29 December 2012

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham

Among all his works, Christmas Holiday published in 1939, counts as Maugham's most political novel. It still has all the central themes of love and coming-of-age which the author engaged with, but certainly, here, Maugham was keener to make a political point.

Written just before the outbreak of World War 2, the entire novel can be seen as an allegory of the situation that was unfolding in Europe, post the Russian revolution. The novel gives you an overview of the history of the time, and acquaints you with some people that this troubled age could well have produced. The action of the novel is Paris, which is one of the cities where many White Russians immigrated. Like all immigrants, they had left behind their property and wealth under the Bolshevik regime. Many of them belonged to affluent families but were now penniless, desperate for work. The second generation Russians in Paris now had only a faint idea of their motherland, and were holding on to any crumbs of nostalgia.

The French population viewed the ever increasing Russian émigré with distrust, and slowly with lack of opportunities, the Russians were pushed into fringes of society doing lowly jobs.  The novel's young protagonist, Lydia is representative of this class.  A White Russian, she works for a dressmaker for a while but when she is introduced in the book she has become a prostitute called Princess Olga (because the idea of going to bed with a Russian queen is appealing to men) . She is disturbed and  over-worked. She has individuality and a naive intelligence to make conversation that is unaffected and straight from the heart.

The novel  however moves by way of Charley Mason, the 24 year old male protagonist of the novel who has arrived to Paris on a short Christmas holiday. The trip is a gift from his father and by extension his loving family in England.  A good many pages at the start of the novel are devoted to an elaborate description about the Masons. The family which came up through modest means, now finds itself in its most prosperous phase. Charley has parents who are interested in art and culture and have taken pains to inculcate in their children a taste for the finer things in life. Their dining tables are well-laden with expensive silver and healthy, nutritious food. The comfortable rooms, with well-appointed fire places and cushy beds, the drawing rooms, with paintings of the great masters displayed on the walls, have an effect of a decorous, well-ordered home that envelops its family of four in a smug blanket of security and warmth. It is in this home that Charley grew up. An exemplary English boy, well-bred and genuinely nice, Charley is attracted to alternative cultures and there is some charm for the risqué in him. His friendship with Simon, a childhood friend, who is drastically unlike him, explains this. Simon talks and talks, much of it to use Maugham's phrase is 'confused eloquence' His ideas are grand, confusing, bizarre, mean, contradictory. But Charley is enamoured by his quixotic appeal.

Charley wants to have a good time, and a visit to a brothel is in order. Simon has a familiarity with the place, more as a journalist and less because he is a regular. He brings together Charley and Lydia, and thus begins the story.

The book works on parallel narratives from here. One is Charley and Lydia's own interaction in a hotel. Both spend a good part of a week together which passes in a surreal round of sleep, breakfast and then lunch and again sleep.

Between the course of this, a fascinating story is revealed of Lydia's past.  A prostitute narrating a sob story to a client is a clichéd situation and Maugham makes this observation himself through Charley, suspecting that most of these tales are untrue. Yet,  Maugham creates a mood of thrill and suspense and allows Lydia to tells her story, not telling us whether to believe her or not. This works well because the novel here takes the form of a murder mystery (the influence of the many detective books Maugham read would surely have come in handy).

The story itself is riveting, and makes up for almost 2/3rd of the novel. You get to know a bit of Lydia's background, and then comes the big soul-crushing romance in her life. She falls for a handsome French man, Robert Berger. He is charming, jolly and belongs to a respectable family. Yet, he himself has the temperament of a rake and would ideally like to drop all pretentions of  decent, upright living.  He loves Lydia, but she considers him so above her own station that she is cautious not to suppose he would marry her. But he does propose, and Lydia is delirious with joy.
"She had never known such happiness; indeed, she could hardly bring herself to believe it: at that moment her heart overflowed with gratitude to life. She would have liked to sit there, nestling in his arms, for ever, at that moment she would have liked to die. But she bestirred herself."
Her passion corresponds with Maugham's idea of love and the height of sacrifice a human being is capable of in this state.

This is really the centrepiece of the novel. But Maugham also allows the story to be a political one.  Charley listens to Simon talking about revolutions and how potentially he was preparing for one in England also. This denotes the totalitarian ideology among fringe elements that were forming. There is destitution all around and Maugham's  idea here is that England could no longer be insulated from the happenings in rest of Europe. There are many scenes where Maugham forwards this idea of the immense disquietude and turmoil that was eating at the roots of society, which would eventually raise its ugly head and destroy any illusion of calm and beauty.

When Charley talks about his family back home, it is with a great affection. Lydia can see it is a life of dignity and grace, something she cannot have. And yet, she has faced enough set backs to be unsure if these things really last.

"If Lydia saw how much of their good nature, their kindliness, their unpleasing self-complacency depended on the long-established and well-ordered prosperity of the country that had given them birth; if she had an inkling that, like children building castles on the sea sand, they might at any moment be swept away by a tidal wave, she allowed no sign of it to appear on her face.”

Charley himself is only too conscious of this inequality between him and Lydia, and feels a sense of shame.  " He felt awkward and big, and his radiant health, his sense of well-being, the high spirits that bubbled inside him, seemed to himself in an odd way an offence. He was like a rich man vulgarly displaying his wealth to a poor relation"

 Maugham portrays Charley's parents with a good deal of sarcasm, and scoffs at their pretentions about knowing art. He sees them as decent folk but views their preoccupation with art as phoney and nothing but the idle pursuit of the rich. In contrast, Lydia's instinctive comments about a painting at a gallery she and Charles visit, is sincere and heart-felt.

What strikes most about Christmas Holiday is the phenomenal writing. Maugham is always an elegant writer, but one is amazed by the sheer power of the pen in this novel.

The characters all come alive beautifully, and Maugham has delineated them with a great deal of affection. Charley is generous and kind, even if a little condescending. His good-heartedness towards Lydia is more than anything else a prevailed man's largesse towards the poor. And yet, Charley is a wonderfully likeable fellow and not insensible to the unfairness of the world. He is the most humane, unprejudiced and compassionate person to be confronted with the sadness of another world.

Lydia again is etched with sympathy, and a tenderness that is appealing.

Maugham's depiction of Madame Berger's character ie Robert's mother is masterful. You get a complete sense of her personality - she fights for her son as only a mother can.

Robert is a regular guy for all purposes but with an unconventional crime fetish deeply imbedded in his system.  His motives are unusual and unpardonable, but Maugham who knew the vagaries of human character so well, is sympathetic.

His tone of partiality is clear in the compelling court scenes, where Robert is given a lawyer who is beyond extraordinary.  The description of the lawyer, Lemoine is merely a page, but it is so thrilling, it takes your breath away.

"I wish you could have seen the skill with which he treated his hostile witnesses, the sauvity with which he inveigled them into contradicting themselves, the scorn with which he exposed their baseness, the ridicule with which he treated their pretentions. He could be winningly persuasive and brutally harsh...."

"He spoke generally in an easy, conversational tone, but enriched by his lovely voice and with a beautiful choice of words; you felt everything he said could have gone straight down in a book without alteration"

His talent has a devastating impact on the public prosecutor who came across as cheaply melodramatic.

 "It was grand to see the way Lemoine treated him. he paid him extravagant compliments, but charged with such corrosive irony that, for all his conceit, the public prosecutor couldn't help seeing he was being made a fool of. Lemoine was so malicious but with such perfect courtesy and with such a condescending urbanity, that you could see in the eyes of the presiding judge a twinkle of appreciation."

Passages of such brilliance dot Christmas Holiday, and it is extraordinary how the book manages to touch upon so many issues in the span of 200 odd pages. The book is full of quotable quotes and stunning insights on life. Quite easily a masterpiece. 

14 December 2012

Real-life stories need fictional plausibility too

Realism in movies or books is a confusing term. One wonders if it means to portray life as it is - in its bare, unpolished form?  Often you see a film that completely defies logic but is sold to you as a 'real life story'.  One is confused as an audience what to make of this. 

Some of Maugham's literary ideas here come to our aid. The author saw no reason why implausibility in story should be condoned even if it was taken from real life.   Maugham in his book of essays 'The Vagrant Mood' commented about many crime thrillers that were directly lifted from real life stories. But some of these cases were rather far-fetched and hence  offered no reading satisfaction. "That something has occurred in real life does not make it a fitting subject for fiction. Life is full of improbabilities which fiction does not admit of." 
Life may be stranger than fiction, but even the world's greatest fantasies need a grain of truth in them to succeed.

In 'Ten Novels...' also he had similar views about Stendhal's novel - 'Le Rouge et le Noir'.
He found the book to be extraordinary overall, but felt disappointed with the climax. Stendhal had written the novel inspired by a news report.  Maugham was wonderfully impressed with the author's acuity and psychological insight into his lead character. But the climax he felt was a terrible let down.  He remarked that he couldn't think of a worse ending. This happened apparently because Stendhal chose to give the same ending that happened in the actual case, from which he was inspired. This required Stendhal to make his central character behave in a way that was foolish and out of character.  It was a grave flaw in an otherwise great book, says Maugham.

What could have prompted Stendhal to dilute such an enthralling character?
Maugham felt that  "the facts from which Stendhal was inspired exercised a hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose".  He felt himself under compulsion to pursue the story, against all credibility, to its wretched end.  This, Maugham felt is a wrong approach for fiction.

"By God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call, the mystery that governs men's lives, is a poor story-teller, and it is the business , and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact."

Clearly, Maugham here implies that art, to qualify as one, must be able to rise above its bare facts and say something universal about human nature and life. The individual's life story, however exceptional, would have to be plausible enough for the reader or audience to picture themselves in the character's position and feel his/her emotion. When the character acts too unreasonably, the audience detaches itself and the sympathy is over. Art is not life itself. It cherry picks from life what it thinks is beautiful and arresting. Art's ultimate goal is to engage and entertain.

Facts and real-life are an artist's raw material, not art itself is Maugham's point. There is a wonderful piece, 'The Rolling Stone' in 'On a Chinese Screen' by Maugham where during his travels, he was told of a man who had a remarkable career. He had been to different lands, lived with the most unlikeliest of people, and on the whole boasted of extraordinary experience. When Maugham saw him, he was a little surprised because the man's face was so blank and indistinctive. The man indeed had travelled to all the places and partaken in all the experiences he was credited with.  As a job,  he was offered the chance to write about his journeys in an English language paper in China. The man's difficulty was now to choose from the fullness of his experience. He wrote many articles, and though they were not unreadable, Maugham felt they were merely observations. "But he had seen everything haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores," he said.

"They were a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his...his collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender."

Maugham in this piece also points out how in writing, the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.  

Maugham himself was inspired by stories of real people. He did not adapt what was humdrum and routine -which he admitted was how most people live. When he heard a story, he obviously looked for some singularity of characters or circumstances. Something that stoked his interest. Naturally then, most of his short stories  are very dramatic, with shocking outcomes. But there is a structure and plot. And the characters are all believable. So even if Maugham was inspired by real-life, he only took what was useful to him in telling his story and conveying the inevitable truth in it.

This weaknesses of getting carried away with one's real-life impression was something Maugham too suffered in two of his novels in my opinion. This did weaken the respective plots of the novels, both considered his best works, Cakes  & Ale and The Razor's Edge. That both are extraordinary in their own ways is nothing to debate.  However, both have a central character (Rosie in 'Cakes And Ale', and Larry in 'The Razor's Edge) who is shadowy and vague.  Maugham is terribly fond of these two people, whom he knew as acquaintances in real life.  His characters are normally treated with sharp irony but Maugham in these cases was somewhat reluctant to fictionalise these characters and pointedly analyse their motivations.  Especially Larry in 'The Razor's Edge' gets extreme leeway, and there are long, meandering passages of his monologues. At one time it gets confusing and you wonder if it is Maugham or Larry speaking. The novels gets painfully tangential in these parts. As a reader you struggle to get a grasp of Larry's mind. He is too detached and confused a figure to ever completely draw in the reader's sympathies. Larry and Philip in Of Human Bondage are comparable. The latter is Maugham alter-ego.  There, Philip's struggle and wretchedness is wonderfully conveyed, mainly because it was written in first person. They were Maugham's own emotions.  The author was essentially describing his own life, and though in 'Of Human Bondage' too there are episodes (the Mildred one) which astound you, and there are parts which stretch one's logic somewhat, Philip's character on the whole is plausible. Larry was someone Maugham related with, but he was still another person, and Maugham did struggle to translate his personality on to the pages, especially since he was predisposed to only believing the best of him.
But on the whole, Maugham always did a stellar job of adapting from life and presenting his stories convincingly.  Few authors lay as much emphasis on creating credible stories and characters as much as him.