Monday, February 24, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY” by W.Somerset Maugham (first published 1939)

            As you may already know from this blog, the historian in me likes sometimes to read yesterday’s bestsellers, not because they have any particular literary worth, but because they reveal how people once liked to be entertained and, by extension, what their values were. By its very nature, the defunct bestseller once appealed to a very large audience. Often it tells us more about what that large audience thought than the enduring classic from the same era does. [For examples of this blog’s excursions into defunct bestsellers, look up on the index John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, George du Maurier’s Trilby and Stephen McKenna’s Sonia.]
            For much of his long and prolific life W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was a most respectable bestseller. He was particularly the bestseller among middlebrows with pretensions, who mistook him for an intellectual. His acerbic attitude towards the relations of the sexes could be very witty (more in his plays, like The Letter and The Constant Wife, than in his novels) and was taken to be daring in a “man of the world” sort of way  – although his strong strain of misogyny now looks rather different when we are aware of Maugham’s homosexuality.
            I’d be an ungrateful swine if I didn’t admit to enjoying a lot of Maugham’s anecdote-ish short stories, some of which are very funny; but I never read any of his novels without a strong sense of disappointment. Yes, there’s all this observation and period detail and interesting information. But in the end, the author’s outlook is a most complacent one and there are frequent tricks to flatter his reading public and not upset them too much.
            I take as my example Christmas Holiday (1939), although I could as well have taken earlier numbers I’ve read like Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, which operate in the much same way.
Here’s the plot.
Charley Mason, a 23-year-old Englishman from an affluent family, is given money by his father to take a holiday in Paris and sow his wild oats over Christmas.
In Paris on his own for a week, he socializes with his cynical journalist friend Simon, whom he knew at Cambridge. Simon has plans to change the world, and fancies himself as some sort of commissar once England turns Communist. Simon takes Charley to a high-class brothel where he meets the Russian émigrée prostitute Lydia. Charley takes Lydia to midnight mass in a Russian Orthodox church, for the sake of the music.
Lydia tells Charley the story of her life. Her narration (to which Simon sometimes adds details) takes up much of the novel. She married the charming young Frenchman Robert Berger, who turned out to have an unhealthily close relationship with his mother. Incest is suggested. Robert also turned out to be an habitual gambler who fed his habit by being a car-thief. Robert eventually murdered a bookie and was sentenced to imprisonment in a French penal colony in South America.
Lydia tells Charley that she is working in a brothel to consciously degrade herself and somehow to atone for her husband’s sins and for her failure to redeem her husband, even though she no longer believes in God.
She still loves her husband.
But in a tete-a-tete with Charley, Simon says that Lydia is actually working as a prostitute to raise money to pay criminals help her husband to escape.
Which version is true?
It is left ambiguous.
Despite Lydia’s profession, Charley never once sleeps with her, although he shares her room for some days. And then, having heard all her story, he travels back to the bosom of his family in England.
Maugham wants us to believe that, in meeting these louche characters in a milieu totally different from his English middle-class one, Charley has had a major experience, has had his eyes opened to the world, and has been profoundly changed, so that he now sees his old comfortable life as unreal.
The last words of the novel are “…the bottom had fallen out of his world”.
And frankly, I don’t believe it for one moment.
As far as I am concerned, in five minutes after the novel’s ending, Charley will be comfortably smoking his pipe, curling his toes in his slippers before the evening fire, reading another “daring” novel by somebody like W. Somerset Maugham, and rejoicing that he isn’t one of those dreadful foreigners across the Channel. There is no sense that he has really changed in any way. He has simply observed and heard and gone back home.
This novel (published a few months before the Second World War) repeatedly declares itself to be a dated tale for middlebrows who thought they were getting high culture. The first forty pages satirise Charley’s philistine family (well we don’t want to be like them, do we?) without in any way challenging the economic basis of their position, and there is detachable guide-book-level talk on art when Charley and Lydia visit the Louvre, and equally detachable – and Fascist-sounding  - ravings about the Russian Revolution and the masses from the cynical journalist Simon. Then there’s the “daring” stuff. The brothel. The soupcon of incest between Robert Berger and his over-possessive mother. The further soupcon of homosexuality between Robert and the man he murders. The matter-of-fact way in which Charley’s father assumes that Charley will have picked up the clap in Paris and recommends a good doctor.
But nobody changes – we get self-contained gossip (in monotonous, declarative sentences) with absolutely no character development and with Charley’s prejudices intact to the end. This man is not going to change. He has merely had his class’s prejudices confirmed.
That, I suppose, really is the trick of the middlebrow bestseller – give ‘em enough to think they are getting something daring and perhaps sordid; throw is a dash of safe and certifiable culture; but don’t in any way threaten ‘em. Leave ‘em safely with their slippers and pipe.
I have read rather strained comments on this novel, which attempt to interpret it as an allegory of England unprepared for the world war that was about to descend. The naïve Englishman encounters the harsh realities of an angry Europe that is about to explode. More intriguingly, I have found on-line a review of the novel, which Evelyn Waugh wrote when Christmas Holiday first came out. Very generously, Waugh praises Maugham’s craftsmanship and says younger writer could learn much from Maugham’s pared-back prose. But he does call the ending bathetic, and notes that Charley has learnt nothing about the big, wide, alien world that he couldn’t have understood with just a few moments honest reflection.
Quite right, Mr Waugh.
Curious footnote: I do sometimes wonder why old Hollywood, in the days of the Hayes

Code, ever bothered buying the rights to books, which it knew censorship would not allow it to film in anything like their original form. But they kept trying, perhaps because it was still an age in which moviegoers would be drawn by the author’s name on the marquee. Anyway, five years after Christmas Holiday was published, Hollywood filmed it, with Robert Siodmak as director. As a teenager I saw the sombre 1944 movie on TV and I recently renewed my acquaintance with it on Youtube. It looks great – a studio noir with excellent cinematography and all the enticing artifice of lights and shadows. But the script? Oh dear. The story is transferred to the USA and mainly situated in New Orleans. The naïve young man, who listens to the prostitute’s story, is now a nice young army lieutenant. The prostitute is turned into a chaste “bar hostess” who sings. She’s played by Deanna Durbin, whose studio was trying to move her out of musicals and into more mature roles. Anyway, she gets to sing twice and she remains pure and good and the tragic victim of her husband’s badness. The ne’er-do-well husband is played by the young Gene Kelly. Yes, he’s charming, but not in the cunning way the novel suggests. Frankly, Kelly looks far too wholesome and callow to be the novel’s murderer. Of course any suggestions of incest and homosexuality have gone (well, Gale Sondergard as the mother is rather possessive) and there’s an ending to spell out the morals that crime doesn’t pay and that redemption is possible. Little to do with the novel in short. But in an odd sort of way, and given Hollywood’s conventions at the time, I didn’t think it was too bad. The doomed romantic tone is potent. For what it’s worth, Deanna Durbin later said it was the only real film she had been in, which goes to show how tired she must have been with being the winsome singing teenager.
Apparently it was a reasonable box-office success. I do wonder, however, how many punters saw the title Christmas Holiday and the names Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly on the posters and thought they were in for a cheerful song-and-dance fest. Oh dear again.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps SM just read too much: See Laudator Temporis a few days ago. He admits: "My own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry."