‘Looking together united them.’
Recently I went to The Moon and Sixpence and back again. I’m glad I did it—even though it was a book I hadn’t cared for the first time. A second reading confirmed my opinion that this book does not represent W. Somerset Maugham’s finest hour, finest writing, finest sentiments. And certainly that man needed to jettison some prejudices. (ugh…he writes from a time capsule and a select universe) There are moments of insightful quotability–this is W. Somerset Maugham, after all–and there are moments when the narrator’s distance from his protagonist, spliced haphazardly with the overtly gushing affectations of a string of colorful characters who tell us their impressions in after images about the protagonist…becomes tiresome. Still, Maugham poses some intriguing scenarios regarding art, the artistic process, and who it is that creates ‘art’. It was this particular focus I wanted to revisit.
This is not meant to be a review of the book. There are already plenty of those—mostly positive, for reasons I will leave to others to explain. This is more about the fact that I’m in the middle of a kitchen remodel (Phase II) and I’ve been pondering why it is we love handcrafted real wood cabinetry, and loathe-can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of pressed wood product that is a glued together composite of sawdust and wood chips and laminated with a finish that resembles wood grain. From these unanswerable questions, my thoughts went to art.
When I read the book this time through, I was intrigued by some comparisons, as I often am, between ‘great’, or what is considered great works of literature. Writers constantly borrow from other influences both consciously and unconsciously–the sponge metaphor might not be amiss here–and it is fascinating to find these threads of continuity running through all the arts.
The Moon and Sixpence was published in 1919, and Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse was published in 1927. On the face of it, there is nothing much to connect the two novels, or for that matter, even the two novelists. Woolf praised Maugham as a writer when she was a young woman—writing as Virginia Bell—but seemed to despise the ‘popular’, financially successful novelist as the two grew older in their craft.
“Then there was Somerset Maugham, a grim figure; rat-eyed; dead man cheeked, unshaven; a criminal I should have said had I met him on a bus.”
— Virginia Woolf, Letter to Vanessa Bell (2 November 1938) from “The Letters of Virginia Woolf”, ed. N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann (1975-80)
Never get on the bad side of a gifted writer who enjoys wielding death strokes with her pen. [see her essay Death of the Moth]
As a quick aside, in addition to reworking my kitchen I am also remodeling my blog. In reviewing these needs—redecorating, rearranging the furniture, deciding what to keep, what must go, what blog posts I send off to the figurative Goodwill and which ones I am fond enough of to bronze into a keepsake as if they were baby shoes—I made the surprising discovery that I write about fruits and vegetables a great deal.
In fact, many writers find inspiration in ordinary produce; then—they transform it. The contents of a fruit bowl, as symbolism, fulcrum, or counterpoint, has provided a favorite motif in literature. Intellectuals have more afoot than the average reader such as myself can muster, so when they write of fruit, it’s not because it’s pretty or tastes delicious. Fruit, dear reader, is never just fruit in the hands of an artist.
This brings us back to Somerset Maugham and Virginia Woolf.
Maugham has a way of asking very good questions and then leaving them unanswered—tossed aside like a forlorn pile of discarded litter in a landscape already choked with philosophical detritus. This process ensures the reader will keep thinking about the book long afterward. (Some might call this a successful novel, when it achieves that goal.) In the case of the book under discussion, Maugham asked questions that were essentially, what is the nature of great art? What drives an artist? Is art worth any sacrifice? When does art have intrinsic value, and when is it cheap imitation? Or worse yet–gasp–merely decorative?
Even if you haven’t read The Moon and Sixpence, likely you know that it is loosely based on Paul Gauguin’s life and art.
One of the greatest transformations that Maugham attempted with his characterization was that of taking a driven, intense and fascinating artist of French/Hispanic background (Paul Gauguin) and casting him as a stolid British stockbroker (Charles Strickland); a salt-of-the-earth plain man of few words, nurtured at the bosom of middle class mother England.
The fictional Strickland is married to a nice wife with two lovely children; yet he has a dark secret. In his past, in his childhood, there was a set of watercolor paints that he had been forced to put into storage when life began to intervene and turn him into something besides, well, a child.
Suddenly his tortured soul will have no more of the constraints of his miserably comfortable lifestyle. Only leaving, dissipating, and painting can assuage this. By coincidence—and this particular talent lay hidden for years, most likely from his dutiful wife—it turns out he is a man who exercises a fatal attraction over women. Women he can beat black and blue, or drive to suicide. Throw in a scruffy beard, an absinthe habit, starve him in a drafty garret, drag him backward through a knothole of filth and scum for a few years, and voilà. Transformation complete. He is now ready to foist his vision of beauty upon the world. Yes, you read that right—beauty. Because somehow this cruel, selfish man is gifted with insight into what beauty is. This is the mystery of art, by the way, and mere mortals cannot understand it.
Surely the toxic bit of humanity that is Charles Strickland is a frail craft upon which to set afloat a manifesto that hopes to explain the artiste mythos. A man obsessed, yes; an inhuman monster, yes; a genius? The book fell far short of convincing me of that. Maugham was conflicted about his miserable protagonist, as well, and had him die a horrible death by a loathsome, disfiguring disease.
There was one redeeming feature of this book, however, that still captured my full attention just as it had years ago. Not surprisingly, it was Maugham’s description of fruit.
Such a fruit bowl it was. Interestingly, it is very similar to another bowl of fruit in literature. This is where Virginia Woolf comes in.
From The Moon and Sixpence:
‘It was a pile of mangoes, bananas, oranges, and I know not what, and at first sight it was an innocent picture enough. It would have been passed in an exhibition of the Post- Impressionists by a careless person as an excellent but not very remarkable example of the school; but perhaps afterwards it would come back to his recollection, and he would wonder why.
I do not think then he could ever entirely forget it.
The colours were so strange that words can hardly tell what a troubling emotion they gave. They were sombre blues, opaque like a delicately carved bowl in lapis lazuli, and yet with a quivering lustre that suggested the palpitation of mysterious life; there were purples, horrible like raw and putrid flesh, and yet with a glowing, sensual passion that called up vague memories of the Roman Empire of Heliogabalus; there were reds, shrill like the berries of holly — one thought of Christmas in England, and the snow, the good cheer, and the pleasure of children — and yet by some magic softened till they had the swooning tenderness of a dove`s breast; there were deep yellows that died with an unnatural passion into a green as fragrant as the spring and as pure as the sparkling water of a mountain brook.
Who can tell what anguished fancy made these fruits?
They belonged to a Polynesian garden of the Hesperides. There was something strangely alive in them, as though they were created in a stage of the earth`s dark history when things were not irrevocably fixed to their forms. They were extravagantly luxurious. They were heavy with tropical odours. They seemed to possess a sombre passion of their own. It was enchanted fruit, to taste which might open the gateway to God knows what secrets of the soul and to mysterious palaces of the imagination. They were sullen with unawaited dangers, and to eat them might turn a man to beast or god.
All that was healthy and natural, all that clung to happy relationships and the simple joys of simple men, shrunk from them in dismay; and yet a fearful attraction was in them, and, like the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they were terrible with the possibilities of the Unknown.
At last I turned away.’
Justifiably, this could be labeled ‘overwrought’, but there is also an intense beauty to his description. Though strange oasis it be, it unfolds slowly into the narrative, in a wash of fetid effluvium that almost convinced me that Charles Strickland was actually an artist. It came too late to matter.
The bowl of fruit, now rendered on canvas, had no doubt been perfectly lovely, but that was not the point. Only an artist who—somehow, we don’t know how—is a conduit of unspeakable truths and stands before vistas of limitless grandeur could portray a simple bowl of ripe fruit in such a way. Somehow, vaguely, groping toward the light, we sense from the bargain basement sensibilities of our soulless middle class ineptitude (for such is how Maugham viewed his average feminine reader) that this was not actually a bowl of fruit, but a symbol of…something else. What, we don’t know. That’s the beauty of it. We just know it’s a putrefying portal to something else…a place where bananas were endowed with a ‘fearful attraction’, mangoes are transmogrified into dark windows opening onto mysterious palaces of eternal doom. Again—precise details here are lacking, so I fall back on verbal histrionics because I actually don’t know what I’m saying and I’m tempted to create an apple cheeked buffoon of an artist, a swaggering sea captain, or perhaps a corpulent Tahitian inn keeper right about now and make sure we know that this is how ‘they’ talk. As did Maugham, when quoting the good Dr. Coutras:
‘It gave you an awful sense of the infinity of space and of the endlessness of time.’
What he said. Or not. It’s with a sense of relief we turn again to Virginia Woolf’s fine and delicate novel. Here, in To the Lighthouse, we can observe a fascinating symmetry of thought from these two disparate writers. Here again, is art on canvas. Here, again, is a bowl of fruit. And here, again, is a portal into distant worlds:
‘Now eight candles were stood down the table, and after the first stoop the flames stood upright and drew with them into visibility the long table entire, and in the middle a yellow and purple dish of fruit. What had she done with it, Mrs. Ramsay wondered, for Rose’s arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas, made her think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune’s banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the shoulder of Bacchus (in some picture), among the leopard skins and the torches lolloping red and gold . . . Thus brought up suddenly into the light it seemed possessed of great size and depth, was like a world in which one could take one’s staff and climb hills, she thought, and go down into valleys, and to her pleasure (for it brought them into sympathy momentarily) she saw that Augustus too feasted his eyes on the same plate of fruit, plunged in, broke off a bloom there, a tassel here, and returned, after feasting, to his hive. That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them.
No, she said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it — a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing.’
Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. Now we are even guarding the fruit. It cannot be eaten, or touched or moved.
But then someone took a pear, and spoilt the symmetry.
Because it was written by Virginia Woolf, there are reams of scholarly articles written on the symbolism in this bowl of fruit. In contrast, Maugham’s bowl of fruit has been sadly neglected by academia. Could not papers be written based on his description of purple, alone?
A fascinating aspect of this comparison is the art on canvas that connected these two books.
In Maugham’s fruit bowl, he invokes the lush imagery of the Roman Empire of Heliogabalus, and it is generally assumed he meant the painting by Alma Tadema.
In this painting it can be observed that the leopard skin clad maenad is in the background, bringing in a Bacchanalian tone to the rose strewn gathering.
In Woolf’s bowl of fruit symbolism, she too, invokes a painting… ‘in some picture’ she writes, keeping it vague. Many have tried to place the exact painting she referred to—it appears to be a composite of several—but that it is of a similar style to the one Maugham references is sure. What else is sure are the common denominators of leopard skin motif, and the Bacchanalian imagery.
Did Woolf unconsciously borrow her extraordinary bowl of fruit from Somerset Maugham?
‘A fearful attraction was in them.’
If it is hard for you to imagine Virginia Woolf borrowing from Somerset Maugham, then you know why this bowl of fruit symbolism is ‘terrible with possibility’.
Paul Gauguin grew old enough to begin stirring restively in his tropical painter’s paradise. He, too, was a man asking questions. One of his last paintings—a gorgeous piece that is considered by some to be his masterpiece— was titled D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). [view here]
Gauguin did entertain thoughts of returning to Europe, to his old life, his old friends. He was advised against it. Why?
‘In returning you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public’s appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world.’
(See? When it comes to art, no one wants ordinary fruit.)
In Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil, he puts words in the mouth of his character Waddington that we might wonder if he believed, himself. Perhaps, he did at one time; when he was younger, and less weary of the world.
“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”
Now he’s starting to make sense. One doesn’t have to be an artist to create the perfect work of art. Live a ‘beautiful life’, and art will find you.