I picked up The Moon and Sixpence, having heard it was “inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin,” expecting to read a novelised biography of the artist, with an appropriate level of artistic licence. What you get with this book, in fact, is a fictional work that uses the real life of Gauguin only as a starting point for a gripping drama with a compelling anti-hero at its centre.
The Moon and Sixpence, by William Somerset Maugham, is the story of Charles Strickland, a painter and struggling genius. Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and his day job and flees to Paris, to commit himself to painting, to the shock of all those in the polite society around him. The story is narrated by a writer who moves in these polite circles, and becomes acquainted with Strickland when he’s given the task, by Strickland’s wife, of following the artist to Paris, to try to persuade him to return.
The narrator struggles to understand the struggling artist, and this lends a mystery to the portrait that I found appealing. Strickland is always calling the narrator a “damned fool” or the like, for failing to understand what drives the artist. The narrator simply cannot understand why a man would throw off all his duties, hurting others in the process, simply in order to paint. Though a writer, the narrator just is not an artist, and so can never understand. It puts us, as readers, at a distance from the artist himself, we seem only to see him side-on, literally a profile of the artist with only hints at the depths. It’s been suggested that Maugham’s inability to penetrate the depths of creative genius is a weakness of this book. I would say rather that it’s this that gives the book its distinctive and compelling quality, its realness in helping us to see what it would mean for an ordinary person to come into the presence of true genius.
Rich and enjoyable, The Moon and Sixpence is one of Maugham’s best works. Full of thoughtful and sometimes deep (if not strictly original) insights, it will keep you thinking as you turn the pages to see what happens next.