Friday, December 16, 2016

Adventure classics – Receding from life into legend

The Moon and Sixpence

by W. Somerset Maugham

“. . . you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world. . . You are already as unassailable as all the great dead. . . ” – George Daniel Monfreid to Paul Gauguin, October 1902

Within little more than six months after French artist Paul Gauguin  received the valedictory letter from his friend Monfreid, quoted above, he was indeed dead, and rapidly receding into legend. It was a death that would be convenient for William Somerset Maugham, whose 1919 fictionalized version of Gauguin’s life, The Moon and Sixpence, furthered the romance of a misunderstood genius. 

Convenient, that is, because dead men don’t sue. They don't even write unpleasant literary reviews.

Maugham had already gotten into trouble by fictionalizing living celebrities when notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley attacked him in print over his 1908 supernatural thriller, The Magician. Although Crowley’s real cause for anger was that the principal character in the book was based on himself, his review instead charged Maugham with plagiarism. The incident still smarted enough to prompt an otherwise puzzling preface about plagiarism for the 1933 edition of The Moon and Sixpence, in which he states, “. . . I would say that any writer is justified in taking from another whatever can profit him. . .”

Paul Gauguin, c. 1892
(Years afterward, a similar contretemps would arise when Maugham’s 1930 novel, Cakes and Ale, appeared to contain disparaging portraits of authors Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole. Hardy was at the time recently dead, but Walpole was still so much alive that Maugham felt obliged to write him a letter denying the resemblance. Still later, however, he would write that Walpole had indeed been the inspiration for one of the novel’s characters.)

Gauguin, however, might have thanked Maugham for his fictionalized portrait in The Moon and Sixpence, which actually played down Gauguin’s scandalous lifestyle. In Maugham’s version, Gauguin’s English alter-ego, Charles Strickland, is the epitome of the starving artist, dedicated with almost-religious devotion to his art, unappreciated during his lifetime but adored after his pathetic death, whose career ends in a blaze of glory as his lover obeys his final command by burning down the house that contains his masterworks.

Or maybe Gauguin, who had been a successful stockbroker and art dealer before turning to art full-time, would have been outraged by such waste.

Let’s pick up Maugham’s story where it left off after last Friday’s post.

Paul Gauguin, 1902
After leaving his wife and family to study art, forty-something Charles Strickland has studied art alone in the proverbial Parisian garret before becoming determined to seek more inspiration in the South Sea island of Tahiti. He has, admittedly, had an affair with the wife of another artist that ends tragically in his lover’s suicide.

(Yes, this hits enough clichés to justify critic Edmund Wilson’s claim of wonder at “the writer’s ability to assemble so many and at his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way.” Maugham actually had a rather modest view of his own abilities, but given his commercial success – and literary longevity – he would probably have laughed all the way to the bank about Wilson’s quip.)

Back to the story: After taking a young Tahitian girl as his common-law wife, Strickland settles on her small coconut farm, and devotes himself to painting.

“Ah,” says the informant of Maugham’s unnamed narrator, “I wish I could make you see the enchantment of that spot, a corner hidden away from all the world, with the blue sky overhead and the rich, luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour. . . ”

However, it soon becomes apparent that Strickland has contracted leprosy, which in those days before antibiotics was incurable. Further withdrawing from the world, he spends his few final years of life painting the walls of his small house with his visions of paradise. The doctor who is called to his house arrives to find him dead, and “start(s) back in dismay. ‘But he was blind.’’ And Strickland’s lover replies, “Yes; he has been blind for nearly a year.”

And the doctor marvels at the painter, imagining him sitting “hour after hour in those . . . rooms that he had painted, looking at his works with sightless eyes, and seeing, perhaps, more than he had ever seen in his life before.” 

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a December of adventures of the spirit with Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story.)

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