Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ and ‘The Magician’ by Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence is about Charles Strickland, a genius and obsessive painter. For him painting is not just a form of expression but a way of life. Nothing else interests him. A boring person in his 40, living in London leaves behind his family to Paris to focus on painting. Very few understand his paintings or the person, but Strickland does not care as he is driven by the devil painter inside him to get out and the worldly matters such as money, praise do not seem to bother him. Going hungry is routine part of his life as he cannot stick to any job and his paintings do not sell and he is not interested in selling them either so does not put much efforts there. Painting is a compulsion for him, Emotionally he is ruthless. He breaks the family of a friend who helps him and walks away with no sign of remorse. He is a pilgrim on the move. He reaches Tahiti islands and there he accepts a younger wife who does not trouble him in his passion and does not ask him to earn, that is what he wanted from a woman. So he settles down but his solitary life continues, he goes on to create numerous paintings but the leprosy attack shortens his life. Yet he paints till he becomes blind and the death arrives. Fame comes after his death and his paintings fetch great money and become sought after when their creator is no more on this earth.

This story is said to be based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. This painting – Fruits and Lemons shown here does get a mention in the novel. That painter himself gives this painting to the doctor who attends him when he gets leprosy.

This novel was first published in 1919 and is said to be one of the best of  what Somerset Maugham had produced. It was also made into a movie with the same title.



Another painting by Paul Gauguin (Source: Wikipedia)

The Magician’ is about recreating the life of a real life magician through a novel. Arthur Burdon and Margaret Dauncey live in London and are about to get married. They make a trip to Paris to meet their friends. Arthur being a surgeon has another doctor friend and Margaret has her classmate living there. They get introduced to a magician named Oliver Haddo. An incident leads to rivalry between Arthur and Oliver and the magician plays his tricks to separate Margaret from Arthur and he marries her himself. He takes her away from Paris to multiple places. He then uses her for his experiment that finally leads to death of Margaret. Puzzled Arthur gets to the roots of the evil and in the ensuing fight Arthur manages to kill the magician and destroy his lab. Just five characters make this novel and the last quarter run of this novel is no less thrilling than any Hollywood movie with all its explanation of black magic. When you are done, mentioning the name of Oliver Haddo would scare you for your rest of life, such is the impact of the character author has created in this novel.

This novel was first published in 1908 when the author had developed interest on the subject of black magic. The character of Oliver Haddo was based on the life of Aleister Crowley who wrote an article (published in Vanity Fair) criticizing author of this novel of plagiarism after this novel came out (https://www.100thmonkeypress.com/biblio/acrowley/periodicals/write_a_novel/write_a_novel.htm). Somerset Mougham, author of this novel expresses his regret for not reading what was written by Aleister in the beginning of his novel.



William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was trained to be a doctor but the commercial success of his first novel published when he was a medical student helped him become a full time writer. He devoted lot of time to write plays which made him popular and earned him big money. But then he came back to short stories and novels too. He has more the 30 books to his credit. He was born and died in France but his time was spent considerably in London too so he is mostly known as British author. It gets reflected in his novels as well where in central characters shuttle in between in London and Paris.