A very popular author

Nowadays it's likely that not a enormous number of people would know the name of W. Somerset Maugham. In his day he was hugely popular, writing prolifically, and with a large number of his books turned into films. In the 1930's he was also the highest paid author in the world. A sometime secret agent, his books depicted a wide variety of life, although he had a passion for the exotic which was often a central feature of many of his novels. Some of his books have suffered because they embrace the mores of the time in which they were written, certainly some of his attitudes towards both women and race can feel a little uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, but he was a great story-teller, and many of his books remain as strong today as when they were first written.

The Moon and Sixpence is very loosely based on the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin, who in the novel becomes an English artist, Charles Strickland. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a young novelist, who first comes to know Strickland, a stockbroker, via his wife, a charming woman, who fancies herself as the hostess of a London literary salon. When Strickland most unexpectedly leaves his wife, and escapes to Paris, Society gossip is rife with tales of adultery and chorus girls, but in fact Strickland has left because his impulse to become an artist has become so overpowering that he feels he had no choice. After a period in Paris, Strickland moves on to the island of his dreams, Tahiti, and it is here that the novel will end.

The first third of the book is slow. I think this may be deliberate as the slow pace reflects Strickland's own sensations of his life as a stockbroker and family man. The Paris third is often quite repellant, Strickland is not a pleasant man, and Maugham writes extremely well, making you want to go on reading in spite of the fact that the central character, although possibly a genius, is both unpleasant and unsympathetic. The final third in Tahiti is just wonderful writing - moving, stunning, redemptive, I could go on, but it's probably just sufficient to say that I loved it.

In some ways it reminded me of Amadeus. The original play looked very deeply into the nature of genius, and also the morality of genius. The moon and sixpence suggests that there is something in the nature of genius that is less than moral, perhaps a sort of single-mindedness that is necessary to enable the artist to become what he is meant to be. There is also the central question of who is art for? Is it for those with money, who only see the £/$ signs? Or for the cognoscenti? Or perhaps for no-one, it is just what it is, and is equally brilliant whether or not it has an audience.

Some parts of the book (especially some of the attitudes towards women) do not make comfortable reading, but it's worth getting through them - it is truly quite stunning.


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