Wednesday 14 December 2011

Up At The Villa - W. Somerset Maugham

I'm trying to get through all the books I've read and not reviewed in 2011, so there will be a flurry of reviews over the next fortnight.  Prepare yourselves!

A while ago I did one of my novella reading weekends, but I don't think I ever actually told you about it, before or afterwards.  One of the books I read was my first stab at W. Somerset Maugham, only eight or so years since I first bought one of his books.  Which wasn't the one I read.  Up at the Villa (1941) came recommended by Simon Savidge (see links at the bottom) and is only 120pp - plus it has a lovely cover, so why not?

Up at the Villa is rather difficult to classify - in terms of length, it probably counts as a novella, but structurally it seems much more like a short story.  There are all manner of attempts to define the short story, and I find a few quite helpful.  Brander Matthews suggested over a century ago that "a short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of single emotions called forth by a single situation." In 1979 Wendell Harris picked up on the same focal word in his definition: "single memorable curve of action revealing a single memorable personality."  Poe wrote more vaguely, but sensibly, that the short story must have "unity of impression".  All these definitions essentially suggest singularity - no room for interweaving plots, multiple focalisation, etc. etc.  Of course, there are dozens of writers and hundreds of short stories which break these rules, but rather fewer novellas and novels which fit so neatly into the definition.

Up at the Villa doesn't take us far from beautiful young widow Mary Panton's perspective, nor from the events of a single momentous day.  In the wake of her husband's death, Mary is living in a beautiful borrowed villa overlooking Florence.  Her beauty is striking, she is privileged (if not quite opulent) and at the beginning of the novel she even receives a proposal from an older man who is soon to be Governor of Bengal.  Not to mention the rakish attentions of Rowley Flint, who doesn't have marriage on his mind.

So where does this single memorable curve of action take us?  It starts with one act of generosity:
They had dined late and soon after eleven the Princess called for her bill.  When it grew evident that they were about to go, the violinist who had played to them came forward with a plate.  There were a few coins on it from diners at other tables and some small notes.  What they thus received was the band's only remuneration.  Mary opened her bag.

"Don't bother", said Rowley.  "I'll give him a trifle."

He told a ten-lira note out of his pocket and put it on the plate.

"I'd like to give him something too", said Mary.  She laid a hundred-lira note on the others.  The man looked surprised, gave Mary a searching look, bowed slightly and withdrew.

"What on earth did you give him that for?" exclaimed Rowley.  "That's absurd."

"He plays so badly and he looks so wretched."

"But they don't expect anything like that."

"I know.  That's why I gave it.  It'll mean so much to him.  It may make all the difference to his life."
And, one thing leading to another, it does make a difference to a lot of lives.  But I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot...

I do love stories where one seemingly innocent action leads to a huge fallout.  The only one which comes to mind right now is a broken cup in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, which probably isn't a seriously helpful example... but you know what I mean.   I thought Maugham manipulated the situation well, and without contravening the personalities of the characters drawn at the beginning.  Mary is impulsive and romantic and not always able to deal with the outcome of her actions, and this makes for a plot which snowballs out of her control - a touch melodramatically, but still within the realms of feasibility.

My only confusion is why it became a 120 page book.  Most authors would have condensed it into thirty pages, or added more characters, more ideas, more occurrences - and another 120 pages.  It might seem an odd thing to focus on, but Up at the Villa falls between two stools, which is difficult to ignore.  What makes me want to return to Maugham, and try one of his more famous books, is that even with these reservations, I still found Up at the Villa a skillful, interesting read.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"Up at the Villa is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you." - Simon, Savidge Reads

"The pacing of the story is excellent, starting off at the slow, languid speed that you might expect from a novel about the English upper classes in Italy and gradually speeding up until it feels almost out of control." - Old English Rose

"It’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need" - John Self, The Asylum 


  1. Read The Painted Veil!

  2. I read this several years ago but remember enjoying it very much indeed. I am a sucker for Maugham's prose which is so elegant and supple and evocative. I've read quite a few of his books now, and whilst there are some that aren't so great, I've almost always enjoyed them. His short stories can be excellent, although his attitudes towards distant races are very 1900s, if you know what I mean! That can annoy some readers.

  3. I love your blog and I've just started following! Your review is great.

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

  4. Your post has reminded me how Somerset Maugham was a treasured discovery last year. I really want to read more of his works. Up At The Villa sounds delightful - and that cover! Although not an innocent action, this made me think of John O'Hara's Butterfield 8 where one action has quite a dramatic fallout too.

  5. leaz - oh...ok! Hope you like the review ;)

    Victoria - I will certainly read more by him. His style is so understated that it nearly passed me by, but I hope I shall enjoy it more in future. I certainly didn't dislike it, but the elegance can come across as plainness. And I don't worry too much about outdated opinions in old books - it's par for the course, isn't it?

    Megan - thank you! :)

    ABS - thanks for the suggestion, I shall seek that out. Aren't the covers gorgeous? I got ten in the series cheaply from The Book People.

  6. Oh dear, why did you mention that? I avoided the temptation of buying the collection when you first posted about it, but this second reminder has sent me straight to The Book People to order my own copies :o)

  7. Why don't I know the kind of people who could lend me a beautiful villa overlooking Florence?

    A flurry of reviews? Simon, I don't know how you do it. Daily book reviews, work, replying to our comments, maintaining a Facebook presence coupled with what I'm sure must be a demanding program at OXFORD, for Pete's sake.

  8. I'm new to your blog as well and enjoyed your review of "Up At the Villa". I was a little bothered by the conclusion--which seemed too pat--but liked the rest of the story quite a bit. I'd be interested to know what you thought of it. When you have time to read more Maugham, I'd recommend "The Razor's Edge" and "Of Human Bondage." (And I second the suggestion of "The Painted Veil", which was made into a decent film, although the ending was changed somewhat from the original.)

  9. ABS - haha, sorry! (not really...)

    Margaret - I don't get much sleep, that's how! ;) I love blogging and I love chatting with people in the comments, so it doesn't really feel like a chore. But it certainly does take up time :)

    Juna - thanks for your recommendations - I do have a heap of other Maughams to read, so it's nice to know which directions to look in. The ending was, I agree, a bit too neat - but I suppose, again, that's got something to do with the length of the story. If he were going to be more complex, he'd need more space.. maybe?

  10. I really liked this novella -- but I was very amused to see that the copy I got from the library has pretty big type and enormous margins! Apparently the publishers wanted to fool people into thinking it's just a really short novel. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it and the movie adaptation is quite good too, though I didn't picture Sean Penn as the male lead at all.

    I need to read more Maugham, I loved The Painted Veil. I've heard good things about Mrs. Craddock and Of Human Bondage was one of the first classics I ever read for fun. It's been years but I'm determined to reread it next year.

  11. Lovely review, thanks! I need a person just like you to help me with my new book club--I'll be scouring your lists!



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