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Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling

February 26, 2013 22 comments

The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham. 1919. French title: L’Envoûté.

book_club_2Things have been a bit hectic for our book club this month with flus, business trips and heavy workload. So we skipped the February meeting and I’m not able to share with you a discussion about The Moon and Sixpence, which was this month’s choice. I was delighted to read another Maugham since I loved The Trembling of a Leaf and Cakes and Ale.

The Moon and Sixpence is a first-person narration about a famous painter named Charles Strickland. Our narrator is a writer who relates how he met Strickland through his wife who had a literary salon at the end of the 19th century in London. He met the man once at a party organized by Mrs Strickland for his husband and his business associates:

The respectability of the party was portentous. The women were too nice to be well dressed, and too sure of their position to be amusing. The men were solid. There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied prosperity.

He found this broker on the stock exchange boring and didn’t befriend with him. Strickland appeared to be the perfect bourgeois, stable, reliable, perfectly happy in his daily routine and not interested in anything artistic. So, when at nearly forty, he flees to Paris, leaving his wife and children behind and alone in London, Mrs Strickland is flabbergasted. She asks our narrator to go to Paris and try convincing her husband to come home. As long as she thinks he left her for another woman – because for what other reason could he make such a radical change in his life? –she fosters hope to see him return to his former life. To our narrator’s surprise, Strickland left everything behind to become a painter. Talk about a hell of a mid-life crisis. It appears that Strickland had been taking painting lessons for a couple of years and now wanted to follow his heart and be a painter.

A while later, our narrator moves to Paris and is again in contact with Strickland through a friend who is also a painter, Stroeve. The narrator reveals fragments of Strickland’s life in Paris and later in Tahiti as our narrator crosses paths again with the famous painter. Because Strickland did have a gift for painting and did make a breakthrough in painting…after his death.

The Moon and Sixpence has the same kind of structure as Cakes and Ale and adds the Tahiti theme predominant in The Trembling of a Leaf. Cakes and Ale is about a writer and his posterity (allegedly Thomas Hardy) while The Moon and Sixpence explores painting and artistic calling. (Gauguin inspired Maugham)

maugham_moon_sixpenceMore than the story in itself, what’s interesting in The Moon and Sixpence is the questioning about Art and artists. Strickland is an unpleasant man. It’s as if he had consumed all his stock of social niceness during the years he was a married man and worked as a broker. After he decided to drop everything to follow his calling, he stopped yielding to social conventions. So he’s very rude, selfish, taking what he needs without thinking and thanking. He’s a man who shrugged off social polish to come back to “nature”. He only wants to paint, paint, paint. He interacts with others when required and doesn’t take into account their feelings. He doesn’t try to sell his paintings, doesn’t want to surrender to any social rule, any relationship that could get in the way of his painting. He’s possessed and it’s the title of the book in French.

The narrator is appalled by his behavior but also admire his strength and his talent. Strickland was brave enough not to let go of his dream and turn his back to comfort, friends and family. He never went back to England. The narrator has mixed feelings about him: Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.

The underlying question is: Do we forgive any kind of behavior from an art genius for the sake of art? We seem to tolerate actions from artists that we would never tolerate from common people. The beauty they bring to the world appears to be worth their living out of social conventions. I’ll go a bit farther: Do we even expect a gifted artist to be a difficult character? Don’t we expect extravagant gestures, fits of despair and mercurial moods? Maugham made me think about the myth of the artiste maudit. I have no idea of how to translate this concept in English. damned or cursed artist would be the literal translation. I wonder when this concept of the gifted artist living from hand-to-mouth, full of angst and dominated by an urge to create started to emerge. In the Romantic Era with Byron? In France with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud? In a way, The Moon and Sixpence explores this myth, which is still alive if I think of the book Literary Rogues by Andrew Schaffer that Guy reviewed recently.

Another question raised by this novel is about whom we live for. The narrator also mentions another man, Abraham, who left behind a brilliant future as a hospital surgeon to live abroad in miserable conditions. He dropped everything in an instant, feeling he belonged to this place and not to London, just as Strickland found peace and home in Tahiti. As the narrator discusses Abraham’s choice with the man who had his life since he vacated the prestigious position, this man considers that Abraham lacks character and the narrator disagrees:

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour’s meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

This is why Newland Archer never left New York with the Helen. He was intelligent enough to acknowledge he lacked the character. This is why a lot of us give up dreams and live a quiet life. The narrator admires both Strickland and Abraham for following their instinct and their dreams, for being able to disregard money, comfort and social status to follow their dream. He thinks they might be right:

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual.

That’s a good question. The other question is: since you have only one life, why sacrifice it to respect social conventions, to protect your family’s feelings? Why should you give up your dreams or a life according to what suits you for someone else’s sake? Is it selfish or is it making the most of your life?

I don’t have the answer but it leads to another question that the narrator muses over: “Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?”

Along with these ruminations come the usual issues around artists and fame. How contemporaries have a hard time recognizing a genius (and I can’t help thinking that the fear of missing the new Van Gogh impacts the prices of contemporary art) and how an artist’s family soaks up their fame and live upon it by procuration. There’s also a belief that beauty crosses the border of intellectual knowledge, that when it is genuine, it touches the philistine as well as the cultured person:

I cannot agree with the painters who claim superciliously that the layman can understand nothing of painting, and that he can best show his appreciation of their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesque misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman: art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.

The vision of women is the one thing I didn’t like in this novel. How misogynistic. Women aren’t praised here, they are materialist, taming men with domestic comfort, unable of intellectual elevation, enjoying mistreatments. They aren’t muses but balls and chains attached to the artist’s ankle. Mrs Strickland’s portray isn’t favourable to her sex and neither is the depiction of Stroeve’s wife. The civilized woman is awful in this book. Only the Tahitian companion of Strickland has a positive description but she’s submissive and behaves more like a loyal dog than like an equal partner. I frowned when I read judgements like this one:

As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.

Yes, they have nothing else to do since they can’t have a profession of any kind. Who decided to have women at home and only occupied with fascinated things as cooking, tidying, washing and then has the nerve to complain that they are boring?

In my opinion, The Moon and Sixpence is an excellent novel but it’s not as good as Cakes and Ale. Perhaps it’s because I felt more interested in the portray of a writer than in the portray of a painter. Maugham’s style is always exquisite, he handles irony with panache and spreads little bullet sentences everywhere in the book.

“The mystic sees the ineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

“Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour.”

“There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.“

And there’s this incredible little phrase she’d love it if you’d join our little coffee klatch. that went straight to my heart. In my region, we say “faire café-klatsch” to say you’re spending some time around a coffee and chat. This expression isn’t French but local patois coming from French mixed with German. I didn’t know this existed in English as well. Do you know it?

Guy recently reviewed The Moon and Sixpence here, it’s worth reading. It tackles with other aspects of the book.

Ah yes! Something else: if someone could explain the title of the novel, I’d be grateful.

A quote from The Moon and Sixpence

February 26, 2013 9 comments

A quote from The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham.

But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.

This was written in 1919. I wonder how puzzled the narrator would be if he had to face the French Rentrée Littéraire…

Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham

June 7, 2012 33 comments

Cakes and Ale : or the Skeleton in the Cupboard by William Somerset Maugham. 1930 French title: La Ronde de l’amour. Out of print.

Recently, a lot of skeletons fell onto me when I opened cupboards at work. As my mind stretched out to grab a healthy dose of humour to ease the stress, reading Cakes and Ale, or the Skeleton in the Cupboard seemed to be a sort of supreme irony. It proved to be a great idea, stress-wise and literary wise.

William Ashenden is our narrator. He’s a writer, not an excellent one, according to him. He’s middle aged, a bachelor who lives in a boarding house. He’s surprised when his fellow writer Alroy Kear invites him to lunch. Kear is a very successful writer of honest novels but he’s without the literary gift he’d need to reach immortality.

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.

In our modern world, Kear would be a novelist who dutifully attended creative writing classes, understood the rules and became a good enough craftsman to be widely read. Add to this perfect skills to manage his literary career and you have a pillar of the London literary world.

Ashenden knows that Kear wants something from him to issue such an invitation. And indeed he does. Kear intends to write a biography of Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer that Ashenden happened to knew in his youth. Ashenden befriended Edward Driffield at the time he was married to his first wife Rose. Kear needs writing material about this part of Driffield’s life. Ashenden starts reminiscing about his past and relates the reader how he met and started to see Edward Driffield.

I picked up Cakes and Ale without knowing anything about its background and I sure didn’t expect a satire of London’s literary life. Then Guy, seeing in the Currently Reading pad that I was reading Cakes & Ale, mentioned that Kear was supposed to be Walpole and Driffield, Thomas Hardy. I’d never heard of Walpole before but from the very beginning, Driffield reminded me of Thomas Hardy. Nothing to be proud of, obvious as it is. Driffield came from the village of Blackstable, Kent. He was married twice, once to Rose, a country girl and then to his nurse. His funeral led to a controversy about burying him in a cathedral or in Blackstable.

But I think I should have expected him to sing sea chanteys or old English country airs, you know, the sort of thing they used to sing at fairings—blind fiddlers and the village swains dancing with the girls on the threshing floor and all that sort of thing.

I haven’t read a lot of Thomas Hardy but music and country fiddlers seem to be part of his novels. Now have a look at Hardy’s biography on Wikipedia, and tell me that it doesn’t look furiously like Driffield’s bio. There’s the bio, but there are also the comments on Driffield’s work, that Ashenden doesn’t like:

My own heart sank when he led me into the forecastle of a sailing ship or the taproom of a public house and I knew I was in for half a dozen pages in dialect of facetious comment on life, ethics, and immortality.

Or:

His novels happen to bore me; I find them long; the melodramatic incidents with which he sought to stir the sluggish reader’s interest leave me cold; but he certainly had sincerity. There is in his best books the stir of life, and in none of them can you fail to be aware of the author’s enigmatic personality. In his earlier days he was praised or blamed for his realism; according to the idiosyncrasy of his critics he was extolled for his truth or censured for his coarseness.

Or:

Driffield’s strength lay evidently in his depiction of the class he knew best, farmers and farm labourers, shopkeepers and bartenders, skippers of sailing ships, mates, cooks, and able seamen.

Now tell me this isn’t a description of Hardy’s literary universe. As far as Walpole is concerned, I don’t know if Kear looks like him but Walpole wrote a biography of Trollope and Wikipedia says he was sensitive about his literary reputation and took adverse criticism badly. Reading his biography there, it’s difficult not to see Walpole in Kear. (Thanks Guy for the nudge, I wouldn’t have found out by myself because of my lazy habit not to research the books I read)

But Cakes & Ale is also a meditation about fame and posterity, about writing, talent and one’s public image. Kear is very thorough in the management of his career. He tries to iron out all bad critics, makes himself agreeable in salons, gives lectures in universities, travels in the whole country to meet his readers. He’s far from the myth of the cursed writer pursuing their work locked in their room, whatever the chance of being published. For Kear, literature isn’t a calling but a profession. The second meditation about fame stems from Driffield’s posterity. His much younger wife manages his reputation and his legacy. She magnifies him as a Great Man and doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the image of a literary genius she wants the world to see. She doesn’t want to know all the details of his first marriage, it would hurt what we now call political correctness. Kear wants to write a flat biography, full of praise and intends to leave aside all the anecdotes that could tarnish Driffield’s reputation. She wants the world to worship his memory as people worship saints. She wants him to appear flawless, creating a perfectly dull character instead of accepting who he was and letting the world know the real man behind the writer. And Rose, the first wife, with her free sexuality, her lack of worldly manners doesn’t fit into the picture.

There are also great pages about literature and literary critics, and well it was funny:

I was much concerned and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction. On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr. Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.

Maugham boldly attacks the literary Establishment of his time. (Further, he writes They’d only say I was imitating Lytton Strachey.) For me, Ashenden is Maugham himself. He says he’s not a gifted writer but he seems better than he wishes to tell.

Cakes and Ale makes me want to read Hardy’s biography but I don’t feel like discovering Walpole after reading about Kear. He sounds like the English Anatole France, very famous during his lifetime, seldom read nowadays. Maugham’s assessment of Walpole’s literary talent seems accurate.

I had a lot of pleasure reading Cakes and Ale. I thought it was engaging and I’m fond of Maugham’s witty style. I had fun reading his ranting about the literary world. Things haven’t really changed, in my opinion. I was curious to see what Ashenden had to say about Driffield, what kind of dirty secret he knew. And finally, as I have the project to read ALL Thomas Hardy, that this writer (or his doppelganger) was a central character of the book was like a cherry on a delicious cake.

PS: Do you say I took my courage in both hands in English? It sounds very French (Il prit son courage à deux mains) I noticed another expression like this under Maugham’s pen and sometimes I had the impression to hear some French under his English. Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking.

The writer “is the only free man”

June 3, 2012 11 comments

I’m currently writing my billet about Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham. I have tons of quotes but this one is particularly interesting and won’t fit into my billet.

I began to meditate upon the writer’s life. It is full of tribulation. First he must endure poverty and the world’s indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with a good grace to its hazards. He depends upon a fickle public. He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience. But he has one compensation. Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

Happy meditation.

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of a man

February 3, 2011 14 comments

The Trembling of a Leaf. Little Stories of the South Sea Islands by William Somerset Maugham. (kindle version. 2831 locations)

L’extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l’extrême désespoir, n’est-ce pas la vie ? Sainte-Beuve Extreme felicity only separated from extreme despair by the trembling of a leaf, isn’t this life? Sainte-Beuve

This quote was chosen by Maugham himself to explain the title of this collection of short stories. It is a perfect summary of the persistent feeling left by these pearls of literature. 

The Trembling of a Leaf is composed of six short stories, framed by an introduction text on the Pacific and a conclusion picturing a boat leaving the islands. The title of this post is actually the first sentence of the book. All the stories take place or are related to South Sea Islands, Tahiti, Hawaii or Samoa Islands. Of course I had Gauguin’s paintings in mind when reading and indeed, following Gauguin’s footsteps was Maugham’s purpose for his own journey into these islands in 1916.

These short-stories are full of colourful characters dressed in white duck pants and Mother Hubbard dresses, “which the missionaries of a past generation had, in the interests of decency, forced on the unwilling natives” Clothes are important as they give away a man’s way of life. White men who adopt the local lava-lava or wear pareos have totally or partly abandoned the Western way of life.

In all, there is a tiny event, hardly felt as the trembling of a leaf, which will change the character’s life. At a certain moment, the choice they’re making, the way they react to an event or answer will be decisive for their future. Yin shifting into Yang. In all, appearances are deceptive.

The main characters are American or British men. They most of the time get involved with native women. I was less convinced by the characters passionately in love with natives and able to throw their future away for them. These women sound enchanting, literally, like the sirens or Circe in Homer. They have a façade of purity, a taste of heaven that makes white men fall for them head over feet.

It was a more natural life than any he had known, it was nearer to the friendly, fertile earth; civilisation repelled him at that moment, and by mere contact with these creatures of a more primitive nature he felt a greater freedom.

Maugham also tells a lot about these societies and their hierarchies between the natives, the half-castes, the white. Maugham describes how passionate love and lust with their inevitable bad choices bring mischief. He points out cultural differences and the resulting misunderstandings or difficulty to live together on the long run. He portrays conceited white men and how they look down on natives with contempt. He shows how little we know of other people’s mind and even sometimes of our own mind.

Maugham’s prose is beautiful. The descriptions of the landscapes are breathtaking and made me want to fly there immediately, especially in the middle of winter.

Three coconut trees grew there, like three moon maidens waiting for their lovers to ride out of the sea, and I sat at the foot of one of them, watching the lagoon and the nightly assemblage of the stars.

Two short stories will stay with me, I think. The first one is Mackintosh and the second one is The Fall of Edward Barnard.

Mackintosh is the name of a British man, working as Walker’s assistant, the British governor of Talua, a Samoan Island. Marckintosh and Walker have opposite tempers. While Mackintosh is quiet, sober, literate, Walker is loud, drinks a lot, sleeps with natives. He is always sure to be within his rights, whatever he does.

Mackintosh began to see the real man, and under the boisterous good-humour he discerned a vulgar cunning which was hateful; he was vain and domineering.

Walker can’t respect Mackintosh’s boundaries. He makes fun of him, not realizing “there was nothing Mackintosh could stand less than chaff”. Despite these differences, he likes Mackintosh and he is convinced that Mackintosh likes him too, when the latter only feels a growing hatred for him.

Here he [Mackintosh] was a prisoner, imprisoned not only by that placid sea, but by his hatred for that horrible old man.

Mackintosh despises Walker although he acknowledges he is a good manager for the island. He tries to improve the roads and does not exploit the natural wealth of the place for his own fortune. Walker runs his island as a British aristocrat would run his estate. He’s fond of this land and he considers the natives as his peasants.

The fragile balance between the two men cracks when a native named Manuma comes back to Talua. He has been in Apia, the closest city and is better educated than his people. So when Walker wants some villagers to build a road for half the salary paid in Apia, he rebels. Silently, like Gandhi, the villagers rebel. They will not build the road. Walker then uses his knowledge of the Samoan customs to break the rebellion by a trick. The villagers surrender. The road is built.

But Manuma now considers Walker as his enemy. The enemy of my enemy being my friend: how can this new hatred help Mackintosh?

This short story is a jewel because everything is there: action, psychology and politics. It can be read through different lenses. On the first level, there is a basic story of hatred between two men. The psychological analysis is clever. Mackintosh is an apple name and like Adam, he is about to be thrown away from the Garden of Eden. He’s going to lose his innocence.

On a higher level, there is a metaphor of colonialism. Walker is a perfect colonialist, the white man patronizing the natives that he calls his children. He thinks ‘They love me’, ‘They won’t rebel’. Blinded by the love he is sure they feel for him, he thinks he can do whatever he wants. No harm can be done, no consequences should be feared. I couldn’t help thinking of India when I was reading this. Manuma shows what will happen in all the colonies: with education, the native elites question the power of the white man. It was written in 1921, very lucid on Maugham’s part.

The Fall of Edward Barnard is the other one that touched me. This one is more about what we should expect of life. Edward Barnard is engaged to the rich Isabel, a member of the high society in Chicago. When his father looses his fortune, he decides to spend a few years in Tahiti, to learn about business and if possible become a rich man and then come back to Chicago and marry Isabel.

Bateman is Barnard’s best friend and has been secretly in love with Isabel for ages. When Barnard’s return is delayed without any valuable reason, Bateman decides to figure out what is happening and travels to Tahiti. He finds there a Barnard who has totally changed his way of living and aim in life. Here are Bateman (first speaker) and Barnard talking:

“This is no life for you”

  “You talk of this sort of life and that. How do you think a man gets the best out of life?” 

“Why, I should have thought there could be no two answers to that. By doing his duty, by hard work, by meeting all the obligations of his state and station.” 

 “And what is his reward?” 

 “His reward is the consciousness of having achieved what he set out to do.”

“It all sounds a little portentous to me.”

And then comes the one question I don’t want to look at too closely, for I’m not sure my answer would be consistent with the life I’m living:

Is that what we come into the world for, to hurry to an office, and work hour after hour till night, then hurry home and dine and go to a theatre?”

(…) Bateman asking, Barnard answering

What do you value in life then?”

I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me. Beauty, truth and goodness.”

This short story questions our Western way of life, our unquenchable thirst for money and material goods. It challenges what our societies consider as happiness. It is really modern and I wonder what Maugham would write about our world in the 21st century.

I’ve read The Trembling of a Leaf in English and discovered that the dictionary on the kindle can’t find compound words. I searched for the funny-looking ones, such as higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky or shilly-shally. I probably missed tons of British references and discovered others.

There is something with Scotland in these stories. Several characters are Scottish – Mackintosh, Dr Macphail – and in The Pool, when the couple goes back to Great Britain, the man finds a job in Aberdeen. And what it is between Scottish and English people? I noticed that sentence: “His Scot’s name gave an opportunity for the usual jokes about Scotland”. In France we have jokes about Belgians, it seems that Scots are English’s Belgians. I also really enjoyed the dialogues, like this little pearl of British polite way to say no:

“Do you believe in the supernatural?”

“I don’t exactly know that I do,” I smiled.

I sometimes thought the phrases sounded like French. But then I knew it was Maugham’s first language, so perhaps I imagined it. I wonder why he never wrote in French.

Anyway, these short stories are really worth reading. There’s the depth of the questioning about life, the relationships between the characters, the descriptions of the heavenly landscapes and the fair analysis of the domination of white men on these islands.

A last quote, just for the sheer pleasure of Maugham’s prose:

It seems to me that the places where men have loved or suffered keep about them always some faint aroma of something that has not wholly died. It is as though they had acquired a spiritual significance which mysteriously affects those who pass.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

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