Sheer Society: Liza Klaussman’s Villa America

I came to Villa America as fiction. It seemed so rounded. The first section has main protagonist Gerald Murphy, as a child, having his pet dog driven from home by his awful family. His father warns him: ‘That is something you must learn, Gerald… You and your brother. To decide to do something and then follow it through to its end. That’s how they built that. That’s how anything worth doing gets done.’ It’s a heartbreaking chapter, full of dark sadness and the general horrors of parents and childhood – you wonder, where is Sredni Vashtar in real life, when you need him? ‘You are a wicked woman,’ Gerald tells the governess responsible, ‘and I don’t care what anyone says. From this moment on, I will never, ever speak to you again.’

The section ends like this:

And despite his parents’ exhortations, he kept his word. Like the men who built the skyscrapers, he decided to do something and he followed it through to the end, because that’s how anything worth doing got done.

Three weeks later, Gerald was shipped off to boarding school.

As an adult, Gerald ends up working a dead-end job at his useless father’s business, and regularly visited by what he calls the ‘Black Service’ (such a better term for depression than the clichéd black dog). His life changes when he meets and marries Sara Wiborg. Requited love propels him into a better career as an artist, and the bulk of the novel follows their family life on the European villa of the title.

It’s an almost surreal sequence of dappled sunlight, long lethargic days, displaced Russian princelings, and emotional, sybaritic houseparties – sheer society, in the couple’s private language. Recognisable names turn up out of nowhere. F Scott Fitzgerald is the battered faun we recognise from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Hemingway himself is just as you’d imagine him, aggressive and self-assured and dropping characteristic sentences of cryptic hardboiled vicarage wisdom (‘There are all sorts of reasons a matador can be second-rate… But the good ones, the ones that are second-rate not because of cowardice or weakness, they’d rather die than live that way.’) Zelda is… Zelda. It’s the surreality of utopian dreams. As Klaussman told the Independent:

There’s definitely the idea of making an idealised version of America in France. They were going to change the world. They left behind their country, which they found disappointing politically and culturally, and arrived in a place destroyed after the war where they could rebuild a Utopia for themselves.

For it’s only when I reached the author’s afterword that I realised that the Murphys were real. Gerald’s paintings still hang today and his life is resurrected through biographies and correspondence. Their story is said to be the inspiration for the Divers in Tender is the Night. ‘That Gerald Murphy struggled with his sexuality is well documented through letters he wrote both to Sara and to friends,’ Klaussmann writes. ‘However, what exactly that struggle consisted of is unknown.’ Enter the entirely fictional character Owen Chambers, a pilot with whom Gerald has an affair.

But in a book so beautifully written, particularly in the epistolary passages, the dialogue, and the expression of desire (for Owen, standing near Sara is ‘like standing near a warm fire in a cold room’) he’s the only part of the book that doesn’t satisfy. The character feels grafted on somehow. Maybe it’s the strain of writing about a world full of old taboos from a world that’s exhausted its taboos and busies itself trying to invent new ones.

(Image: Tumblr)

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