Memorable Quotes: The Moon and Sixpence

When I write reviews of the books I read, I always try to keep two goals in mind. My first goal, since this is a small blog without many readers, is to create a record of what I thought the book was about, along with my own personal reactions to it. I want to feel personally satisfied with the review because I am not seeking a lot of outside feedback. Of course, since this is still a public blog, and since I do have some readers—and because I believe it is important to develop some facility in describing plot points and relaying critical views to others—I also want to keep any potential readers in mind. My second goal, therefore, is to make the book knowable to people who have never read it so that they might have some idea of whether they would ever like to read it. I want to offer a review that can be appreciated by people who do not know me, or who have never read my blog before: that is, I want to write reviews that can stand alone, without any explanation of how I read books and what the purpose of my blog is.

Although I try to vary my approach in minor ways, most of my reviews adhere to a certain format in which I compose a synopsis of what I thought were important plot points and then offer some judgments on the book as a whole. If I have remembered beforehand, I will include a quotation or two that I think exemplifies the story. Most of the time, though, the writing I offer is solely mine. This is effective to a point, but it fails to give a complete picture. It frequently privileges plot over style; the author’s voice remains a mystery. While ideally I would rectify this problem by including more quotations for every review I write, I must be realistic and admit that I find the prospect too tedious and time-consuming. It’s a lot of work to find exactly the right quote! Thus, my somewhat lazy solution is just to create a post listing a number of quotes that I found particularly interesting. Especially since I have been more in a reading mood than a writing one, I have decided to write “Memorable Quotes” entries for those books I never got around to reviewing.

The first book I am going to cover is The Moon and Sixpence, a short, impressive W. Somerset Maugham novel loosely based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. As with all Maugham novels, the language is lovely and the insights profound; additionally, all of the characters are unsympathetic, and many of their actions despicable. Perhaps one of the reasons I never reviewed the book is because the subject of the story, Charles Strickland, is so unlikeable. He leaves his wife and children to begin life as an artist (never thinking of them again), and disdains everyone, even those who make sacrifices to keep him healthy and alive, because he is so singularly focused on his pursuit of art and beauty. It is only Maugham’s superb writing that makes this story worth reading, which is why a plot summary would be ineffective and a poor representation of the reading experience. Thus here are some memorable quotations to give a better idea of the virtues of The Moon and Sixpence.

  • “Life isn’t long enough for love and art.” —Charles Strickland
  • There was in him something primitive. He seemed to partake of those obscure forces of nature which the Greeks personified in shapes part human and part beast, the satyr and the faun. I thought of Marsyas, whom the god flayed because he had dared to rival him in song. Strickland seemed to bear in his heart strange harmonies and unadventured patterns, and I foresaw for him an end of torture and despair. I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.
  • Love is absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the most clear-sighted, though he may know, cannot realise that his love will cease; it gives body to what he knows is illusion, and, knowing it is nothing else, he loves it better than reality. It makes a man a little more than himself, and at the same time a little less. He ceases to be himself. He is no longer an individual, but a thing, an instrument to some purpose foreign to his ego.
  • Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to human pride.
  • To the acute observer no one can produce the most casual work without disclosing the innermost secrets of his soul.
  • Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
  • I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.
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6 Comments

  1. THE MOON AND SIXPENCE is one of the greatest books of the 20th Century, so overlooked, so inspirational, so terrifying, too, to think about what one must survive in order to purse their art. Thx for this post. Time to go pull Strickland off the bookshelf for another re-read.

    Reply
    • Yeah, it’s a shame it’s so overlooked. It’s so well done, but I know very few people who have read it (or even know about it). I’m glad to hear from other people who also appreciate it. It deserves the recognition!

      Reply
  2. Upstairs, on the shelf next to the one containing The Moon And Sixpence, as well as several others by Maughan, and next to Van Gogh’s Letters To Theo, is Gauguin’s Letters, or something to that effect. What struck me reading it years ago now was how he never gave up hope of earning back the love of his wife and I think seven children…as an artist and not a banker/broker. It is an old story, earning a place in society and perhaps the love of a woman doing something that is inimical to the yearnings of your soul.

    And of course art and artistry back then, what status, what honour and respect did they earn for themselves–the genuine ones at any rate? Next to nothing, and starvation to boot. At least Gauguin touched it in his earlier career; Van Gogh never did, and never experienced the love of a woman either to carry in his heart.

    Odious, sure, but striving for something more.

    Forgiveness is the word for all, as Will Durant would say.

    Reply
    • One of the things I realized while reading the book is that I actually know very little about Gauguin. I’d like to read up on him, because I’m sure it would be unfair to assume he was just like Strickland. I think Maugham takes a special pleasure in taking his characters to the limit, making them as unlikeable as he conceivably can. It would be interesting to see just how much the life of Gauguin influenced his story, and how much was Maugham’s own invention.

      Reply
  3. Sometime after writing that comment I went up and checked the book I had mentioned, which turned out to be The Intimate Journals Of Paul Gauguin. I probably read it some ten odd years ago, I am not sure whether or not the man was any more likeable than Maughan’s depiction. I would say Maughan was emminently respectable, almost upper class, and might have taken a dim view of other artists who had a much tougher road to travel on route to self-expression. I read someone, I forget who, ranking Maughan at the very pinnacle of the second rate writers, meaning, I took it, that he was tops below the likes of the Joyce’s, Proust’s, Mann’s, etc. That’s how I took it, I suppose, because I agree. In Of Human Bondage, The Moon And Sixpence, and especially The Razor’s Edge, he deals with the artist in the modern world, and yet always seems to fall short of an ultimate breakthrough. Supremely competent, but lacking in the ineffable which would lift the works to the very pinnacle.
    Anyway, best get on with my day. Happy readings.

    Reply
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