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Let me warn you at the start that this might probably not be the best book to cuddle up with at Christmas, for it's about as far removed from a jolly festive read as can be imagined. At least Dickens's 'Christmas Carol' has a happy ending. This does not. In literary terms, this is 'Fairytale of New York' (which with its encounter and dialogue between an alcoholic and a streetwalker is anything but a fairytale), rather than the sleighbell confectionery of 'Winter Wonderland' or 'All I Want for Christmas is You'.
Published in 1939, the novel has as its central character Charley Mason, a 23-year-old Englishman who has been given an all-expenses paid couple of days in Paris as a treat, after having worked in his father's office for a year and passed his final exams. He has been to the city before with the family, but as he takes the train from Victoria to sail to Calais on Christmas Eve, this is his first time there alone. Although the political situation in Europe is casting a long shadow,he is planning to have the time of his life as he meets up with his old schoolfriend Simon Fenimore for a good time.
Simon has found a job in Paris as a foreign correspondent and intends to get some experience of Europe before returning to England and standing for Parliament as a Labour candidate. Always more radical and left-inclined than Charley, he has become a communist, increasingly contemptuous of what he sees as his old friend's cosy middle-class family and outlook, and so it appears, his personality as well, if not the human race. As Charley later muses to himself, Simon has become 'as mad as a hatter', and seems to be preaching revolution with bitter earnestness. Keen to try and shock Charley out of his (and his family's) narrow little world, he knows what Charley has really come to Paris for, and has in fact has tacitly been encouraged by his father, who sees no reason why the lad shouldn't sow a few wild oats while he's unattached - and takes him to a brothel.
There Charley is introduced to Lydia, a young Russian woman who was left homeless after the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution and fled the country. In France she married Robert Berger, who turned out to be a drug dealer and was later sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude for murder. Having covered the trial for the press, Simon is well aware of this, and knew exactly what he was letting his friend in for. She has since had to go into prostitution in order to make ends meet. They spend Christmas Day together and she tells him the story of her unhappy life. He suggests that they visit the Louvre together, as he and his family have always been fascinated by art and this was one of the sights he came to see, but as they walk through the galleries he is slightly saddened, even irritated, when he finds her totally unmoved by the pictures about which he feels so passionately.
That night they sleep together - in the sense that they sleep in the same bed. For she is far too tired and he too emotionally overwrought for there to be any possibility of making love with each other. It proves to be the high point of his Christmas holiday. or perhaps the least low of all the low points. What happens then - that's for you as the reader to discover.
As a novel, perhaps it is comparable with Christopher Isherwood's 'Goodbye to Berlin' in that both capture a snapshot of Europe immediately before the Second World War. I tried reading the latter a few years ago but totally failed to get into it, and barely reached halfway before putting it aside. On the other hand, I have read 'Christmas Holiday' twice - once in my teens, soon after I discovered Maugham and read almost everything by him that I could get my hands on, and again very recently after I had completely forgotten almost everything about it.
It is an uncomfortable and pretty cheerless novel, but quite a page turner in its way. Maugham was not the jolliest of souls, but he is a master storyteller in pushing the plot forward and evoking the atmosphere of Paris in that last pre-war Christmas, conveying how it must have felt for a young man at what should have been the happiest time of the year, away from his family, suddenly discovering that the man he thought to be his lifelong friend has turned out to be anything but. It appears that he had some kind of mission in writing the book, in order to try and shake the British out of their complacency about what was happening in Europe during the late 1930s. If you're prepared for a depressing but oddly engrossing read, I would certainly recommend it.
THE FILM OF THE BOOK (LOOSELY SPEAKING)
'Christmas Holiday' was filmed in 1944. I've never seen it, but it appears that Hollywood took more than a few liberties with the plot and the setting. If Maugham ever watched it himself, he would probably have wondered why they even used the title of his book.
At the age of twenty-three, Charlie Mason is endowed with good looks, good manners and a happy disposition. Following three years at Cambridge and one in his father's business, he is now looking forward to a jaunt in Paris with Simon Fenimore, his oldest friend. Yet Paris is not what he expects. And in just a few days his young eyes are opened to the horror and ugly drama of its underworld. Published before the outbreak of war in 1939, Maugham's purpose in Christmas Holiday was to warn the complacent, insular British middle-class of the immense upheavals taking place on the Continent.