Friday, December 2, 2016

Adventure classics – Blurring the lines between art and truth

The Moon and Sixpence

by William Somerset Maugham

‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. – Francis Bacon

W. Somerset Maugham
So, the first thing you need to know to read W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 fable, The Moon and Sixpence, is that it’s not a biography of  artist Paul 
Gauguin. It just seems that way.

This aspect of truthfulness is something that’s been in the news a lot recently, as sites such as Facebook and Google confront audiences’ confusion about what’s true and what are distortions intended to sway opinion. This issue of true vs. false has also been on my mind. Sometimes it because I see fellow writers struggling with the “truthfulness” of remembered events and conversations in memoirs. 

I even find myself struggling with it as I report conversations in blog posts. Should I adhere literally to my notes, using ellipses to indicate every occasion in which I juxtapose phrases from discussions? And how pertinent to readers understanding are the omissions? Or will readers merely feel befuddled by the conversational ramblings that occur in unscripted speech?

Gauguin would have understood. Visual artists can face even more drastic decisions: they have to represent a static moment of four-dimensional reality on the two dimensions of a piece of canvas. It’s as daunting a task as compressing decades of a person’s lifespan within the covers of a book.

To some extent, Maugham seeks to overcome his dilemma by differentiating his fictional character, Charles Strickland, from the inspirational Gauguin and by telling his tale in the mock documentary form of interviews with people who knew (or claimed to have known) Strickland. (In one case, informing readers that a so-called acquaintance of Strickland’s “was an outrageous liar, and I dare say there is not a word of truth in anything he told me. I should not be surprised to learn that he had never seen Strickland in his life. . . ”) Still, for the sake of what I’ll call “truthiness,” I’ll punctuate my discussion of Maugham’s life of his fictional character, Charles Strickland, with fact checks from Gauguin’s actual life.

Maugham’s Strickland enters the story as a successful, apparently happily-married stockbroker, with children. He is burly, red-haired, middle-aged, and seems to have no artistic or intellectual aspirations up to the point of what we would now call his mid-life crisis. And he’s English.

Paul Gauguin self-portrait
(Fact check: Well, for starters, Gauguin was French. And as you can see from the self-portrait I’ve inserted in this post, he was not burly or red-haired. He had been an art dealer and an avid painter for years before deciding to pursue a fulltime career as an artist. However, he was married, with even more children than the fictional Strickland, and had been a successful stockbroker for years until a market crash, which seems to have been the impetus for turning exclusively to art.)

Maugham’s misogyny, by the way, is in full cry on the pages of The Moon and Sixpence. Although he was essentially gay, he had an affair with a married woman (who would become famed interior decorator Syrie Maugham). Given the messiness of Syrie's divorce, her subsequent marriage to Maugham, and their own later separation, the writer may have been feeling as stifled as Charles Strickland was in his family life.

Maugham’s never-named narrator provides a lengthy account of his own early literary biography (replete with horror stories of rapacious women) to explain how he became an acquaintance of Strickland. Shortly after a single meeting at a dinner party with Strickland, he learns that the stockbroker has deserted his wife and children and fled to Paris. 

Everyone suspects that fortyish Strickland has had a midlife crisis (although that term seems not yet to be invented) and has eloped in a love affair. Maugham’s narrator has previously received an invitation to a literary tea from Mrs. Strickland, and it is from her and her sister and brother-in-law that he hears supposed details of the elopement. Rather oddly, the grieving Mrs. Strickland declines to confront her husband directly, instead calling in a near stranger to track him down in the Paris hotel where he is said to be living in luxury with his mistress.

And the fun – because it is really fun – begins. Because truth, even the simulated truth of a novel, can be both stranger and more complicated than our imaginings.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a December of adventures of self-discovery with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence.)

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