Bohemia and the Tyranny of Art: Somerset Maugham at 140


…seeing in Strickland the possibilities which himself had wasted, influenced him to forsake all and follow the divine tyranny of art” –The Moon and Sixpence (1919)

Today marks the 140th birthday of British author, playwright and short story writer William Somerset Maugham. Maugham achieved popularity in the early 1920s and throughout the 30s, publishing several successful plays and stories, before joining the secret service in Britain. This would be the inspiration behind his series of short stories focusing on the secret service agent Ashenden, available in his 1928 collection Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928), or Maugham’s Collected Short Stories Volume Three. Of his 91 short stories, ‘Rain’, ‘Red’, ‘In a Strange Land’ and ‘The Vessel of Wrath’ are some of his finest, though there is a grand selection and the stories are variously published in different editions and volumes. As well as these, there is his popular The Razor’s Edge (1944), a somewhat metafictional work focusing on one man’s psychological state after the horrors of World War I, the amusing noir-esque novella Up at the Villa (1941), the alluring Cakes and Ale (1930) and his adulterous yet bittersweet The Painted Veil (1925), among many others. Yet Maugham is perhaps best known for his work Of Human Bondage (1915), a semi-autobiographical tale that follows the protagonist Philip Carey through the struggles of relationships and the monotony of life. With the working title Beauty from Ashes, the work was initially received with negative reviews upon publication. However, the book gradually achieved great esteem and is now considered one of the greatest works of modern literature. A review of the work in the Times Literary Supplement read: “Like so many young men he [Philip] was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” Maugham was to use this phrase for his next novel, his greatest work, in my estimation, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a fictional account of the life of artist Paul Gauguin. The tale is utterly brutal in its account of love, shrewd in its observation of human nature, and completely masterful and innovative in its philosophical reflection on the nature of genius and art itself. The story follows an unnamed narrator as he meets the initially unremarkable Charles Strickland. Strickland is later revealed to be, aside from a heartless, impervious ‘loathsome beast’, a genius of extraordinary talent with a single-minded passion to paint. The book seems to act as a treatise on the incompatibility of genius and conventionality, and expresses how misery, destruction and loathing go hand in hand with literary immortality. For instance, the hapless character Dirk Stroeve, whose wife later deserts him for Strickland, observes: “I tell you he has genius. I’m convinced of it. In a hundred years, if you and I are remembered at all, it will be because we knew Charles Strickland.” In his wake in the pursuit of genius, Strickland leaves his wife, his children, the comfort of upper middle-class life, and ruins the lives of several others. The book does not rely on trite examples of bohemia that would invariably include infidelity as a prime motivation and theme, but pursues the notion of the power of art and imagination over all else. The narrator asks Strickland’s wife: “Do you mean that you could have forgiven him if he’d left you for a woman, but not if he’s left you for an idea? You think you’re a match for the one, but against the other you’re helpless?” He also observes: “With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place […] It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation.”

Strickland’s character is uncompromisingly abhorrent; he expresses no love for his family, claiming that his wife can “go to hell”, and is utterly indifferent to the life of squalor that he lives in his pursuit of this idea, and indifferent to the lives lost through his actions. In a way the book acts as the original bohemian novel, exploring the sacrifices made for genius. Where other bohemian novels focus on adultery, sex and free love, Maugham’s work instead explores the utter brutality of life encountered in the presence of a genius, and prioritises a life dedicated to art over trivial, material acquisition. The nature of love is disregarded, and passionate sentiments scoffed at. Strickland is absolutely devoid of love, and in his adamant pursuit of art and genius as the ultimate endeavours and his disregard even for carnal desire, the novel becomes a rare masterpiece that shines a light on the beauty of art over anything physical or emotional. This becomes evident when Strickland discards the ill-fated Blanche Stroeve only after he paints her; women become tiresome to him only after he has immortalised them in paint, rather than discarding them after having his way with them. His desire for art eclipses both women and wealth, hence the possible nature of the title that true artists desire the moon, beauty, over wealth. Such an attitude towards art, if ever truly in existence, is nothing but a shadow today. When men and women pursue art, rarely is it in isolation. The physical pleasures and rewards become more alluring than the art itself. Despite Strickland’s horrid demeanour, he is as detestable as he is remarkable, so sure of his fate to become an immortalised genius while those around him fade into obscurity. As the narrator himself remarks that although “Strickland was an odious man, I still think that he was a great one.” Hence the psychological bravery of Maugham’s insights.

The book is quite philosophical in its observations of love, life and art. The narrator discusses beauty as a misused word that has damaged the nature of its real form:

“People talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it.”

The story has certain similarities to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) in its notion of self-destruction and the destruction of others, and also in the exploration of love and loss. The narrator shares the same role as Nick Carraway, both observing those around who eventually spiral into self-loathing and despair. Jay Gatsby’s eventual and somewhat fateful demise can be seen to correspond to Strickland’s mistress, the equally foolish Blanche Stroeve, while the role of Charles Strickland mirrors that of the self-absorbed Daisy Buchanan, not in a sense of materialism but in a sense of indifference and destructive influence on others. Both are almost completely oblivious of the impact that their choices have on the fate of other characters, or are dismissive of it.

Central themes throughout most of Maugham’s works are the meaning of life and the loss of love; near the end of Bondage, Philip Carey observes that: “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children and died, was likewise the most perfect.” In The Razor’s Edge, the central character pursues a life of meaning over the trivial life dedicated to fortune. As Fitzgerald writes of the hollow pursuit of wealth, Maugham similarly advocates the mystery and ultimate absurdity of life. In a note that was meant to accompany the publication of The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham writes:

“In his childhood he was urged to make merry over the man who, looking for the moon, missed the sixpence at his feet, but having reached years of maturity he is not so sure that this was so great an absurdity as he was bidden to believe. Let him who will pick up the sixpence; to pursue the moon seems the most amusing diversion.”

Maugham’s own identity has been adapted into fiction. In Anthony Burgess’ epic work Earthly Powers, the character Kenneth Toomey is based on the life and character of Maugham. Originally titled The Affairs of Men, and then changed to Instruments of Darkness, The Prince of the Powers of the Air, before eventually settling on Earthly Powers weeks before publication, the book’s characterisation of Maugham is as comic as it is poignant. As John Leonard writes in The New Yorker, Toomey appears as: “a brilliant pastiche of Somerset Maugham, Norman Douglas, Noel Coward and E. M. Forster, with a dash of P.G. Wodehouse and Graham Greene thrown in for political and religious seasoning.” Burgess’ fascination with Maugham was such that the author wrote Maugham’s obituary in the Listener in 1965, before arranging the publication of Maugham’s Malaysian Stories by Heinemann Asia in 1969, a work that features a selection of Maugham’s previously published short stories.

While his views on life and wealth prove intriguing, it is Maugham’s theories of love that are the most interesting point of interrogation. Not only is his pessimistic perception of love evident in his works, most notably in The Moon and Sixpence where it is miserably conceived of as a distraction felt by fools, but Maugham himself has a healthy scepticism about the notion, believing it to exist as some sort of trick of nature. Maugham also writes of women’s obsession with love, while arguing for the indifference of men to love. In spite of some of his more antiquated views, Maugham remains one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with some of the most meaningful yet sardonic pieces of wisdom to have emerged in literature, including: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

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