OF the master craftsmen in fiction today few are the equal of Somerset Maugham, and if his new novel, Christinas Holiday Doubleday, Doran. $2.d0), he judged for its style and craftsmanship one must place it near the top level of his work.Christmas Holiday gets off to a delightful start. Thesituation is as simple and engaging as the title. Charley Mason, a young graduate of Rugby and Cambridge, soon to be submerged in a mercantile career, is encouraged by his family to spend his Christmas holidays in Paris. He arrives on Christmas Eve. and is promptly taken in tow by a young friend, Simon Fenimore. Off they go to the Sérail, a rather tawdry night, club, where Charley is introduced to one of the ladies of the house, ’Princess Olga.’ And there the story begins to take hold. Charley’s intentions toward the lady are, as Oscar Wilde once said, ‘honorable but remote.’ But so skillfully is the situation developed that, without meaning to, he finds himself spending his entire Christmas holiday with the lady in a relationship as sympathetic as it is platonic. T he narrative is, you might say, made to order for Maugham’s hand, and with his knowledge of Paris, his keen, sardonic edge, he capitalizes it to the full.
Here is Paris delineated in a hundred deft touches by one who knows and loves the French the restaurants, the Midnight Mass, the amourpropre of Madame Berger, the police, and the courts of law. The atmosphere of each is authentic and full of color. No less skillful is the essential contrast between the yong Englishman, so even-tempered, good-looking, and tactful, and the little Russian exile who has lived through such penury, anguish, and ecstasy. They make an almost perfect foil for each other. Charley’s background is middle-class, solid, unimaginative, and when he writes of it Mr. Maugham uses those cynical rapier thrusts one remembers in Cakes and Ale. But the Russian has no background. Her life is one long hazard, and as she pours out her past to Charley it seems to me that her recital becomes too prolonged, too static, for the best effect. The same charge, I think, can be urged against those passages in which Simon declaims his mission in the World. So much rhetoric, so much introspection, deprive the narrative of its momentum. I like Christmas Holiday for its keen observation, for its contrast in character, and for its English of almost Gallic precision. But I miss in it the feeling and the compulsion which make Of Human Dondage much the better book.