Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Wednesday, July 8, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Villa America


Little, Brown: Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

Villa America

by Liza Klaussmann

Gerald and Sara Murphy kept illustrious company on the French Riviera in the 1920s. The American expats, who partly inspired the characters Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, entertained the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway at spectacular soirées. But the pair's path didn't begin or end on the resplendent Riviera.

Villa America is Liza Klaussmann's fictionalized, elegantly rendered account of the Murphys' glamorous and tragic lives. She opens the novel with fleeting descriptions of two heartrending events that take place on the same day in 1935: aviator Owen Chambers's body is retrieved from the sea off the coast of southern France and 15-year-old Baoth Murphy dies in a Boston hospital. Klaussmann then goes back in time, unfolding a compelling narrative that ties the occurrences together.

After a Dickensian childhood with a cruel, critical father, teenager Gerald Murphy meets the warm, vivacious Sara Wiborg and her two sisters, his neighbors in the Hamptons. His friendship with the siblings lasts throughout the years, including correspondence with Sara during her family's frequent trips abroad. Eventually they fall in love and begin a secret courtship, only to have their trip to the altar delayed by showdowns with their parents, who initially oppose the marriage (largely for inconsequential reasons) before relenting.

"The only life I want is the one we invent for ourselves," Gerald declares to Sara during their engagement. "I want something entirely of our own creation." Six years after tying the knot, Sara and Gerald, by then a World War I veteran, move with their three young children to France, where they divide their time between Paris and Cap d'Antibes on the Riviera.

With inherited wealth at their fingertips, they create a beautiful, elegant world in which they transform the everyday into a work of art--wearing stylishly creative attire, inventing new cocktails and even making outings to the beach a chic pastime. The trendsetting couple is credited with launching summer on the Riviera--traditionally a winter destination--where Sara accessorizes her coffee-colored swimsuit with a string of pearls dangling down her back.

On something of a whim, the Murphys buy a luxurious abode and dub it Villa America. Nestled between the hills and the sea and surrounded by sloping, terraced gardens, it's "a place that people could be happy in," believes Sara. Fun-loving, generous and hospitable, she and Gerald--who achieves some fame as a modernist painter--throw open the doors of their villa to the Jazz Age luminaries they've befriended. "Everything is better when you share it," says Sara. "That flow of ideas between different people, the chaos of it all, makes life so exciting. And when someone new comes in, the chemistry changes and you see things in people you hadn't seen before."

Klaussmann's descriptions of the Murphys' social scene are wonderfully vivid and immediate. It's like being invited to sip sherry with them on La Garoupe beach while Picasso, smitten with Sara, sketches her likeness, or Gerald praises their guest Hemingway's "wonderful book... about Paris and Pamplona and men and women." Or mingling at one of their champagne-fueled fêtes, watching Zelda Fitzgerald twirl on a tabletop. Klaussmann captures not only the grandeur of the surroundings but the often-charged chemistry among the attendees, who are frequently embroiled in artistic and romantic rivalries and dramas.

The happily married Murphys are used to refereeing disagreements between Scott and Zelda, not experiencing their own relationship concerns, until Gerald begins privately acknowledging "unarticulated, dark things, suspicions about his nature, his character, his abilities"; he starts to distance himself from Sara. Klaussmann states in the author's note that there is no evidence Gerald ever cheated on his wife but that his correspondence to her and to others suggests that he struggled with his sexuality. She introduces into the story the invented character of Owen Chambers, a handsome, reserved American aviator who becomes part of a love triangle with the Murphys. Gerald is torn between his secret passion for Owen and his loyalty to and love for Sara, who realizes more than her husband knows.

Villa America is told primarily from Gerald, Sara and Owen's points of view, but the famous historical figures in their charmed circle also have a say. Through narrative scenes, along with excerpts from letters that are both real and imagined, they offer an array of observations and opinions--insightful, spiteful, admiring--about the couple.

During a gathering in Pamplona, Spain, as Gerald and Sara dance together while fireworks light up the night sky, Hadley Hemingway wonders if there is "anything they couldn't make come out right for themselves, anything that could leave a mark on them." Sadly, the answer is yes. The comments and anecdotes from Dorothy Parker and other acquaintances are especially poignant after Gerald and Sara's youngest son, Patrick, is stricken with tuberculosis and, later, when their older son, Baoth, dies unexpectedly. "The golden bowl is broken indeed, but it was golden," writes Fitzgerald to his grief-stricken friends.

Villa America is an alluring and poignant novel that will appeal especially to Lost Generation fans as well as to readers seeking a satisfying story about the complexities of love, marriage and friendship. So pour a glass of your favorite tipple and be transported to the sun-soaked, star-studded French Riviera during the roaring '20s. Just be sure to have some tissues handy. Even the talented storytellers in the Murphys' circle couldn't conjure a happy ending for the once-golden couple when their fairytale life fell apart. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Little, Brown , $26, hardcover, 9780316211369

Little, Brown: Villa America by Liza Klaussmann


Liza Klaussmann: Beyond a Jazz Age Fable

photo: Leta Warner

Liza Klaussmann is the author of Tigers in Red Weather, an international bestseller for which she won a British National Book Award, the Elle Grand Prix for Fiction and was named Amazon UK's Rising Star of the Year in 2012. A former journalist, Klaussmann was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent 10 years living in Paris. She currently lives in North London.

The dedication in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night--"To Gerald and Sara, Many Fêtes"--led you to read biographies about the Murphys. How did you go from there to writing a fictionalized account of their lives? What did you want to convey through a novel that couldn't be done in nonfiction?

I've always been attracted to the idea of gangs of people, and Sara and Gerald Murphy sat at the heart of one of the most influential gangs of the 20th century: the artists and writers of the Lost Generation. They were muses for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, John Dos Passos and so forth.

When I first came upon them and discovered that they had inspired all these iconic artists and writers, I became intrigued. It begged the question: What was so special about these people? So I began to research their lives, and a picture emerged--through biographies, through diaries, and letters and interviews--of this rather enchanted couple whose originality, whose flair for the curious, the unusual, made them kind of forerunners to the idea of life as performance art. And it wasn't just their sense of art or the way they curated their homes or took pleasure in introducing people they thought would amuse each other that seemed to beguile; it appeared that people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were also attracted to the intensity of the Murphys' marriage, to the unwavering loyalty they showed one another.

So, the more I learned about them, the more their story took shape as a novel in my head: here was a tragic tale of love and loss, studded with beautiful, warring, complicated people and great art, standing as the perfect metaphor for the lost gilded age.

But here's where things got tricky, for a couple of reasons. First, I felt--and still do feel--very conflicted about using the lives of real people for my own ends. It felt perhaps parasitic.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I personally believe that if you're going to use the lives of real people in fiction, then the fiction has to illuminate something that a straight biography couldn't. First, it has to tell a truth that hasn't been told before. And a specific kind: not one that's based solely on a forensic examination of life, but on something more elusive--the things that go on in the secret parts of our minds and our hearts that we don't articulate out loud. What Eudora Welty called the private addresses where fiction lives, which are only accessible through the imagination.

And through more intense research I found it, albeit at an unexpected address. Where I thought I was going to tell the tale of a passionate affair between Sara and Gerald--perhaps something closer to Tender Is the Night--I found instead a solid, loving, intimate marriage, but also one where the husband clearly struggled with his sexuality.

This discovery changed everything and gave the Murphys' story a more epic dimension for me. It took it out of the realm of Jazz Age fable and into one of an heroic struggle to discover the true nature of love. And it also gave me a reason for writing it--to call forth something that had yet only been hinted at in the biographies.

Sara and Gerald unwittingly served as inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night. Why was Sara so outraged and upset by Fitzgerald's novel?

I think Sara's outrage was two-fold. First, she felt that often Scott was examining her and Gerald, prying into their lives in order to use them for his work, rather than just purely enjoying their friendship. I think this made her feel used.

Secondly, after using her, she felt that he had instead grafted his and Zelda's personalities onto the Murphys' life at Villa America, and then insinuated that they were one and the same. Sara and Gerald were temperamental opposites of the fragile, unstable characters described in Tender Is the Night--so what the Murphys had created at Villa America, in some ways, was undermined by that portrayal.

Nonetheless, there is definitely something of the Murphy magic in Fitzgerald's novel. A great example is that famous description of a dinner party at the Divers' Cap d'Antibes villa, where Fitzgerald describes a sort of magic that overtakes everyone. He writes: "The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights... the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind...."

That scene has so much of how the Murphys' friends described their experience of Sara and Gerald's hospitality and their generosity.

Unlike the many real-life figures that appear in Villa America, pilot Owen Chambers is a character you created. Where did the idea for Owen originate?

In the novel that I wanted to write, there had to be an Owen Chambers or someone like him. Gerald Murphy's desire had to be made flesh and blood in order to dramatize his sexual struggle. So I knew going in that I had to invent a male lover for him.

A character can't just be a foil, however, and the particularity of this character, of Owen Chambers, was inspired by a small detail I found in a description of a caviar and champagne party that Sara and Gerald held for Ernest Hemingway in a casino in Juan-les-Pins. You couldn't find caviar on the Riviera in the summertime in the 1920s because it would have to come by train from the Baltic regions, and it would spoil in the heat. So Sara, to overcome this hurdle, decided to have it flown in, which was an incredibly extravagant thing to do; there were no commercial airlines at the time.

This detail piqued my curiosity. Where did she find this pilot? And then I thought: maybe this mysterious pilot is my character.

Of course, then Owen had to have a past. So I worked my way backward, first to World War I, during which many Americans flew for France, then further back to an early sexual scandal, and finally all the way back to the Wright Brothers and a childhood on a farm.

Why did you decide to open the novel with the foreshadowing of two tragedies, Owen's death and that of the Murphy's teenage son Baoth?

One of the things I've always found disappointing about some biographical novels and biopics is that the narrative arc invariably heads downwards. It will always begin well, or at least full of hope, but it hardly ever ends well. I wanted the arc in Villa America to be slightly different--I wanted to start off with the worst and end with what had been best. So that while that type of narrative structure strips the story of hope, it also amplifies what is good, what is beautiful, what is positive in a life, because it is ephemeral.

The secondary cast of characters in Villa America includes Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso and other recognizable names. Which of these famous personalities were your favorite ones to write about?

I really loved most of them. I felt very sympathetic towards Scott Fitzgerald's neediness (which is repellent to most), and I also felt protective of Zelda's fragile genius. But ultimately, my favorite secondary character was the poet Archibald MacLeish, who turned out to be such an empathetic human being, and a beautiful writer, and the one with the least ego and show-off-ness.

When the Murphys' youngest son, Patrick, is so ill and all alone in the hospital, Archie MacLeish writes him a beautiful letter describing a sick baby flying squirrel that he found on a walk in the woods, and talks about the softness of the fur and its smallness. I found that gentleness, that equation he is making with what the child is experiencing, so moving. And I fell in love with him for it. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt


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