William Somerset Maugham: A writer with an extraordinary insight into the human psyche

by dollydelightly

William Somerset Maugham is remembered by most as a superannuated curmudgeon, famously described by the critic Edmund Wilson as a man of “peevish and insistent grumbling”. He was nevertheless loved by those in his immediate circles and greatly admired by a cortege of prominent literati. His reputation and prodigious body of work catapulted him to the echelons of English literature thereby making him one of the most important, if undervalued, writers of his generation. Cuttingly self-critical, predominantly due to his latent homosexuality and his difficulties in dealing with it, Maugham expressed his self-deprecation most cogently in The Summing Up, saying: “My sympathies are limited…I can only be myself, and partly by nature, partly by the circumstances of my life, it is a partial self…And so, never having felt some of the fundamental emotions of normal men, it is impossible that my work should have the intimacy, the broad human touch and animal serenity which the greatest writers alone can give.” Maugham had a stammer; a penchant for Raymond Chandler; a neurotic fear of blindness which he said would mean “the end of life”; a preternatural ear for the metronomic beat of the human heart; and a deep admiration for Paul Gauguin, whose stained-glass painting entitled Woman with Fruit Maugham bought on his visit to Tahiti and had built into the ceiling of his garret study. The latter is important in so far as it demonstrates Maugham’s panoptic interest in his subject – Gauguin – about whom he wrote a book.

The Moon and Sixpence is based loosely on the painter’s life as a stockbroker who forsakes everything – family, home, reputation – to pursue his burgeoning artistic inclinations. Upon first meeting Charles Strickland (Gauguin) the anonymous 23 year-old narrator, who is also a writer, thinks him unremarkable in every particular but a rather “good, dull, honest, plain man” with a docile “pleasant, hospitable” wife of 17 years and two “nice-looking” children. After the meeting, he surmises the Stricklands by saying: “They would grow old sensibly; they would see their son and daughter come to years of reason, marry in due course – the one a pretty girl, future mother of healthy children; the other a handsome, manly fellow, obviously a soldier; and at last, prosperous in their dignified retirement, beloved by their descendants, after a happy, not un-useful life, in the fullness of their age they would sink into the grave.” No prediction could have been further from the truth. Shortly after meeting the couple, the narrator becomes unwittingly entangled in the tortuous plexus of their lives when Strickland suddenly abandons his wife. Distraught she enlists the stranger to seek out her husband in Paris, where he is purported to have fled. Amy Strickland bids the narrator farewell, saying: “Tell him that our home cries out for him. Everything is just the same, and yet everything is different. I can’t live without him. I’d sooner kill myself. Talk to him about the past, and all we’ve gone through together. What am I to say to the children when they ask for him? His room is exactly as it was when he left it. It’s waiting for him. We’re all waiting for him.” 

The narrator finds Strickland holed up in the “poorer quarters of Paris” in Hotel des Belgesa place full of characters “who might have stepped out of the pages of Honore de Balzac.” The young man confronts Strickland and is immediately disarmed by his “cordial agreement” with all the charges against him, perplexed the narrator says: “I was prepared to be persuasive, touching, and hortatory, admonitory and expostulating, if need be vituperative even, indignant and sarcastic; but what the devil does a mentor do when the sinner makes no bones about confessing his sin? I had no experience, since my own practice has always been to deny everything.” Questioned about the motives behind his desertion, and subsequent refusal to return home, Strickland simply replies: “I want to paint…I can’t help myself.  When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown,” which leads the narrator to accuse the aspiring artist of “cold cruelty” and “extraordinary callousness” and conclude him an “unmitigated cad.”

Five years lapse before the two men meet again when after “growing stale in London” the narrator returns to Paris. He finds Strickland living in a squalid attic “entirely indifferent to his surroundings”, he recalls: “His body was cadaverous. He wore the same suit that I had seen him in five years before; it was torn and stained, threadbare, and it hung upon him loosely, as though it had been made for someone else. I noticed his hands, dirty, with long nails; they were merely bone and sinew…. He gave me an extraordinary impression as he sat there… an impression of great strength; and I could not understand why it was that his emaciation somehow made it more striking.” The point Maugham makes throughout the book is that true happiness depends upon ourselves, and for Strickland that means fulfilling the “disturbing vision in his soul” whatever the cost. In his case it means manumitting himself from the impositions of polite society and adopting a taoistic lifestyle in order to find an artistic and spiritual homeostasis. The narrator observes: “Here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he was like a wrestler whose body is oiled; you could not get a grip on him; it gave him a freedom which was an outrage.” Growing increasingly eremitic Strickland renounces everything both materialistic and carnal, including love. He says: “I don’t want love. I haven’t time for it.  It’s weakness. I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I’ve satisfied my passion I’m ready for other things.  I can’t overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work…I know lust. That’s normal and healthy. Love is a disease.” Ironically, the passion that holds Strickland in bondage is not “less tyrannical than love” nor less consuming.

Despite denying himself the title Maugham has exactly that which “greatest writers alone can give”, namely an extraordinary insight into the human psyche and an aesthetic sensibility to transliterate it with great intelligibilityLove and all its bittersweet accoutrements is a reoccurring, if not the driving, theme of Maugham’s work and I am yet to encounter an English writer who knows the doctrines of human relationships more perspicaciously than the one at hand. Writing on the subject in The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham says: “Love is absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the most clear-sighted, though he may know, cannot realise that his love will cease; it gives body to what he knows is illusion, and, knowing it is nothing else, he loves it better than reality. It makes a man a little more than himself, and at the same time a little less.  He ceases to be himself.  He is no longer an individual, but a thing, an instrument to some purpose foreign to his ego.” This is not exactly the case with Strickland who seems at “once too great and too small for love” in a romantic sense, but it is certainly true of him in regard to his artistic ambitions which subsume all else, including the self. Thinking about Strickland in retrospect and along these lines, the narrator says: “He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and beautiful.  He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to.  He had no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the deserts of Thebes.  He asked nothing his fellows except that they should leave him alone.  He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others.  He had a vision.”

Indeed, he did. And that vision eventually took him to Tahiti, where he spent the last and happiest three years of his life. The narrator retraces Strickland’s steps to the “small green island” where he meets a number of people that help piece together the latter years of the painter’s life. There he learns that Strickland married a local girl (albeit reluctantly), had two children and lived in a simple “bungalow of unpainted wood, consisting of two small rooms” with no “furniture except the mats they used as beds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the veranda”. While at first genuinely horrified by Strickland’s obsessively singular-minded dedication to his artistic calling the young narrator comes to understand it upon seeing the painter’s last works on the walls of his hut, which view like a “hymn to the beauty of the human form, male and female, and the praise of Nature, sublime, indifferent, lovely and cruel.” Compelled to chronicle Strickland’s life following his death and posthumous success, the young writer learns a great deal about him but also about something more expansive in reach and import, which encapsulates the moral of The Moon and Sixpence. Deep in thought about Strickland, the narrator says: “In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss. I do not think he was any gentler here, less selfish or less brutal, but the circumstances were more favourable. If he had spent his life amid these surroundings he might have passed for no worse a man than another. He received here what he neither expected nor wanted among his own people – sympathy.” To a certain extent it is as though Maugham was talking about himself in relation to his own peers and what may have been had he found himself elsewhere. The narrator of this fascinating, puzzling and edifying tale concludes his thoughts on the painter by saying: “Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.” Most would probably say the same about Maugham but I personally think there’s only veracity in the latter.