Charley Mason, part of a fairly well-to-do family in England, goes to Paris for his Christmas holidays to visit an old friend and have a bit of fun. Everything changes, though, when Charley’s friend (Simon, now very changed) introduces him to a Russian refugee prostitute named Lydia on his first night in Paris. Lydia, wife of a convicted murderer-drug-dealer-thief, has suffered through more than Charley could ever have imagined, and yet she still remains devoted to all the things and people who have made her miserable. It’s something that, in his sheltered life, Charley cannot comprehend, no matter how much he tries to understand.
This is a reread for me, though I only have the vaguest recollections of this book from the first time I read it. On reread, I can see why that is. Despite the intriguing plot outline, the book itself is not very memorable, not for plot alone anyway. I’m actually in two minds about this book. The ideas it put forth were very interesting and I loved exploring them, but the manner in which the book is set up and written is very dull. I’ll talk about that part first, and then move on to the ideas expressed.
This plot is primarily Lydia’s story, with Simon’s and Charley’s only secondary, but the narration stays with Charley. Charley is a very passive narrator, and in order to get a full scope of what Lydia has been through, about 90% of this book is back-story. The chapters go something like this: Charley and Lydia go somewhere, then she tells him part of her story for thirty pages. Next chapter, they go somewhere else, and she tells him another part of the story for thirty pages. Then Charley visits Simon, and Simon tells him the next part of Lydia’s story for thirty pages. In the present, the actual storyline, almost nothing happens. Charley spends a couple days with Lydia, sees Simon a few times, and goes back to England in the end.
A book in back-story is not fun. It’s actually rather boring, to be just info-dumped like that. I kept wondering why Maugham didn’t just write Lydia’s story as the primary plot, but after awhile, I understood why he didn’t. It had to do with the major theme he was exploring. It’s a theme he explores often and that I’ve seen in other books of his, and one I particularly enjoy: naivety versus knowledge.
Charley is a happy and fairly innocent person. Simon asks him in the beginning how he plans to spend his next year, and the year after that, and so on, and Charley has no problem looking forward into the future, knowing his life will just repeat endlessly. He doesn’t mind doing his job faithfully, spending cheery Christmases with his family, playing mediocre piano and painting mediocre paintings, and so on. It doesn’t bother him. He’s never been exposed to anything different, and so nothing troubles his world. Through the course of Christmas Holiday, however, Charley is exposed to all the insane, self-depriving views of Simon’s new world outlook, and then introduced to a woman who has been through more than he can comprehend. She not only exposes him to sorrow, but she weeps passionately at a concert he takes her to, and forces him to examine why he likes various paintings in the Louvre that he claims to like. They both play piano for each other. He plays technically well, but with no feeling, whereas she messes up constantly, but evokes strong emotion in her notes.
Charley is overwhelmed by all this new stuff coming at him. At one point, he thinks about Christmas at home:
There’d have been a lot of kissing under the mistletoe, a lot of fun, a lot of ragging, a lot of laughter; they were all having a grand time. It seemed very far away, but thank God, it was there, normal, decent, sane and real; this was a nightmare.
Charley has entered a sort of hell, where his mask of naivety is ripped away and he’s forced to see what’s really out there in the world. This book, while in one way is so much Lydia’s story, is really about Charley. About how Charley is affected, about how he changes because his innocence is stripped away. That’s the thing about truth and knowledge – when you gain them, you can never go back to that more innocent state. When you grow up, you lose your childhood.
A couple weeks ago, I talked about those “lightning strike” moments and how I don’t believe in them. I believe in more gradual change, something that worms its way inside you and alters you from the inside out over a period of time. How could Charley fail to change after a week spent with these people? He couldn’t. There’s no way to put that mask back on, and to me, the saddest part of the book was seeing Charley go back to England, fully thinking he was leaving the insanity of this world behind him. There’s no way to leave it behind, though. It found its way inside him. It rooted itself in the music he plays for his family, in the way he feels like a foreigner among them, in the way he thinks. Simon’s questions to him in the beginning are revisited, only now that future, repetitive and cheerful, feels bleak and illusory, a “pleasant parlour-game that grown-ups played to amuse children.” Charley wonders how “the bottom had fallen out of his world.”
Note: Review date is only an approximate of when this book was read/reviewed in 2010.
Note: Originally read in ~2004-ish.