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W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) seems to have slipped rather sharply from public favour in recent years. Yet for much of his career, particularly between the wars, he was one of the most successful British writers of all (novels, short stories and plays), and 'The Moon and Sixpence', first published in 1919, went on to become one of his most popular titles. By modern standards it is fairly short, running to little over 200 pages in standard-size paperback.
The story is based fairly loosely on the life of the French artist Paul Gauguin, a post-impressionist painter who was remembered best for the extraordinarily colourful paintings he did in Tahiti, where he settled after leaving France and spent the last disease-ridden years of his life. The central character of the tale is Charles Strickland, a middle-aged stockbroker from London, who abandons his successful career, wife and family in order to pursue his vocation - or perhaps better to say obsession - as a painter. In fact the novel is disguised as biography, even going to the extent of citing three other (fictitious) biographies of Strickland in the footnotes, plus the (apparent) name and year of publication. (I wonder if any other unsuspecting readers have fallen for it and tried to track these books down anywhere).
His saga is told by a first-person narrator, an author whose name we never learn. He has been introduced to the apparently very ordinary Strickland through the latter's wife, and first meets him at a rather boring dinner party, 'the kind of party which makes you wonder why the hostess has troubled to bid her guests, and why the guests have troubled to come.' He immediately finds Strickland 'good, honest, dull, and plain'. Fortunately he had no great expectations that evening, as Mrs Strickland had had the decency to warn him beforehand that he would be 'bored to extinction', adding that she would be extremely grateful if he could come. Sometimes there's nothing like a little mission of mercy.
Maugham's novels tend to be rather cynical and to some minds depressing, but I find they generally have a plot and pace which compensates for that and makes them very readable. This one is no exception.
A little while later, we learn that Strickland has suddenly done a runner and settled in Paris, having shed all the comforts of his predictable life in London and deciding he now wants to be a painter. He is staying in seedy hotels, prepared to put up with starvation and illness just as long as he can lead the life he wants. The narrator is sent there by the distraught Mrs Strickland to try and persuade him to come back to his old life and family, and is repelled to find how utterly callous and indifferent he has now become to the feelings of anyone but himself. 'Won't it mean anything to you to let you know that people loathe and despise you?' he is asked. No, is the scornful answer. He is now totally unrecognisable from the man he was before, completely driven and single-minded; nothing else matters, but the desire to express himself through his art.
With barely any money left, his only means of support is a helping financial hand from Dirk Stroeve, a successful Dutch painter who is a friend of his and of the narrator. When Strickland falls seriously ill, partly as a result of self-neglect, Stroeve's wife Blanche immediately goes to nurse him back to health. From that, it is only a short step to her abandoning her husband for the artist. It then turns out that he was only using her as a model and had no intention of offering her serious companionship. Dirk is distraught when she leaves her, and even more so when she is cast aside without a second thought and takes her life in despair.
The narrator eventually returns to England. Some years later he is told that Strickland has moved to Tahiti and died there. He is keen to find out what became of him, goes out to the south seas, and through the recollections of those who knew him, including a ship captain and the woman who became his common-law wife and bore him a child, he manages to piece the story together of his last years.
The plot, basically quite a simple one, is well-handled, and the thoroughly dislikeable character of Strickland is convincingly if coldly drawn. We never learn much about the narrator, but this was doubtless the author's aim - an unexceptional man, who does not try or aspire to overshadow the central character who turns out to be far less ordinary than he appeared during the opening pages of the book. I first read it in my early teens with great enjoyment, came back to it very recently (having forgotten pretty well everything but the basic story in the meantime), and I found it just as rewarding the second time round.
Although Maugham is rather out of fashion today, as mentioned above, he seems to have been elevated to 'twentieth century classic status' these days. His major novels have been kept regularly in print thanks to successive publishers, and as ever there's always the public library. This seems to have remained one of his most popular titles, and I would certainly recommend it.