Monday, July 11, 2011

A Villa in France (1982) by J. I. M. Stewart

Stewart, a brilliant writer who somehow failed to quite make the top grade, wrote this late novel about a, well, clever writer with an inferiority complex. Stuck at what may have been a critical point in his development, there is an event which may or may not have contributed to his failure, and which he cannot forget. So he devises a little posthumous experiment - a prank - a hoax - perhaps a revenge. The set-up is brilliant and much subtler than the brief summary can indicate. The pay-off may be a let-down, but then again, maybe it was meant to be. Maybe the point is that life does not allow things to pay off in the ways we intend. Or, perhaps, that you must be a better writer to plan a better revenge. In fact, unfulfillment is the fate of virtually every character in the book. The heroine's father keeps planning a book on the mystery of Time (he reads Dunne at some point), but all he manages is an anthology of classical excerpts on the subject. The heroine herself is almost tragic in her progress from a precocious 9-year-old to a quiet, ordinary middle age. But is progress the right word? In a wry, very Innes-like scene, the father makes a naïve point about Time always flowing in the same direction. But the book perhaps suggest that while time flows forward, the characters pale into insignificance instead of developing their potential. I am not quite sure this was the author's intention, but the effect is unmistakable, and dispiriting.

The mechanics of the plot are curiously similar to the other two Stewart novels that I've read. In all three, the hidden springs of the action are connected to some family skeletons. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that homosexuality is what rattles in the cupboard, or shall we say closet, here. 'It does seem such rotten luck, to be made that way,' is the heroine's verdict.

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