Book Review

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham

like my life, a novel that's half tragedy, half farce

MAUGHAM! MAUGHAM! MAUGHAM! HOW DO YOU LIKE IT? HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?

Up At The Villa is a 1941 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, set in a Tuscan idyll in the moments before war erupts across Europe. It is part psychological thriller, part farce, and offers a witty exploration of the great freedom afforded by massive wealth amongst the English expat community.

The novel’s heroine is Mary Panton, a beautiful, recently widowed, 30-year-old (great age) former actress who married into the aristocracy for love, yet found her marriage increasingly unhappy as her adulterous, gambling, alcoholic husband revealed himself more and more truly. Following his accidental death (which she treats as almost a relief), she heads to Tuscany, to a borrowed villa at the top of the hills surrounding Florence1, and six months of peace. She courts the affections of a man 24 years older than her who is on track to become the Governor-General of India and wants a wife, while also batting away the attentions of a bounder, a cad, a rascal, the many-divorced – though age-appropriate – Rowley Flint (great name). Resigning herself to the glamorous, though (for her) loveless, marriage to the doting old man, she has one night of red hot passion with a poor political refugee slash violinist from Austria. After – more callously than necessary but not as cruelly as she could have – she tells him it was obviously a one time thing and why the hell would he think it wasn’t, the violinist grabs the revolver Mary’s older admirer left her for protection and shoots himself dead. Panicking and fearing a scandal, Mary calls the most depraved person she can think of: Rowley Flint, who agrees to help her cover the whole thing up, but at what cost..?

Maugham’s text bounces between a tone of suspense that was reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, but also a bit of a Noel Coward-esque drawing room farce. Though there is violence and threat and fear, there are also jokes, and Up At The Villa ends up becoming very much of its time, very much a piece of wartime distraction. Though the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by the Nazis) is mentioned as the reason for the violinist’s sprint to Italy, the war doesn’t hang too heavy over the text: there is death, yes, but it’s a relatively faceless foreigner who no one was going to miss anyway. The amoral aristos are who the reader empathises (or at least is expected to empathise) with – they are young and rich and have loads of money and just wanna have a good time, dammit. There is a note of tension in the implied final romantic connection between Mary and Rowley because this is very likely to be a repeat of her previous marriage to a poshboy bounder cad, but he wants to change and she wants to harness her sensuality, discovered – in a Forsterian twist – by a little bit of unexpected pronking amongst the terracotta walls of Tuscany.

It’s tense, it’s engaging, it’s fun. Again, I suppose, another easy, holiday read, but I’m racing through books at the moment so I can justify a big, heady, focus on the collected letters of Malcolm Lowry soon, once I’ve got the blog posts backed up a bit.

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I spent a lot of time in Tuscany when I was younger, for various reasons, and I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on E.M. Forster and Henry James and the way in which Italy was often as a symbolic backdrop for texts about bestial urges – D. H. Lawrence’s non-fiction book on the Etruscans is basically the same point made better. Maugham’s Up At The Villa is another example of that, of Italy as a place of physical freedom and physical discovery, a place to escape from the trappings of Northern European Protestant reality and enjoy something without fear, without consequence. Maybe that was how I felt when I first visited Florence and Pisa aged 19, and how I felt when I returned to that part of the world most years until I was 28. There is something about the simple beauty of the landscapes there, the evidence of humanity’s long history and its continued need for architectural, geographic and culinary pleasure. Wine and big meals, fast drives on tiny roads, staying up all night… maybe I’ve never hidden any bodies, but I’ve certainly enjoyed most of the other pleasures that Maugham’s characters enjoy in Up at the Villa. And it’s nice, I suppose, to pretend that our actions don’t have consequences, that it is possible to live just in the moment, just in the now, but it isn’t, not even for the Mary Pantons and the Rowley Flints of this world: you can bribe the reaper, you can run away, but age catches up and very few of us die happy.

I spent a lot of time in Italy, but I never wanted to live there: it is beautiful, the food and the drink are spectacular, the art in the galleries and the architecture in the streets is gorgeous, unparalleled… but with this ancient glory – Rome, the Renaissance – comes a conservatism that seeps into the everyday. If your best days are behind you, you might still be able to be fun, but you’re unlikely to be transcendental. Spain, including Catalunya – where I am now – has never given me that impression. I have been all over Castilian and non-Castilian Spain and everywhere I have found places that feel more alive than even Naples and Rome and Milan. Except for the ghost towns I wandered through on my 2016 camino, even in the smallest villages of Spain I have encountered people looking outwards, these are places where people plan and people dream and – crucially – people interact. Barcelona may be becoming the next Venice, but there is still a massive city here with a vibrant and significant importance to contemporary international culture. Venice has its Biennale, but that’s not really aimed at everyone, is it?

I’ve spent too much time in Tuscan villas, running away from life. I’m here in Spain – finally – trying to have one. Living in the present, living in the now. It’s destabilising, not hating every moment of my existence. Nice, but destabilising.


1. A long time ago, almost in another life, I once ended up at a nightclub on the hills above Florence. It contained only locals, myself and the group of several incredibly drunk fellow English tourists, all of whom were women. Uncharacteristically, I was the most sober. I think I’ve mentioned this on here before – I ended up shitting in a room that someone I barely knew was sleeping in? I’m feeling like I have written about this here, but I’ve had my first drink in about a week and I’m already getting that gentle little deja vu feeling. Yum yum yum.


 

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