Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Adventure in Tuscany

If reading The Ambassadors by Henry James is like running a marathon, then reading Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham is like a walk in the park. Instead of James’ paragraph- or page-length sentences with their convoluted structure of clauses within clauses, Maugham’s writing is clean and straightforward. It’s clear who or what is the subject of the sentence. Maugham’s meaning is unambiguous.

Young Mary Panton is recovering from the death of her husband a year earlier. Friends who own a villa outside of Florence, Italy, have offered her the use of the place to recover her spirit and decide the direction her life will take. Maugham’s descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, the air, the gardens, the furnishings of the villa are so vivid. It is easy to imagine why Tuscany continues to draw travelers in and to hold them there.

Mary has a suitor who has proposed marriage. When he is called away from Florence for a few days on business, Mary promises to give him her answer upon his return. During those few days, events take several unexpected turns and other men enter the drama: brash, rich, ne’er-do-well Rowley and Karl, an impoverished refugee of war from Austria. It should come as no surprise: If one carries a gun, one should expect that it will go off.

The final line of the book sums it up nicely: “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.” You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out who is speaking and why.

The paperback copy that I read was published in 2000 by Vintage International. The cover is a beautiful rendition of a painting by Maxfield Frederick Parrish, The Villa Scassi, Genoa from 1904. By comparison the cover of the current edition is so atrocious that I couldn’t bring myself to add it to our blog. I used a copy of the painting itself instead.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see a review of "Up at the Villa", and a positive one at that. I am of course deeply prejudiced in favour of everything Maugham ever wrote, but it has always seemed to me that the vitriol spilled this work by almost all of Maugham's critics is rather unjust.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the new cover. It was indeed painful for me to put it on LT. The Vintage Classics series has a most unusual cover history. Some of the earliest ones, with contemporary photographs, were simply gorgeous. But these were quickly exchanged for bland and dull stuff that is hard on the eye. And now there are new covers with some hideous cartoons which are even more "atrocious" (an apt word indeed).

    I didn't know there is an earlier Vintage International edition of "Up at the Villa". Had I known about it, I certainly would have bought it instead. It reminds me of the Vintage International edition of Maugham's "Christmas Holiday", with the still-life from Chardin on the cover.

    Fascinating description of James' prose too. My only collision with his writing was "The Beast in the Jungle". Did I try many times! Never got past the fifth page! Willie was pretty harsh in his references of James but I couldn't agree more with him.