflate it into "art."  Along the way they create a truly disturbed cycle of dependency which requires the artist to demonstrate his genius by increasingly aberrant behavior and the patron to demonstrate his appreciation by tolerating or even encouraging that behavior.

What's even more frustrating in the novel is that Maugham seems to have anticipated much of this.  Strickland's treatment of everyone is simply abhorrent, but particularly the way that he uses Stroeve, who is the first to "recognize his genius."  Also, the narrator at one point says to Strickland:

    "I wonder if you haven't mistaken your medium", I said.

    "What the hell do you mean?"

    "I think you're trying to say something; I don't quite know what it is, but I'm not sure that the best
    way of saying it is by means of painting."

The point, of course, is that the paintings do not express ideas in a coherent fashion.  It is necessary to also have an external knowledge of the artist's intent in order to make sense of the work.  And finally, Maugham's account of Strickland's last days border on parody as he is depicted feverishly struggling to complete his "masterpiece" though blinded by leprosy.  Hopefully the author understood the ludicrousness of this final image of the blind visual artist, conveying as it does a complete unconcern for the quality of the artist's work.

By all means read the book; it's quite good.  But at the same time be conscious of the really terrible philosophy of Modernism which it propounds.  Enjoy it, but don't take it seriously.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

See also:

W. Somerset Maugham (2 books reviewed)
Art
Book-related and General Links:
    -W(illiam) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "somerset maugham"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "w. somerset maugham"
    -BIO: Somerset Maugham (British Empire)
    -Knitting Circle: Somerset Maugham
    -Somerset Maugham, "The Fall of Edward Bernard"
    -W. Somerset Maugham's Stories and Books on Film (IntelligentsiaNetwork.com)
    -Maugham, W. Somerset: 1874 - 1965 (EducETH)
    -Literary Research Guide: Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965 )
    -ETEXT: Moon and Sixpence (Self-Knowledge)
    -ETEXT:  Of Human Bondage
    -ESSAY: Listen to your Maugham: Purpose, Method, and Contradiction (Edward G. Green)
    -ESSAY: Somerset Maugham--World Traveler, Famed Storyteller (Craig Showalter, Caxtonian)
    -ESSAY: THE FOLLIES OF WRITER WORSHIP (Julian Barnes, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: BIOGRAPHY AND THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION -- WHY CURIOSITY IS NO LONGER VULGAR (Leon Edel, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Grace in the Arts:  THE LIMITS OF GRACIOUSNESS:  A Study of Grace-Resisters in  Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and  Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (JAMES TOWNSEND,  Bible Editor,  David C. Cook Publishing Company)
    -ESSAY: The Writing Life (Ben Cheever, Random House Bold Type)
    -ARTICLE: PUBLISHING: A MAUGHAM COLLECTION (EDWIN McDOWELL, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Gore Vidal: Maugham's Half & Half, NY Review of Books
        Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder
        A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham
        Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Mazzocco: Slippery Fish, NY Review of Books
        Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham by Robin Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: Compositions, NY Review of Books
        Auden: An American Friendship by Charles H. Miller
        This Man and Music by Anthony Burgess
        Glenn Gould: Variations by Himself and His Friends
        Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors by Giovanni Carandente
        The Letters of William Somerset Maugham to Lady Juliet Duff
    -Review of Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (Doug Shaw)
    -REVIEW: of Moon and Sixpence (Friday May 2, 1919, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (Edward Tanguay

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