This is going to be short because, one, I got a cold for Valentine’s Day and, two, to be honest, I can’t say I’m 100% behind the book I’m blogging. I started reading W. Somerset Maugham’s, The Moon and Sixpence — loosely based on the life of French painter Paul Gauguin — with alacrity and interest. But then my feelings about this novel changed.
Typical of Maugham, the book begins with a bit of philosophizing and a then a pointed look back. In this case, an unnamed narrator expounds briefly on artistic genius and why it’s seldom appreciated in its own time. He then reflects on the time he knew Charles Strickland (the fictional Gauguin) in London and in Paris.
Here the narrative takes a sharp turn from rather dull soliloquy to pretty high drama. We first meet Strickland through his wife. The couple lives a conventional life in London — he a stockbroker and she a skillful housekeeper and mother of two. Then, out of the blue, Strickland leaves her and the narrator is dispatched to Paris to bring him home.
Needless to say, Strickland never goes home. Instead he stays in Paris and starts painting. Badly.
So far, so good. But as Strickland and the narrator strike up an uneasy and often unbelievable friendship, Maugham starts to lose me. Strickland is totally self-absorbed, arrogant, and generally detestable. For instance, when his lover kills herself by drinking acid, he dismisses her as a fool.
Women are dissed; art is divorced from the realm of the mere mortal. It’s not exactly uplifting. Also, the narrator’s connection with the narrative seems contrived. He’s there to relate the high points, and then at other moments, you wonder what he ever had to do with these people, who he tells us repeatedly he does not like.
I’d say if you want a fast-paced, well written drama featuring the tortured artist, check out Emile Zola’s, The Masterpiece. Zola, famous for his realism, bases the novel on the characters of his friend, Paul Cezanne, and Edouard Manet. Though Claude Lantier, the main character and part of the Rougon-Macquart series, is obsessed and often acts abominably, Zola takes great pains to show us why he behaves as he does. There’s also a fascinating (fictional) description of the making of the Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863), Manet’s real-life masterpiece that provoked a bit of shock and ridicule among the Paris art scene.
The Masterpiece set off a few shockwaves of its own, not just among literary critics (who loved to grouse about Zola’s gritty and extreme approach to realism) but also among his friends, who felt betrayed by the novel’s portrait of painters.
Well, you can’t please everyone, can you? If you like painters lives and fiction, either one of these may be worth checking out.
Until next time,