Two Models of Middle Aged Manhood: Pat Hobby & Charles Strickland

I popped into a second-hand bookshop in Hiroshima a few days ago to see if I could find some suitable reading material to get me through a long-haul flight back to England. Two Penguin paperbacks caught my attention because the main character in each case happened to be a rather unpleasant middle aged bloke, though of very different types:

  • The Pat Hobby Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham

Pat Hobby

Pat Hobby is a Hollywood scriptwriter who enjoyed success during “the good old silent days” but lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the new age of talkies, scraping by on alcohol, nostalgia, short contracts and odd script writing or editing jobs. Pat Hobby makes no attempt to adapt to the new age or develop his writing skills now that dialogue writing is where the money is; instead, he prefers to “team up” with a younger writer…

Pat was forty-nine. He was a writer but he had never written much, nor even read all the ‘originals’ he worked from, because it made his head bang to read much. But the good old silent days you got somebody’s plot and a smart secretary and gulped benzedrine ‘structure’ at her six or eight hours every week. The director took care of the gags. After talkies came he always teamed up with some man who wrote dialogue. Some young man who liked to work. (p. 36)

Hobby’s hand-to-mouth existence partially reflected Fitzgerald’s own situation in 1939-40. In terms of talent there is a huge gulf between them, but Fitzgerald was constangly badgering his publisher for money to be wired to his bank account with each new Hobby story that he promised or sent in. Fitzgerald even signed off one wire in the name of “Pat Hobby Fitzgerald”:

that you wire a hundred advance on really excellent story to reach you Tuesday so I can buy turkey is present Christmas wish of

‘Pat Hobby Fitzgerald’ (p.14)

Fitzgerald was writing about a hack and writing in order to live, but he also clearly identifies with his creation, even while acknowledging that Pat Hobby is “a complete rat”. Writing in the Introduction to the Penguin collection in 1962, Arnold Gingrich, who published the Pat Hobby stories in Esquire magazine, noted that,

… in a very real sense it could be said that Fitzgerald wrote for his living, as opposed to living for his work, more than any other author of our time. In fact, paradoxically, if ever he could have been said to be living for his work, it was in his Pat Hobby period, those last two desperately difficult years of his life. (p. 22)

Sat on the train to Osaka reading these very enjoyable short stories about an industry old timer in his late forties, i.e. someone rather like myself, as an “old hand” in English teaching here in Hiroshima, not on a salary, but “freelance”, I couldn’t help wondering… to what extent am I reading about myself…?

Charles Strickland

If Pat Hobby is a loser who lives in the past, Charles Strickland is a successful stockbroker who makes a complete, ruthless and utterly remorseless break with his past in singleminded pursuit of his artistic vision. I hadn’t read anything by W. Somerset Maugham before picking up The Moon and Sixpence in the second hand bookshop in Hiroshima. My interest in it was triggered by the fact that the Folio Society is publishing Maugham’s Of Human Bondage in November, and that George Orwell referred to Maugham as “The modern writer who has influenced me the most”.

When I pulled the paperback of the shelves I opened it at a place where the previous reader had underlined a key quotation about Strickland:

But here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him… (p.54)

I wanted to know more about such a man…

The narrator prepares us for Strickland with a discussion of art before describing how he, as a young writer, was introduced into “the world of letters in London”, where he receives an invitation to one of Mrs Strickland’s luncheon parties.

The Strickland family is the model of contented middle class self-satisfaction and Strickland’s sudden break with them and with his former life comes out of the blue (but not for the reader, who has been well prepared for it by the narrator). He is supposed, by Mrs Strickland and her friends, who work within the typical probabilistic paradigms of their milieu, to have eloped with a young woman and to have set aside enough cash from his stockbroking job to live a life of financial ease for himself and his girl in Paris. However, when the narrator tracks him down he finds Strickland to be living alone in a squalid room in a cheap hotel where he dedicates himself to his new life as an artist.

When the narrator confronts him, Strickland shows absolutely no remorse or sense of guilt at having abandoned his children:

 ‘Do you mean to say you don’t want to have anything more to do with them?’

‘I liked them well enough when they were kids, but now they’re growing up I haven’t got any particular feeling for them.’

‘It’s just inhuman.’

‘I dare say.’

‘You don’t seem in the least ashamed.’

‘I’m not.’

I tried another tack.

‘Everyone will think you are a perfect swine.’

‘Let them.’

‘Won’t it mean anything to you to know that people loathe and despise you?’

‘No.’ (p. 45)

The biggest shock for the narrator is to discover that Strickland has not given up his comfortable life because he wants to live with another woman but because he wants to paint – at such a late age as well! He cries out in astonishment, “‘But you’re forty'” (p. 47). Such is ever the cry of a young, naive or very conventional mind, but the attraction of, or fascination with, Strickland lies precisely in his ability to forge a new, creative life for himself, in spite of his age, experience and other circumstances, almost as if he were a Nietzschian Superman.

Yet, ability may be the wrong word, since the narrator makes it clear that Strickland acted out of an almost daemonic compulsion – but is that not the case with anybody who learns to develop, and exercise, a strength of will that raises him above the common herd in his ability to act independently and free of restraint; is that not why Othello seeks, with all the innate superstition of his type, to foist the name of “demi-devil” on Iago?

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body? (Othello, V:ii)

Iago’s reply would surely be Strickland’s:

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. (ibid)

The narrator’s relationship with Strickland quickly develops into something more nuanced than conventional moral disapproval. In spite of his indignation, the narrator has enough self-consciousness to be aware of the fakery that plays an inevitable part in genuine displays of moral censure; moral censure, to be displayed, must be represented, and an effective representation – one that will move the listener – requires rhetorical persuasion as much as rational demonstration, and rhetoric, as any Puritan or Platonist will tell you, is always suspect (though always necessary, as any half awake reader of Plato or Paul will affirm).

So, even after Strickland has destroyed the marriage of a kind-hearted artist, evicted him from his own studio, stolen his wife and driven her to suicide, the narrator, in confronting him, still finds himself retreating before Strickland’s singleminded, clear-sighted remorselessness in which an all too apparent malevolence (willing of the bad) simultaneously bears the marks of (daemonic) inspiration. To make the point I must quote at some length from a key passage in the book, a passage which perhaps helps to understand why Orwell so greatly admired Maugham (and, I wonder, did Camus read him and share Orwell’s high opinion of him…?):

 ‘Do you really care a twopenny damn if Blanche Stroeve is alive or dead?’

 I thought over his question, for I wanted to answer it truthfully, at all events to my soul.

 ‘It may be a lack of sympathy in myself if it does not make any great difference to me that she is dead. Life had a great deal to offer her. I think it’s terrible that she should have been deprived of it in that cruel way, and I am ashamed because I do not really care.’

 ‘You have not the courage of your convictions. Life has no value. Blanche Stroeve didn’t commit suicide because I left her, but because she was a foolish and unbalanced woman. But we’ve talked about her quite enough; she was an entirely unimportant person. Come, and I’ll show you my pictures.

 He spoke as though I were a child that needed to be distracted. I was sore, but not with him so much as with myself.

 He chuckled good-humouredly.

 ‘Your only quarrel with me really is that I don’t care a twopenny damn what you think about me.’

 I felt my cheeks grow red with sudden anger. It was impossible to make him understand that one might be outraged by his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour of complete indifference. I knew also that in the end there was truth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to human pride. But I would not let him see that I was put out.

 ‘Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?’ I said, though more to myself than to him. ‘You’re dependent on others for everything in existence. It’s a preposterous attempt to try to live only for yourself and by yourself. Sooner or later you’ll be ill and tired and old, and then you’ll crawl back into the herd.Won’t you be ashamed when you feel in your heart the desire for comfort and sympathy? You’re trying an impossible thing. Sooner or later the human being in you will yearn for the common bonds of humanity.’

 ‘Come and look at my pictures.’

 ‘Have you ever thought of death?’

 ‘Why should I? It doesn’t matter.’

 I stared at him. He stood before me, motionless, with a mocking smile in his eyes; but for all that, for a moment I had an inkling of a fiery, tortured spirit, aiming at something greater than could be conceived by anything that was bound up with the flesh. I had a fleeting glimpse of a pursuit of the ineffable. I looked at the man before me in his shabby clothes, with his great nose and shining eyes, his red beard and untidy hair; and I had a strange sensation that it was only an envelope, and I was in the presence of a dismbodied spirit.

 ‘Let us go and look at your pictures’, I said. (pp. 145-6)