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By William Somerset Maugham (1874—1965)




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The name of Somerset Maugham is connected with critical realism in the English literature of the first ''decades of the present century.

He possessed a keen and observant eye and in his best works he ridiculed philistinism, narrow-mindedness, hy­pocrisy, self-interest, utilitarian approach to art.

His links with realistic art, however, were not so solid as to place him among the best English writers of this period. His work is marred by cynicism and disbelief in human nature. Maugham thinks that it is not in the power of man to reform the world. In his works he compares life to the theatre where human comedy, as old as the world it­self, is being staged. As the course of human life cannot be altered, Maugham believes in the wisdom of those who see the failings of this world but learn to accept it as it is.

W. S. Maugham was a prolific writer. Numerous nov­els, short stories and plays came from his pen. His best novels are "Of Human Bondage", "The Moon and Sixpence", "Cakes and Ale".

Many critics praised Maugham's clear-cut prose. At his best he is an incomparable storyteller. He writes with lucidity and almost ostentatious simplicity. His acid irony and brilliant style helped him win a huge audience of readers.

"The Moon and Sixpence" appeared in 1919. The narra­tive was suggested by the life of the French painter Paul Gauguin. The main character of the novel Strickland is a middle-aged stockbroker, who takes up painting, throws over his family, goes to Tahiti and in the few years before his death paints highly original pictures with strange haunting colours.

The novel is an illustration of one of Maugham's favour­ite convictions that human nature is knit of contradictions, that the workings of the human mind are unpredictable. Strickland is concentrated on his art. He is indifferent to love, friendship and kindness, misanthropic and inconsid-[103] erate to others. His pictures fall flat on the public and recognition comes to him only after death.



Maugham borrowed the title of the novel from a review of his book "Of Human Bondage". Speaking of the principal character of the book, the reviewer remarks: "Like so many young men he was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet."

The title served to Maugham as a symbol for two oppos­ing worlds — the material world quit by Strickland, where everything is thought of in terms of money, and the world of pure artistry craving for beauty.

XLVIII

[...Strickland made no particular impression on the people who came in contact with him in Tahiti* To them he was no more than a beach-comber1 in constant need of money, 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. They remembered then that' they could have bought for a song canvases which now were worth large sums, and they could not forgive themselves for the opportunity which had escaped them. There was a Jewish trader called Cohen, who had come by one of Strickland's pictures in a singular way. He was a little old Frenchman, with soft kind eyes and a pleasant smile, half trader and half seaman, who owned a cutter in which he wandered boldly among the Paumotus** and the Marquesas***, taking out trade goods and bringing back copra, shell and pearls.2 I went to see him because I was told he had a large black pearl which he was willing to sell cheaply, and when I discovered that it was beyond my means I began to talk to him about Strickland. He had known him well. 'You see, I was interested in him because he was a painter," he told me. "We don't get many painters in the islands,3 and I was sorry for him because he was such a bad one. I gave him his first job. I had a plantation on the peninsula, and I wanted a white overseer. You never get any work out of the natives unless you have a white man over them. I said to him: 'You'll have plenty of time for painting, and you can earn a bit of money.' I knew he was starving, but I of­fered him good wages."4

'I can't imagine that he was a very satisfactory overseer," I said, smiling

"I made allowances. I have always had a sympathy for artists. It is in our blood, you know. But he only remained a few months. [104]

When he had enough money to buy paints and canvases he left me. The place had got hold of him by then,5 and he wanted to get away into the bush.3 But I continued to see him now and then. He would turn up in Papeete* every few months and stay a little while; he'd get money out of someone or other3 and then disappear again. It was on one of these visits that he came to me and asked for the loan of two hundred francs. He looked as if he hadn't had a meal for a week. and I hadn't the heart to refuse him. Of course, I never expected to see my money again. Well, a year later he came to see me once more, and he brought a picture with him. He did not mention the money owed me, but he said: 'Here is a picture of your plantation that I've painted for you.' I looked at it. I did not know what to say, but of course I thanked him, and when he had gone away I showed it to my wife."

"What was it like?" I asked.

"Do not ask me. I could not make head or tail of it.5 I never saw such a thing in my life. 'What shall we do with it?' I said to my wife. 'We can never hang it up,' she said. 'People would laugh at us.' So she took it into an attic and put it away with all sorts of rubbish, for my wife can never throw anything away. It is her mania. Then, imagine to yourself, just before the war my brother wrote to me from Paris and said: 'Do you know anything about an English painter who lived in Tahiti? It appears that he was a genius, 6 and his pictures fetch large prices. See if you can lay your hands on anything and send it to me. There's money to be made.' So I said to my wife: 'What about that picture that Strickland gave me? Is it possible that it is still in the attic?' 'Without doubt,' she answered, 'for you know that I never throw anything away. It is my mania.' We. went up to the attic, and there, among I know not what rubbish that had been gathered during the thirty years we have inhabited that house, was the picture I looked at it again, and I said: 'Who would have thought that the overseer of my. plantation on the peninsula, to whom I lent two hundred francs, had genius? Do you see anything in the picture?' 'No,' she said, 'it does not resemble the plantation and I have never seen cocoa-nuts with blue leaves; but they are mad in Paris, and it may be that your brother will be able to sell it for the two hundred francs you lent Strickland.' Well, we packed it up and we sent it to my brother. And at last I received a letter from him. What do you think he said? 'I received your picture,' he said, 'and I confess I thought it was a joke that you had played on me. I would not have given the cost of postage for the picture. I was half afraid to show it to the gentleman who had spoken to -me about it. Imagine my surprise when he said it was a masterpiece, and offered me thirty thousand francs. I dare say he would have paid more, but frankly I was so taken aback that I lost my head; 5 I accepted the offer before I was able to collect myself."

Then Monsieur Cohen said an admirable thing. [105]

"I wish that poor Strickland had been still alive. I wonder what he would have said when I gave him twenty-nine thousand eight hundred francs for his picture."

COMMENTARY

1. To them he was no more than a beach-comber... They remembered then that they could have bought for a song canvases which now were worth large sums...

S. Maugham selects his words with great precision. The use of the slang expression "beach-comber" and the colloquial expression "buy for a song", more fit for casual discourse than for the author's narration, turn the passage from an unemotional account of facts into a vividly drawn picture. The lines are suggestive of the disappointment of those who had known Strickland, might have got his pictures but failed to do it. The author subtly shows that they regretted not the loss of a work of art, but the loss of money.

2. He was a little old Frenchman, with soft kind eyes and a pleas­ant smile, half trader and half seaman, who owned a cutter in which he wandered boldly among the Paumotus and the Marquesas, taking out trade goods and bringing back copra, shell and pearls.

The words "copra", "shell", "pearls" and some others give an idea of the occupation of the people of the island. These words as well as the proper names "the Paumotus" and "the Marquesas" help create a local colour, the atmosphere of the place that was the setting for the events described.

3. We don't get many painters in the islands...

The place had got hold of him by then, and he wanted to get away into the bush.

...he'd get money out of someone or other...

Maugham's vocabulary is highly colloquial, which means alongside with other things a repetitive use of a small number of words conveying different meanings. To these belong such words as "get", "fix", "do", "go", "thing", "business", "jolly", "lovely", "nice", etc.

The selection under study is illustrative of the use of the verb "get".

4. I knew he was starving, but I offered him good wages.

The use of the conjunction "but", which contrasts one statement with another, is of interest here. It seems that "and" would be more logical. However, "but" here is expressive of the psychology of a bourgeois who takes it for granted that if his fellow-citizen is in need, he should be exploited and not helped.

5. The place had got hold of him by then... I could not make head or tail of it. I was so taken aback that I lost my head, etc.

An abundant use of colloquial expressions and idioms is a feature of Maugham's style, They serve to make the dialogue "natural" and [106] the characters "living" as the author himself put it. Maugham is consid­ered to be a perfect storyteller who usually has a firm grip on the reader's interest. This is partly achieved through the language, which is lively and emotional.

The narration assumes the character of an informal talk between the writer and the reader. The phraseological combinations lend an additional expressiveness to the language since they are usually more emotional than a mere stating of facts in plain terms.

6. It appears that he was a genius...

Note a matter-of-fact tone in which the statement is made. It would be more appropriate to a statement of a different kind — some­thing like "It appears he was an Englishman"; "It appears he was a doctor".

As it is, it subtly underlines Maugham's amusement with the ways of the world, his irony at the way talent is regarded,




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