An unsigned reviewer of Maugham’s novel, ‘Of Human Bondage’, derided the central character – Philip Carey – to be a sentimental young man who had the kind of pride which leads sensitive people to self-torture. ‘He was restless and eager; he had a great capacity for happiness and unhappiness; and like many young man he was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.’
While Maugham had a running battle with his critics, he did have a peculiar sense of humour to value their criticisms too. In this instance it seems he liked the turn of the phrase and promptly used it to name his next novel.
But Charles Strickland is not the image of a suggestible young man like Philip Carey – he is in fact a middle-aged stock broker living a middle class family life with a small family consisting of his wife and two children. And all of a sudden he quits and goes of to Paris to pursue his passion to paint. He then goes on to do many other bizarre things – live a bohemian life in the Arts quarter, have a ruinous affair with the wife of the Dutchman who saved him when he lay dying, finally move again to Tahiti where he eventually paints his masterpieces and then dies a sad death from leprosy. His final instructions to his local companion is to ensure that all his work is destroyed.
Talk about being committed to Art to an extent that it destroys everyone and everything around you. It is difficult to explain this in terms of cold logic and Maugham, the master of the technique that needs to be employed to tell a tale well, smartly sidesteps the issue by confessing that he does not understand what drove an ordinary man to such extraordinary choices so late in life.
I guess in the present age of pop psychology we would have put this down as one more instance of the Midlife crisis faced by the average Joe and be a bit surprised that Charles Strickland did not go into a Depression instead of leading such a wild life. Strickland seems to have missed his natural cure for the same as stated by A G Gardiner, “For Nature is a cunning nurse. She gives us lollipops all the way, and when the lollipop of hope and the lollipop of achievement are done, she gently inserts in our toothless gums the lollipop of remembrance. And with that pleasant vanity we are soothed to sleep.”
His approach drew a lot of criticism and one reads about Katherine Mansfield, a popular short story writer, berating the characterization in her review using a colorful description representing her New Zealand cultural heritage : ‘Strickland cut himself off from the body of life, clumsily, obstinately savagely – hacking away, regardless of torn flesh and quivering nerves, like some old Māori warrior separating himself from a shattered limb with a piece of sharp shell. What proof have we that he suffered? No proof at all.’
Maugham must have surely known the impact his characterization would have (Strickland dismisses all arguments and events with a curt ‘Go to Hell’) and deliberately chose not to pull any punches. We have had far more sentimental narratives of the yearning that Art can cause particularly when one’s talent is either not substantial or when it is not easy to recognize on account of his originality. ‘A Thing of Beauty’ by A J Cronin comes readily to mind as a good example of the same where a young man sacrifices everything to pursue his passion for Art.
Why does the artist have to be shown to be such an odious character and is it credible that such a base character of the man will surface at such a late age? These are questions that many want to ask Maugham who offers no real explanation and seems to suggest that he is just depicting the character as he saw it and there seems to have been some inspiration from a real life personality.
Within the limits set above, the novel really entertains you and keeps you hooked. Maugham shows a trick or two by opening the novel the with the dramatic disappearance and one is very curious to know the reason behind it. By inserting himself as a disinterested and neutral observer in the story Maugham achieves many things. The story flits between the past and the present, he travels easily from London to Paris and back, he steps in intermittently to give the feel of a person who is only at the periphery of the drama and is able to report back accurately on what he observed as he is not emotionally involved.
Not much of the narrative is left once Maugham discovers Strickland in Paris and wake of destruction he leaves behind before making the final escape to Tahiti. But Maugham is known for his digressions as well and the smart narrative he makes of the beach-comber in Marseilles is a gem in itself.
One does admire the range Maugham shows in his work – the novel is an amazing transition from the self-flagellating hero in his previous novel, ‘Of Human Bondage’. It also marks further progress of Maugham’s journey as a writer who transformed, as Cyril Connolly aptly described, from being a sentimental-realist to a man of the world (and the theatre) then the Oriental traveller and finally the Western sage.