At the behest of an insistent friend many summers back, think back to an era when that petty tyrant Indira Gandhi and that pee-drinker Morarji Desai were leaders of our former nation, we read Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale although we can’t remember a whit now.
Our interest in Maugham was rekindled this week by the review of a new biography of this popular British author in the latest issue of the New Yorker (May 31, 2010, p.70-75).
If you are curious, Selina Hastings is the writer of the new biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (Random House).
In her review of Hastings’ book, the New Yorker reviewer Ruth Franklin provides an adequate introduction to both the man and his principal works: Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor’s Edge.
Our appetite for Maugham whetted by the review, we picked up The Moon and Sixpence from our local library.
While this is not a full-fledged review of The Moon and Sixpence, suffice it to say that the book makes for interesting reading.
The short novel (a mere 195-pages) has as its central focus a 40-year-old London stock-broker called Charles Strickland, a ”good, dull, honest plain man’ who one day, without any previous signal, abandons his wife and two children and vamooses off to Paris.
Not besotted with a girl much younger in years than his wife or worse, fleeing from the police after a heinous crime, no, our red-haired, seemingly commonplace Strickland is in pursuit of a fancy that few can easily grasp – You see, he wants to paint.
As he explains to the narrator, who is dispatched on a mission to Paris by Mrs.Strickland, to get her husband back:
You blasted fool….I tell you I’ve got 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.
Maugham traces the arc of Strickland’s unusual life from London to Paris to Marseilles and finally to the tragic end in Tahiti.
And he does it very well in the voice of the narrator, a writer. The book bubbles with humor and Maugham imbues even lesser characters with a rich color that makes them memorable.
Maugham is a perceptive observer of the human character, particularly on matters of love, women, men and beauty.
His incisive observations on these topics are evident in the following excerpts from the book:
On Women/On Love
There is no cruelty greater than a woman’s to a man who loves her and whom she does not love; she has no kindness then, no tolerance even, she has only an insane irritation. P. 100-101
A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her…but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes on her account. P. 126
When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possess your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone. P. 128
On Men/On Love
For in men, as a rule, love is but an episode which takes its place among the other affairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance which is untrue in life. There are few men to whom it is the most important thing in the world, and they are not very interesting ones; even women, with whom the subject is of paramount interest, have a contempt for them. They are flattered and excited by them, but have an uneasy feeling that they are poor creatures. But even during the brief intervals in which they are in love, men do other things which distract their mind; the trades by which they earn their living engage their attention; they are absorbed in sport; they can interest themselves in art. For the most part, they keep their various activities in various compartments, and they can pursue one to the temporary exclusion of the other. They have a faculty of concentration on that which occupies them at the moment, and it irks them if one encroaches on the other. As lovers, the difference between men and women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times. P.138
There are men whom a merciful Providence has undoubtedly ordained to a single life, but who from wilfulness or thorough circumstances they could not cope with have flown in the face of its decrees. There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. P. 145
Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination. P.62
Now that we’ve had a taste of Maugham, we intend to drink deep of the author.
Like a good cheapo desi, we’ve already ordered Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge from Half.com. We can’t wait to start on them.