Cooper Cooper's Reviews > Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham
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's review
Jul 15, 2009

really liked it

Written just before the outbreak of World War II, this story warns the British middle class about the hazards of being compacent and naïve in a dangerous world. The story is simple: a young Cambridge-educated Englishman, Charles, is rewarded for entering the family business (initially he had wanted to be a painter) with a holiday trip to Paris “to see some pictures.” There he is met by a lifelong friend Simon, now a journalist, who has become a fanatic who is preparing himself through rigorous asceticism and self-discipline for a high post in the communist or fascist government that will surely, sooner or later, topple the democratic government of England. His model: Dzerjinsky, insensate head of the Cheka who in the early days of Bolshevik rule maintained Soviet control though brutal repression of the people. To amuse himself, Simon hooks Charles up with a Russian prostitute named Lydia Berger who, it turns out, is selling her body to atone for a thrill killing committed by her beloved husband Robert, a psychopath who is serving a long prison sentence in French Guiana. In this coming-of-age novel good-natured but naïve Charles, raised in the sanguine comfort of an English middle-class family of means, is exposed to suffering and aspects of human nature—Simon’s, Lydia’s, Robert’s—that though he does not fully understand them nevertheless so transform him that when he returns home he is unable again to view in the same happy light the sheltered see-no-evil life of the well-to-do English.
Christmas Holiday flows well, as one would expect of a Maugham novel, and his observations about the complexity of human nature are always interesting. He achieves his three stylistic goals of lucidity, simplicity and euphony. Maugham’s substantial literary production was uneven; a few of his novels (e.g., Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge) were excellent, several quite good, and the rest mediocre. I would rank Christmas Holiday high in the second group.

She gave him on a sudden a disdainful glance. “Do you look upon yourself as being noble and self-sacrificing? Or are you sorry for me or only curious?”
Charley could not imagine why she seemed angry with him or why she said these wounding things.
“Why should I feel sorry for you? Or curious?”
He meant her to understand that she was not the first prostitute he had met in his life and he was not likely to be impressed with a life-story which was probably sordid and in all likelihood untrue. Lydia stared at him with an experession which to him looked like incredulous surprise.
“What did your friend Simon tell you about me?”
“Why do you redden when you say that?”
“I didn’t know I reddened,” he smiled.
In fact Simon had told him that she was not a bad romp, and would give him his money’s worth, but that was not the sort of thing he felt inclined to tell her just then. With her pale face and swollen eyelids, in that poor brown dress and the black felt hat, there was nothing to remind one of the creature, in her blue Turkish trousers, with a naked body, who had had a curious, exotic attractiveness. It was another person altogether, quiet, respectable, demure, with whom Charley could as little think of going to bed as with one of the junior mistresses at Patsy’s old school. Lydia relapsed into silence. She seemed to be sunk in reverie. When at last she spoke it was as though she were continuing her train of thought rather than addressing him.
“If I cried just now in church it wasn’t for the reason that you thought. I’ve cried enough for that, heaven knows, but just then it was for something different. I felt so lonely. All those people, they have a country, and in that country, homes; tomorrow they’ll spend Christmas day together…. But I am a stranger. I have no country, I have no home, I have no language. I belong nowhere. I am outcast.”

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