Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forgotten Books: Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham.

It's strange that soon after going through Margot's post on novels with a compressed time span, I should find myself reading a book which spans just two days with the main action taking place one night when things simply spiral out of control, changing lives forever.



William Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa begins with a description of almost unbearable loveliness: The villa stood on the top of a hill. From the terrace in front of it you had a magnificent view of Florence; behind was an old garden, with few flowers, but with fine trees, hedges of cut box, grass walks and an artificial grotto in which water cascaded with a cool, silvery sound from a cornucopia.


Who wouldn't want to stay in such a place, especially if you could lounge about the garden and read books? Mary Panton, a young widow, is staying in the villa, recuperating from the physical and emotional trauma endured during years of marriage to an alcoholic, wastrel, wife-beater, womaniser of a husband whom she could not leave because of his emotional dependence on her. His death in an accident frees them both and her lawyer sagely advises her to marry next time for position and companionship. At that time Mary had found the advice absurd having no desire to get married again but now having received a proposal from Sir Edgar Swift, she wonders whether she should say yes to a life that would offer her security and comfort. Edgar - years older than her and actually a contemporary of her father in the Indian Civil Services - has cared for her right from the time she was in her teens. And now he has been offered the governorship of Bengal and he wants to get married to her before taking up his new position in India. Touched by his long devotion to her and thrilled about being the wife of a man in such an important position, Mary is yet in something of a fix and asks for a couple of days to think it over. That night, even as Edgar leaves town for an important meeting, Mary goes to a party where there a few other English expatriates. Amongst them is Rowley Flint, known as something of a scoundrel with a bad record of loving girls and ditching them. He had been paying a great deal of attention to Mary but even she is shocked when he proposes marriage to her. Two proposals in one day! Mary who thinks Flint is simply being odious, sobs out the story of her wretched married life and makes up her mind to marry Edgar.

On her way back, she runs into a young man who had been playing violin at the restaurant they had dined in. He is a wretched player yet Mary had given him a hundred lire note in a burst of generosity. Now seeing him standing forlorn, hungry, and tired, and being in an overwrought condition herself, she takes him to the villa and quite before knowing it she finds herself cooking for him, waltzing with him, and finding herself in bed with him. Karl (that's the name of the violinist) tells her that he is the son of an Austrian policeman who shot himself when the Nazis marched into Austria. He himself rebelled against their rule and was put into a concentration camp from where he escaped later and made his way to Italy where he barely manages to scrap along. Sometimes, he says, he wants to end it all the way his father did. Full of pity for the young man and yet desirous of seeing him leave before dawn breaks, Mary offers him money.


It is absolutely the worst thing she could have done and soon enough there is blood spilled and the villa changes from a place of sanctuary to a haunted place of dark deeds.



Up at the Villa raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. How far should one play with the emotions of another human in order to exalt your sense of the self? The English expatriates, living in a blissful paradise, seem unconcerned about the happenings of the world as it slowly falls to pieces. (The book was first published in 1941 and depicts the period just before the second world war). The dismissal of Karl by the characters and the narrative seems ominously like what happens to little people in all grand narratives. More than the Empire-builder Edgar Swift, the stiff-upper lip Mary, and the lovable scoundrel (as only the British can be) Rowley Flint, it was the marginalised figure of the Austrian refugee who really made an impression on me.

This book had long been on my wishlist and I found it unputdownable, finishing it virtually in one sitting.


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First Line: The villa stood on the top of a hill.

Title: Up at the Villa
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1967
First Published: 1941
Pages: 95
Trivia: The book was filmed in 2000 by Philip Haas.



Other books read of the same author: Cakes and Ale, The Magician, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, and Numerous short stories.

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Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.


18 comments:

  1. I really like Maugham but actually I've not read this one - really must seek it out - and I remember there being a decent movie aaptation of it too - thanks Neeru.

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    1. I look forward to your reading and reviewing of it Sergio.

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  2. A great Maugham fan also. I saw the movie of this one but not sure I read it. Loved CAKES AND ALE and OF HUMAN BONDAGE especially.

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    1. I also like him immensely Patti but have read him after a very long time. Thanks for the visit.

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  3. Neeru - Thank you for the kind mention. And I agree that Maugham wrote some wonderful books. Thanks for sharing this one.

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    1. Margot that post was very interesting. It was a pleasure mentioning it.

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  4. I prefer Maugham's short stories to his novels, but he's a wonderful writer of both. It's sad he's so neglected today.

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    1. Same here, George. I too find him better as a short story writer than a novelist and am absolutely in love with some of his short stories. One never really does know why some writers fall by the wayside.

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  5. So many neglected writers today. I suppose, in a way, it's our job to see that they are neglected no longer. We bloggers, I mean. I hope we do some eye-opening and memory jogging with our reviews. I'd never read this, Neer, so thank you for this post and for the introduction. I'm adding it to my TBR list. I really can't remember the last time I read any Maugham. Had to be high school...

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    1. True Yvette. I have discovered some wonderful writers and books through blogging, thanks to all those who post about neglected books and writers.

      I too read Maugham after almost two decades.

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  6. Neer, I read Maugham a long time ago though I've often thought of reading some of his work. I've a collection of his short stories that I've been planning to read.

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    1. Prashant, I absolutely love his short stories. I wish you'd quickly read and review that collection.

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  7. If I read Maugham it was for school ( a loooong time ago), so I should try this book, which sounds very good, from your post. Ant the movie sounds interesting too.

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    1. Tracy, the book is a very engrossing read but it also raises a couple of uncomfortable questions. I hope you read it soon, would love to read your views on it.

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  8. I'm a big SM fan. I read this one years ago and am due for a re-read. I've been working my way through all his short stories, but since I only read them on car trips (out loud to my husband) it is taking years.

    Thanks for including your review in the European Reading challenge. I've been horrible about visiting all the reviews, but am slowly making my way through them.

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    1. I absolutely love the idea of your reading out those stories to your hubby. Love is ...sharing a book.

      I find SM to be better as a short-story writer than a novelist. In school, I ran through his stories. He is a good novelist but as a short story writer, he is simply great.

      Please don't worry about visiting. Come over whenever you have the time. It's always nice to have you visit.

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  9. I loved this book -- I've read it several times. It may be my favorite by Maugham, though I love The Painted Veil and Of Human Bondage. I really need to reread Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence, it's been years since I read them. I also have the collected short stories in two volumes which I got at the library sale for $1 each. I think I'm going to tackle the set next year.

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    1. Welcome to the blog, Karen.

      I have read THE PAINTED VEIL and CAKES AND ALE but not the others mentioned by you. Perhaps one of these days...

      That's a real steal - getting his collection of short stories at $1 each. I absolutely love his stories.

      Maugham has turned out to be quite a favourite of quite a few of us. Wonder why he is so forgotten today?

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