By W. Somerset Maugham.
Having gained some note as a writer, the narrator falls into the circle of a Mrs Strickland, and eventually meets her husband, Charles, a rather dull, inarticulate stockbroker, who suddenly ups and leaves for Paris, entirely abandoning his wife and children. “Cherchez la femme!” they all cry.
The narrator tracks Strickland down to a shabby hotel in Paris and quickly determines there’s no femme chercher (although back home, on the basis of some rumour, it’s decided that there really was another woman, and the narrator doesn’t dare to contradict the accepted narrative). Strickland is utterly unapologetic about his behaviour, and announces he wants to be an artist.
Five years later, the narrator, bored with London and life, decides to head to Paris, where he meets up with a Dutch artist, Dick Stroeve. Stroeve has no real talent as an artist (which seems to mean that he’s good at chocolate box paintings, but his work has no depth), but he is an excellent critic, and sees genius in Strickland’s paintings.
Strickland is just as abrasive as ever, and for most of the narrator’s time in Paris, the man’s painting are out of sight. The artist falls seriously ill and the kind-hearted, but buffoonish Stroeve nurses him back to health. Strickland repays the man by absconding with his wife, Blanche, and eventually driving her to suicide.
The narrator finally gets to see Strickland’s paintings, and like everyone else who subsequently comes into contact with them, regrets not acquiring some while they’re worth next-to-nothing; and then he never sees the man again.
Eventually the narrator ends up in Tahiti where he pieces together the rest of Strickland’s life from destitution in Marseilles to his arrival on the island, his marriage to Ata, his retreat into the bush, and his death from leprosy.
The Moon and Sixpence is allegedly about genius, but Strickland, who is constantly described as being inarticulate, comes across as verbally abusive and undeserving of the curious amounts of support which people give him from the narrator to the naively nice Stroeve to Captain Nichols in Marseilles. But as for the man being a genius, that rests on Strickland’s posthumous reputation, which Maugham never adequately succeeds in convincing the reader of.
Although Strickland is based on the artist Paul Gauguin, who is best known for his time in Tahiti, most of the novel is based in Paris. When the narrator and Strickland part company for the final time, there is an abrupt fracture in the book, although the narrator mostly avoids pontificating as he fills in the missing details of the artist’s life.
To some extent, though, Maugham has a clear predilection for pontification so that Strickland is often less important than the narrator blowing his own waffling trumpet. In fact, it appears that the narrator is not so much a persona of the author as he is Maugham writing himself into the life of a fictional artist based on a real-life one. Maugham also had a predilection for art, which features in more than one of his writings.
There is a reasonable amount of humour in the book where Maugham is mocking the pretensions of the age, but without, it appears, quite recognising that his portentous style would seem so dated and pretentious nearly a century later.