The novel’s context is the key to the theme. Set in the late 1930s it is about a young British man belonging to the ‘upper-middle’ class who plans a week’s holiday in Paris during Christmas. He means to meet his childhood friend, see the ‘pictures’ at Louvre and explore the night-life in Paris. The second world war is imminent and Europe is in chaos facing the challenges of Fascism and Nazism while the British seem to be doing well for themselves and are blissfully aware of the trouble-torn neighbourhood that will bring sad tidings to their world as well.
He ends up spending the holiday with a young Russian lady from an émigré family who is working as a Prostitute at Serail. She lost her childhood and parents during the Russian revolution and to compound her woes made a rather unfortunate marriage with a charming Frenchman who started out as a petty criminal and ended up murdering a British bookie.
Maugham returns to his familiar hunting ground – Paris. The book is a bildungsroman for sure but certainly a far happier one than his masterpiece – ‘Of Human Bondage’. Charley Mason is no Philip Carey. He is pragmatic enough to choose a business career instead of wildly chasing his artistic talent in the Paris Quarter. He is backed by a loving family though Maugham dispassionately creates a portrait of superficial bourgeois parents whose appreciation of ‘Art’ too is a ‘pose’ and likely to be motivated by a commercial motive.
So when he lands up in Paris and encounters the Russian ‘Princess Olga’ (Lydia) working as a prostitute at Serail, one wonders where the story would lead. This is not an unhappy romance of unrequited love – early on it’s clear that Charley is not even attracted to Lydia. (On their first night together they leave the noisy scene at Serail and head to Saint-Eustache to attend the midnight mass before Christmas). He offers her shelter and succour from a kind heart but he can well afford it and is not put to great inconvenience on account of it. He had come to Paris to seek adventure and new experiences – Lydia’s narrative in a way provides him just that.
Lydia’s back-story is narrated well. It is a mish-mash version of what Lydia has to say and what Simon, Charley’s bosom friend and journalist, created as a story to report the unfortunate life of her husband, Robert Berger, who killed a British bookie. The inconsistencies are well-etched out and provide an insight into Lydia’s and Simon’s character and motivations. Charley even confronts Simon on his narrative and Simon doesn’t mind to admit that he has resorted to speculation to derive the rationale for the sordid murder.
Maugham employs the contrast between Lydia and Charley’s ‘station-in-life’ to make his point – pain and suffering are certainly not ennobling but these lives are real and interesting. Charley is living a comfortable life in a bubble that has nothing to offer to most people and is indeed a rather artificial existence where pretence and snobbery have replaced true emotions. He built the narrative with care – Lydia and Charley’s visit to Louvre is a perfect example of delivering this message. Charley has visited Louvre on numerous occasions with his parents and plans to tutor Lydia about the classic pictures. Lydia takes over instead and makes a heartfelt comment about a simple Chardin picture – the loaf of bread and flagon of wine.
Charley is polite but not quite impressed by the picture. It’s then Lydia makes a rather emotional appeal. (“Yes, you’re right; it’s very well painted; it’s painted with pity and love. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the bread of life and the blood of Christ, but not held back from those who starve and thirst for them and doled out by priests on stated occasions; it’s the daily fare of suffering men and women. It’s so humble, so natural, so friendly; it’s the bread and wine of the poor who ask no more than that they should be left in peace, allowed to work and eat their simple food in freedom. It’s the cry of the despised and rejected. It tells you that whatever their sins men at heart are good. That loaf of bread and that flagon of wine are symbols of the joys and sorrows of the meek and lowly. They ask for your mercy and your affection; they tell you that they’re of the same flesh and blood as you. They tell you that life is short and hard and the grave is cold and lonely. It’s not only a loaf of bread and a flagon of wine; it’s the mystery of man’s lot on earth, his craving for a little friendship and a little love, the humility of his resignation when he sees that even they must be denied him.” )
The story really heads nowhere after the holiday – everyone reverts to their original lives without much disruption. So it becomes interesting that Maugham is still able to hold our attention – he excels in drawing character sketches. Charley’s genteel parents, Berger’s anxious mother (it is quite an insight on why she allowed a penniless emigrant Russian girl to marry her son to begin with), Simon’s turn to be a frugal and uncaring revolutionary (Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and director of the dreaded secret police ‘Cheka’ is his role-model) are done to perfection and we are never surprised by their actions. Paris night-life and the Art Quarter are depicted well – but that’s not so novel since we have seen it all before in ‘Of Human Bondage’.
Maugham’s motivation here is not to spin a narrative of human drama at surface level – he just employs them to deliver the larger message about turbulent Europe and the threats that may overrun the British way of life. World War II brought its own hardships but the British – US Anglo values and way of life got reinforced and the modern template for all to follow. Imagine another revolution on the lines of the Russian one happening in Britain. It was unimaginable in Charley’s ‘bubble-of-life’ and thankfully the threat never materialized.
Maugham’s narrative on Plato, the flaws of democracy, the proletariat and the ugly nature of every revolution make for interesting reading. Guess he really feared for the balance tipping over in Britain as well when he wrote a dramatic closing line –
“It was a fact he had done nothing; his father thought he had had a devil of a time and was afraid he had contracted a venereal disease, and he hadn’t even had a woman; only one thing had happened to him, it was rather curious when you come to think of it, and he didn’t just then quite know what to do about it: the bottom had fallen out of his world.”
Well that was quite an overkill – Charley’s character is far more stable and secure than that. He must have felt genuine emotion and a sense of bewilderment to see a world so different from his where pain and survival was an everyday battle. He would have been in its grip for a while but eventually come out of the phase and resumed what can be said ‘a charmed life as deserved by an established member of the upper crust of the British society’.
PS: Incidentally the book was adapted to make a movie in Hollywood in 1944 with the same title and crediting the original novel. But the sweeping changes to the script meant that it barely related to the novel except for an outline – a social experiment of mixing the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ during the season of giving oneself selflessly and sharing the human bondage.