A bit of a period piece, this. Written in the 1930s, it is an allegory for Britain’s complacency as the continent of Europe began to tear itself apart.
The main character is Charley, we wealthy young Englishman who decides to go to Paris for Christmas, satisfying a yearning for something a bit more daring and exotic than the comfortable, traditional Christmas at home he would otherwise enjoy. He meets his old friend Simon, a journalist based there. He is introduced to Lydia, a Russian emigre, with whom he spends most of the 2 or 3 days he is in Paris.
The novel consists mainly of staged conversations between these 3 characters. They speak in paragraphs and the dialogue is a bit stilted – a bit like Plato’s Symposium, where people give long speeches, elucidating ideas and arguments as they do so.
Simon is bitter, cynical and, he believes, able to face the truth about humanity and existence without fear. He represents totalitarianism and rejects emotion and empathy as weakness. Might is right, in his book.
Lydia represents the human spirit.; she is passionate, with an understanding of art and beauty that spring from her Russian nature. The idea of ‘Mother Russia’ and the inherent goodness of being close to the land and of the land carry echoes of Tolstoy, especially ‘War and Peace’. The dichotomy between the metropolitan and the rural, and the relative authenticity of the latter.
Charley himself represents the comfortable British middle class. He is decent, polite, kind and self-satisfied. The descriptions of his family are hilarious and sardonic: the bourgeois sentimentality of his parents’ appreciation of art and their earnestness about educating their children accordingly. Very, very self-satisfied.
Charley spends all his time with Lydia, whom he meets at a brothel, where she is working. But they don’t have sex – in fact, sex is discussed quite a lot in the novel, which is perhaps surprising. There is a long digression about her marriage to a murderer – the case, the trial, his imprisonment.
The book ends with Charley, with some relief, arriving home to the welcome of decent, well-meaning people. But he realises he has been unsettled, and has glimpsed the darkness of the world as well as the heights that can be reached by unadulterated passion.
I found myself sympathising with him a lot. I have often wondered, as a middle class British boy, whether there is a whole world of experience that will forever be closed to me, precisely because I have always lived in reasonable comfort and have been able to view life, more less, equably. I remember a girl friend saying to me, years ago, that I wanted to be a bit crazy but couldn’t do it because I was too sensible. Which may mean that I’ll never be a poet or a dreamer and will miss out on a lot as a result. On the other hand, there is something to be said for stability and comfort.
I think I’ll go and make a cup of tea………