Friday, 6 December 2013

Book Review: Christmas Holiday by William Somerset Maugham

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1077367.Christmas_HolidayIt’s December and all over the world Christian families are preparing for Christmas once again. For me as an introvert in a predominantly Roman Catholic country the hustle and bustle of this time of the year is getting almost unbearable and as often as I can I seize the opportunity to hide away at home alone with a good book for hours on end. However, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pay my blogging tribute to the Advent season and I make the start with a classic from the wake of World War II. Remaining true to myself, I passed over the heaps of mainstream novels revolving around blood-dripping crimes or heart-rending love and instead chose for today’s review Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham which, as it turned out, offers bits of both.

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France, in January 1874. His childhood was unhappy since by the age of ten the sensitive boy had lost both his parents and grew up in the care of his cold uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable in Kent. He began writing steadily at the age of fifteen and, secretly at first, aspired at being an author. During a year in Heidelberg, Germany, he produced a biography of the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Back to the U.K. he trained and qualified as a doctor at St. Thomas' Hospital in Lambeth, London, but immediately gave up practicing when his first novel Liza of Lambeth became a tremendous success in 1897. Over the following decades the writer brought out many other novels, plays and short stories along with travel books, essays, literary criticism, and two autobiographical publications. The most famous among his works are Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), On a Chinese Screen (1922), The Razor’s Edge (1944), and A Writer’s Notebook (1949). Christmas Holiday is one of his less known novels and came out in 1939. William Somerset Maugham died in Nice, France, where he had been living from the 1920s on, in December 1965.

The title of Christmas Holiday makes expect a light and entertaining read, but as soon as the blue-eyed twenty-three-year-old Londoner, Charley Mason, arrives in Paris it becomes clear that the plot won’t be particularly cheerful. The travel is a present from his father, a reward for having worked hard as an accountant for the family business for a full year after his graduation from Cambridge although he had toyed with the idea of becoming a painter or a pianist. It’s the first time that the shy young man is in Paris alone instead of with his art-loving family. He is looking forward to seeing his best (and only) school-friend Simon again after two years and to having a lark in the city of love. Already at the train station Charley is disappointed for the first time because Simon isn’t there.

As it turns out Simon made a point of not meeting Charley at his arrival. His behaviour is completely in line with his harsh, cynical and unscrupulous nature which made Charley’s mother always dislike him and wonder why her soft and cheerful son admired him so much. As a foreign correspondent Simon began to harden his character even more because he’s convinced that only who first achieves mastery over himself can achieve mastery over others. At dinner he explains to his naïve friend Charley that he intends to further cultivate his strength – rhetoric – and to rid himself of his weakness – humanity. He aspires at complete spiritual aloofness in order to be indifferent to insult, neglect and ridicule. His aim is the development of an unconquerable will; his means is self-denial. In all this there’s no room for friendship or other human relations. Simon never directly answers to what end he denies himself everything that makes life pleasant, but Charley knows his strong sympathies for the Communist cause and it’s obvious that he wants what he calls a life that matters.

Others would have been taken aback by Simon’s radical ideas, but Charley holds on to their friendship and doesn’t give his words much credit. After dinner they move on to a night club called the Sérail where girls of good descent are entertaining the well-to-do clients in baggy trousers, with small turbans on their heads and a naked upper part of the body. Charley learns that misery drove them into prostitution and on Simon’s initiative he is presented to one of them called “Princess Olga”. At the time Charley doesn’t know that he’ll pass the rest of his holidays with this young Russian émigré whose real name is Lydia. Her story will shatter his childish conception of life and let him see the dark sides of human existence as well as the true nature of his friend Simon and his fanatic schemes.

Critics of his time called the prose of W. Somerset Maugham plain and full of clichés. In fact Christmas Holiday is written in a simple language with everyday vocabulary which makes it easy to read. At the same time it’s a partly symbolist period work which might reveal all its significance only to those who have sufficient knowledge of the past, above all the years between the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the writing down of the novel in 1939 which saw the rise of several fascist or otherwise ruthless regimes in the world. Another great war was dawning, but the wide public brushed aside the thought preferring to ignore what was going on in Europe and in Germany in particular. Simon with his sombre dark eyes is the prototype of a demagogue and a dictator or at least of one of their cold-blooded executives like those who were later trialled in Nuremberg, while happy-natured Charley with his blue eyes stands for the innocent masses that only know their sheltered lives and look at the world through the rose-coloured spectacles of their own experience. Olga, or really Lydia, with her big blue eyes represents the suffering victim who has lost all illusions and who feels that it’s her duty to atone for the crimes of the ruthless although she’s innocent and her continuing loyalty seems crazy. She may also be seen as an allegory of a miserable reality which can no longer be overlooked by the likes of Charley.

These days the general atmosphere in society is getting harsher again. Performance – thus rhetoric – triumphs far too often over contents – thus expertise or just common sense. Coolness is considered as a desirable quality, while compassion and empathy use to be looked at as weakness, above all in business, but not only there. The complacent lives which most of us lead in the rich industrial countries shield us from the appalling reality of our neighbours. And like ancient Romans who took great pleasure in watching die gladiators or convicts (e.g. the first Christians) in the arena, we content ourselves with panem et circenses – bread and circuses, or in modern words: plenty of food and entertainment. Shouldn’t we know better after so many centuries, even millennia? Shouldn’t we have learned from history?

As you can see, Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham offers a lot to think about! The read was definitely worth the time and it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. Moreover I invite you to take this novel and the Christmas season as an occasion to re-evaluate your moral standards and your attitude towards others, no matter if you’re a Christian or not, a believer or not.

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