The Golden Bowl

Not Henry James, but the description of a time and a place that came to represent all that was found and all that was lost in the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy. This couple whose famous love affair, which spanned the period between two World Wars, has inspired biographers and novelists, has resulted in a new novel, more specifically about them which has recently appeared on the bookshelf.

scan0001Liza Klaussmann‘s new novel Villa America covers the lives of Gerald and Sara right from their beginnings as neighbours in their summer holiday houses in the United States, through their golden days in Paris and Cap d’Antibes on to their days of grief and loss. It is an accomplished and significant addition to the canon that comprises among other books: Tender is the NightScott Fitzgerald, Living Well is the Best RevengeCalvin Tomkins and Everybody Was So Young Amanda Vaill.

Why? It was more than that they were a wealthy and attractive couple. Sara had a capacity for gregarious and generous hospitality, she found and made friends easily and strongly and the friends that she made were the stuff of legends – Picasso, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Archie MacLeish, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and with that mixture came Gerald’s friends – Cole Porter and other luminaries. So between the two wars they played, travelled, made and lost friends and had a family – a girl and two boys – Honoria, Baoth and Patrick.

Rumour has it that it was the Murphys who invented the summer in the South of France. How true that might be remains a mystery, certainly they made the place THE PLACE to be, Hotel Cap where they first settled and then Villa America itself became a centre of society, in summer as well as in the winter.

I have said before that the novelist has an advantage over the biographer. A responsible biographer sticks to the know facts supported by material sources, the novelist can read between the lines and flesh out the silences that lie in amongst that material. There is plenty of material about and by the Murphys: letters, memoirs, notebooks and Liza Klaussmann has used them all and added one element to the book which rounds out a material fact, known but never elucidated before. This is a great feat of imagination and sympathetic understanding, it works exactly because of this even though the author herself admits to its fictional nature. I loved this book, so different from her first rather spine-chilling debut Tigers in Red Weather.

Everybody Was So Young is the biographer’s tale. I came to that first which is probably why I picked up Villa America. This books covers in more detail the life the Murphys led in Paris and goes beyond the end of Villa America to the end of the lives of these two remarkable people, an ending that is in no way foretold by their beginnings. The losses, both material and emotional, that they had sustained were finally and awfully to be compounded with unflattering portraits by people who they might have considered were their friends. The earliest, I suppose, was Scott Fitzgerald. His portrait of Sara and, by implication Gerald, in Tender is the Night was not received gracefully, Sara was disgusted. Worse was to follow – Ernest Hemingway also turned on them, blaming them and their rich crowd for ruining his career, his scarcely disguised description in A Moveable Feast was cruel beyond imagining and was felt as such by the two of them. I love Amanda Vaill’s book too. [note a previous post about Hotel Florida also by Amanda Vaill – Truth, Love, Betrayal and Death. June 2014]

In parenthesis: books for the Man Booker
scan0017 this and the second volume, though the judges may wait until volume three has been written and scan0003 I cannot believe this will not be considered, the final volume of a long trilogy covering the opium trade (and many other things). I am reading the first volumes again as Sea of Poppies came out in 2008 and I need a refresher course. Amitav Ghosh writes novels with a hundred celebrated characters!!!

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