Friday, September 17, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “Up at the Villa,”
by W. Somerset Maugham

(Editor’s note: This is the 104th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Sam Millar, described by the Irish Times as “Ireland’s most controversial writer.” The creator of much-troubled Belfast private eye Karl Kane, Millar’s latest novel is The Dark Place.)

William Somerset Maugham’s 1941 novella, Up at the Villa, is an overlooked crime story from an author not usually associated with this particular genre. Written during the epoch of World War I, and set in Florence, Italy, it tells the tale of a beautiful and almost penniless young widow named Mary Panton, whose late husband, Matthew, turned out to be an alcoholic, a gambler, and a wife-beater. Mary was forced to endure all the hardship and pain inflicted upon her by the thuggish Matthew, until one night when he’s (thankfully) killed in a car accident while under the influence of his beloved liquid of choice. Taking what little money she has left, Mary retires to the countryside and--thanks mainly to the largesse of friends--ends up staying in a 16th-century villa in Florence. That villa is staffed by two people: Nina, the maid, and Ciro, her husband. Other than the help, Mary has the place to herself, and initially enjoys the semi-solitary life, interspersed with the occasional visit to Florence in her car for lunch or dinner at well-known restaurants with some of its wealthier inhabitants. One of those inhabitants is the charismatic and cynically pragmatic Princess San Ferdinando, an American woman of dubious morals, if the rumors are anything to go by.

Another character in the story is Sir Edgar Swift, an old family friend. He’s 25 years older than Mary, and eventually visits Florence and proposes marriage to her. He has loved Mary since the first day he met her, which sounds creepy by today’s standards, but being a gentleman he has never fully revealed his feelings, until now. While fond of Edgar, Mary isn’t in love with him, but she is tempted by the advantages his proposal would bring. Apart from his being wealthy, Edgar is about to be appointed governor of Bengal, and as such can offer her a life of luxury. Mary asks for a few days to consider his offer. Before he leaves, Edgar gives Mary a handgun, because he fears she might need one for her protection due to the potential violence in the country.

One night at a party, Princess San Ferdinando suggests to Mary that she accept Swift’s proposal, even if he is not the ideal man for her. Applying her own moral standards to the situation, the Princess suggests that Mary can always take lovers if she is bored. Later, the Princess introduces Mary to Rowley Flint, a charming but notorious womanizer whose reputation precedes him. Between meals, the dinner guests are entertained by a young violinist named Karl Richter, who’s so dreadful with the violin that he is asked to stop playing halfway through one of his ear-killing tunes. Mary, filled with pity for the young man, leaves him an overgenerous tip.

At the end of the evening, the Princess tries to set Mary up with Flint by asking her to give him a lift back to the hotel where he is staying. Flint--true to form--makes a clumsy pass at her on the journey, but Mary rejects him with laughter, even more so when he proposes to her.

After she has dropped the iffy Flint off at his even iffier hotel, she drives back home. On her way up to the villa, although it’s late at night, she stops to have a look at the intoxicating scenery. She senses that there is someone else quite close to her. This other person turns out to be the musician, Richter, apparently also admiring the view. They strike up a conversation. Mary learns that Richter’s a 23-year-old Austrian art student who has recently fled his home country because he was being persecuted by the Nazis, and now, without a passport or any other documents, is staying as an illegal immigrant in a shabby, rented room at the foot of the hill quite close to the villa. Mary takes pity on Richter and, on the spur of the moment, asks him if he wants to come up with her to have a look at the villa. Once there, she learns that, due to his having no money, Richter has not had dinner. With the servants long gone to bed, Mary fixes him something to eat. They have wine with their improvised meal, and this breaks down Mary’s inhibitions. She rashly takes Richter as her lover for the night, believing an earlier unambiguous assertion from him that he will be leaving Italy the next morning.

Shortly after their sexual encounter, Mary suggests it’s time for Richter to depart. To her horror, he asks when he’ll be able to see her again. She rebuffs him, and when Richter starts insulting and threatening her, she produces Edgar’s handgun, aims it at the would-be violinist, but then cannot gather up the courage to pull the trigger. Instead, she advises him to try and escape to Switzerland, but to no avail. Richter feels utterly humiliated when he learns from Mary that she only slept with him out of pity. He says he saw a goddess in her, but now she is just a whore for him. Richter then rapes her, before shooting himself with Edgar’s gun.

Panicked at the presence of a corpse in her villa, Mary phones Rowley Flint. They have to think fast, as there are only a few hours left before the break of the new day and the servants start work. Despite Mary wanting to take full responsibility for her actions, Flint has another idea. The two of them might just as well try to dispose of the body in the woods, thus ensuring that the police will consider the case a suicide when the body is eventually discovered. In the act of moving the body, though, they are almost discovered when a car full of intoxicated Italians approaches. The driver has difficulty passing Mary’s vehicle and has to slow down almost to a halt. To avoid being caught, Mary and Rowley pretend to be ecstatic lovers, a ruse they manage with unexpected authenticity.

Meanwhile, Swift returns the next day, hoping to receive Mary’s response to his marriage proposal. Mary has made up her mind to confess everything to him. After listening to her story, he says that he forgives her and that he still wants to marry her. At the same time, however, he declares that he will not be in a position to accept the post in Bengal he has been so eager to get, claiming that if the facts of Mary’s bloody deed ever caught up with them, it would be a disaster. He suggests it would be best if he retires, they get married, and then move to the French Cote d’Azur. Mary, though, objects to that, telling him clearly that she is not in love with him and never will be in love with him, and that she could not stand his presence 24 hours a day.

After Swift takes the hint and leaves, the roguish Flint swings by the villa and asks Mary to leave with him for his estate in Kenya. She remembers the previous night and their emergency embrace in the dark country lane, which she found not wholly unpleasant. And, agreeing with him that life is all about taking risks, she decides to accept his proposal.

While not up to the standard of Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, or The Moon and Sixpence, Up at the Villa is nevertheless filled with memorable characters and atmospheric ambience. Maugham is skillful at creating a mood of presentiment, and able to convey in a few words what takes other less-capable writers paragraphs to convey. Up at the Villa is worth rescuing from the basements and cardboard boxes of this world for its impeccable prose alone.

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