by Perry Meisel
The Moon and Sixpence. By W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Signet Classics, 1993.
Although W. Somerset Maugham's three principal novels - Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), and Cakes and Ale (1930) - have all garnered the praise they deserve, Maugham's remarkable popular success over an extraordinarily long and prolific career has also made generations of critics nervous about just how good a writer he is. Modern novelists, like modern poets, are supposed to be difficult, as T.S. Eliot once observed; if they are too readable, something must be wrong. Ever since the publication of Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897, a crisp realist account of a young woman's tragic fate in the slums of London's East End, Maugham has been eminently readable. The book's success convinced him to throw over the career in medicine for which he was to qualify only a few months later, and to take up writing full time. By 1907, he had become a hit London playwright as well as a respected young novelist. By 1908, he was famous on both sides of the Atlantic for his plays, underscoring the dramatic efficiency so central to the power and attractiveness of his fiction.
This virtue has dogged Maugham's reputation as though it were a vice, and has put Maugham's achievement as a master of the modern English novel under a shadow despite his enduring popularity and the readerly satisfaction that both his novels and his short stories continue to afford. Maugham's presumable shortcoming is his apparent failure, by contrast with James Joyce, say, or Virginia Woolf, to innovate formally or stylistically. Our understanding of twentieth-century fiction has, in the years since World War II, valued literary modernism for its antagonism toward the Victorian past and for its departures from Victorian literary conventions, chief among them the unembarrassed compulsion to tell absorbing stories. Maugham's presumable failure to innovate lies in his seeming unwillingness to check, or at least to question, this compulsion.
The Moon and Sixpence, however, shows Maugham to be not only an enormously fluent and compelling writer; it also shows the notion that Maugham is simply a plain and straightforward writer of absorbing tales to be a mistaken one. Like Joseph Conrad, a major influence and still a securely canonical modernist, Maugham is actually a complex and ironic writer of fiction who combines a storytelling ease with profound self-consciousness. The result is an artist whose work both conforms to the protocols of modernist orthodoxy and outstrips them.
Based on the life and legend of Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), the Postimpressionist French painter who crucially influenced modern art with his shocking primitivism and daunting use of color, The Moon and Sixpence helped to inaugurate the Gauguin mythology that is the story of a willful man who scorned material comfort in life, and who fled to the South Seas in pursuit of a natural warmth and directness of feeling that found expression in his painting. The tropics, whether African, American, or Asian, had long symbolized a freedom of imaginative expressiveness in the history of Romantic aesthetics, and Gauguin came to represent this symbolism perhaps more clearly than any other single modern artist. Like Conrad, Maugham had a lifelong fascination with the South Seas, although as a writer he, like Conrad, distances himself from this mythology even as he represents it.
Maugham's novel transforms Gauguin into the fictional Charles Strickland, an English stockbroker who, one day, abandons his wife, children, and career because, as he puts it, succinctly enough, "I want to paint." Despite a history of loyalty to his family, Strickland turns out to be rude, callous, and indifferent, the very reverse of both his record of domestic devotion and the depth of feeling presumably reflected in the warm colors and natural expressiveness of his art. After a journey through the garrets of Paris and the underworld of Marseilles, Strickland eventually makes his way to Tahiti, where, poor but happy, he lives, works, and dies. The actual facts of Gauguin's life are a bit more complicated than the rather simpler ones that Maugham uses to structure Strickland's fictional biography (some of them make their way into the Parisian sequences in Of Human Bondage), although the basic outlines of the story are the same.
Like Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence reads with uncommon smoothness, even though it is structured by flashback and discontinuity. The temporal complexities of Maugham's story, together with the foregrounded, first-person narrator who gathers information about his subject belatedly, after the fact of his death, are devices Maugham surely owes to Conrad, particularly the Conrad of Heart of Darkness (1899), whose narrator, Charlie Marlow, pursues the visionary enigma of Kurtz deep into the Congo with questionable interpretative success. The Moon and Sixpence's elliptical, Conradian structure mirrors its theme.
Strickland's decisive quality as an artist is, in Maugham's own word, "simplification," although the irony is that this "simplification" is anything but simple. It is extraordinarily hard to understand. It is almost as though Maugham is poking fun at his own presumable simplicity as well as at the myth of the modern artist whose rejection of all that is conventional turns out to be obfuscating rather than clarifying. Modern art, whether Gauguin's or Maugham's own, is indeed difficult, although one need not be hit over the head with it for its subtleties to emerge. The directness that Gauguin represents mythologically is, in Maugham's rendering, actually the reverse of what it seems to be – inscrutable, oblique, without the manifest meaning it appears to offer. Rather than find and disclose a fugitive secret that will explain Strickland and his art, Maugham's narrator is faced instead with an interpretative impasse. The more he learns about Strickland, the less he knows. To the question, "What is the secret of modern artistic creation?" there is no available reply. "It is a riddle," says Maugham at the book's start, "which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer." Contrary to the very mythology he narrates, Maugham finds Strickland's, or Gauguin's, vaunted directness of purpose and expression to be utterly mysterious, altogether unobliging to analysis despite the endless temptation to engage in it. Strickland and his work are not as simple as they look.
The innovative complexities of The Moon and Sixpence are not, however, limited to temporal experimentation or the refusal to allegorize. If the novel resembles Conrad in narrative structure and tropical site, it also departs from Conrad in its suspension of sympathy for the visionary. Maugham's first-person narrator does not construe his relation to Strickland along the familiar lines of the secret sharer or double (the narrator who recognizes his own dark or repressed side by identifying with his perplexing subject), the combined technical and psychological device that Maugham borrows from Conrad and turns on its head. Unlike Conrad's Marlow, Maugham's narrator is drawn to the visionary not by sympathy but by mere curiosity, circumstantially created by the entreaties of Strickland's abandoned wife, whom he meets in London at the book's start, and, later on, by the circumstances of World War I, when he finds himself in Tahiti after Strickland has died. Even though Maugham's narrator is himself an artist (a professional writer), he does not glorify the artist's pain and suffering, as Thomas Mann does with the composer Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1912), or as Joyce does, with considerably more sarcasm, with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). "I have nothing but horror," says Maugham in a 1917 entry in A Writer's Notebook, "for the literary cultivation of suffering which has been so fashionable of late." Despite the narrator's fascination with Strickland, there is no kinship, nor is there antagonism. There is instead a preposterously cool neutrality, made convincing by the charming avuncularity of tone that is Maugham's stylistic signature.
This charm is what makes the Maugham narrator the central force in The Moon and Sixpence, and a special voice in English fiction as a whole. Nameless in The Moon and Sixpence, this persona came to be used more and more by Maugham over the years, acquiring the name of Ashenden in many of Maugham's stories (including his famous spy stories, based on his work as a British agent during World War I) and Cakes and Ale; he even survives his incarnation as Ashenden with the publication of The Razor's Edge (1944), when he takes on Maugham's own name. Endearingly paradoxical, the Maugham narrator is sophisticated and cynical, but also affable and companionable; dry and indirect, but also vivid and straightforward. While it may appear that his exact descriptive powers in The Moon and Sixpence contrast with the lack of an explanation to the puzzle of Strickland, his unwillingness to offer allegorical answers to aesthetic, existential, or metaphysical quandaries is of a piece with his trenchant exactitude. If something cannot be described, what is its status? Maugham had little use for the ineffable, not because his sympathy for Romantic vision was nil, but because the realist in him bridled at the excessive poeticity to which the description of inward states of mind might lead. He mocks the dangers of such rhetorical self-indulgence in the opening chapters of The Moon and Sixpence, finally throwing up his hands in the face of the bad writing that results from it in order to get on with his story.
These playful tensions suggest that Maugham's unique narrative voice owes its strength to the strategic resolution of the two major and contradictory influences that determine his writing. One is the social realism of the late Victorian novelist George Gissing, which has its initial expression in Liza and Lambeth, and which, historically, is a literalization of Dickensian melodrama. The other is the late Romantic aestheticism, or "impressionism," of Walter Pater and his disciple Oscar Wilde, whose wide appeal Maugham describes at length in the autobiographical Of Human Bondage, and which has its initial expression in the novel's unpublished first version, "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey." Pater's aestheticism stressed the sensuality of visionary apprehension, identifying the privileged moment with a state of grace. Maugham went to the same school as Pater, the King's School in Canterbury, and also studied at Heidelberg, where Pater's two sisters, one of whom later tutored the young Virginia Woolf, had completed their educations. Historically, aestheticism is an appropriation of Romantic poetic diction to prose, and, as a literary stance, bespeaks the stylistic profligacy of which Maugham was most afraid as a writer. Wilde learned to distance himself from his master Pater by scrubbing down Pater's lush rhetoric to an almost parodic concision, turning to the theater, like Maugham after him, as a means of protection from descriptive excess. Blanche Stroeve's suicide in The Moon and Sixpence even recalls Sybil Vane's suicide in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Both deaths symbolize the protest of realist heroines, and of realism as a literary mode, against the dominion of aesthetic antiheroes, and of aestheticism as a rival and threatening literary practice. The title The Moon and Sixpence is also an expression of these antithetical strains in Maugham's imaginative temper. Its terms come from the assessment of the hero in Of Human Bondage in a review in the Times Literary Supplement ("so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet"), with "the moon" representing the visionary or aesthetic impulse and "sixpence" the commonplace wisdom that is its opposite.
The superb psychological realism of Of Human Bondage is the first genuine resolution of these contradictory influences in Maugham's career as a novelist. A masterpiece from either point of view, it allows the strengths of each of these rival modes of apprehension to supplement rather than impede one another. Paterian inwardness finds its place in the psychology of the book's autobiographical protagonist, while the external world of social realism finds its place in the environmental factors that shape his psyche. The Moon and Sixpence, like Cakes and Ale, carries this achievement to a new level as the voice of Maugham's narrator knowingly balances these contradictory approaches to life and letters alike with an ease that comes from the overt and self-conscious resolution of this conflict. Using the plain speech of the social realist, he denudes the visionary extravagance of aestheticism; using the rhetorical richness of aestheticism, he simultaneously heightens the drabness of social realism. Unlike Pater's modernist heirs Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom seek meaning, however ironically, in visionary figures, Maugham suspects the visionary gleam even when it beckons, as it does in the riddle of the exemplary but maddening Strickland.
The result is not a rejection of aestheticism but a hollowing out of aestheticism's belief in the privilege of beauty. What remains is a graceful but severe aesthetic stance with little to enjoy but a pipe before bed and a shake of the head. It is instructive that chief among Ashenden's literary heirs are the had-boiled detectives and spies of Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, and John Le Carré, all of whom have testified to Maugham's influence, and whose heroes summarize, albeit in reduced form, the admixture of swagger and sweat that makes up Maugham's characteristic and durable narrative voice (Chandler even goes so far as to suggest Ashenden's source in Conrad's Marlow by naming his own dogged hero Philip Marlowe).
The antagonistic visions of the aesthete and the realist combine rather than compete in The Moon and Sixpence, granting the novel an astonishingly double estimate of life. The suspension of judgment that is its moral implication is likewise astonishing. Life is enormously rich, colorful, full of beauty and emotion, while, at the same time, altogether without meaning. This double vision gives Maugham his continuity with Victorian realism while also placing him among his modernist contemporaries. It also reverses our normative understanding of literary history by rendering modernism a source of affirmation and Victorian realism a source of doubt and emptiness. This formidable balance and revisionary power make Maugham distinct among English novelists, and will allow his fiction to endure.