here with French subtitles.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator (I did wonder if it was Willie Ashenden, the narrator of Cakes and Ale as well as several short stories). He tells the story of Charles Strickland. At the age of 40, Strickland, a stockbroker with a wife & two children, suddenly leaves his family & goes to Paris to become an artist. He does this in the most callous way, leaving no explanation for his wife, Amy, or his business partner. They are left penniless & he never communicates with his family again. The narrator is sent to Paris to track Strickland down as the family assume he's run off with a woman. He's found alone, in a garret in a very poor area, with virtually no money. He refuses to explain himself & refuses to go home.
A few years later, our narrator is in Paris when he meets Strickland again. He's still painting, still unsuccessful & almost half-starved. He has never sold a picture. The narrator's friend, Dirk Stroeve, also knows Strickland. Stroeve is a jovial man, a painter of very bad, chocolate-boxy pictures that, nevertheless, sell very well. He is relentlessly friendly to Strickland who is morose, rude & dismissive of Stroeve's work. Stroeve's wife, Blanche, loathes Strickland & is embarrassed to see her husband's kindness dismissed. However, against her better judgement, Stroeve brings Strickland to their home when he is ill with a fever. This precipitates tragedy for the Stroeves although Strickland is unconcerned of the consequences of his actions. All he cares about is his work.
Strickland eventually goes to Tahiti where he continues to paint. He takes a native woman, Ata, as his wife & retreats to an inaccessible valley. The narrator travels to Tahiti some years later, after Strickland's death & when he is acclaimed as a genius, his work now selling for thousands of pounds. He wants to find out more about Strickland's last years & he hears the terrible story of his death.
Strickland is a genius but he's an intensely unpleasant man. He leaves a trail of destruction behind him in the lives of those who love him & seems to feel no remorse or even concern. He has no compassion for anyone he meets. When he's dying in his garret, he's not grateful to Stroeve for rescuing him. It's as though he would be just as happy to die alone. He doesn't seem to care that no one admires his pictures, he is compelled to keep working even though no one but himself can see any point. It's not even clear whether he is ever satisfied himself. Is he always striving to achieve something out of his reach? I'm sure he would have been scornful of the experts who acclaimed his work after his death. There are bigger questions here about genius. Strickland was never recognized in his lifetime. Would he have considered that all his sufferings, physical & mental, were worth it? Would he have been a genius if he'd been a nicer, more compassionate man or was his single-minded pursuit of excellence mean that he should be absolved from the ordinary human politenesses that keep society functioning? Such interesting questions & I have no answers! I don't think Maugham had any answers either, I think he was just intrigued by the contradictions of life & fame. The narrator is certainly fascinated by Strickland even as he's shocked by his cruelty & dismissive of his work. He tries in vain to warn Stroeve & to soften the blow for abandoned Amy but he obviously feels that there must be something more than mere stubbornness to account for Strickland's obsession with his art.
Maugham is interested in the idea of fame & genius (it's also one of the themes of Cakes and Ale) but always at one remove. I need to read more of his books to see if he uses the same device of a narrator observing the action rather than the viewpoint of the central protagonist. I also need to know more about Maugham himself & I'm tempted by Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham - has anyone read it? Although the narrator always remains slightly shadowy, the other characters are full of life. Dirk Stroeve is pathetic but also ultimately quite dignified. Amy Strickland's desire to be part of artistic circles in London (which is how she meets the narrator) & seen as Bohemian can't survive the reality of her husband's desertion. She's resigned to being left for another woman & magnanimously declares that she'll take him back when his fling is over but she can't comprehend being left for art. She ends up learning typing & running her own agency while being secretly ashamed that she's had to earn her own living instead of being proud that she was able to do so. There are also some wonderful minor characters whom the narrator meets on his journey, like Dr Coutras & Tiaré, a woman who runs a lodging house in Tahiti where Strickland meets Ata.
This is such a compelling story. I listened to it on audio, narrated by Robert Hardy. I wish
Robert Hardy had narrated more audio books, he does such a wonderful job
with this one. I remember listening to his recording of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree many
years ago but there's very little else. However, I couldn't stop
listening to this book which is a testament to Hardy's narration as much
as Maugham's storytelling.