Today I forgot my book at home and so on the subway was rereading the beginning of The Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham, which my wife had on her Sony Reader. (Maybe I'll post something about ebooks later, why I prefer the Sony Reader over Amazon's Kindle, what the iPad may mean for all of these devices, etc., but that's another topic...)
The Moon and Sixpence is a short novel about a painter modeled after Paul Gauguin. If you aren't familiar with Maugham, he's well worth checking out. In addition to Of Human Bondage, his semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, he wrote a bunch of shorter novels and countless short stories. In these, he usually includes himself -- or a fictionalized stand-in for himself -- in the story. What I love about him more than anything is his voice. He has a calm, ironic, sophisticated and yet casual tone that I find completely engaging. He manages to be witty and yet entirely natural. So even though most of the shorter novels -- I got addicted to them a few years ago and have read all of them I think -- have problems, they are nonetheless endlessly enjoyable. What are these problems? Well now that I write it, I find it hard to pinpoint. Maybe that they don't quite hold together tightly enough, that the endings are sometimes not quite as great as the beginnings seem to promise. I'll have to think about it more and come back to it in another post. But the fact is that that problem is present in so many novels, great ones and not-so-great ones alike. In the case of Maugham, it never gives me the slightest pause in reaching for the next novel, the next story...
But back to the smallish point I was originally going to make, why I started this post in the first place, there's a great passage at the beginning of The Moon and Sixpence where he talks about writing and publishing. Without further digression here is the quote:
Anyway, in writing this blog I'm pleased to be released from the burden of my thought and fortunate to be indifferent to all else.
I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul's good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours' relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.