At the beginning of the novel, Charles Strickland appears to be a comfortable if not rich British stockbroker, more annoyed than enthused about the “artsy” types his wife brings to the house for her famous salons. The first-person narrator of the novel, himself a writer who has been “collected” by Strickland’s wife (and who never shares his name in the novel) meets Strickland at one of these salons, and finds him absolutely unremarkable. Until, that is, one day he is called upon to intervene after Strickland quits his job, abandons his wife and children without a farthing, and runs off to Paris to paint – despite having shown no interest in painting his entire life.
What follows is a novel examining the value of passion in art. Strickland is absolutely brutal – to himself, to anyone who tries to help him, and especially anyone who loves him. All that matters to him is creating art, to the point that he nearly kills himself by spending the little money he has on supplies, rather than food. From the narrator’s perspective, the only thing that saves Strickland from being a completely abhorrent character is his single-mindedness in his devotion to art. But the question that remains is whether or not the emotional and social cost is truly “worth” the price of creating beauty.
The difficult relationship between art and beauty is articulated in the novel by Dirk Stroeve, a very successful but conventional painter who recognizes Strickland’s genius and, consequently, his own mediocrity:
”Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge, and sesnitiveness and imagination.” p. 56, Kindle editionMaugham’s writing manages to be both powerful and austere. Not a word is wasted. I was completely mesmerized by this novel, particularly in the first-person narrative voice, which mixed such admiration with disdain. For me, it struck a masterful balance.
It only took six months, but I’m finally on the board in this year’s What’s in a Name 5 Challenge. This title fit in two slots (something in the sky and something in a pocket, purse or handbag), but I’m linking it to the purse category, and assuming it’s a very old, beat-up British purse – after all, the charge is to be creative! This title also counts as my 20th Century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. Progress at last!