Friday, December 9, 2016

Adventure classics – Succumb to the lure of an island

The Moon and Sixpence

by W. Somerset Maugham

How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? . . . across the sea, great big coconut tree? – Lyle Moraine

“. . . but for the hazard of a journey to Tahiti I should doubtless never have written the book,” says the unnamed narrator of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence, based loosely – and the operative word is “loosely,” on the life of the French painter Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin, 1879
Unlike the protagonist of Maugham’s story, English stockbroker turned painter Charles Strickland, Gauguin had painted for nearly two decades before making Tahiti one of several of his artistic destinations. But in popular imagination – helped possibly by Maugham’s fictionalized version – his name is forever linked with his time on the French Polynesian South Pacific island. (Although Gauguin had become a stockbroker as a young man, he was already an established painter strongly influenced by Impressionism even before a stock market downturn influenced him to become a fulltime artist, as shown by the 1873 painting of a snowy landscape that is one of the illustrations of this post.)

And as I look out my window at a garden lapsing into wintry grayness, I can sympathize with the longings of Gauguin, and his fictional alter ego, Charles Strickland, and even Maugham, for the blue skies and bright light of the legendary island.

Maugham had visited the island in 1916 while researching his book (he was at that time also working with the British Secret Service and travelling extensively Asia, experiences he incorporated in later books). Also, like Strickland, who abandons his conventional wife, Maugham may have found being half a world away from his own romantic entanglements a relief.

Although he was primarily attracted to men, his affair with an unhappily married woman, Syrie Wellcome, who had given birth to Maugham’s only child in 1915. Syrie and her husband had been separated for some time (and she was reputed to have add other affairs), but the birth of her child was apparently the last straw, and her husband divorced her, naming Maugham as co-respondent. Syrie and Maugham married in 1917 but spent most of their marriage apart before finally divorcing in 1928.

Maugham would later deny paternity of their child, and Syrie, now Syrie Maugham, would become a sought-after interior decorator famous for all-white rooms. It would be no wonder if Maugham hankered for brighter colors, and his description of his first sight of Tahiti is full of wonder and delight – “. . . a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys. . . Even here is something sad and terrible. But the impression is fleeting, and serves only to give a greater acuteness to the enjoyment of the moment. . . (at the harbor of Papeete) the color dazzles you.”

Wait! Just one minute – when we left the story last week, Maugham’s hero, Charles Strickland, had just run away to Paris and was living in a fashionable district in the luxurious Hotel des Belges with his young mistress. Or was he?

Maugham’s unnamed narrator follows Strickland’s supposed trail, only to find that the only hotel of that name was in a “quarter that was not fashionable; it was) not even respectable. . . It was a tall, shabby building, that cannot have been painted for years, and it had (a) bedraggled air. . . It was not here that Charles Strickland lived in guilty splendor with the unknown charmer for whose sake he had abandoned honour and duty.”

Still, the narrator persists, and finds Strickland indeed, with “no sign of the abandoned luxury (Strickland’s family) had described.” And Strickland is alone, so much so that when the narrator asks, Strickland replies that of course he’s alone, because his French is too bad to carry on conversations.
Still, the reader might have some reason to expect romance. It’s Paris!

Gauguin, 1887
But although the earlier part of Maugham’s story is ostensibly set in the late 19th century (Gauguin, after all died in 1903), for the initial readers, the shadow of World War I’s horror hung over the city. Everything is dark and shabby, including the affair Strickland does fall into with the wife of a fellow painter, who commits suicide when he abandons her also. (Syrie Maugham, fortunately, did not take the hint, surviving Maugham’s subsequent abandonment quite nicely.)

But Strickland has, at least, tired again of conventions and is on the lookout for some place where he can paint without such hindrances. He makes his way to the port of Marseilles, hoping to find work on a ship sailing toward the South Seas.

“It is here that I purposed to end my book,” Maugham’s narrator says. “I wished to leave Strickland setting out with I know not what fancies in his lonely soul for the unknown islands which fired his imagination. I liked the picture of him, starting at the age of forty-seven, when most men have already settled comfortably in a groove, for a new world. . . but I could not manage it.”

Maugham had actually tracked down a Polynesian woman Gauguin lived with in Tahiti, but found her as uncommunicative as his fictional character, Charles Strickland. So excusing himself with the statement that “(he) made no particular impression on the people who came in contact with him in Tahiti. . . remarkable only for the peculiarity that he painted pictures which seemed to them absurd; and it was not till he had been dead for some years and agents came from the dealers in Paris and Berlin to look for any pictures which might still remain on the island, that they had any idea that among them had dwelt a man of consequence.”

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

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