The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, first published on April 15, 1919. It is told in episodic form by a first-person narrator in a series of glimpses into the mind and soul of the central character, Charles Strickland, a middle-aged English stockbroker who abandons his wife and children abruptly to pursue his desire to become an artist. The story is in part based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. (Wikipedia)
“The Moon and Sixpence” was het eerste boek dat ik van Maugham heb gelezen (het stond op onze literatuurlijst van de eerste kandidatuur) en ik was er meteen wég van. Het is een sleutelroman over de verhouding tussen de schilders Van Gogh en Gauguin en zoals ik dat in mijn studententijd gewoon was, heb ik het hoofdstuk voor hoofdstuk samengevat in slecht Engels, wat mij enerzijds mag worden vergeven, aangezien het nog maar mijn eerste jaar was, maar anderzijds zou ik dat nu toch wat moeten kunnen rechtzetten, maar dat is me niet helemaal gelukt, moet ik toegeven.
Ik gebruikte dit soort samenvattingen enkel als geheugensteun voor het examen. Het is dus zeker geen tekst met literaire aspiraties. En alhoewel het verhaal zeker geen thriller is, wil ik hier toch het van de Internet Movie Database bekende “spoiler alert” boven kleven. Met andere woorden: als u het boek nog niet gelezen heeft, slaat u dit beter over.
Ch.1: The author introduces the person of Charles Strickland as being a great painter, whose greatness lies in his authenticity. He was not appreciated during his lifetime, but after his death nobody denied his genius.
Ch.2-4: Being a writer, I was invited to the parties of Miss Waterford where I met Mrs.Amy Strickland.
Ch.5-7: When I saw Charles Strickland for the first time, I thought he was a decent man, but not at all interesting. The Stricklands had a boy and a girl and they seemed to form a happy family.
Ch.8-10: I was informed that Strickland had run away from his wife, given up his job and left for Paris. It was completely uncomprehensible. Probably he had fled with another woman and that’s why Mrs.Strickland wanted me to go and see him and try to bring him back.
Ch.11-14: He lived in a very dirty hotel and was glad that I paid him a decent dinner, as he nearly had no money at all. But he didn’t care about that, nor about what people would say about his elopement. There was no other woman involved either, he only wanted to paint.
Ch.15-17: When I told this to Mrs.Strickland, she became very angry and didn’t want him back anymore (because he had left her for an IDEA, if it was for another WOMAN she would have forgiven him). On the other hand, she doesn’t want to divorce him either, because she won’t set him free.
Five years later I came to see her again to tell her that I was going to Paris. She said that I might give some money of hers to her husband if he needed any (she had a type-office now and was making enough money).
Ch.18-19: In Paris, I went to see Dirk Stroeve, a Dutch friend of mine, who was a bad painter, but a good critic as far as paintings are concerned. He told me he knew Strickland and called him a genius, who however had no success in selling any paintings at all. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even try to sell any. Stroeve’s English wife Blanche (married with him in Italy) hated Strickland, because he didn’t conceal to her or to Dirk himself that he thought the paintings of her husband were extremely bad.
Ch.20-21: Together we went to see Strickland, who looked as if he was starving, but on the other hand he was quite happy.
Ch.22-25: Dirk wanted me and Strickland to spend Christmas at his home, but in fact it was weeks ago that I saw Strickland for the last time (we used to play chess with each other) and Dirk himself had another quarrel with him. Finally we found out that he was very ill and lying in his room, with nothing to eat. Dirk asked his wife if it was possible to bring Strickland to their house to nurse him. She objected enormously, but consented when Dirk reminded her of the time when she was in trouble and how he had taken care of her.
Ch.26-33: Strickland was very ungrateful, although he was nursed like a baby. Three weeks later I saw Dirk, who was turned out of his studio by Strickland, because he wanted to paint on his own. Still a week later, Dirk told me desperately that Strickland had seduced his wife and they were now a couple. Dirk had left the house after innumerous humiliations by his wife, but he still loved her and he even had no grudge against Strickland, whom I myself despised by now.
Ch.34-37: I knew that Strickland wasn’t capable of love (he thought it was a waste of time and was only interested in sexual passion), so this romance wouldn’t last long. In fact, it lasted only a few months and then came to a horrible end: Blanche Stroeve had tried to commit suicide by taking acid after Strickland had left her. She continued to live for a few days, but wouldn’t allow Dirk to come and see her. Then she died.
Ch.38-39: A week later Dirk told me he left for Holland. He also went to see Strickland, who gave him a nude painting of Blanche. “I enjoyed painting it,” smiled Strickland, who was unmoved by her death. At first, Stroeve wanted to destroy the picture out of jealousy, but afterwards he recognized the enormous beauty of it. He even asked Strickland to accompany him to Holland, but the latter refused.
Ch.40-42: A month later I saw Strickland. He explained to me the circumstances of the marriage between Dirk and Blanche. Blanche had been seduced by a young nobleman, who had left her with a baby. Dirk had found her while she was on the edge of suicide and decided to marry her. But she never loved him, as “a woman can forgive a man his cruelty, but not his compassion”.
Afterwards Strickland asked me for the first time if I would like to see his pictures. They were however a disappointment to me.
Ch.43-45: A week later Strickland went to Marseille and I never saw him again, as I only went to Tahiti nine years after his death.
Ch.46-48: Interview with Captain Nichols, a poor adventurer, who was the companion of Strickland in Marseille. They had a terrible time there (financially) and after a fight with some other tramps, they had to flee to Tahiti.
Ch.49-52: Interview with Mrs.Tiaré Johnson. She proposed a native girl of seventeen, Ata, to Strickland. He “married” her unofficially and they went to live in a kind of Garden of Eden, five miles away from the town of Papeete, together with another young couple and an old woman, all of them natives. Strickland and Ata had two children, a boy and a girl, but the girl died at a very early age.
Ch.53-54: Interview with Captain Brunot. He seemed to know Strickland the best, by describing him as a restless searcher for beauty. It became clear to me that here on this island, Strickland wasn’t despised for his past and his way of living. Still, Cpt.Bruno was the only admirer of his paintings at that time. (In the meanwhile they had gone to very high prices.)
Ch.55-57: Interview with Dr.Coutras. He came to look after Strickland a couple of years before he died of leprosy. A few hours after his death he visited the house in which Ata and her son were still staying. He was overwhelmed by the fascinating paintings on the wall, representing nude natives in a tropical environment. It revealed unknown passions.
I was extremely disappointed, when I heard that Strickland had made Ata promise to burn them after his death and she had actually done it. On the other hand, I was convinced that at last he must have reached his ideal in which he had put all of his expression. So he probably had found peace after all.
Ch.58: I related all this (except the Ata episode) to Mrs.Strickland, who was now a true admirer of her husband’s work.
According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of Of Human Bondage in which the novel’s protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” According to a 1956 letter from Maugham, “If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” Presumably Strickland’s “moon” is the idealistic realm of Art and Beauty, while the “sixpence” represents human relationships and the ordinary pleasures of life.
THE LIFE OF PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
Gauguin was born in Peru, where his French father wanted to flee for political reasons. He died however during the crossing of the Atlantic and during seven years Gauguin was raised by his mother, who was half Creole.
They returned to France where he was brought up in strict religious surroundings. When his mother had died, he grew restless and as a seventeen-year-old he became a seaman. After the French-German war, he settles down to become a successful stockbroker. He married Mette Gad from Denmark and they had five children. He left his family and his job however when he was 35 (*).
Strickland was a also stockbroker. They are both the same age when they started to paint, when they went to Tahiti and also they died at nearly the same time.
The only remarkable difference is of course that Strickland is English, while Gauguin is French. This is obviously a literary trick to enable the writer himself (undoubtedly an autobiographical portrait of Maugham himself) to play a part in the story.
And of course the works of Stroeve aren’t in the least “worthless”, although during his lifetime this was obviously the case. On the other hand Maugham neglects to add the incident of Van Gogh cutting off his ear after a quarrel with Gaugain, probably because he thought that this would be “over the top”. It would show that Stroeve is also “a suffering soul” and this does not fit in Maugham’s tale. In fact, the reason to depict Stroeve as a bit of a “petit bourgeois” is deliberate in contrast to the vitalism of Strickland.
Gauguin’s work is described as having massive and simplified forms, strong contrasts in colour, which he uses in an abstract way. This corresponds exactly with the terms in which Maugham describes Strickland’s revolutionary way of painting.Wat mij dus vooral bij is gebleven, is het slot, nog geaccentueerd door de verfilming door Albert Lewin in 1942. De film is immers eigenlijk in zwartwit, maar wanneer we de schilderijen van Gauguin op Tahiti te zien krijgen, schakelt men terecht over op uitbundige kleuren:
“It was strange and fantastic. It was a vision of the beginnings of the world, the Garden of Eden,
with Adam and Eve — it was a hymn to the beauty of the human form, male and female, and the praise of Nature, sublime, indifferent, lovely, and cruel. It gave you an awful sense of the infinity of space and of the endlessness of time. Because he painted the trees I see about me every day, the cocoa-nuts, the banyans, the flamboyants, the alligator-pears, I have seen them ever since differently, as though there were in them a spirit and a mystery which I am ever on the point of seizing and which forever escapes me. The colours were the colours familiar to me, and yet they were different. They had a significance which was all their own. And those nude men and women. They were of the earth, and yet apart from it. They seemed to possess something of the clay of which they were created, and at the same time something divine. You saw man in the nakedness of his primeval instincts, and you were afraid, for you saw yourself.”
Later heb ik dit fragment geselecteerd voor mijn leerlingen in het secundair onderwijs en ik gaf er ook een kleine woordenlijst bij:
as though: alsof
to be on the point: op het punt staan
to seize: grijpen
to escape: ontsnappen
nude, naked: naakt
to create: scheppen
Ronny De Schepper
(*) Het dient gezegd dat Gauguin zijn vergaarde fortuin grotendeels heeft verspeeld in de beurskrach van 1882, een element dat Maugham weglaat, wellicht om het dramatische effect te vergroten. Het is ook zo dat Gauguin van Mette is blijven houden. Hij is ze zelfs nog twee keer gaan opzoeken in Denemarken, waarnaar ze was teruggekeerd, maar hij is niet welkom bij zijn schoonfamilie. Zijn zoon Clovis daarentegen keert met hem mee naar Parijs. Allemaal zaken die Maugham dus heeft achterwege gelaten om de dramatische spankracht te behouden, zijn eigen adagium getrouw “dat je met het imiteren van de werkelijkheid nauwelijks wat kon aanvangen” (al stoelen de meeste van zijn verhalen, net als dit, wel op een stukje realiteit).